Demolitions

In his Selected Writings (1990) Irving Howe demonstrates that he is the epitome of the guy who isn't what he says he is. A proponent of the independent intellectual life (epitomized by his frequently invoked deity Edmund Wilson), he spent half of his seventy-plus years in the academy and an equal amount of time editing a political quarterly that has perennially begged for money, both positions surely curbing intellectual independence. A professed radical, he conveys in this book's pages profoundly conservative views of art and behavior. A professed literary modernist, he dislikes most of the most innovative writers of the 20th century, the exceptions being William Faulkner and James Joyce, the academics' favorites, instead preferring variations on nineteenth-century social realism.

Though an NYC-certified "distinguished professor," purportedly setting an example for aspiring scholars, Howe lacked sufficient scholarly integrity in reprinting a 1950s essay on the French writer L.-F. Céline to include (or even consider including) quotations from more recent, probably superior Céline translations. (The truest mark of privilege is, of course, that you can get away with evasions for which the underclass, in this case students, would be penalized.) Purportedly drawing upon the entire history of literature, this professor and his wife co-edited an anthology of Short Shorts (1983), most of which are stories well over a thousand words in length. A few years later, John Robert Colombo, a nonacademic, drawing upon the same bottomless supply, edited Worlds in Small (1992), in which no selection is more than fifty words long, showing not only a stricter devotion to principle but more adventurous research. Were Howe to have critical integrity, his book would be retitled "Longer Short Shorts," even though, horror of horrors to his mentality as a hack supplier to commercial publishing, it might not sell as well. In spite of his repeated claims in the preface to wide interests, Howe's criticism is limited, on one hand, to modern literature, to the exclusion of the other arts, and, on the other, to unexceptional (and unoriginal) leftwing complaints.

“Irving Howe: Epitome of a Fake” (1992)

I don't know enough Russian to comment on poems originally in that tongue; the language of my father's childhood was never passed onto me. What I do know is enough about contemporary American poetry to identify Brodsky as embarrassing archaic, whose work is bad in ways that no American, especially of his generation, can afford to be bad. It is bad all over. Not knowing where to start (and not wanting to write a whole book about ineptness), I'll cite only the excerpts from several poems that accompanied his obituary in The New York Times, as these selections were no doubt made with the advice of a Brodsky admirer.

Consider the opening of the title poem from his collection To Urania (1988):

Everything has its limit, including sorrow.
A windowpane stalls a stare.
Nor does a grill abandon
a leaf. One may rattle the keys,
gurgle down a swallow.
Loneliness cubes a man at random.

How, pray tell, does a grill abandon a leaf? A windowpane stall a stare? Loneliness cube? At a time (1996) when most American poets were avoiding experience that could not be verified, Brodsky fills his poem with phrases that sound good but cannot be imagined.

“Joseph Brodsky and the Myth of Privileged Background” (1996)

What [Susan Sontag's] biographers discover is a history of calculation, so that their book becomes a guide to sustaining celebrity without ever doing major work. Here are some Sontagian Strategies. Appear good-looking, especially in mug-shot photographs that are distributed widely. [Conversely, prevent the publication of unflattering photographs, though some appeared after her death.] Publish books at “respectable” intervals—neither rush nor take too long. Find a loyal publisher who broadcasts praise relentlessly and makes business arrangements beyond books, such as lecture appearances, becoming perhaps an unprecedented figure in writing history—perhaps the first cut-rate, non-familial de facto personal manager. (Can anyone think of a precursor for such a literary Svengali? Maxwell Perkins wasn't so intrusive.)

Sign petitions that are published in prominent places. Make pronouncements that celebrate current fashions, rather than challenging them. Establish professional alliances with other celebrities, as friends and as lovers, while dropping those who are less fortunate. Exploit publicists to make sure that every new activity gets advance attention, which can do more “to keep one's name before the public” than reviews, if only because advance attention is necessarily favorable, even when reviews are not. Give interviews, interviews, interviews, and then more interviews, rewarding those who flatter while eliminating anyone critical or letting your publisher ask in advance for sample clippings, implicitly discrediting any critical integrity in her authorized interviewers. Promise to participate in conferences and other public events, even if for one excuse or another you often don't show up. Keep your eye on the ball marked KFBK, while denying, always denying, any interest in or knowledge of calculation. One or two of these moves would not be enough; only if an aspiring writer executes them all does he or she have a chance for the prize of Sontagian celebrity. Even then, success won't be easy, as the number of “writers” known not for distinguished work but simply for being known for one-third of a century is remarkably few. The closest analogy is George Plimpton, only a few years older than Sontag, whose name is likewise absent from histories of literature.

“Susan Sontag” (2004)

The assumption of the book's title [Sir Kenneth Clark's The Art of Humanism] is that these five fifteenth-century artists epitomize art we should call humanistic. However, neither Clark nor his publisher thinks this a thesis worth proving. Indeed, in the few times Clark uses the epithet or its variants, he usually refers to an intellectual attitude whose opposite is theist. However, Clark's subject is not belief but art; and for all of its usefulness as a platitude, “humanism” is no more an esthetic (or art-historic) category than “animalism” or “vegetism”.

On Innovative Art(ist)s (1991)

Asked to select “Five Most Overrated Recent Writers,” may I propose:

SUSAN SONTAG, as none of her work in any genre measures up to claims often made for it.

JOSEPH BRODSKY, whose works in English are embarrassingly clumsy and amateur, in poetry no less than prose, making me wonder if his writings are any better in the original Russian.

MAYA ANGELOU, another mediocre poet, though mediocre differently, whose prosaic writings in all genres, so dependent upon her theatrical presence and privileged identities, cannot possibly survive her passing. (Too bad those of us who evaluate literary reputations can't “sell short.”)

MARJORIE PERLOFF, an academic critic who writes so much better than she reads that, if you've already read what she writes about, you wonder how she misreads so egregiously. So often does she observe badly that you then diagnose narcissism. One recurring problem in her appreciation of truly avant-garde literature is identifying traditional qualities over radical directions. While this strategy seems designed to make both the works discussed and her own persona more acceptable to academic audiences, you conjecture if a man would be similarly excused for her faults; no one embodying them could survive without an academic position.

NORMAN PODHORETZ tied with JOSEPH EPSTEIN, as two short guys fundamentally interchangeable, who went for power to compensate for their sense of themselves as writers who couldn't survive without an institutional position for dispensing money and favor. If this caveat seems cruel, remember that my judgment is scarcely as cruel as they were toward other writers, lots of them, less in public print than in private communication, for most of their editorial lives. (I can think of a few more half-writers, or quarter-writers, to occupy this fifth position, beginning with some sometime editors of the prominent book reviews, whoever they are and have been and, alas, who might be.)

Skeptical Essays (2010)