To Instruct and Entertain

28 Mar

Rick Russo introduces his guest edited Best American Stories with an anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s visit to Carbondale Illinois where Rick happened to be teaching. The upshot is that Singer answered a graduate student question about the mission of literature with, “To instruct and entertain.”

Not a bad formulation, which as it happens has come back to me as I have been enjoying some critical journalism (by which I mean journalism that includes critical commentary as well as snapshots of the zeitgeist) Though this should be obvious one of the rewarding by-products of especially original writing is the extension of conversations that begin in that writing.

Here’s what I mean. Hari Kunzru’s 4th novel Gods Without Men(Knopf) has stirred a substantial critical wave. But I took Douglas Coupland’s critique to be the most satisfying. Coupland begins with an high charged idea

No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times. The zeitgeist of 2012 is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist. I can’t believe I just wrote that last sentence, but it’s true; there is something psychically sparse about the present era, and artists of all stripes are responding with fresh strategies.

Coupland continues with a brief for what he identifies as a new literary genre: Translit. Of which Kunzru’s bouncing chronology (1775 to 2008, 2009 to 1945, 2007 to 1958 etc) is a fresh example ( as are Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours” and David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.”)

What makes the book a Translit gem is its elegant pinballing between Jaz and Lisa’s present[the 2 central characters] and multiple substories that all, in some way, use a three-fingered desert rock formation called the Pinnacles as a thematic, geographic and chronological tether

And he concludes:

This book strives to locate the profound amid what on the surface seems like the nothingness of the desert and the emotional sparseness of the age. It also wonders how technology connects us to our spiritual cores and where it fails. When Raj returns to his parents, he becomes the star child at the end of Kubrick’s “2001.” Raj is whatever and whoever it is we all seem to have become: a race of time-traveling time killers Googling and Wikiing until our machines transform into something smarter than ourselves, we humans left only to hope the machines may save us in the process.

And that’s something to think about

The kerfluffle over an NPR correspondent’s reportage of the depredations suffered by Chinese workers in Apple supplier’s factories is the issue at the heart of essayist John D”Agata and fact checker (at the time) Jim Fingal book. Though everybody seems to have reviewed The Lifespan of A Fact (Norton) I recall the New York Times review seemed to go out if its way to misconstrue. Additionally, Ren Weschler told me in a recent chat (to be published in the fullness of time) he thought the book was very witty. But Mark O’Connell at the Millions seemed to give the book the respectful and thoughtful reading it deserved

There’s a tightly compressed irony to all this, of course, and to the significant media controversy this book has caused. D’Agata deliberately exposes his own fakery here (although that is presumably not a word to which he’d grant any legitimacy in a discussion of art, even “non-fiction” art). In that sense, he’s dictating the terms of the controversy he has provoked. That’s one of many obvious differences between D’Agata and the haplessly duplicitous likes of, say, Mike Daisey (for whom I might have had slightly more respect if he’d responded to the controversy over the fabrications in his This American Life story with “It’s called self-promotion, dickheads.”) Surprisingly few reviews have mentioned the fact that The Lifespan of a Fact is, itself, a heavily fictionalized version of the emails that were actually sent during the fact-checking process.

Slate’s media guy Jack Shafer chooses to talk about D’Agata’s methodology in discussing Truman Capote’s ground breaking In Cold Blood:

But what joins D’Agata and Capote is this: Both love “real” facts, but when blocked by journalistic convention from the literary effects they desire, they willingly leapt that fence to create whatever rules they needed to enhance their work. Because he admits to his shape-shifting, D’Agata’s work is harmless. Capote’s book, on the other hand, continues to be taught in journalism classes, is celebrated as a masterpiece, and I would guess that it has been read by 50 percent of Americans who consider themselves educated.

In the end, Shafer denigrates both writers:

I believe in journalism, not journalists, and welcome anybody with a notebook, a recorder or a 94 percent total-recall memory to help clear our field and plant it with their work as long as they have a true story to tell. As for latter-day Capotes and D’Agatas, I can give you Google Maps directions to the land of fiction.


And finally (for now) if you have even a passing acquaintance of American periodical book coverage you ought to recognize John Jeremiah Sullivan who James Pogue aptly points out has been anointed—the occasion being the publication of his 2nd opus, Pulphead (FSG)
Pogue as a son of South expends much thought and verbiage on Southern culture and its writing tradition —an effort both useful and entertaining. But not what I expected given the tone of the opening:

Let’s start this thing how John Sullivan would, if he were writing it. There would be a brisk lede, too conversational to call punchy. The astute reader would already know he was reading someone who has mastered the conventions of magazine journalism so completely that he can’t quite take them seriously. Then, if the lede wasn’t personal, there might be an anecdote about how the piece came about, and even the less astute reader—or, more fairly, the reader who couldn’t care less about the conventions of magazine journalism—would be given a little lesson in authorial motivations. He might hear about the money Sullivan had hoped to earn, or why he wanted to profile someone the reader of, say, a men’s magazine would have every right to think was a waste of pages that could have been filled with pictures of Jessica Alba or spreads of tassel loafers. And Sullivan, modest as ever, would assuage him, and well before the moment when that reader might have given up and turned back to the Alba shots, too few to be really satisfying anyway, he would be persuaded by Sullivan’s apologetic enthusiasm that maybe Axl Rose is still worth 6,000 words, or that Levi Johnston really does say something about the American condition, and he would stick around for a tender portrait of some trivial-seeming shit and come out touched, and feeling a little smarter, a little saner, and a little closer to the unknowable forces that make Americans act the way they do.

Pogue does get to this vantage point:

“For people who have never heard of John Jeremiah Sullivan, or who don’t know what the fuss is about, or who didn’t know about the fuss at all, the thing about him is that he’s a very good popular magazine journalist who has fashioned himself as a Southern writer, and that the South is immensely, perhaps inordinately, proud of its writers. And as with any writer in the southern belletristic tradition, there’s really no need to look up a bio of him: it’s all in his books or gossip. All of the Pulphead reviews mention that Sullivan was born in Kentucky, which is a little misleading … while he has deep family roots in the state, his parents drove across the Ohio from their home in Southern Indiana to a hospital in Louisville, then drove back to Indiana with the newest Sullivan. You also learn that he moved to Columbus, Ohio when he was 11 and lived there until he finished high school.”

In Pogue’s 5200 words there is a substantial rendering of Sullivan in terms of his place in the Southern literary milieu and his specific talents—none of which I seen elsewhere. His last words on Sullivan convinced me:

…He’s good enough to take the model he’s already mastered to new places, the way his ledes and the structure of his essays already play with a tired form. It would be nice to see him be less modest about his intellect and moral sense, which, you have to think, would inevitably lead him back south—his only real showy moments come when he drops bits of southern history, or his knowledge of a local quirk. But what I’d like is something to convince us that kind of knowledge matters, that there are societal lessons to be wrung, like he wrings them out in “American Grotesque,” from the cloth of mountain anecdote and dusty genealogical diagram. No one is better equipped to do it

By the way, as I seemed not to read the venues that offer John Jeremiah Sullivan’s writing I was not aware of him until I chanced on his piece on David Foster Wallace in one of those light weight men’s magazines See if that article doesn’t give credence to James Pogue’s essay.

Currently reading Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Putnam)

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