Vermeer (Modern Library Nonfiction #83)

(This is the eighteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: A Bright Shining Lie.)

Johannes Vermeer was the Steph Curry of 17th century painters: a dazzling mack daddy who spent lengthy periods of his choppy forty-three year life layering lapis lazuli and ultramarine and madder lake onto some of the most beautiful paintings ever created in human history. To ask how he perfected the glowing pour of his domestic scenes through painstaking brush strokes is to court trouble. Did he do so through mirrors and lenses? Does the Hockney-Falco theory have any real bearing on appreciating his work? Vermeer famously left no record of how he achieved his elegant handwrought touch, which has left many to become obsessed with the question, even taking the trouble (as Tim Jennison, subject of the controversial Penn and Teller documentary, did) to learn Dutch, which is a maddening language by all reasonable standards.

The great mystery of how this genius mastered light purely by eye and through no apparent line work, all two centuries before the camera’s invention, has been taken up by such feverishly committed investigators as Philip Steadman, an architect who meticulously measured Vermeer’s interiors and constructed a one-sixth scale model of his room to uphold the theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura. For now, our attentions are with Lawrence Gowing, a self-taught art historian whose Vermeer obsession resulted in a highly useful and slyly passionate book, a short but smart volume bizarrely downplayed in The New York Times‘s Gowing obituary, but a title that the Modern Library judges were at least munificent enough to rank above the likes of Robert Caro eight years after Gowing kicked the proverbial bucket of paint.

Gowing frames Vermeer’s achievements by observing that this painter, unlike his 17th century Dutch peers Gabriël Metsu and Jan Steen, eschewed line and overt modelling work. Vermeer’s purity as an artist emerged with his curious pursuit of diffuse light at all costs. He remained quite impartial about how light spilled into his scenes. As Gowing notes, even a detail such as The Lacemaker‘s cushion tassels (pictured left) “have an enticing and baffling bluntness of focus.” In an age when anyone can instantly snap a picture to memorialize how light drifts into a room, this revolutionary approach cannot be understated, especially because Vermeer was confident enough in his aesthetic to push against the mercantile herd even as he served as head of the Guild of Saint Luke. In the seventeenth century, painters wanted to be noticed. They were, after all, artists with constantly grumbling bellies. So they tended to emphasize particular objects, even if it meant exaggerating the look, in an attempt to stand out. They might approach a patron and say, “Ha ha! I am Hendrik Van de Berg, the greatest painter of Maastricht! I have fifty thousand followers on…well, just imagine a world, preposterous as this may sound, in which short text messages determine your stature among peers and, yup, that would be me! Art King of Maastricht! Anyway, that nifty apple in the far right corner may look a little unnatural, but, dude, I think we can both agree that it really pops! And it will look good in your study while your starving servant polishes your boots and dreams of something to eat! Oh, I know you can’t pay your servants and that you are, in fact, fond of flogging them. But I am an artist and surely you can pay me! I’ll even throw in a complimentary whipping if you buy my work! Think of it as a patron reward!” Vermeer, by contrast, willfully blurred the apple. Vermeer’s peers in his hometown of Delift understood what he was doing, but the cost of being an artist was, alas, premature death due to exasperated financial stress.

Gowing’s gushing critical distinctions are a welcome reminder that it’s sometimes more important to know why art stands out rather than how it is created. The “No haters” crowd, fed on the soothing alfalfa sprouts of director’s commentaries and lengthy pop culture oral histories, would rather view Vermeer as a magician or a technical wizard than an artist. If Vermeer did use a camera obscura, he was certainly not the only Dutch painter doing so at the time. Gowing emphasizes that Vermeer’s style went above and beyond merely accumulating details. What should concern us is why he was so committed to the optical. What counts is Vermeer’s commitment to the visual experience: commonplace scenes that are somehow both radiant and persuasive depictions of reality. Gowing helpfully points out that any Vermeer investigation of life was never direct. The paintings were often established at an oblique angle. He singles out Vermeer’s “inhuman fineness of temper,” a tranquility that is quite extraordinary given that Vermeer was working with ten kids running around and the financial turmoil he had to endure.

