Is the Best Good Enough?

REFLECTIONS ON A NEW NOVEL

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A NEW NOVEL has appeared from one of mainstream publishing’s best authors– The Queen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss. Strauss is a traditional novelist who specializes in imaginative historical fiction about celebrities or curiosities from past eras. His newest book covers the rise and life of classic television personality Lucille Ball– with an intermittent relationship between Ms. Ball and Strauss’s grandfather(!)– part real and part imagined– mixed in.

How capable a writer is Darin Strauss? His last book, a memoir, won a National Book Critics Circle award. The Queen of Tuesday has received rave reviews from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, and many other outlets.

The Queen of Tuesday is about the creation of celebrity. Darin Strauss well captures the personality of the type. More, in the novel he’s tuned-in to celebrity culture, its glitz and hype– and by extension, to America itself. Celebrity is America.

An early scene–

THE BIRDS ABOVE Ocean Beach see the drum-shaped premiere lights slide glamour beams along the clouds. The birds see—with a clapped paper bag sound of wings passing—a giant steel-and-glass pavilion, all a-sparkle. The birds see Ziegfeld girls, restaurateurs, a late-arriving Broadway impresario exiting his pleasure sedan. That wind picks up, goosebumping eight hundred arms. The birds see pinups, radio luminaries, heartthrob clarinetists. They see the covetous attractive charmers who take root in the soil around celebrities. (These are the career fawners—the money-takers.) They see Bing Crosby in the flesh. And Ted Mack. And Mary Martin holding Vic Damone’s thick arm. They see clothes as a standard and elegant repression. They see the boardwalk as a splinter that pokes the beach in the eye.

1950’s glamour jumps from the page.

Lucille Ball’s career from failed Hollywood starlet to television phenom and production company owner is the quintessential American success story, more remarkable because Lucy did it in an era when women weren’t supposed to be in charge of a major company. When women were seldom seen at all in upper levels of the aggressively sexist three-martini corporate world of that era.

Strauss portrays the relentless hype of those times (with a Trump thrown in) and he captures the period’s Technicolor vibe. 

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It’s a fine novel. Darin Strauss is one of a cohort of hyper-competent authors deployed by publishing’s Big Five. Those who represent not mere temporary Sally Rooney trendiness, but the ability to produce well-crafted fiction seemingly at whim. Beautifully-crafted novels with gorgeous covers. Fit for display at the front of bookstores, so that publishers, editors, agents, the entire panoply of New York publishing can look at them and be well pleased with what they’re producing. Like a General Motors viewing an array of models at a dealership lot. No one could possibly produce a better literary product. No one could write a better book. On their own terms, these statements are completely true.

AND YET– ?

And yet– what’s wrong with this picture? If Darin Strauss isn’t the best contemporary American novelist, he’s near the top. His new novel is colorful and lively compared to those of his peers (from a Sally Rooney to a Jonathan Franzen). It displays every talent– yet, that Darin Strauss himself isn’t a celebrity, on a level which a Herman Wouk or Irwin Shaw reached in their day, says a lot not about Darin Strauss so much as the current literary system itself, and its place in society.

IN the 1950’s, the decade when Lucille Ball was achieving her fame, hyper-competent novelists like a Wouk or Shaw, a Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer or Ayn Rand or John Steinbeck (not to mention Hemingway) were themselves celebrities. Well-known public figures with large cultural footprints.

Today, for the greater American public, not even a Jonathan Franzen or Sally Rooney is a recognizable name– much less a face that would be recognized on the street.

WHAT HAPPENED?

One could write a book on what happened and be wrong in the analysis. But at some point it’s a failure of PR and marketing– has to be. Strauss’s publisher, Random House– the best out there– does everything by the book. It might be the same book from the 1950’s, and even if it’s not it’s time to change it. 

(Though like General Motors with their internal combustion vehicles, the products all look wonderful on display, and run/read well, so why change anything?)

THE NEED FOR CHANGE

Another factor, in this commentator’s opinion, is the need in any business, art, or cultural activity for change. To offer something new. There hasn’t been anything new in the literary realm since the Beats– who came to prominence at the same time Lucille Ball dominated the TV airwaves.

