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Rhymes with Judd Hirsch

It did not take long for American literary critics to rise to the bait. The real scandal of Adam Kirsch’s comments is not that they revealed a secret bias for insularity on the part of The Adam Kirsch Committee. It is that Adam Kirsch made official what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention: The Adam Kirsch Committee, composed of two members (Kirsch and his ego), has no clue or interest in genre or anything outside of recondite realist literature, no awareness of any writer taking real literary chances, a dismissive interest, at best, with books that challenge conventional notions, and an almost total inability to follow John Updike’s first rule of reviewing. Kirsch should respond not by imploring his editors to have him write more boring and lifeless reviews, but by seceding, once and for all, from the sham that American book reviewing has become.

When Kirsch accuses the American literary community of being raw and backward, and the Nobel committee from selecting writers who “fit all too comfortably on junior-high-school reading lists,” he is failing to live up to an inclusive enlightenment that goes back practically to the Revolutionary War. It was more than 200 years ago that Sydney Smith, the English wit (also a reverend), famously wrote in Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy: “Have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.” Not only does Mr. Kirsch lack that courage, but he fails to cite specifics on the fallacies of these “almost folk writers.” And he uses remarkable generalizations to suggest that these writers reflected the image of America that Europe wanted to see. On the contrary, Paris welcomed such radical American writers as Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, and James Baldwin into its fold. In 2001, Philip Roth won the Czech-based Franz Kafka Prize. Richard Powers, Donna Tartt, and Roth have all won the UK-based WH Smith Literary Award in the last decade. Indeed, the Right Livelihood Award — the so-called “alternative Nobel” — handed out an award to an American this year. To judge by these developments, you would think that Kirsch simply hasn’t been paying attention to the last ten years of American-European cultural relations.

But that, of course, is exactly the problem with Adam Kirsch. As long as the Nobel mess could still be mined for a straw man — as long as a sour critic like Kirsch had to leave the New York Sun for the online pastures of Slate in order to become a legend in his own mind — it was easy to make these generalizations and fall into the same trap as Horace Engdahl. And now that the Nobel Literature Prize has been handed out to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, and some Americans are scrambling to find out who he is, Kirsch can perform his happy little dance of how he knew this French writer all along.

I fully confess that I have not read a single word that Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio has written. I am ignorant, and am happy to fill in the gap. And I confess my ignorance here to avoid Kirsch’s greater calamity and his almost total absence of courage.

Entertainment, Not Literature

Two Blowhards has a very interesting post up about the differences between book people and movie people. The book world’s inability to appreciate or understand the craftsmanship of writing a popular novel is what continues to keep John P. Marquand’s name (for one) from being celebrated as a great writer. As I’ve said more than once, Marquand, winner of the Pulitzer in 1937, is , for the most part, out-of-print today. His books, which offered a grand mix of satire and entertainment, were extremely popular during his time and still hold up well today in their careful observations of middle-class life.

But because Marquand could not find universal acceptance among critics who were quick to condemn him because he was a solid storyteller, because he dared to put his name on the popular Mr. Moto books rather than hide behind a Starkian non de plume, if you find his paperbacks at all, you’ll find them housed within trashy covers that make Marquand come off as a sensationalist (“One woman’s climb to the top!”), which undervalue his abilities as a stylist or a satirist. Or you’ll find the covers for the later books, which desperately try to plug Marquand as the greatest American novelist since Sinclair Lewis. And who wants to fall prey to that kind of marketing? For later generations who know nothing of Marquand, this paperback cover Lamarckism has pretty much killed Marquand’s shot at surviving the fray or being remembered. It was only the Pulitzer and the resultant curiosity about The Late George Apley‘s narrative structure that drew me to the book and allowed me to discover him. Otherwise, I might never have heard of the guy. And yet how often are we attracted to a ribald movie poster or a DVD cover that isn’t too far removed from Harlequin romances?

How many of us are willing to enjoy a well-made monster movie like The Thing from Another World or even a not-so-well-made monster movie like The Blob? We have no problem intellectualizing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines or even the three Matrices, which are, let’s face it, enjoyable crap. But confess that you like even a handful of Stephen Kings (full confession: I like King) or that you liked Elmore Leonard’s novels more than Salman Rushdie’s post-Satanic Verses work to a roomful of literary snobs and you’ll either be led to the door or dismissed as a hopeless case. John Updike declared Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full as “entertainment, not literature.” But as far as I’m concerned, A Man in Full or Bonfire of the Vanities are gripping reads laced with honed prose and careful observations. I would kill to have had the skills to write either of these. But I have known intelligent people to put these labels aside and enjoy half-baked crap like Zoolander or the last two Austin Powers movies.

Where Howard Hawks can be extolled beyond measure as a consummate artist of grand entertainment, years after Rio Bravo was panned on its release, by the same measure, Marquand still falls by the wayside in the book world. While the auteur theory can be applied across the board to an artist like Stanley Kubrick and an entertainment-oriented director like Michael Curtiz, in the medium guided more explicitly by “one voice,” the auteur is doomed upon even a casual embrace of the page-turner.