Gowing is also very good at only drawing upon Vermeer’s biography when it is pertinent. Vermeer’s detachment and his slow output certainly hinges upon disappointments and setbacks he contended with during the last years of his life. Still, one only needs to look at Vermeer’s paintings to feel their somewhat passive but stirring view of humanity. Gowing distinguishes Vermeer from other painters by observing that “with the passivity characteristic of his thought, he accepted this part of his nature as the basis of the expressive content of his style.” Somehow Vermeer could inject his view on humanity purely through style. And somehow in this stylistic transformation, what seems passive is actually carefully rendered depth. Despite confining his paintings to two rooms, Gowing finds enough common qualities within these limitations for us to get a sense of what Vermeer was up to:

In only three of the twenty-six interiors that we have is the space between painter and sitter at all uninterrupted. In five of the others passage is considerably encumbered, in eight more the heavy objects interposed amount to something like a barrier and in the remaining ten they are veritable fortifications. It is hard to think that this preference tells us nothing about the painter’s nature. In it the whole of his dilemma is conveyed.

The book’s second part is more akin to descriptive liner notes for a must have box set and doesn’t quite match the first part’s perspicacity. But Gowing does provide several useful antecedents (such as Jan Van Bronkhorst’s The Procuress) that allow us to track Vermeer’s development as an artist. Again, because Vermeer didn’t leave much behind on his life or methods, it has been left for us to speculate on how he cultivated his exquisite style. But Gowing is too sharp a critic to be seduced by gossip and thankfully confines his findings to other paintings, showing us several paths leading us to Utrecht Caravaggism and trompe l’oeil.

I must warn you, however, that Gowing’s Vermeer, despite its ostensibly breezy length, will likely have you losing many hours studying Vermeer. What Gowing could not have foreseen is that his ruminations would be even more vital in a climate where some otherwise smart people believe that an ire-inducing and ill-considered think piece cobbled together in an hour constitutes serious thought.

Next Up: George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England!

Soir Bleu

Soir Bleu depicts a melancholic clown smoking a cigarette and sitting at a table in a French cafe. There are six other figures in the painting: a bereted man, also smoking but divided from the rest by a partition, sitting by himself at another table to the clown’s far right, a rouge-cheeked woman in a low-bodiced olive dress standing at the clown’s right who could be an early 20th century barista or another lost performer, two men (one with epaulettes pushing down his shoulders, causing his coat to curve preposterously upward, his physical back serving almost as a new chairback) who share the clown’s table but do not see him, and a well-to-do couple in evening wear seated at the clown’s left who appear faintly aware of the clown. Nobody in this tableau sees each other. They are too busy with their own oddball identities to care. Hopper’s painting is almost a darkly hilarious counterpart to Velázquez’s Las Meninas, equally unsettling in the way that it challenges the spectator to reassess his perception of the assembled players and question his humanity. With Hopper, the casual voyeurism of overhearing snippets in a sad cafe serves in lieu of painters and mirrors.

This painting served as my desktop background for many years. Until this morning. When I realized that I had been projecting my own identity into the role of the clown and hadn’t visited the cafe in a good three years. I will not tell you what new painting that I put in Hopper’s place. You would have to know me or visit my apartment to loosen the answer.

Sometimes we must make bold choices. New people enter our lives, inspiring us to rethink who we are and to become better souls. Old friends grow deeper and richer as we learn to open our hearts more to the right people. Others who wallow in the petty draw of snap judgments must be crisply dropped and privately denounced. They’re too smitten by the cafe. And who can’t love the celeste backdrop and the colorful globes dangling from above? But Hopper knew that it was a trap.

The Bat Segundo Show: Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #456. She is most recently the author of The Art of Molly Crabapple Volume 1: Week in Hell.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he can start a Kickstarter campaign for someone to send him tequila money.

