Sent: Friday, December 7, 2018 5:47 PM
Subject: M & N
Subject: M & N
Much great writing on your blog over these past few months, thanks. It was uncanny, but yesterday I was actually looking for The Last Samurai in the stacks of one of the larger libraries here. Not only did that branch not have it, but it’s not even stocked in the entire network from Boca Raton to Miami (the supposed liberal corridor in this wretchedly disorganized state – I don’t know if you noticed it in Germany, but Florida fucked up another election last month).
Curious why not, I got home and there found your “Notes for a possibly facetiously arch book review.” It was perceptive and hilarious (as usual). I’m pretty sure you nailed it as to its ultimate value. I tried reading Wood’s novel, when I returned home to Lexington, MA recently for the holiday – and you nailed that one, too. It was hard not to have your thoughts in mind when I read it (only up to about page 50 – I couldn’t take it anymore); its mediocrity was evident from the opening chapter. I am genuinely shocked that this is the best he could do. I thought that for someone whose writing mode is essentially moral, there had to be a large vision backing it up. Nope. He turns out to be the worst kind of writer imaginable, one that’s judgmental on the small scale, for his own private reasons. And all that talk from him about the importance of stakes in a novel! His in Upstate couldn’t be any lower! So thanks – the desire is gone for The Last Samurai. She sounds like the American novel’s version of Anne Carson for poetry… just with a lot less grants and funding. Arcane knowledge for the few, unacknowledged female genius on the sly etc etc.
You continue to surprise me. I thought you might have had a taste for those like DeWitt (idea-heavy, plotless books) but apparently not. Likewise, your thoughts on immaturity among the adults. Bill Maher took a lot of crap recently for questioning adults who read comic books. He argued against it along the same lines. The Chabons, the Lethems, the Whiteheads, all the comic book boys couldn’t interest me less for this very reason. A lack of maturity is mirrored by their facile approach to history, I feel, which ought to be as subtle as great literature, no? Lastly, you’ve showed a bit of your sentimental side these past few essays. I think that’s good. Don’t let style overwhelm your sense for decency, justice; these are just as well expressed in a simpler style.
M’s reaction to N’s murder in Bali doesn’t surprise me. Did the two know each other well? Were they in competition for you? If so, I have seen plenty of examples myself; M’s reaction is fairly typical when it comes to female territoriality.
Your story on your father was fascinating. Equally fascinating was how you refrain from drawing a conclusive (or judgmental) portrait of him. As a type he’s well familiar, but I don’t see you condemning him (which is refreshing), probably because you’ve tried to keep in balance your mother’s perspective too? One of the greatest gifts my mother gave me was not to force an Egyptian identity on me, mainly because it wasn’t that important to her either (as opposed to wanting to be a decent mother). I think her philosophy was/is you have to live/adapt to the culture you’re in. I look at everyone who appears intellectually crippled by the burdens of their cultures, a sense of responsibility toward their past, and feel fortunate that through her Catholicism (which wasn’t strict at all) she taught me a love for humanity over culture.
I think for that reason I have a much more optimistic outlook on race relations than you have. I know that you absolutely loathe professional sports, but I think locker rooms like this one from last weekend show the real America outside of all the habitual race baiting left and right: no one sees skin color when there’s a common purpose, a brotherhood you can commit to and count on:
Have you read the following essay on Norman Podhoretz, literary culture and the creation of value? It’s outstanding criticism, by a young writer named Frank Guan who I might have mentioned to you before:
It’ll probably be old hat to you, but it’s an important piece, because it looks forward to the day when enforced diversity won’t rule literary culture, at least through the minds of the writers themselves when they write. It’s a brave piece, because he takes on the Jewish influence on literary culture, which still defines the game in New York’s cultural environment. (He’s pretty much perpetuating the stereotype that Jews know how to play the game – I’m surprised the piece got by the censors.) Guan is Asian-American, and, he doesn’t make it explicit, but it looks to me like he’s trying to create a space where the next generation of Asian-American writers won’t fall into the same trap. Podhoretz is by no means a great writer, and for that reason he is a representative one: you can see how he worked the system to advantage (not unlike the many old lit-bloggers did, though all of them much less talented. Poor Mark Sarvas, poor Maud Newton, poor Ed Champion!)
Your beef with Jeffy, to which he was completely blind, had to do with postwar American influence; CIA funded culture; the spread of American values globally. I think you and me share a hypercritical attitude toward writers our age, and in one sense it looks ungenerous, self-important, reactionary, perhaps. But could it be that we see through all the bullshit? That the Updikes, Delillos, Wallaces are all inextricably bound to American influence, even if – especially if – the appeal of those like DFW are completely incomprehensible to your common reader in Japan (for instance). I think Guan sees this, and doesn’t want Asian-Americans chasing the funding available to them. Well, good luck with that. The vulgarity of the Asian-American experience is already out in full force (Crazy Rich Asians, for starters).
Guan has had a spat with Wesley Yang along these lines. Yang is anti-identity politics, finds value in Jordan Peterson, tries to strike an independent stance within the culture war maelstrom while holding a prominent position in New Yorker culture… and yet he can’t help perpetuate Asian-American stereotypes. That’s Guan’s main critique of him; Yang holds a weak liberalism encouraged by those who lost the last presidential election in comically inept ways. There is no Asian-American culture to speak of, when compared to black or Jewish cultures, within America. That’s why I think his critique of Yang (and all the others of that stripe) is very interesting. I also have the feeling he’s isolated; no one is listening to him.
Guan wrote a harsh review of Yang’s recent book. Yang responded to Guan in an interview, though not by name. To that Guan wrote the following. It’s on Twitter; though Guan doesn’t name Yang I’m pretty sure it’s aimed at him:
You’ve had ten years’ access to the main stage of the New York media/ publishing circus; ten years’ opportunity to produce a major statement on whatever subject struck you as worthy. You have singularly failed to do so; your book represents the irrefutable proof of that failure.
Don’t you love a good lit spat? Think of how many people that harsh but accurate dismissal applies to. Lit culture is practically defined by its place holders.
Hope you and your lovely wife and daughter are doing well in Germany. Keep up the great writing (especially the textual analysis which I enjoy). No rush getting back to me.
Stephen mal Armée