The template for the novel currently in use might be the best possible. No one using it would dream of smashing it for something way more unpredictable, crude, and unwieldy. Yet like 19th century artists destroying the status quo template of the painting, such destruction might be the only way to offer a fresh artistic experience– a different way of viewing the world– than currently available.

We’ll see.

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-Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit NEWS

Literary Lynch Mob Locates Another Villain

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WORD today is that Ian Buruma is out as editor of New York Review of Books after fallout from his allowing accused sexual batterer Jian Ghomeshi to write a mea culpa complaint for the publication. Some past accusers like Jesse Brown counter-complained  that Ghomeshi’s essay was filled with “inaccuracies, omissions, evasions, and mischaracterizations.” Other literary persons and activists were outraged simply that Ghomeshi’s name appeared in anything.

Ghomeshi, yes, gave his viewpoint. Distorted? Probably. Surely fair game for attack and debate.

BUT– that wasn’t enough for these hysterical times. For the mob, Ghomeshi and anyone who enables him– though he was already judged by the legal system– needs to be obliterated.

New York Review of Books was founded under questionable circumstances during a newspaper strike with Random House money. Yet, over the decades it’s had quite the glamorous history. Has been contentious, and to this commentator’s knowledge has never before caved under pressure– at least not so immediately.

SOME OBSERVATIONS:

-WRITERS themselves seem to be leading the literary lynch mob, which conjures up images of approved apparatchik scribblers during the halcyon days of the Soviet Union.

-WHETHER Ian Buruma resigned or was fired, someone at NYR of B caved into mob pressure all too quickly. Another blow to the integrity and independence of literary magazines.

-THIS is another in the ongoing castration of classically macho establishment literary publications. (See Paris Review.)

WHO’S NEXT?
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

The Wise Men

American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

Who steered the direction of American literature after World War II?

Editors like George Plimpton, Robie Macauley, Reed Whittemore, Robert Silvers, and William Phillips. Men on a mission who, as much as they professed no artistic ideology, very much pushed an artistic ideology. They’d been formed by various factors, whether by privilege, or the war, or by disillusion with Communism. By 1950 all were Wilsonians out to save the world by making it “Safe for Democracy”– their own special internationalist version of democracy.

Literature was their tool– they fully believed in the importance of the art. Paris Review (like Encounter magazine in the UK) was founded as a cultural ambassador for Anglo-American liberal ideals– presenting an intellectual alternative to the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and Communism. Liberal Cold Warriors, these editors disdained– or had rejected– the populism of the American past. John Steinbeck and his kind were out. Henry James as the ideal cosmopolitan author was in.

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For our cultural aristocrats, literature, to be safe, must never engage too strongly in ideas. As an editor at New York Review of Books told me in a note in the late 1990’s, characters must never serve as mouthpieces for ideas. George Plimpton told me essentially the same thing on the one occasion I met him, at a literary debate held at CBGB’s in 2001. To these people, burdened– as they saw it– with the task of preserving literature, a broad view of the world was considered dangerous. An Ayn Rand or Frank Norris wrote beyond their well-regulated lines.

Focus moved instead to the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeois self. American literature became gnostic: insular and solipsistic. Cleansed, nuanced, refined; denuded of its loud voice but also much of its energy. For prose: John Updike. For poetry: John Ashbery.  Aesthetics was not the only weapon. No longer could a writer appear off the street like Thomas Wolfe or Jack London and be taken seriously. Writing programs and markers of breeding ensured all who entered the Halls of Approval were thoroughly screened.

Did these men and their journals have influence? Tremendous influence. They understood the concept of leverage; that a publication with a readership of 10,000 could determine who did or did not receive a large book contract– chiefly because that small readership was powerful and elite.

The change in aesthetic direction made the wise men– as well as their sources of money– very happy. Literature came under the control not of the unpredictable American people, but of themselves. The Elect.
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American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

The thing to know about these men and their journals is that the faces they showed the world were misleading. George Plimpton was a smiling bon-vivant but also much more than that. The notion that he didn’t know the source of Paris Review‘s original funding is an absurdity.

Likewise, New York Review of Books, founded by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, postured for a long while as a radical Leftist publication– yet it was started with Random House money during a New York newspaper strike as a way for the giant book companies to advertise their new releases. It’s always been an extension of New York-based Big Corporate Publishing. Sophisticated PR for them, one might say.

In the New York literary world, nothing is ever as it seems.