Author: Molly Crabapple

Subjects Discussed: Daily walks to McNally Jackson, the logistics of setting up the Week in Hell experiment, the logistics of sneaking people and materials in a hotel, eluding maids, Philippe Petit, the similarities and differences between photographers and visual artists, conversation and dreams as inspirational forces, aerial hoops, the Internet as an idea source, prototypes of the Week in Hell experiment, the necessity of changing up artistic routine, Susan Sontag, education as a birthright vs. education as an adult, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Dick Clark’s death and those who shamed people on Twitter for not knowing who Dick Clark is, the infinite storehouse of online knowledge, the benefits of accordion players in producing art, Kim Boekbinder, how performers inspire Crabapple, drawing faceless girlthings with parasols, Crabapple’s tendency towards the curved line, Scarlett Takes Manhattan, drawing an undersea Algonquin roundtable, Alexander Woollcott, illustrating in response to current events and the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks squid, Occupy Wall Street, pigs and depraved nightclubs, the first animals Crabapple was drawn to, the allure of drawing grotesque items, allegorical pity parties, bitching about people who are more successful, a thought experiment involving Napoleon having a pity party, despair, self-pity, and depression as inspirational forces, Kay Redfield Jamison, not having down time, avoiding repeating yourself, Damien Hirst, unethical business practices, saying no to certain corporate clients, feeling bad about drawing a topless picture of Hillary Clinton for a conservative publisher out of financial desperation, the lines between the artistic and the commercial, whoring out your heart of hearts, the myth of artistic purity, Howard Roark and the Randian ideal, nude modeling, the need for expensive promotional campaigns, how a young and emerging artist who can’t do nude modeling can survive when she first starts out, retail jobs, New York as a place hostile to certain strains of art, Zoe Strauss, being declared “not a real artist” by The New York Times Book Review, Luc Sante’s Low Life, whether research bogs down art, and the value of lipstick planted upon art.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the logistics of this Week in Hell experiment. The first thing I have to say, in seeing the television covered up and in seeing the thermostat on the wall, what negotiations were there with the hotel management to actually allow this to happen?

Crabapple: Oh, we didn’t ask the hotel.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh, you didn’t? They found out while it was happening?

Crabapple: They didn’t find out at all.

Correspondent: Really?

Crabapple: This was entirely surreptitiously.

Correspondent: Wow. (laughs)

Crabapple: I will probably send them a copy of the book. The reason was that we initially wanted to do it at another hotel and we had all this money from the Kickstarter. And we were like, “Golly, mister, here’s $4,500 to do our crazy art project.” And they were like, “Oh no! You must speak with our creative directors to see if you’re in line with our creative vision.” And I thought that was bullshit. So I just dressed up like a fancy person and borrowed a Ralph Lauren suitcase to hide all those rolls of paper in.

Correspondent: Really? (laughs) It’s like a bank heist.

Crabapple: We totally ran it like a bank heist. Snuck everything in. Told the maid not to come all week.

Correspondent: Was that the 57 minutes that you spent eluding the maid, which you refer to?

Crabapple: Yes! Exactly!

Correspondent: Wow. So you actually had to plan this like a bank heist. I mean, I understand. I’ve done some of these interviews in hotels and I’m told that I can’t actually sit down with these microphones with another person. Just having a conversation. So why did you have to go ahead and do this almost like you were shooting without a film permit? What steps did you take to plan this bank heist?

Crabapple: So me and Melissa, who’s my amazing assistant.

Correspondent: Yes.

Crabapple: Who is actually the brains behind all of my harebrained ideas. We made a long list of everything that could possibly go wrong. We did everything from testing the right type of tape to hold the paper off, that wouldn’t peel off the paint, to getting the right fancy people suitcases. So we wouldn’t look all sketchy sneaking into the Gramercy Park Hotel with duffel bags.

Correspondent: Did you have any consultants say, “Hey, you actually look professional enough to pass muster with the scrupulous guards”?

Crabapple: (laughs) What was so funny was that I had this whole outfit, which can only be described as rich people’s whore.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Crabapple: It was all Alexander McQueen and Louis Vuittons and shit. And I went in and everybody is wearing sweatpants. And I was so disappointed.

Correspondent: Well, these tests about not peeling the paint off the walls. And the paper itself. The specific markers you used. I’m wondering. What were the logistics here? I’m really curious.

Crabapple: The paper and markers?

Correspondent: Yeah. How many types of paper did you have to go through?

Crabapple: We didn’t go through types of paper. Because I got that sponsored.

