Reviewing the Review: November 19 2006

Let’s start with the most annoying article in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, in which Rachel Donadio reviews the history of literary feuds and turns up an utterly conventional set of findings. Norman Mailer, in a literary feud? Fresh stuff. But Donadio also takes a snobbish sideswipe at literary blogs:

The blogosphere would seem an ideal forum for literary feuding, but more often than not Web feuds devolve into baroque strings of sub-literate name-calling.

Yeah, we’re so sub-literate here. We can barely form sentences. HALP US RAYCHL WE AR STUK IN THE BLOGISPHEAR.

Fortunately, the rest of this week’s Book Review takes a surprising turn for the better. It’s a theme issue devoted to “Bad Boys, Mean Girls, Revolutionaries, Outlaws and Beautiful Losers”. The occasion is the appearance of several new books about Neal Cassady (a biography by David Sandison and Graham Vickers), Hunter S. Thompson (a memoir by Hunter’s artist/collaborator Ralph Steadman), Allen Ginsberg (a biography by Bill Morgan), Al Goldstein (an autobiography), Edward Abbey (a volume of correspondence, edited by David Petersen), Charles Bukowski (a biography by Barry Miles), Courtney Love (an autobiography), Tennessee Williams (a reissued autobiography) and lit-groupie/short-story writer Alice Denham (a memoir of sexual encounters with the likes of James Jones, Philip Roth, Nelson Algren and Joseph Heller).

It’s odd to see the NYTBR paying so much attention to the writers I love best, and in fact I feel so over-familiar with much of the material discussed in these books that I have trouble reading about it fresh (I could write a biography of Allen Ginsberg or Neal Cassady). But I found Walter Kirn’s piece on Allen Ginsberg the most exciting to read. Kirn works himself up into a Ginsberg-ian state of exstasis, which is really the only appropriate way to approach the work of Allen. I like stuff like this:

Ginsberg, the hang-loose anti-Ike. Ginsberg, the organization man unzipped. The vulnerable obverse of the Bomb. He had the belly of a Buddha, the facial hair of a Walt Whitman …

And I like Kirn’s closer paragraph:

Silence — the one mistake Ginsberg never made. And because of the work he left, the life he led and the care that’s been taken preserving them, it’s one that he probably never will.

John Waters’ passionate tribute to his idol Tennessee Williams is a good read (and I like the well-chosen accompanying photo that shows Tennessee in exactly the clipped moustache and slick suit that would become John Waters’ uniform; so that’s where he got it).

Jonathan Miles does a good job of explaining why we should care about Edward Abbey, a maddened environmentalist usually at odds with the flower-power 1960’s. Ron Powers has some interesting things to say about Barry Miles’ book on Charles Bukowski, though Powers dismisses the biographer as “a British bookstore owner in the late 1960’s”. Actually, Barry Miles was a founding member of the International Times and an important creative force in the London underground scene whose life and encounters with the likes of Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, John Lennon and Yoko One could be the subject of an interesting book all its own (and if Barry’s out there, I hope he’ll take the hint and write this book next).

Emily Nussbaum is amusing on the topic of Courtney Love, though she focuses more on Courtney’s naughty mothering habits than on her talents as a songwriter and musician (I’ve always been a Hole fan and I’m looking forward to Courtney’s new CD). Will Blythe does a decent job of summaring Steadman’s book on Hunter, which I plan to read if I can find the time. James Campbell on the new Neal Cassady biography left me a bit cold, but maybe that’s only because I’ve always wanted to write this biography myself (and never got started).

Despite all this coverage of our outlaw favorites, my favorite literary reading in today’s New York Times was a superb piece on Irish poet Paul Muldoon by Charles McGrath in the New York Times Magazine.

13 Responses

  1. those who can,
    those who can, should

    So…write the book. I even got an angle for you – write Neal’s 30,000-word letter that was lost by Ginsberg or whomever. You know the lingo, the relatives, the subject matter. Just do it. The Lost Manuscript…it would fill in one of the great gaps in literary history. And you’d have fun doing it.

  2. OutlawI don’t know what it

    I don’t know what it means anymore. Outlaw.

    How is it that we get away with some kind of pseudo-worship of the “outlaw.” literary and otherwise, when, in fact, in life (they seem pretty safe when they’re dead) nice people, literary and otherwise, take such pains to avoid the madness the “outlaw,” literary and otherwise, courts not unlike some proverbial abyss he drags around with him avec la ball and chain.

