At almost exactly the same time I gave up thinking I was going to be a great novelist---a thought I let take too long to sink in---I gave up caring who among my contemporaries were great novelists or on their way to becoming great novelists. Even more emphatically, I gave up caring who wasn’t.
Isn’t that an interesting coincidence?
Obviously, both those letting-gos were the same thing. I was giving up my vanity about my talents as a writer of fiction. Since I was no longer going anywhere as a novelist and short story writer, there really wasn’t anyone standing in my way I needed to knock over to get past. It wasn’t the case anymore that I wasn’t getting published because blockheaded editors who wouldn’t know a good story from a Wonder Bread label insisted on publishing phonies and hacks and clever mimics of the faddishly popular. I wasn’t getting published because I wasn’t trying to get published, so it stopped being necessary for me to prove that young writers who were getting published because they were still trying were phonies, hacks, and clever mimics. Once upon a time, I was convinced that the world needed to be protected from flashes in the pan like Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney in order for there to be room on bookstore shelves and in magazines for the likes of real writers like Lance Mannion. And I meant writers like Lance Mannion, since, naturally, I was too modest to argue I was just what the doctor ordered to save American literature from itself.
You know who’s really good? I would say. So and so who just happens to write the kind of stuff I write but that’s not why I’m saying she’s really good.
When I stopped believing I was the cure for what ailed the fiction reading public, I stopped getting mad when writers I had only lately thought of as viruses succeeded in spreading their germs. Even more salubrious for my mental health and moral good, I stopped using metaphors like that. I just started saying, Oh, look who has a new book out! Good for him! Hooray for her!
Sometimes I even read the book.
And enjoyed it.
By the way, I was right about Ellis and McInerney, although that doesn’t give me the satisfaction I would have expected it to back in the day. I even feel a little bad for them. A little more for McInerney than for Ellis since Ellis has sometimes tried to counter the neglect he and his fiction have been suffered by being an occasional dick on the internet. But he’s still plugging away at the writer’s trade and I respect that and wish him well.
I wish them all well. I want them all to continue to write and to publish and to meet with critical and popular acclaim. And by all I mean the contemporaries I used to think of as my rivals and the now established middle-aged writers but then up and coming punk kids I worried would make me irrelevant before I got a chance to be at all relevant and the present crop of punk kids struggling to establish themselves.
I root for all of them.
Except for one.
Mainly it’s because he’s a dick and not just occasionally on the internet. Everywhere every chance he gets.
You’re shaking your head.
May I ask why?
Because since when is dickishness grounds for disliking an author? All your favorite writers were dicks.
Name one who wasn’t.
The exception that proves the rule. They’re all dicks. Dickens, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Greene.You just finished Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, right?
I did. And your point?
Not the word I’d use.
What word would you use?
Dick. It’s the right word. Look at how he treated his first wife. Look at how he wrote about the women he cheated on her with. Look at how he treated his kids. He was affable, genial, even apologetic about it, but he was a dick.
He isn’t exactly one of my favorites.
Don’t weasel. The point is you don’t let his dickishness affect your appreciation of his writing. And then there’s Mailer, whom I see you’re planning to quote approvingly as soon as you can figure out how to write your way out of this all too precious internal dialog with yourself.
What about Mailer?
He’d have gotten a kick out of your double-entendre.
He wouldn’t have seen it as a double-entendre. He’d have seen it as synonymous with being a great writer and public intellectual. And by the way, are you teaching your apprentice public intellectual students to model themselves on Norman Mailer?
I think I’d have to teach them who Norman Mailer was first.
Start by mentioning he was a colossal dick.
All right, so some great writers were dicks---
They were all dicks.
Maybe. But probably he was. Probably you just don’t want to admit he was a dick.
Ok, let’s say they were all dicks. What about it?
Why despise Franzen for his dickishness while giving the rest of them a pass?
Because he’s different.
In what way?
Few of them were self-righteous about it. They didn’t make a virtue out of their dickishness. Franzen is positively pious about it. And he proselytizes for it. He’s out to spread the word, and alas and alack for us hypocrites who refuse to heed and repent of the sin of enjoying all the stupid things Franzen knows better then to enjoy himself. Twitter, bird-watching…
He’s a birder himself.
Beside the point. The point is it’s not about enjoyment. He doesn’t enjoy it himself. Not really. You wouldn’t either, at least not in the right way. Literary fame…
He doesn’t like being famous?
Again, beside the point. The point is that we’re not to think it’s enjoyable. Believe him, if we were as famous and successful as he is, we wouldn’t like it. Ebooks…
You don’t like ebooks.
Edith Wharton. He’s the prophet of anhedonia. Freedom, which Slate’s Science and Health editor Laura Helmuth summed up as “full of David Brooks-style clichés about anyone who ever had a charitable thought or ate a slice of multigrain bread”, is his Book of Lamentations.
