22 August 2010

The art of writing well and avoiding Michiko Kakutani

The myth of the novelist as genius: The writer locks himself in his chilly garret, works flat out with little sleep and less food using an outmoded instrument (a quill pen or a forty year old Olivetti typewriter), and emerges with a fully realized work that perfectly explicates the human condition. That novel then becomes a classic to be read by generations of high school students and undergraduates.

What does that version conveniently elide from the process? Advances, printing, book tours, publicity, delivery, royalties, and so on. The fact is that though things were much simpler in the fifteenth century, variations of these intermediate steps were there even when William Caxton was printing the first English books (he was in it to make money after all). We cling to the Romantic idea that if someone writes a worthy story, it makes it into the hands of the reading public with no fuss. But behind every author is a good editor and behind every good editor is a publishing company whose functionaries have decided an idea is marketable. And of course a good writer has very little chance of coming to the attention of a good editor without a good agent. Aha, you might say, but didn't Stephen King write his breakout novel Carrie in the back room of a laundromat? He had a good agent.

The book trade, like an MTV reality show, is fundamentally about packaging a personality. Sometimes the author's voice on the page is enough to sell a book—the literary myth would suggest it's always enough except we all know that's not true—but often it hinges on the author's persona outside the world of literature. The venerable art of ghostwriting, for which I have genuine respect, is about making an interesting but non-literary personality literary. However, the unfortunate byproduct of all of this attention to the writer himself or herself is exactly the tautological problem with reality TV: Some people end up famous merely for being famous. That means that many established writers aren't actually that good but rather ended up being the right commodity at the right time.

As someone who hopes to be paid for my writing, I wonder whether I will ever be "the right commodity at the right time." I wonder whether a great deal of high-quality literature even stands a chance in today's marketplace. This is certainly not a new argument—Umberto Eco has a hilarious short story in which he imagines ancient Athenians talking about the invention of writing in the same terms as we talk about trashy celebrity culture. Reflecting on the vagaries of the literary market has allowed me to understand why I dislike so many contemporary writers: Some of it is obviously jealously since they've made it and I haven't yet, but mostly it's because I can generally see through the thin, translucent layer of artistry that can't hide the commodified base. (Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love is the apex of this. The book is a poorly written exercise in emotional manipulation. It is not too harsh to say that I doubt whether a single word of it is the unvarnished truth.)

I was pleased to come across a really sharp tongued critic approach the same problem. Anis Shivani in The Huffington Post has compiled a list of unworthies, “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.” Now The Huffington Post really likes lists, typically ones that leave you scratching your head such as 11 movies in which librarians save the day  or “9 Signs Your Husband is GAY” (in fairness, I should say that the latter is intended as satire). The Post occasionally has some really excellent original features but you have to wade through a sea of aggregated dreck to find them.

Shivani and I share exactly the same dim view of the celebrated Bengali-American author Jhumpa Lahiri. She is, independent of whatever artistic merits she may or may not have, one of the most perfectly marketable writers around: young, beautiful, feminine and, the crux of it, exotic yet approachably American. Her prose style is undeniably elegant but the problem to my mind is that she has only really written one short story. Dozens of her stories are just permutations of that one. Shinvani writes,
Utterly unwilling (though probably fully capable, since she's the only readable writer on this list) to write about anything other than privileged Bengali immigrants with PhDs living in Cambridge's Central and Inman Squares, and making easy adjustments to the top of the American meritocratic pyramid. … Has staked out a very marketable niche territory and is never going to venture beyond it.
Shivani's dismissal of The New York Times's book critic Michiko Kakutani is well-argued but fundamentally his claim is that she is
Simply the worst book critic on the planet.
The problem is her solipsism. Some books she loves and some she hates (to be "Kakutani'd" is to flayed alive by her pen), but I never get a sense of whether a book is worth reading or not on the basis of her reviews. Maybe she's not the worst reviewer on earth but the fact that she is at the apex of the publishing world makes me nostalgic for some of the early twentieth century critics who took aesthetic positions for the long haul rather than being reactionary. I don't think there ever was a Golden Age of publishing, but was it ever this hard to find a good book?

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