Correspondent: Okay.

Crabapple: It was more — Melissa’s whole wall was covered with different strands of paper being held up with different types of tape.

Correspondent: Fantastic. What other logistics were needed aside from this? Anything else that you’re missing?

Crabapple: We had tons and tons of friends sneaking in the entire week and we found a back staircase for them to sneak up. Because we didn’t — I mean, especially when we had the wild closing party.

Correspondent: This is like Philippe Petit walking across the World Trade Center. How he had friends gradually get all the supplies up over the course of several weeks in advance. Was it similar here?

Crabapple: It was kind of like that. I even had one of my friends go into the hotel, looking super-sketchy so that he could see how much scrutiny he would get.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh really? Did you have any input into his skeeziness?

Crabapple: No, we just went with his natural dress.

Correspondent: Oh, I see. I got it. Now for many of the visitors who came into this hotel room during this week, I’m wondering if you asked permission to draw them. I mean, this raises an interesting question for me. Because you have one particular drawing that’s part of this elaborate project where you have the photographers, who are drawn like lizards to your friend. Because they’re ogling her with their cameras. And so I’m wondering. This made me think. How much is any artist, who illustrates or sketches or paints, different from, say, a photographer of any stripe? What are your thoughts on this? And what are your thoughts in terms of drawing people at will who happen to come into the room? Or was that the agreement for anyone who came through the room?

Crabapple: Well, people usually want to be drawn by me. But that’s actually an awesome question. I’ve always thought that the instinct of the photographer and the visual artist are very similar — in that we’re generally twitchy weirdos who want to hang out with the cool people and we use our camera or our sketchpad as a way to kind of bribe the cool people to hang out with us. But the thing is that photography has become so ubiquitous that people don’t feel impressed anymore by having their picture taken. And, in fact, it can become like really grabby and soul-stealing. Like — I used to march a lot at the [Coney Island] Mermaid Day Parade and sometimes there would be such a crush of photographers — like yelling at you how to pose and demanding that you arch your back this way or demanding that you look at them — that it wasn’t a fun thing at all. Whereas most people only get drawn a few times in their life. So it still has a novelty to it. And I’ve always kind of used my sketchpad as this key to sneak into scenes where I really didn’t belong.

Correspondent: But stealing another person’s soul. It seems to me that you’ve always been very conscious about this. Even from the Dr. Sketchy stuff. So my question is: how do we return the balance so that the person who is photographed or the person who is drawn actually feels comfortable and doesn’t feel as if she has her soul stolen through the process of art?

Crabapple: Well, with me, what I always try to do is I always try and capture the person’s personality, as well as just how hot they look. Like when I did the picture of Stoya on that door, I’m talking to her. And I do like her beautiful, beautiful, perfect, mathematically perfect face. Then I also — since I’m friends with her, I draw her making her own costumes — she’s a brilliant costumer — and on her aerial hoop. And then I talk with her. And she complains about obnoxious photographers. And so I draw them swarming around her.

Correspondent: So much of the input came from what she was telling you. As you were actually drawing her.

Crabapple: Exactly. It was just as much a portrait of our conversation.

Correspondent: In terms of the hoop, that was based off of memory. Did you have any source material for that?

Crabapple: That was based off of memory. I’ve seen a lot of aerialists in my time.

Correspondent: You note that you were drawing the top of the wall at the very beginning of this. So that you would have some inspiration for your dreams. And it seems to me that between that and the influx of stories that you had plenty of inspiration. This leads me to ask, well, what do you do if you run out of ideas to sketch during this situation?

Crabapple: I asked the Internet. I had a livestream going along. And my livestream audience would be saying, “Draw hippos on the moon! Draw undersea Algonquin round table!” And I would put that in if I was running out of inspiration.

Correspondent: So did you feel that sometimes the list of suggestions was too intrusive a presence? Or there were a lot of bad ideas sifting through this? Were you playing Beat the Clock because you had only a week to cover this entire surface?

Crabapple: There was a certain amount of Beat the Clock going on. I drew pretty much every waking hour. Like in the back of all my glamorous friends partying, there was usually me standing up on top of a shelf frantically sketching things.

