Monthly Archives: July 2011

Notes on Notes on Sontag

Notes on Sontag
by Phillip Lopate
Princeton University Press, 2009

In many ways this is the perfect book about Susan Sontag, because Phillip Lopate is so much her opposite—warm where she is cold, personal where she is stiff-armed, steely maned where he is bald, self-doubting where she is authoritarian in her judgment, discursive where she is aphoristic. And yet, despite these differences in approach and sensibility, there is a genuine sympathetic vein running throughout this commentary. Lopate didn’t just read Sontag regularly; his professional life kept intertwining with hers. He was an undergraduate at Columbia when she was teaching there, young and married with a teenaged son. And they knew each other in the professional way of postwar intellectual Jewish writers in New York City. (Ah, it makes one want to move to New York!) They were both interested in many of the same foreign, obscure, aggressively arty films and novels, and they both ended up writing fiction and essays, but are mostly known for the latter. In Sontag’s case, she is of course famous for the aphoristically brilliant, perceptive, withering critical gaze at various artists and intellectuals, not so much “personal essays” as essays as personality. Judgment as a style. Lopate is of course the old king of the personal essay, a bard of wandering through the porousness of his own life tying knots of comprehension, then loosening them.

In fact, one of the most interesting parts of this book, for me, is when he discusses her fiction. He says, “Her fiction is, for the most part, unsuccessful. . . . She lacked broad sympathy and a sense of humor, which are usually prerequisites for good fiction. More germane, perhaps, she did not convincingly command a fictive space on the page.” She often thought of her essays as a distraction from fiction writing, which Lopate finds absurd: “I, who revere the art of essay writing, and who can never regard literary nonfiction as even a fraction inferior to fiction, find puzzling Sontag’s need to be thought primarily a novelist.” It is a strange provincialism of the mind, still prevalent today, that nonfiction is below the novel, that greedy fat king of prose, who, like a threatened toddler, takes all the attention and yet still demands more. He says that Sontag was always overvaluing her fiction while kicking the legs from under her magisterial essays, while he himself thinks that the ratio of critical acclaim portioned out to his essays (high) versus his fiction (not nearly as high) is perfectly fitting. (Why that is, why he’s so agreeable on this, is never explored, and is something I would love to know. Just how did he get this levelheaded about the great novelistic beast?)

But aside from this shop talk, there is just the sympathetic explication of her work. Sontag seems more complex and difficult here and yet warmer somehow in her chilly remove. The judgments on her work are complexly layered and precise, and it makes one want ot read more Sontag, while importing Lopate’s heightened example of sympathy.

The looseness of the book is also a pleasure. The book, a tidy, narrow volume issued by Princeton University Press, rambles, juts forward, and then recycles itself. It’s not redundant, but it’s also not a belligerently progressive, teleological argument. It’s a rumination, a chewing through of Sontag’s oeuvre. If it dwindles somewhat in energy toward the end, it’s only appropriate. Sontag’s career does the same, as does Lopate’s enthusiasm for it.

And finally, it’s one of the best things I’ve read by Lopate. Like Sontag, but yet so unlike her, the peculiar glimmer of his aesthetic sensibility is illuminated by his studious concentration on another writer’s work.

Losing Faith with Fiction

I have been mulling over the news that Philip Roth no longer reads fiction. In a profile in the Financial Times, there is the following exchange:

As we talk, Roth is perfectly courteous, perfectly charming, perfectly defended. Half a century of celebrity, since the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 brought him money and a turbulent kind of fame at the age of 36, has made him a master of the polite no-go sign. The conversation I’d longed to have with him since I first read him many decades ago, a conversation about fiction itself, died an early death.

“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.”

How so?

“I don’t know. I wised up … ”

And with those three words he gave me a long look from those fierce eyes and then a significant glance at my notebook, as if to say: that’s what I want you to write down.

So what did he wise up about? On a superficial level, and probably long ago, about the inadvisability of giving anything away when answering journalists’ questions, that’s for sure.

Aside from this moment, the profile is otherwise redundant. All of the information has been so thoroughly catalogued before that the accumulation of words seems unnecessary. No wonder that this statement by Roth received the most attention. But aside from this fleck of gold in an otherwise dry creek bed, the statement seems, if not declared, at least edited to be supremely tweetable. That is, mildly scandalous, gnomicly brief, invested with the shelf life of organic yogurt. And it dutifully sprouted its week’s worth of online mold.

But I’ve kept thinking about it because I think, in its truncated outlandishness, it so disregards Roth’s actual writing. He may no longer read fiction; he may in fact find reading fiction a waste of time. (Geoff Dyer has a great line somewhere where he says that all men eventually only read military history.) This statement actually isn’t that much of a surprise. In interviews over the past several years, as Roth has become an old man, Roth’s said that he’s rereading the classics, perhaps for the last time. A premonition of death seemingly haunts every move he makes–the books he writes, the ones he reads, the plots of his novels, etc. So one doesn’t really expect for Roth to have an informed opinion on that story collection by Miranda July, or the amount of depth to be plumbed in Téa Obreht’s novel.

