In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« More on Dawkins, Sex, Jealousy | Main | More Reading and Writing Linkage »

December 05, 2007

From Richard S. Wheeler

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* The excellent Western-fiction blog Saddlebums has asked Richard S. Wheeler -- whom they aptly describe as "the dean of the modern Western story" -- to write about Conrad Richter's "The Sea of Grass." Richard's posting is a beautiful piece of appreciation. A while back, Richard wrote some postings for 2Blowhards: here and here. Click on 'em, read 'em.

* In an email to me, Richard has pointed out that of the fiction-books included on the NYTimes' Notable Books of 2007 list, precisely zero come from the popular-fiction shelves. (Harry Potter excepted, I guess, though it seems to me more useful to think of Harry Potter as exceptional in every way.) Zero! The Times' editors and critics are nothing if not open to global literature, god knows. But to the popular fiction of their own country they continue to turn a completely blind eye.

Gotta love some of the "plot" descriptions of the fiction-books that earned places on the Notable list:

  • "A nerdy Dominican-American yearns to write and fall in love."
  • "The boy narrator of this novel, set in Libya in 1979, learns about the convoluted roots of betrayal in a totalitarian society."
  • "A young woman searches for the truth about her parentage amid the snow and ice of Lapland in this bleakly comic yet sad tale of a child’s futile struggle to be loved."
  • "In this short yet spacious Norwegian novel, an Oslo professional hopes to cure his loneliness with a plunge into solitude."
  • "Henkin follows a couple from college to their mid-30s, through crises of love and mortality."
  • "In this debut, a Londoner emerges from a coma and seeks to reassure himself of the genuineness of his existence."

Could a parodist have done better? And what a jolly, out-to-entertain bunch the literary set is, eh?

* A while back, I wrote a five-part series ranting about the Times Book Review Section's absurd attitude towards popular fiction: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.

* The wonderfully crusty and combative B.R. Myers has a wrestle with Denis Johnson's highly-praised new novel. (Link thanks to Saddlebums' Gonzalo Baeza.) In 2001, Myers wrote an anti-literary-pretentiousness rant called "A Reader's Manifesto." At that time, I was still working in and around the book publishing world, and I can report that there were many people in the business who read Myers' essay and smiled in quiet agreement.



posted by Michael at December 5, 2007


Bizarre how the examples all seemed to be about the undeveloped, immature or incomplete struggling to develop. That's good enough for the bildungsroman, but Lordy, why is so much of this kind of lit-fic so obsessed with that kind of story? It makes me yearn to read, "And suddenly a shot rang out!"

But no shots ever do ring out. None ever, ever. Sigh.

Posted by: PatrickH on December 5, 2007 6:40 PM

O.K., as a Norwegian-American maybe I'm biased. I "get" loneliness and solitude.

Give Per a listen...

Talk of the Stacks: Per Petterson -- Out Stealing Horses
Thursday, September 27, 7:30PM

DESCRIPTION: This is a recording of Talk of the Stacks program, a reading series at the Minneapolis Public Library...This reading featured Per Petterson, author of Out Stealing Horses.

Posted by: Scott on December 5, 2007 7:14 PM

"If the new dispensation were to revive good "Mandarin" writing—to use the term coined by the British critic Cyril Connolly for the prose of writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce—then I would be the last to complain. But what we are getting today is a remarkably crude form of affectation: a prose so repetitive, so elementary in its syntax, and so numbing in its overuse of wordplay that it often demands less concentration than the average "genre" novel. Even today's obscurity is easy—the sort of gibberish that stops all thought dead in its tracks. The best way to demonstrate this in the space at hand is to take a look at some of the most highly acclaimed styles of contemporary writing."

What I liked about the Myers piece when I first read it was that it wasn't just an attempt to get literary types to read popular fiction more appreciatively, or a plea for a return to narrative, like Tom Wolfe's earlier attack on "highbrow" literature. It contained many thoughtful and very specific criticisms of the ways in which the "sentence cult" of literary fiction writers makes their work incomprehensible. I loved it when I read it because I thought, 'Aha! here's someone who agrees that "furious dabs of tulips" doesn't make any sense as a metaphor and what's worse, it distracts you from the story.' I can tolerate almost any amount of portentousness, pretension, solemnity, and the like, if it adds to the total effect of a novel. In much modern fiction, however, it doesn't.

Posted by: alias clio on December 5, 2007 9:44 PM

Thanks for turning me on to the Myers review. What a scream!

Posted by: Lester Hunt on December 5, 2007 10:31 PM

The Myers piece on Literary Fiction and the "sentence cult" was a blast to read. But as I read it, I kept imagining that the reaction if an English Lit undergraduate had written such a piece. Despite the very persuasive examples of bad writing quoted in the text, I couldn't imagine any English professor tolerating such disrespect for contemporary Literary Fiction. The outcome would have unquestionably been a very bad grade. Which makes me wonder: is the exaggerated respect that the Literary Fiction genre now commands the result of attitudes absorbed in college over the past 40 years?

Last year I read a very candid book by a creative art instructor at a well-known art school. He was quite clear about what forms of art were praised and what forms were dismissed in contemporary art schools, what art-making strategies were praised and which were dismissed with contempt, and how long the same paradigms of taste in the visual arts have been promoted in U.S. fine art departments. Reading this book, I couldn't help but wonder if the state of the arts at any time isn't largely the consequence of what young artists are told about what are acceptable art-making goals during their undergraduate years. And then, of course, they go out and sell their work to gallery owners who just happened to have absorbed exactly the same aesthetic nostrums, who in turn sell it to college educated buyers who have likewise received a sort of watered-down version of the same rules.

