Book Commentary: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Jonathan Lethem’s Influences


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.

Author Jonathan Lethem — He says he is more than a white elephant.

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.


  1. Harvey Blume on December 16, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    i take it when you write “In this collection he generally singles out artists for praise with rare exceptions,” you mean visual artists? (if so, makes sense: his father is a painter.)

    i haven’t gone through this collection. but i have many times read the title piece, “the ecstasy of influence,” and, whether i agree completely or not, think it a true tour de force.

    and though i don’t know first-hand what lethem sd about james wood, i do feel strongly that wood wd never take seriously in his woody way anything that might be described as genre fiction. he wd never, for example, give consideration to anything by neal stephenson or george r.r. martin — or doris lessing in her sci-fi phase.

    i think that’s limited — & suffocating. how to distinguish good from bad outside the vault of the literary novel is a question the likes of wood can’t entertain.

    you cite foreign authors that lethem & the rest of us wd do well to know. no americans?

    • Bill Marx on December 17, 2011 at 10:33 am

      Hi Harvey,

      There is not much on visual artists in the book — Lethem writes that he has a “boycott on art crit.” There are pieces on Todd James, billboards, and a story about a collector. The book is a hodgepodge of nonfiction, ranging from essays and memoir to liner notes, commentary, and fiction. In terms of music, Lethem writes about Bob Dylan.

      My focus was on the pieces that he characterized as “tendentious” — and how little criticism they contained.

      As for the clash between serious and genre fiction it is a tired issue — the boundaries are so flexible that any critic trying to draw the lines in a thoughtful way would be interesting to read — I love a good counter argument. Lethem doesn’t mount a detailed attack on Wood for not liking genre lit or pop material. For me, I read and loved H.G. Wells when I was a kid, and moved onto Stanislaw Lem … their imaginations didn’t look out of place.

      It would be hard for Wood to make the case for a separation. For example, Wood loved Jose Saramago’s Blindness, a novel about an inexplicable blindness that strikes almost everyone an unnamed city — except for a few who struggle to survive amid the chaos. At the end of the book the “spell” of blindness is lifted. Fantasy? Sci-Fi (Day of the Triffids)? Allegory? All of the above …

      Lethem mentions translations but doesn’t follow through — as for Americans, sure — Lance Olsen comes to mind.

      • Harvey Blume on December 17, 2011 at 11:15 am


        saramago’s “blindness” is a superb novel. call it sci-fi if you choose, but it is also unquestionably “literary” fiction. if wood has ever taken on the likes of stephenson or william gibson, i’ve missed it.

        you write, “the clash between serious and genre fiction it is a tired issue.” that may be, but it’s still operative. someone like wood makes the distinction implicitly, and by exclusion.

        perhaps the clash is louder & clearer in the visual arts, where someone like jed perl (much as i love his writing) is always concerned with putting the frame back on the art work and casting out the impure.

        • Bill Marx on December 17, 2011 at 11:55 am

          Hi Harvey,

          I haven’t seen what Wood makes of William Gibson or Stephenson — but there are a host of writers that he has not written about, along with big “literary” novels that Wood has inexplicably (and revealingly?) refused to comment on, such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. How much you read into that is up to you.

          Not sure what you mean by “operative” — there will always, thankfully, be differences in opinions — but the notion of a “pure” literary novel doesn’t have much persuasive juice, in or out of the academy. The days of the mandarin critic dictating what is or is not pure are over, though some seem to pine for them. The need for that kind of authority continues in the appetite for awards — it makes locating “quality” easier.

  2. Harvey Blume on December 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    > The days of the mandarin critic dictating what is or is not pure are over, though some seem to pine for them. The need for that kind of authority continues in the appetite for awards — it makes locating “quality” easier.

    Could be we’re saying the same thing here. . .

    • Bill Marx on December 17, 2011 at 3:06 pm

      Hi Harvey,

      Most likely — when I was younger it mattered to me what a particular critic said, especially where it was said — the publication conferred credibility and power.

      Now I want to know the argument, and it doesn’t matter who makes it where — there are plenty of thoughtful critics on the Web. So unless Jed Perl, James Wood et al make a strong case, it doesn’t matter to me what they say — perceptions of influence matters less and less. Mainstream publications hire their critics for a number of reasons, many having nothing to do with a reviewer’s powers of analysis or the independence of his or her judgment.

  3. Harvey Blume on December 18, 2011 at 10:51 am


    I welcome good strong impassioned criticism such as Perl’s. Disagree with him as I do, he helps me clarify what I think about art.

    I think such arguments—as put forth, say, by Danto, Hughes, Perl—are more fierce re the visual arts and more fruitful.

    As to why that is, I think the reasons are both philosophical and mercantile: What is art? What is marketing?

    A lot of it goes back to Duchamp. He welcomed art being flooded by life and vice versa. What he did not foresee is that art would be flooded with & often indistinguishable from marketing & advertising.