(Incidentally, I have’t read either of those authors either, but I feel the atmospheric contemporary pressure to have done so.)

But the statement seems to negate what he has done with this life, the way that the news Salman Rushdie is going to work on a TV show and that he thinks TV can be panoramic and sociological in ways the novel no longer can (old news, that), somehow seems to negate the very validity of fiction.

But Roth’s fiction is thoroughly devoted to the fictional, to the idea of the fictional. Or to be more clear: his works are all about making stuff up and about characters who make stuff up, or read books and try to live according to those books, and suffer because of the miscalculation. So much of his mid-career work (the three novels and one novella that comprise Zuckerman Bound) are about the life of an accidentally celebrated author. And his late work takes on various American totemic myths and braids them with individual lives. And one of his best books, The Counterlife, is all about lives re-writing each other, except here it’s not new characters corrupting other characters, but the same characters re-written in multiple ways. The book is a novel bursting into several different novels, characters playing out different versions, different fates. That is, his fiction has been primarily dedicated to this kind of energy, a character’s ability to fictionalize. All of which is a long way of saying that Roth himself may no longer read fiction but the fiction he’s actually written is argument enough for fiction’s value. And not just because it’s “good” fiction, but because the novels argue on behalf of the inescapable need for people to fictionalize. It’s metafiction in the deepest way. It’s not the lighter John Barthian side of fiction, purely investigating the structural conventions of narrative.

I would say that Roth treats fiction on a religious level if he hadn’t stated so clearly that he considers God himself the most supremely harmful fiction.

The Heming Way

I realize it’s the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death, but this is ridiculous:
A poster with mottos drawn from Hemingway's life
This is the most absurd misinterpretation of Hemingway’s life, much less his value as a “great writer,” and what’s worse is that I think this is how the broader U.S. culture “appreciates” Hemingway. (The previous winner in absurd Hemingway cultural appropriation–Thomasville’s Hemingway Furniture Collection.)

When will people stop looking to Hemingway’s life as some sort of model of uber-manliness and adventure? When will people actually start reading Hemingway? Read something like In Our Time and try to neatly conventionalize how the women and men behave in there or try to ascertain an unequivocal “way to live” from those stories. Have you ever seen a string of stories that embody such an absolute male terror of women and children? Hemingway, from an accumulation of snapshots, may appear confident and husky, an urban woodsman’s wet dream. But the people in his stories are one hot mess and speak of a complex appreciation of human character, not easily posterized.

I realize that celebrity culture always distorts the source text, but this poster seems the latest incarnation of insult. “Appreciate the finer things in life”–do they realize that Hemingway was a drunk? “Live to tell the tale”–do they realize that Hemingway lived right up until he stuck a shotgun in his mouth?

It’s like his persona has completely split from the actual books he wrote, so that there is this free-floating pop cultural Hemingway, himself composed of little metonymies of manliness: guns, big game, sex with nurses, mustaches, and ribald drinking. Not only is it an insult to the legacy of Hemingway; it’s an insult to the concept of manliness. Besides, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his death is just numerology marketing.

Here’s a short poster for an ideal life: don’t be mold, growing on the damp back of cliche.

MFA = Mother of Failed Arguments

Laura Miller wrote a nice piece in Salon not that long ago, capably outlining the recent flare up in the To MFA or Not To MFA debate, this time describing Mark McGurl’s latest rebuttal in the L.A. Review of Books to Elif Batuman’s takedown of his book The Program Era and MFA programs in particular. (DG Myers, author of The Elephants Teach [which everyone considering an MFA should read], also has an interesting afterthought.)

As someone who has both attended an MFA program (Alabama ’04, roll tide) and has taught undergraduate workshops, I am tempted to weigh in on the matter. But all of this back and forth has made me realize the perennial exuberance of this Down with MFA/Up with MFA debate. I realized only recently that you could spend more time reading about books on the internet than you could spend reading the actual books, so that at the end of the day, you are already too full on digests before the real literary meal. (Yes, it’s taken me a while to discern this.) But there’s more: you could obviate the need for even that digest-like reading by spending all of your time reading about MFA programs, and whether or not they are in fact the bud of all that’s evil.

So consider this a personal devotion to avoid all MFA program essays, rants, and articles in the future. They never solve the problem; they never settle the debate; they’re almost all ahistorical posturing; and they only provoke another onslaught of comments; and these discussions, peculiarly, seem to diminish their participants and make them sound less cogent, reasonable, and/or sane than they otherwise might actually be. Batuman is a better writer than her MFA LRB article (and yet she keeps returning again and again to kick the shins of creative writing programs, protesting too much). And McGurl’s original rebuttal to the LRB, which he posted in full on his website, was a stronger, more succinct response than his latest LARB essay.

So, enough. It’s the worst kind of discussion–rants traded within the cave of an institutional navel.