Correspondent: Really? Well, were there any trial runs of you sketching things? Like say in your bathroom for half a day? Or anything like that?

Crabapple: I was at Stumptown Comics Festival. They had me as a guest. And I didn’t want to sit behind a table and sign things. Because I don’t know. I felt like I was at a craft fair or something. So instead I was like, “Why don’t you just hang up a giant piece of paper where my table would be and I’ll just draw on it over the course of the convention”? And I did a six foot by six foot drawing.

Correspondent: So that was the trial run.

Crabapple: That was where I got the idea.

Correspondent: Were there any other runs before that? Maybe three by three?

Crabapple: (laughs) That’s just my career.

Correspondent: Exactly. So what do you need often to keep your routine changed up? I mean, you suggested that this was the end of a particular period in your life. It was sort of your renouncement of pen and ink. How often do you need to change things up in order to stay fresh as an artist? I’m curious. Do you anticipate the next move? Does it come organically? Do you just do it and it becomes ambitious by default?

Crabapple: I’m not a very thoughtful person. And I’m incapable of thinking in Five Year Plans. And also I’m kind of young. So I don’t really know — like I just don’t have that many periods in my work. I don’t know. I was in this deep fucked up almost clinical depression when I was 27. And I don’t know why. My brain was just wonky. And I needed to do something to do violence to all of this stuff in my art that I was tired of. And this was how I did it. And I’m sure I’ll need to do it again. But I don’t know when or how.

The Bat Segundo Show #456: Molly Crabapple (Download MP3)

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Don’t Give Up

It is a late hour, or, rather, an early one. But then it’s possible that the hour I am writing this post matters very little to you. Nevertheless, I announce my temporal bearings not to recuse myself, but to put this post into some kind of perspective. I am now pondering a future without the delightful band, Blah Blah Blah, who recently announced on their MySpace page that they had given up. I’m saddened by this news. I am now very worried about all the other artists out there who are now considering giving it all up. I am concerned about a world in which anyone who beats their drum just a tad too fast or plucks their guitar just a tad too originally for the marketing people to understand throws in the towel.

Well, I am urging you not to give it up. Yes, times are tough for all of us. But it is very important for you to go on. To work in some form. Even without compensation, if that’s all there is for a time. Even if you only half understand what it is you’re all about. Even if you’re not quite sure what your work amounts to. Even if nobody gives a good goddam about how hard you’ve toiled over your sentences, or how difficult it was for you to insert that subtle chord change in that song you uploaded somewhere that only five of your friends listened to. All this is work. It’s supposed to be difficult. But it becomes even more difficult once you realize you’re living in a society hostile to nearly anybody who decides to live this kind of life.

Being an “overnight success” is a myth. The ones who made it did so because they were stubborn, hopelessly devoted to what they could offer the world. They carried on and became better at their craft. Some of them didn’t even know it. Most of them were misunderstood.

Understand that I am not advocating mediocrity. I am merely telling the truth. The market is not interested in taking chances on anyone who deviates from the formula. The market is hedging bets with the veterans, no matter if they are washed up. There are a few coins to be loosened from the sofa, but it takes some skill to survive on those coins. The true artists will find a way to carry on, because that is what they are and that is what they’ve been reduced to. This is the unwavering itching at the bottom of the artistic soul. Scratch it at your own peril. You’ll know if you can’t stop scratching. And if you have even a scant success, you’ll certainly appreciate it more than the dilettantes.

Similiveritude

The scholar and the world! The endless strife,
The discord in the harmonies of life!
The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books;
The market-place, the eager love of gain,
Whose aim is vanity, and whose end is pain!

— Longfellow, “Morituri Salutamus”

There exists a maximum amount of prearranged information, cultural reconfiguration, and other artistic offerings that one can ingest before it becomes necessary to splash bracing water upon one’s face (or, to take this idea further, to permit dollops of grease to crease one’s cheeks because of a self-administered oil change in one’s figurative vehicle). This is where the frequently overlooked human experience comes into play. By venturing outside one’s domicile or spending time with other humans commonly referred to as “friends” (as they are specified in the parlance of our time), or by participating in intimate activities that involve getting out of the house because the windows have fogged up and nobody wants to talk about the pleasant musky odor known to cause roommates to scurry, one can encounter a new sheath of information or perhaps a sequence of events that is not as neatly contrived or as conveniently cross-referenced as the hallowed narrative construct. The real world is refreshingly anarchic and, depending upon your degree of involvement, can prove to be more interesting than the cultural item that purports to represent it.

