By Alyssa Hall
For all of his claims to being a subversive termite, Jonathan Lethem the puffy, white elephant appears more often in this collection, trudging down a much safer, much happier road—leave the negativity to the snotty aristocrats.
The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 437 pages, $27.95.
I picked up this volume because I suspected that it may make, in a playfully ironic fashion, a case for the value of serious arts reviewing at a time when it could use all the support it can get, given that the culture is winning in its battle against professional criticism. The Awl and other magazines reported that in his nonfiction collection The Ecstasy of Influence, novelist Jonathan Lethem took a shot at the respected New Yorker book critic James Wood, complaining about the flaws in what was a fairly positive review of The Fortress of Solitude when it was published eight years ago. Lethem hadn’t forgotten his anger and decided to detail a grudge he can’t stop nursing, despite friends’ warnings about how it would look (moldy sour grapes, etc).
Visions of a literary feud may have whetted the appetite of bloggers (to The Awl‘s credit, it generated a discussion about what can be learned from the conflict), but my initial feeling was that Lethem’s complaint might very well be a testament to criticism’s importance: here was a well-known writer who wanted to be held up to high standards, who felt deeply betrayed when an authoritative critic didn’t serve his craft well. In his piece, Lethem writes that part of his frustration stemmed from being let down by a review from “the most consequential and galvanizing critical voice, the most apparently gifted close reader of our time . . . that it would be a sort of graduation day, even if I was destined to take some licks.”
Lethem is not happy with his punishment, but his attack on Wood turns out not to be a demand for responsible evaluation or a courageous rejection of a bogus diploma. When taken in conjunction with the rest of his book, the piece comes off as an exercise in intellectual bad faith that undercuts his claims for Wood’s limitations. The upshot is that Lethem is as disappointing a critic as he says Wood is.
In “My Disappointment Critic,” Lethem charges that Wood missed major parts of the novel: “James Wood, in 4,200 painstaking words, couldn’t bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility . . . These fantastic events hinge the plot at several points, including the finale—you simply couldn’t not mention this and have read the book at all.” Wood misses the element of the uncanny, and, according to Lethem, the critic doesn’t give the novel’s protagonist due credit for thinking deep thoughts. Even if the objections are fair, are they worth eight years of grumbling? Not really, which is why Lethem goes on to explain why he only glances at Wood’s reviews.
What’s really bugging Lethem is the old monster of elitism. Wood “made people excited and nervous by passionately attacking novels that people (including myself) passionately believed in.” He must be punished for the sin of going against the grain of “the people,” and pointing out the critic’s misreading of The Fortress of Solitude comes to the rescue, at least for Lethem, because it suggests that there is no reason to pay Wood much attention. “His air of erudite amplitude veiled—barely—a punitive parochialism,” asserts Lethem, “he likes things with certain provenances,” with “high-literary influences.”
There are plenty of reasons to argue with the at times rusty inflexibility of Wood’s aesthetic standards, but this is popularist finger-pointing. It is not that, for Lethem, Wood doesn’t meet the exacting demands of criticism, an argument that would make sense, but that he draws on highbrow references.
That line of attack raises the issue of Lethem’s critical chops—if Wood snarls like an aristocratic meanie, for what does Lethem stand? In this collection, he generally singles out artists for praise with rare exceptions. He includes “tendentious” essays that he claims “skirmish with injustices,” but aside from slapping Wood around as a snob, the pieces he labels as argumentative (“Against ‘Pop’ Culture,” “White Elephant and Termite Postures,” “Advertisements for Norman Mailer,” “Postmodernism as Liberty Valance,” and “Rushmore Versus Abundance”) are long on windy generalizations about cultural inferiority and short on specifics.
Lethem embraces Manny Farber’s categories of “white elephant art” (the bloated mainstream) and “termite art” (the feisty marginalized), but despite mentioning how American culture isolates itself by ignoring translations, he doesn’t look at any of the latter besides Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (for me a ballyhooed example of “white elephant art”) in any depth. Instead, his idea of the marginal often comes with the stamp of approval of the Library of America: Nathanael West, Philip K. Dick, and Shirley Jackson. These are fine choices, as is his enthusiasm for the-not-yet-in-the-LOA Thomas Berger, but they are not particularly risky “off-center preferences from a termite’s reading plan.” If you are going to be a proper Farber termite, then you should look for material that is well off the beaten path, that is surprising and brings challenging and necessary news to the intellectual community. To his credit, from time to time Wood takes up the case for international writers that are not on most radar screens, such as László Krasznahorkai.
For all of his claims to being a subversive termite, Lethem the puffy, white elephant appears more often, trudging down a much safer, much happier road: leave the negativity to the snotty aristocrats—democracy is about the acceptance of all, discrimination distorts the disorder. For Lethem, there is no real need to argue for standards or criticize the mediocre: let a thousand canons Bloom, he puns at one point. Sorting things out is bad for business.
Lethem makes combative gestures: many of the chapters are prefaced by quotations from Friedrich Nietzsche and others that kick up some dust. And in one essay, the novelist goes into how he was influenced by Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, and the subject brings out a touch of critical bluster: “By temperament or generational necessity (or both), I find myself again and again compelled by questions of collective culpability in conspiracies of amnesia and distraction, and by the vicarious waste of our best attention to ourselves and the others besides us.” Splendid, but that is as far as it goes—nothing concrete, no cultural culprits, just after dinner cigar-smokin’ rhetoric about how “we have met the shits and they are us.” Aside from Wood, why aren’t there any other alleged shits critiqued in the book?
Along with Wood’s lordliness, Lethem condemns Mailer’s down-to-earth, competitive, admittedly silly literary fisticuffs, but he has nothing fiery or incisive to replace it with but a facile philosophy of live-and-let-live (with politically correct amendments, of course), slipping in laments to assure the reader that deep down he is no cheerleader:
My guess is that the not-too-secret secret of our times is that, behind a few self-congratulatory tokens of decadence and irony, an elephantine utilitarianism and conformism grinds at the center of our culture and its response to art and artists.
That is a damn good guess—now, how about proving it? Without contradicting your admiration for artistic-production-for-production’s-sake as a good in itself? Wood is far from the bull’s-eye of the arts world, so Lethem is ignoring his real target—the ever-growing, gooey blob of the pragmatic and the uninspired smothering the heart of our culture. Stop stewing about Wood and write about superior art that truly needs to be rescued from the margins, pen something really tendentious, something that actually might piss off one of the tepid power brokers. If not, stop complaining and stick to wallowing in elephantine ecstasy.