    Drugs. Drink. Dementia.

    We only forgive them these crimes when there’s distance between us and them and the room in which to call them artistic.

    We can focus on their work.

    But if they get too close we don’t focus on the work. We focus on the pain of knowing them.

    Thinking we know them. An illusion.

    The New York Times Book Review engages in nostalgia. Looking back. A sweetness.

    It’s clean.

    Even Courtney Love has been through rehab. There is no fucking hope for the world. Literary and otherwise.

    Okay: Let us take twelve very talented — hot, demented — workaholic, young visionaries of TODAY. Let us pretend one is a sculptor, two are dancers, one a choreographer, three are novelists, two are poets, one writes plays, one is a painter, one makes films and takes photographs, and one blogs (whatever).

    It’s so pretentious to assume we would know and admire these people from the safety of the books that are written about their lives.

    You would not know them. You would not like them. You would call the police.

    You would not help them in the street as they’re throwing up on the sidewalk outside the poetry slam door.

    You would not feed them for six weeks while they wrote one poem.

    You would not give the playright on his bicycle a ride to Connecticut.

    You would not clean Charles Bukowski UP.

    You would not find Pinero a clean syringe.

    You would not give WSB a loaded gun.

    These are the people who scare the shit out of everyone. We do NOT LIKE these kinds of people today. Did we ever like them. No.

    They do not follow the rules because they do not know them and if they did know them they would not follow the fucking rules.

    You could not put them on MTV.

    A poetry reading would be pushing it.

    I don’t GET it.

    Do we vicariously think some of the outlawness would rub off on us (nice people) like fairy dust.

    We’re such hypocrites.

    We admire them from afar.

    Most outlaw types have really long, protracted periods in their lives where they have not ONE FUCKING FRIEND.

    Perhaps they’ve failed at something. It does happen with the outlaw types, too.

    During the “failed” periods, they work a lot and they don’t really need friends, and I wonder if they ever really need admirers. Maybe.

    Eveyone wants to know the outlaw when she’s a SUCCESSS.

    The New York Times Book Review brings us familiar fellows. Not outlaws.

    The real outlaw poets are in fucking prison. Because that is where we put people who cannot or will not follow the rules.

    The New York Times Book Review does not review the work of inmates.

    One must not be incarcerated in the first rule.

    I think it’s hilarious that the New York Times Book Review would rub metaphoric shoulders with an outlaw.

    It is a contradiction in terms.

    I am reminded of Dennis Hopper who was my neighbor in Taos. There was a moment there when Dennis was an “outlaw” I suppose. But now Dennis plays golf in Palm Springs (his new hobby).

    Outlaws come. Outlaws go.

    Perhaps we like living through the risks someone else takes.

    Outlaw. It’s a romanticism.

    The reality is that in the real world we don’t want to be anywhere near any of the mess they make.

    They amuse us especially in books and movies.

    Perhaps the pretense is that we are, after all, tolerant.

    All anyone has to do is spend a day reading blogs to see how tolerant we are.

    Oh, we love outlaws. As long as Courtney doesn’t throw us off the stage.

    We do love throwing them in the pokey (make them pay) when we can.

    Outlawism is a spectator sport.

    They entertain us and we don’t have to risk anything to the extent they did and do.

    Dancing with the stars.

    Ms. Love did get one thing right. If you’re going to rock the boat, do it with a hole. Just don’t fall in. The abyss is a long way down.

  3. I am glad I am not a nice
    I am glad I am not a nice person.
    I would pour a drink for the old man
    dig up his underwood from under the leaves,
    brush off the dirt,
    lets go.

  4. Ginsberg as mover &
    Ginsberg as mover & shaker

    Over the weekend I watched the short film, “Pull My Daisy” and the scene of Ginsberg and Corso talking about poetry (it’s really Kerouac speaking in a voice-over) got me all psyched up. I’ve been indoors writing for too long. So I hit the Fuel Coffeehouse for some live creative action. It was reaffirming.

  5. That’s a great idea! Levi,
    That’s a great idea! Levi, keep us posted on your progress and publish in-progress excerpts here.

  6. Well, honestly, the Neal
    Well, honestly, the Neal Cassady bio was my dream from many years ago. I also used to imagine a great movie starring Woody Harrelson. But now Woody Harrelson is too old to play Neal and I’m too busy running this here blog, so I guess the Sandison/Vickers book will stand alone! They did a fine job with it, anyway.

