Category Archives: Walter Benn Michaels

Walter Benn Michaels, Way Down in a Hole

When we last checked in with literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels, he was bemoaning the lack of literature that addressed America’s brutal, caste-creating economy head-on. For some reason, books about immigrants didn’t count, nor did historical novels. The only cultural works that even came close to satisfying him back then were The Wire and Bret Easton EllisAmerican Psycho. The Baffler recently resumed publication, which has given Michaels an opportunity to revise his essay—roughly meaning he’s added passages on Ayelet Waldman‘s boots and found another entry for his doofy canon: Jonathan Littell‘s The Kindly Ones. That novel is, to the best of my understanding, a historical novel about the Nazi era, but let’s set that aside for a moment and see where he goes:

[W]hen Michiko Kakutani (also writing for the Times) attacks Jonathan Littell’s recent novel, The Kindly Ones, because its central character, the Nazi Dr. Aue, is a “cartoonish” “monster” we can neither “sympathize” with nor “understand,” and when she applauds the “appealing” central character in Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in whose “plight” the reader becomes completely “absorbed,” we should understand that she is invoking political as well as literary criteria of evaluation: Good novels are defined by their interest in character; neoliberal politics by their respect for individuality.

From there Michaels argues that the threadbare characterizations in The Kindly Ones are a kind of asset, because they foreground ideology—and to foreground ideology at the expense of character is no great loss to society, or to the fiction that he believes ought to do a better job serving it. It’s probably not worth attempting to figure out what he might see in The Wire when he’s done being interested in all the characterization in it. (Maybe he just reads the plot summaries on the DVDs.) At any rate, Wire creator David Simon isn’t on board. Late last year he talked with Vice magazine about his experience on a panel with Michaels after the first version of the essay was published in Bookforum:

I was on this panel with this guy Walter Benn Michaels at the New York Public Library, and I didn’t dig it because he was basically using The Wire as a cudgel to beat up on literary fiction. But I don’t want to beat up on anybody. I don’t want to generalize, because there are some good literary novels. There’s also a lot of navel-gazing—and there’s a lot of navel-gazing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I find that stuff unreadable and a waste of my time, but there’s a lot of good stuff, too. And then there’s a lot of really smart stuff and there’s a lot of crap in crime writing…

There’s no reason to generalize. But the highest end of crime writing is doing everything right now that literary fiction claims for itself. That is true. And much of what passes for quality literary fiction is not accomplishing very much at all that I find to have merit. So that’s my opinion. But having said that, this panelist took it to an extreme where he was literally saying, “Can we just write about economics and money and politics?” He was saying that literary fiction should be like The Wire, which is nice and flattering, but then he was saying, “Can we stop writing about slavery? Can we stop writing about the Holocaust?” He was basically saying that writing about cultural identity is bullshit. But it’s like, I don’t buy that either. I couldn’t write effectively about people if these sort of core 20th-century experiences or 18th-century experiences that still influence us were not part of who we are.

(h/t Andrew Seal)

Links: The Names

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Here’s Don DeLillo, winner of the 2009 Common Wealth Award, along with three fellow winners who, unlike him, don’t seem to mind smiling: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kevin Spacey, and Buzz Aldrin.

Growing up bookish in Chicago meant, at least for me, that Nelson Algren was all but unavoidable, but apparently that’s not true in the rest of the country, according to a Los Angeles Times report, which includes comments from DeLillo and Russell Banks. Just wait until everybody gets a load of Stuart Dybek.

The Great Gatsby: the ballet.

Alice Walker‘s papers are now available at Emory University. The university’s Web site includes a slideshow of some of the more interesting holdings, including the invoice of Walker’s purchase of a headstone for Zora Neale Hurston‘s tomb.

Andrew Seal has what I’m hoping will be the last word on the Walter Benn Michaels foofaraw. I’m grateful that somebody’s willing to marshal the intellectual rigor to dismantle Michaels’ bloviations, and get in a few good zingers too. (“To say that Michaels is being absolutist is like saying an elephant is heavyset.”) Seal also points to video of the New York Public Library event that inspired all the chatter.

Literary agent Eric Simonoff, whose roster includes Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, and many other heavy hitters, discusses his recent jump to the William Morris Agency in Crain’s New York Business. He points to the recent six-figure sale of Danielle Trussoni‘s debut novel, Angelology, to Viking as proof that the publishing industry isn’t completely off the rails: “It was viewed as a test case, to see if we can still fall in love with a book and pay lots of money,” he says. “The answer is yes. There are still enough publishers, and few enough great books, that we can.

Links: Keeping It Classy

A few reactions to Tuesday’s Bookforum-sponsored event featuring Walter Benn Michaels trying to convince David Simon, Susan Straight, and Dale Peck that American literature is off the rails because there’s not enough poverty in it, or something:

“The animated exchanges…demonstrated how everything Benn Michaels said could be totally right, as far as it went, yet be achingly incomplete.”

“David Simon got excited for a second while making the point that slavery DOES TOO STILL EXIST, HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE GAS STATION BY MY HOUSE, but that line of thought was pretty quickly abandoned.”

Michaels: “The majority of poor people in America are white. They’re not victims of racism. They’re victims of capitalism. The one thing no one wants to talk about is capitalism.”

None of the reports convince me that Michaels is being anything besides a little doofy and a lot willfully provocative, or that he’d be satisfied with any novel you’d recommend to him.

Better to just read a sensible commentary on the current primacy of historical novels.

Or the “bible” for The Wire that Simon wrote before pitching the show to HBO. (h/t Whet Moser)

AbeBooks.com lists ten forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. Nearly all of them are news to me, but Karen Vanuska is doing some research.

Dinaw Mengestu‘s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears a novel set in Washington D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood before it was revived by the city’s housing boom, has been adapted for the stage. It premieres tonight. In Seattle.

A scene from the funeral for Minnesota author Bill Holm: “Bill was laid out in his coffin with Bach sheet music and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass’’ in his hands.”

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher weighs in on the closing of College Park, Maryland, store Vertigo Books: “When a big company goes away, a Circuit City or a big bank, for example, the local impact is relatively minimal–some workers lose their jobs, but the effect is regional or national in scope. But when a small local business dies, we lose a chunk of ourselves, a piece of the thing we call community, the reason we live wherever we might live.” The store’s “Wake & Potluck” is tomorrow evening.