Even when writing about things he likes---the Talking Heads, Bob Dylan---he manages to take the fun out of it.
His day job when he’s not writing dull but high-minded novels is as a professional killjoy. He appears to be incapable of taking pleasure in anything and to have made it his mission to make sure the rest of us go through life as loftily bored and mildly but chronically annoyed---as if subject to frequent psychic headaches and spiritual dyspepsia---as he does. This goes back to his telling Oprah to go away and mind her own damn business when she wanted to make The Corrections a choice for her book club. He gave the impression that his objection was that the wrong sort of people would have the wrong sort of fun reading his book.
You don’t look convinced.
What’s your problem?
Ok, you’re kidding yourself.
I am, am I?
Yes, you am, am you. Franzen’s dickishness isn’t what bugs you.
Mind telling me what is?
He’s more famouser than you.
You know what I’m mean.
Honestly, I don’t.
Honestly, you do. He’s famous in the way you wanted to be famous. You’re jealous.
I’m not jealous.
Ok. Maybe a little.
It’s not like I go around all the time thinking, That damn Franzen. In fact, I rarely think about him at all.
What’s with this post then?
I was inspired by something I just read.
A colossal dick. I know. So what? At least he had fun being one. And he wanted to share the fun. He wanted readers to enjoy the things he enjoyed. And he knew what he was talking about when he wrote about other writers.
There are more than a few women who’d disagree with you on that.
Touché. But Mailer isn’t the point. The point is I’m not jealous of Franzen. I mean, I don’t root against Franzen just because I’m jealous. I don’t even root against him. Not really. I root against his continuing to be thought of as a great American novelist because he’s not. He’s just invented a Write A Great American Novel By the Numbers kit. He’s an intellectual poseur and a clever stylist who’s mastered a second language, Literary Novelese. And a bunch of influential people who really wouldn’t know a good story from a Wonder Bread label have bought into this because they think that all it takes to make a Great American Novel is that it present the United States as a fallen Eden, corrupted and corrupting, populated almost entirely by joyless, self-deluded, hypocritical middle class white people who fill their empty days with acts of emotional self-destruction and that it tackle “issues” and contain a set number of passages of sneering social commentary.
You finally ready?
Ready for what?
To quote Mailer. That’s supposedly the reason you’re writing this post, isn’t it?
Then get on with it.
Ok. Here it is. It’s from his review of The Corrections which I just read in Mind of an Outlaw.
It is very good as a novel, very good indeed, and yet most unpleasant now as it sits in the memory, as if one has been wearing the same clothes for too many days. Franzen writes superbly well sentence for sentence, and yet one is not happy with the achievement. It is too full of language, even as the nouveaux riches are too full of money. He is exceptionally intelligent, but like a polymath, he lives much of the time in Wonkville Hollow, for Franzen is an intellectual dredging machine. Everything of novelistic use to him that came up on the Internet seems to have bypassed the higher reaches of his imagination---it is as if he offers us more human experience than he has literally mastered, and this is obvious when we come upon his set pieces on gourmet restaurants or giant cruise ships or modern Lithuania in disarray. Such sections read like first-rate magazine pieces, but no better---they stick to the surface. When he deals with what he does know directly and intimately, which is the family at the core of his book---an old father, a late-middle-aged mother, two grown sons, and a daughter---he is an exceptionally gifted observer. What waste, however! Nothing much is at stake for us with his people. They have almost no changing relation to each other (considering they have something like six hundred pages to work up a few new mutual stances). Three, maybe four of the five can legitimately be characterized as one-note characters---only the daughter, who becomes a passionate lesbian, has much to tell us. It is not only that—dare I use dare use the old book reviewer’s clichés?---they offer us very little rooting interest and are, for the most part, dank. Worse!---nothing but petty, repetitious conflicts arise from them. They wriggle forever in the higher reaches of human mediocrity and incarcerated habit. The greatest joy to lift from the spine of the book is the author’s vanity at how talented he is. He may well have the highest IQ of any American novelist writing today, but unhappily, he rewards us with more work than exhilaration…
Mailer agrees with you up and down the line.
I’d say it’s more the case I agree with him.
Either way, GMTA.
Well, Mailer was a smart guy.
But a colossal dick.
But a colossal dick.
So…you feel better now, having that off your chest?
Because I really meant what I wrote up at the top of the post or I want to mean it. I don’t care anymore. It doesn’t matter. There doesn’t need to be a great American novelist. There doesn’t need to be a Great American Novel. There just needs to be good novels that tell good stories.
Read any lately?
But not great?
Like I said, they don’t need to be.
They just need to tell good stories.
So that’s it now, you’re done?
Then nothing. I’m going to go read a book.
Got one in mind?
Got one already started. In the Light of What We Know.
Who’s that by?
Zia Haider Rahman.
But not great.
You know what? Maybe.
Nope. I’m rooting for him. I’m rooting for all of them.
Post’s over. Goodbye.