Is it possible that them what controls arts education controls the arts?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 6, 2007 2:02 AM

What makes things worse is the fashionable avoidance of descriptive words. For the last century it's been seen as some kind of remedy for stylistic excess. Ezra Pound once complained about expressions like "pigs bloom on the hillsides". Why not just say the bloody pigs were pink? Ban adjectives and adverbs, and you get the purple verb and the precious-pie noun - eg those "dabs". Stylistic affectation will out: Hemingways's staccato is as distracting as Lawrence Durrell's adjective-laden kitsch.

La Bruyere once wrote - I can't remember where - that style is simply the courtesy that the author extends to the reader. A happy thought!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 6, 2007 5:50 AM

I toy with the idea that American letters has reached a state of inversion. Excruciatingly bad literary novels are touted as masterpieces--for the sake of bestsellerdom and profit.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 6, 2007 8:16 AM

Friedrich vonB: You may be right about the fine arts and education. On the other hand, where painting is concerned, there seems to be a revival of interest, esp. on this board, in the "academicians" of the 19th century.

The advantage aspiring literary artists had until quite recently was that there was no such thing as an education geared to developing novelists or poets. You got a thorough instruction in grammar and, in some cases, Latin, in high school or its equivalent, and that was all. Even university "literature" programs were a relatively late development at the great universities. No one saw any point to going to school to read fiction that required no special training in languages or history to understand, so there was little opportunity for instructors to indoctrinate would-be writers of contemporary prose in how to write it.

Posted by: alias clio on December 6, 2007 10:25 AM

PatrickH -- If someone said "gee, an awful lot of lit-fict seems kinda ... whiney," it'd be ok with me.

Scott -- Tks for the link. So the Petterson book is worth looking at? For all I know every one of the books the Times calls Notable is a masterpiece. Haven't followed the new lit-fict scene in seven-ish years myself.

A. Clio 1 -- And how!

Lester -- Glad you enjoyed. The piece caused quite a fuss when it was published, which was a lot of fun. And good for the Atlantic for running it.

FvB -- I think you're majorly onto something. But why haven't you blogged about this interesting book you're referring to? You don't have, like, a life or a job that make demands, do you?

Robert T. -- And how again. It's funny for me ... I don't actually mind prose poetry or word-painting, and I'm often intrigued by experimentalism. Cheers to people who like messing around. But when a whole field starts to depend on clotted writing and chic themes for its rationale ... And when that field makes claims for itself as the top of the heap in terms of quality and importance ... I dunno, something in me rebels.

Richard -- That's a sly hunch! I wonder if ego plays a big role in it too, as in, "These are the kinds of books that Our Kind of People, with Our Kind of Education, think most highly of."

A. Clio 2 -- The creative-writing industry has a lot to answer for.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 6, 2007 11:39 AM

For those interested in Myers, I'd encourage them to read the book-length version of his manifesto, which also includes a chapter on the mainstream media backlash that ensued after he published the original article.

Posted by: Gonzalo Baeza on December 6, 2007 12:27 PM

An apron of sound lapped out of each dive

What the hell.....? I'm sorry, I really am educated and I really am trying, but "an apron of sound" is just a really sucky metephor.

Couldn't agree with all of it more...if I have to work that hard to follow "what's going on" (or "how something sounded") then the writer is failing. ("...furious dabs of tulips stuttering."???? I guess I can even kind of "get" the "furious dabs of tulips" description, but"...stuttering"? I mean the colorfulness of "furious dabs of tulips" might have "distracted him from the incoming nuclear missile" because he was gazing at the garden...but how do tulips, or colors, "stutter"? And why "furious" as opposed to "intensely bright dabs of tulips" or something?)

However, I most certainly agree with FvB. I am quite certain that if "furious dabs of tulips stuttering" got the 'A' on the Creative Writing assignment, then that is what they've learned to value and keep producing. They would consider the phrase "a shot rang out!" as overused and cliche. "a shot" would need to "scream and wiggle" or "polka" or something.

Posted by: annette on December 6, 2007 1:00 PM

For a link to a commenter who takes exception to the nature of B.R. Myers' review of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, and a discussion of that commenter's comments, see "Who’s the Wanker?"

And for another minority report on Johnson's book see Patrick Kurp's "Denis Johnson does stint in Vietnam in his latest novel, Tree of Smoke: Bloat gives eighth book volume, but there's little substance."

Posted by: Dave Lull on December 6, 2007 1:19 PM

I agree with you Michael, that the NYT is totally out of touch.

I just finished reading Mr. Wheeler's memoir "An Accidental Novelist" and would like to complement him on an enjoyable read and recommend it to anyone else here reading 2Blowhards. I particularly enjoyed the part where he describes how he helped two old friends of mine, Mike and Kathy Gear, break into the business. Knowing what prolific writers they are, I had to laugh when he tells about the gigantic box of their manuscripts that arrived on his doorstep.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on December 6, 2007 1:57 PM

Mr. Myers' thesis has much going for it. A. B. Guthrie, Jr's great novel of the fur trade, The Big Sky, should have won a Pulitzer, but didn't. The Pulitzer committee was apparently aware of its neglect, and when Guthrie's The Way West, a rather ordinary novel, appeared a few years later, it received the Pulitzer, in what was widely considered a retrospective way of amending the neglect of The Big Sky. So Mr. Myers' thesis of the ways writers are admitted to the American pantheon holds true.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 6, 2007 9:16 PM

Maybe furious dabs of tulips stutter in the wind, the staccato wind.

Posted by: ricpic on December 8, 2007 2:57 PM

Daniel Green says that "[a]s a piece of literary criticism, [Myers' review is] pretty wretched."

Posted by: Dave Lull on December 10, 2007 11:12 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?