  7. Excellent post. I’ve been up
    Excellent post. I’ve been up close and personal with Gregory Corso and Jack Micheline and I can tell you, every word you write is true. Their day-to-day lives were horrifying by our tame standards; they were impossible to be around.

    I suggest another definition of outlaw writer: one whose work is different from, and is not accepted by, the literary establishment (the academy, Poetry magazine, etc.).

  8. Woody’s now the same age as
    Woody’s now the same age as Neal when he died so the film could be done as flashbacks.
    Wasn’t that letter that Cassady wrote that inspired On The Road done up in the film The Last Time I Committed Suicide?
    As for the NYTBR disparaging blogs; hasn’t that subject been broached before here?

  9. Sub-LiterateBrooklyn, I must

    Brooklyn, I must say I am surprised someone already handicapped with sub-literacy could manage to make out the text of Ms. Donadio’s article beneath the cheeto fingerprint stains on your copy of the NYTBR, all while sitting in your pajamas in your parent’s basement.

    It’s great when someone derides the tone of debate amongst the Great Unwashed with a tossed off, unsupported-with-actual-evidence, stereotype-dependent insult.

    I’d like to know specifically which blogs she’s thinking of when she writes that.

    (And this is leaving aside the irony – I believe that would be the correct word here – of complaining about name-calling in an article lamenting the absence of feuding. She quotes Mailer describing Jack Kerouac as “as pretentious as a rich whore, as sentimental as a lollypop.” I suppose Ms. Donadio considers that ‘literate name-calling.’ But when does name-calling cross the line into sub-literate? I’d really like to know, so as someone who aspires to literacy, I can adjust my name-calling accordingly.

    In another example, she quotes Salman Rushdie’s retort to John Updike’s criticism of Rushdie’s decision regarding a character’s name. Now, Updike’s criticism was a substantive issue because the character was named after a real person, and such a thing might lead a reader to infer certain things. Rushdie responds with basically ‘a name is just a name, nothing more’ (sort of a disingenuous response by a writer) and goes on to suggest that there is probably a male prostitute in Las Vegas named “John Updike.” Yeah, that’s a mature response that totally addresses the issue at hand right there. There’s no way somebody like me could come up with something so cutting, so incisive, so . . . dare I say it (what the hell, I dare) . . . literate.

    BTW, Ms. Donadio, in your grown-up Dictionary of Acceptable Smart People Feuding, is sarcasm allowed?

    To address another point in the article, where she seems to approvingly quote Christopher Hitchens’ argument that we should allow friends and enemies to review one another books; I can’t think of a worse idea.

    Books, as has been noted on Litkicks many times in the past, are expensive. And the ostensible purpose of a book review would be, (it seems to my admittedly sub-literate mind) to inform me about the book under review and help me decide whether or not to purchase it. Allowing friends to review one another’s books would reduce the book review to nothing more than an extended jacket blurb. And as far as letting “enemies” evaluate one another’s work; if I want to listen to people settling petty grudges, I’ll go hang out in a high school cafeteria. I’m not even sure how this is an issue; Does Rolling Stone or Spin have Michael Jackson reviewing Janet? Did they let Biggie Smalls write a review of Tupac back in the day?) If you want feuds, let the feuders duel it out in a point-counterpoint style column or something. But give my book reviews to me straight.

    I haven’t finished the entire NYTBR, but Walter Kirn’s review of the new Ginsberg books makes me not only want to read those books, but Mr. Kirn’s books as well.

    And I definitely intend to pick up the Ed Abbey correspondence. Abbey very easily could have gone the demagogue rout, but he refused to become a movement, sticking to his principles instead. His essay “A Writer’s Credo” should be read by all.

  10. danjazz, could you give us
    danjazz, could you give us any examples that maybe we haven’t heard about. Some horrifying stories?

  11. Well said, Shamatha.To your
    Well said, Shamatha.

    To your image of sub-literate me in my parents’ basement in my pajamas, we should add “posting pictures of my cat”. Because, of course, that’s what the blogosphere is all about.*

    (* I don’t actually have a cat. Or pajamas.)

  12. re:by Tim Barrus (Nasdijj)
    re:by Tim Barrus (Nasdijj)
    Wow Tim, great comment. I mean, I thought you were in my head…

    Good post too.

  13. You try’n’ta start somethin
    You try’n’ta start somethin about people who post pictures of their cat?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!