It is for these reasons, among many, that books which cannot live up to life must be thrown across the room. It is for these reasons, among many, that one should strive to emerge beyond the house, speak on the phone, meet up for coffee with deranged but amicable individuals, chat up strangers, and otherwise own up to one’s responsibility to live, lest one takes the hypothetical hurling of the book across the room too seriously. (It is a mere parabolic flourish, but a pugilistic passion not to be entirely discounted!)

We speak of verisimilitude, but we don’t speak so often of its dreaded cousin, similiveritude. And if you don’t know what similiveritude is, it is not because I have coined the word. (As it so happens, I am not the originator. At the risk of adopting Googleveritude, another nonsense noun unfound through Googling, one encounters only two search terms for “similiveritude.” Some gentleman named Felix appears to be the first to bandy this about. So I’ll give Felix the proper plaudits — congrats, Felix! you were the one! can I have your baby? — and carry on with this febrile exegesis.)

You could very well be a simiiveritudinist, but you may not know it. And if you still don’t know what this word is, well, then you haven’t been paying attention to all the phonies and the charlatans laboring at “art” who refuse to admit that they have no real understanding of the world they live in, much less an emotional relationship to it. It is quite possible that they may capable practitioners of verisimilitudinous art, but this intuitive connection may very well be dwarfed by academia’s rotten institutional walls.

For the similiveritudinist, life must not only reflect art. Art is the very life itself! The similiveritudinist gravitates to an artistic representation in lieu of a stunning natural moment. He may attend an artistic function, hoping that it will fill in certain ontological vacuities from not thinking about or otherwise ignoring the world. The similiveritudinists talk with others, but the conversational topics are limited mostly to art. My empirical state has revealed that similiveritudinists are found in greater frequency in New York than in San Francisco. Similiveritudinists may be socially maladjusted, apolitical, asexual, or otherwise fond of keeping their noggins lodged inconsolably in the sand. Understand that there is no set formula here aside from highly specialized chatter. They may create callow games like “Name That Author” and they may put up photos on their websites of otherwise pleasant individuals who appear more bored than a silo stacked with accountants on the eve of the apocalypse. They may spend all their time occupying movie theaters — and I have seen more than a few etiolated souls who live for the New York Film Festival’s darkness over the past few weeks — but they cannot confess that they have enjoyed something, nor can they be authentic, stand apart, or otherwise inhabit the variegated identity within. They may indeed be employed primarily as critics, lacking the heart, the soul, the tenacity, or the talent to make a strike for the creative mother lode. The pursuit of art is, in the similiveritudinist’s mind, always a serious business. The worst of the similiveritudinists will thumb their noses at genre, popular art, or anything sufficiently “lower.” (This works, incidentally, both ways.) They believe that art, serving here as a surrogate plasma, must always be high, and that anything that falls beneath these cherished standards should be disregarded. They have perhaps inured themselves to the pleasures of a commonplace flagrance or the joys of a small child laughing as a sun sets over the playground. Joie de vivre? Try joie de livre! The similiveritudinist’s vivre, scant as it may be, is likely to be the hell of other people.

If you’re thinking that my wild ruminations here emerge in response to Horace Engdahl’s remarks concerning the current state of American literature, well, your hunch is partially correct. Michael Orthofer, a gentleman and a scholar, has already exoriated Mr. Engdahl quite nicely (as well as Adam Kirsch’s equally myopic remarks, which are perhaps a tad more pardonable because Mr. Kirsch is now out of a job and must now consort with the rabble, surviving hand-to-mouth like any other cultural freelance writer; which can’t be easy, because I suspect that many of us live more frugally and enthusiastically, and certainly less similiveritudinously, than Mr. Kirsch). So my specific reaction to Mr. Engdahl’s words isn’t quite necessary. Mr. Orthofer has already gone to town here. But I suspect that Mr. Engdahl and I might share a few grave concerns over the similiveritudinists who have invaded American literature. The crux of his criticisms suggest very highly that he may be an asshole, but he is thankfully not a similiveritudinist.

