From Cynthia Ozick’s excellent essay “Literary Entrails” (Harper’s, April 2007), which I hope Harper’s eventually makes freely available. Ozick’s essay should be read by anyone who has any interest in the current book reviewing climate, particularly as very few of the participants have the effrontery to look inward.
When, not long ago, the New York Times Book Review asked a pool of writers to name the best novel of the last twenty-five years, the results were partly predictable and considerably muddled. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a tale of slavery and its aftermath, won the most votes. Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy were substantially represented. In an essay musing on the outcome of an exercise seemingly more quixotic than significant, A.O. Scott noted that the choices gave “a rich, if partial and unscientific picture of American literature, a kind of composite self-portrait as interesting perhaps for its blind spots and distortions as for its details.” Or call it flotsam and jetsam. You could not tell, from the novels that floated to the top, and from those bubbling vigorously below, anything more than that they were all written in varieties of the American language. You could not tell what, taken all together, they intimated in the larger sense — the tone of their time. A quarter-century encompasses a generation, and a generation does have a composite feel to it. But here nothing was composite, nothing joined these disparate writers to one another — only the catchall of the question itself, dipping like a fishing net and picking up what was closest to the surface, or had already prominently surfaced. All these novels had been abundantly reviewed — piecemeal. No reviewer had thought to set Beloved beside Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (both are political novels historically disguised) to catch the cross-reverberations. No reviewer had thought to investigate the possibly intermarried lineage of any of these works: what, for instance, has Nick in DeLillo’s Underworld absorbed from the Nick of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? The novels that rose up to meet the Book Review‘s inquiry had never been suspect of being linked, whether horizontally or vertically. It was as if each one was a wolf-child reared beyond the commonality of a civilization; as if there was no recognizable thread of literary inheritance that could bind, say, Mark Helprin to Raymond Carver. Or if there was, no one cared to look for it. Nothing was indebted to nothing.
This is precisely why I think “In the Belly of the Beast” by Jack Henry Abbott belongs on a shelf next to “A Clockwork Orange.” I was thinking of blogging about that until I learned that Big Mr. Ed Champion Fancy Pants is such a Big Anthony Burgess Fancy Fan that I don’t dare write on the subject in these hallowed pages.
I enjoyed that Harper’s piece very much; thank you for writing about it. It was an idea that never occured to me, that a lack of criticism and not content could be dogging literature.
What was best about it was that, a dozen or so pages later, Siddhartha Deb provided an excellent critical overview (of Roberto Bolano). So the magazine showed us the problem and the solution.