    • Bill Marx on December 18, 2011 at 11:22 am


      We agree completely about the need for strong and passionate criticism — my disagreement with Lethem is that he makes noises about the spread of marketing and advertising into the arts, but he does not follow through, perhaps because it might actually generate kick back from the conformist powers-that-be.

      I enjoy reading Danto, but his pro-institution stand (it is art if the experts at museums and galleries say it is) is part of the problem you note about the spread of marketing and advertising into the visual arts. See Danto’s essay “Fly in the Fly Bottle,” which finds critical disagreement to be fruitless … Danto is the critic as explicator, not judge.

  4. Harvey Blume on December 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    The strength of Danto’s position is its openness. The weakness is the lack of criteria for judging, and judging, even if he shies away from it, will go on. (Both Hughes & Perl, in my opinion, judge too severely and narrowly: they throw too much out.)

    Btw, Danto’s column was the reason I subscribed to The Nation. When they, for some reason, dropped him as art critic, I stopped subscribing. (Yes, now it’s all free online, but it wasn’t then).

    • Bill Marx on December 18, 2011 at 1:07 pm

      Hi Harvey,

      I would argue the opposite — because Danto does not write negative criticism he is narrow rather than open because we only see what he values — everything he doesn’t write about the reader is left to wonder about. Fully evaluating a critic means learning why he likes some things and not others. (Danto thinks criticism is only about the critic teaching the reader about “visual intelligence,” not debating issues of value.)

      Danto wants criticism to be one way, a convenient set up that doesn’t put him in the uncomfortable position of questioning institutional choices. That narrows the intellectual responsibility of the critic, in my view, because sometimes the establishment must be challenged.

      The essay I refer to by Danto offers his view that there is no crisis in visual arts criticism — complaints that reviews in newspapers and visual arts magazines are increasingly more about being descriptive/ advertising-friendly rather than evaluative. For many, professional judging is not in good shape — at least its health should not be taken for granted. As far as Danto is concerned there is no problem — as long as critics write well about what they like.

  5. Harvey Blume on December 18, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    re Danto: I had him as philosophy prof at Columbia. He was an analytic philosopher, & I tended to dismiss them, as a rule, looking for the exponents of the beefier European tradition—Plato-Leibniz-Kant-Hegel-Marx-Neitsche-Heidegger—but Danto stayed with me: he was/is disconcertingly cock-eyed and wore a shaggy sweater that was not the hardcore business suit of the analytics. He spirited himself around, as if driven by what he thought.

    There was something about him. Then he became art critic for the nation, treating visual art as a probe or means of philosophical investigation. I liked the way he did it. Whatever he said about what he just enjoyed seeing, he’d have to pay back in the way of ratiocination. Gave me pleasure.

    But I think you’re right, it’s important to write about what you don’t like, what you won’t admit, no matter how Duchampian you be, as decent art or art at all. That’s not where most of his energy goes. It is a bit too much of where Jed Perl’s invective goes. He tends to damn everybody else’s subverted taste before he gets to what he likes. (I tend to like some things he, in his quasi-totalitarian way, does not allow.)

    This is probably not your meat, but analytic philosopher though he still claims to be, Danto also says (& has to me, in interviews) how much it is Hegel—the antipode/nemesis of the analytics—who inspires him.

    i don’t think art crit is in such shoddy shape.

    i think, for example, the times art reviewers, kimmelman et al, don’t do a bad job.

    • Bill Marx on December 19, 2011 at 5:14 pm

      Hi Harvey,

      As I said, I enjoy Danto, own several of his books. I use his ‘Fly Bottle” essay in my criticism class to talk about his institutional approach and how it fits into the history of arts criticism.

      As for the health of visual arts criticism, there is some disagreement about that — an anthology entitled Critical Mess: Arts Critics on the State of their Practice (edited by Raphael Rubinstein) offers some reviewers insisting that visual arts criticism is not in good shape.

  6. Bill Marx, Editor, The Arts Fuse on July 22, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    I have to add the latest evidence of support for my above remarks on Lethem. Despite his self-serving claims in the book of being a dissenter, he exhibits no critical backbone. From the July 13, 2012 Times Literary Supplement review by Claire Lowdon of The Ecstasy of Influence and Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection Farther Away:

    Fundamentally, both writers share a belief in the healing power of fiction … Both writers have a tendency to the Messianic … Inevitably, this reverence has an effect on the literary criticism. Lethem and Franzen are hyperbolic in their praise of other writers (especially if the book is out of print). There are no negative reviews in either collection, and few that temper praise with criticism. The problem for both, however, is that they fundamentally mistrust the critical process — a drawback in a book of essays.

    I would add that this ‘mistrust’ is more like outright rejection, and it reflects a broader problem with American culture at the moment — a capitulation to the forces of commerce among those who say they stand for high artistic standards. What we have here is a rationalization for anti-intellectualism from self-proclaimed intellectuals. Books are endangered, runs the self-justification, so how dare anyone say anything negative in a review? Only go with the positive — market the good and true — no matter that by compounding the celebratory cant you only cheapen the discourse. How do we know how to trust what someone likes if we don’t know the reasons why he dislikes something?

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