To live for culture is not enough. Culture is no replacement for the real thing. It is a helpful prism with which to find and divine certain meanings, but it is only one great piece of the living puzzle. And Mr. Engdahl is quite right to suggest that certain literary clusters within the United States have become too isolated and too insular. Did Jonathan Franzen read any other emerging author aside from the tepid name he picked from his middlebrow hat when he was asked to name his 5 Under 35 choice? We’ll never know, but his choice, which discounts the dozens of emerging voices who currently write for life and passion, is clearly that of a similiveritudinist. Likewise, David Remnick has been foolish enough to suggest that none of our celebrated writers are “ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola.” This is clearly the remark of a tony avocet too terrified to leave his golden perch. A casual saunter through any three city blocks reveals this ruddy symbol of the beast, the hellish mire of advertising that threatens to subsume all human moments. Has Remnick’s annual $1 million salary prevented him perhaps from, say, properly understanding what it is like to live under $30,000 a year? Or to work two jobs? Or to toil in the service sector?

If you do not know why you must tip a waiter in cash, but you can cite pitch-perfect passages from Milton, you are a similiveritudinist. If you do not know the price of a package of hamburger buns, but you’re not keeping track of how much you are blowing at Amazon, you are a similiveritudinist. If you have not skipped a meal so that another mouth can be fed, but you can describe the precise cordial to go along with a slice of pecan fig bourbon cake, you are a similiveritudinist.

Similiveritude represents everything that is wrong with American literature. Not all American literature falls under its terrible influence, and there are many literary advocates who understand its proper secondary place. To cure a similiveritudinist, you must ensure that this reader doesn’t just have a clue, but maintains an open and genuine curiosity about everything. To listen to a stranger because you are interested. To view the book as something that may be real in feeling but unreal in execution. To accept that something crazy, whether it be an elaborate series of footnotes or a moment of magical realism, is meant to happen in a book from time to time because the book is not real. More important than a critical scalpel hoping to be absolute in its appraisal is the idea of whether or not the book is applicable to the human heart, and whether or not this applicability feels intuitively true. From here, reasons and justifications can be loosened, with enough wiggle room to involve the reader.

Last month, Nigel Beale saw fit to tsk-tsk me because I had enjoyed a story involving an unhappy housewife having an affair with a 1,000-year-old woodpecker, and it had provoked an emotional reaction in me. It goes without saying that woodpeckers do not live this long and that most lonely housewives would settle for a Hitachi Magic Wand over a cuckolding canary. But the point here is that Mr. Beale, despite being a good egg, could not get beyond his own personal definitions of literature. And I fear that Mr. Beale might dip into the similiveritudinous deep end of the great literary pool because of his inability to (a) read the story to see what I’m talking about or (b) consider the story on its own terms, despite the unconventional sexuality presented. It is not a matter of Mr. Beale liking or disliking the story. That is his choice. But it is the instant dismissal of the story, and the dismissal of my reaction, that is the issue here. It would be no different if I were to dismiss a reader for, say, enjoying a James Patterson book. Now personally I loathe James Patterson’s work. But a reader has the right to have an informed reaction, even a positive one, and we have the obligation to listen to that reader’s reaction before chiming in with our own. Because there might be some intriguing personal reason for why someone prefers the story with the woodpecker or the James Patterson novel that represents a peculiar commitment to life.

Of course, abandoning similiveritude or listening to the other’s viewpoint doesn’t mean abandoning one’s artistic faculties. It merely means placing a particular way of living first: keeping an open mind and ensuring that the careful intake of culture remains a thorough but secondary occupation. What I am calling for here, quite optimistically, are more Renaissance men to inhabit a society in which there are no limits or barricades to one’s curiosity, a nation that counters charges of insularity with limitless interest, a country that can make Mr. Engdahl’s half-true claims utterly fallacious. It starts with the end of similiveritude. It continues with a series of upturned ears. It ends with an army of pro-active thinkers who value life first.