In Defense of the Ambitious Living, Or Why Wasserman is an Ass

On yesterday’s Radio Open Source show, Steve Wasserman (the former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review) said the following:

The best reading experience is to occupy your time with the worthy dead rather than the ambitious living.

So if I am to understand the Wasserman logic correctly:

If you’re Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, or Nadeem Aslam — if you’re an author hoping to break outside of the so-called “fun and fast-paced” mould (a descriptive phrase that is perhaps better applied to a rollercoaster or a mercy fuck), sorry, kids! No consolation prize for you! You’re too ambitious, too “dense” and too challenging for today’s readers. You say you’ve got a novel that breaks outside the middle-aged, upper middle-class Caucasian male midlife crisis mode? Tough shit, honey. Because the publishing marketplace is all about the next Harry Potter or Dan Brown — or the next book you can wolf down in one evening. And even then, you’re no better than anyone else until the maggots are on you like a Las Vegas buffet, and some member of the hoary-haired literati offers the obligatory reconsideration article for Harper’s. And that’s assuming you can beat the odds and turn out a steady body of work.

It’s small wonder that with this kind of fey dichotomy, which must pass in Wasserman’s microcephalic headspace as sine qua non wit, the LATBR turned into a travesty and left Wasserman storming out of the gate. What right does Wasserman have to talk about ambition, when his very capitulation demosntrated how unwilling he was to compromise with top brass and maintain some semblance of a weekly book review section? His very actions proved to the world that he was anything but ambitious. This was a man who refused to fight, or grew tired of fighting, or just wanted a more comfortable role than the buffer between his audience and the men behind the curtain.

But never mind this.

Wasserman’s statement is preposterous because the very form of the novel has evolved precisely because of efforts from the ambitious living. Readers have long supped upon the fruits of ambition and writers themsleves have developed as a result of it. If we go back to the eighteenth century, a period in which the novel developed as a seminal art form, we find Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) as the first novel that attempted to merge a narrative with manners and a widely influential epistolary novel. It proved to be both controversial (because of its voyeurism and sentimentalism) and a bestseller — you might call it The Da Vinci Code of its day. But its very ambition not only spawned imitators hoping to cash in, but Henry Fielding’s parodies Shamela and The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews. Fielding’s approach in these novels went beyond mere satire. His very ambition turned Joseph Andrews in a vibrant character and, in turn, led him to write The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743), an ironic high point that was also a merciless attack on Walpole, and of course his masterpiece Tom Jones.

Or if that’s not enough, consider the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald upon Ernest Hemingway. It would be difficult to argue that Fitzgerald, a man who could never within a then colossal $25,000 income, was anything less than ambitious. And it was Fitzgerald who gave pivotal input on The Sun Also Rises just before it was sent out to Maxwell Perkins. And given The Sun Also Rises‘ influence upon prose and modern behavior, introducing Paris and Pampolona in such a vivid way to millions of readers at the time. Would these audiences have experienced nearly the same locales had they frittered their time with the “worthy dead?” Or had not Fitzgerald’s ambition coaxed Hemingway to cut a chapter and a half (one of the more substantial changes in the book)?

If Wasserman genuinely believes that a night spent imbibing some dead Caucasian is the apex of reading achievement, then that’s his business. But no matter how far back you go, even these dead souls were inspired by the ambitions of their living peers. Competition was perhaps one motivation, but encouragement from people who gave a damn about literature (whether writers, editors, or audiences) was another. The point is that these authors cared enough to offer their very best, to sustain an environment where literature evolves, and to in turn inspire other authors and readers alike.

In Wasserman’s case, to discount ambition and influence with such a vapid statement, to appear contrarian through an unsuccessful bon mot that makes little sense and is not qualifiable, is not only contrary to the purpose of literature, but it’s ass-backwards when considering how people experience literature.

Because of this, I thank the heavens that this cuckoo is no longer editing a book review section for a major newspaper.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *