Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A sapphire anniversary

Sunday was the fifth anniversary of this Commonplace Blog. My very first post, appropriately enough given my sworn allegiance to him, was a review of Philip Roth. Few people read it, although I was happy and relieved to publish it here.

The fall of 2008—I was on sabbatical from Texas A&M University, Hurricane Ike wiped out much of the semester, and all of my interest in my current research came down with the power lines. I had begun a book that I was calling Battle Cry of Theory, a history of French theory’s invasion of English departments from the early ’seventies to the present. But as I felt my time slipping away—I’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer just one year before—suddenly I did not relish the thought of spending my last months over the pages of Paul De Man, Jonathan Culler, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, and the camp followers of the “Yale critics.”

Or perhaps it was merely that, when my family escaped Houston for a few days at a Jewish youth camp in the Hill Country, it did not occur to me to take any theory along for the ride. Instead I immersed myself in Roth’s new novel Indignation, and having finished it much too quickly, borrowed my wife’s copy of The Brass Verdict by the crime novelist Michael Connelly. Back-to-back reviews to commence my career as a book blogger.

I’d been writing book reviews professionally—that is, for low pay—since 1981, when I reviewed Philip Appleman’s Shame the Devil for New York Newsday. Within two years I had attracted the notice of Mel Watkins, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, who put me to work writing short assessments of the novelists that more prominent critics wanted nothing to do with—Katherine Govier (my first), Sheila Bosworth (my first jacket blurb), Whitney Strieber, Jack Higgins, James Alexander Thom, Ernest K. Gann. When Mr Watkins left the Book Review in 1985 (I could never bring myself to call him “Mel”), the new editor quietly dropped me as a regular contributor.

For the next two decades I reviewed little fiction. My PhD was in the history of criticism, especially the history of American criticism, and The Elephants Teach, my first book, was intended as a contribution to that subject.

My original intent, when I had gone off to Northwestern University, was to write a biographical and critical study of the writers grouped around Yvor Winters—his wife Janet Lewis, his best and most famous student J. V. Cunningham, and writers largely forgotten and not typically associated with him, including John Williams, the author of Stoner. I wanted to bring some attention to obscure poets of moving perfection—Helen Pinkerton, for example—and I planned to call my book Peers of Tradition. The phrase was Cunningham’s. The idea was what set these writers apart.

But though Gerald Graff, my PhD advisor, had himself studied under Winters at Stanford, he vetoed my project. Jerry was working on the book that would become Professing Literature, the first history of English departments in America, and I was enlisted to assist him on the research. He suggested that I write a sort of companion volume. Thus was my story of creative writing workshops, in print for seventeen years now, first conceived.

Until I started A Commonplace Blog five years ago, I didn’t fully realize how gaunt and unhealthy-looking my prose had become under the influence of academic writing. The blog format proved unexpectedly congenial. I had no inkling, when I blindly began, that blogging would be so liberating. Not only was I freed from begging letters to editors (if I wanted to review a book, I could review it without anyone’s permission). But also I no longer had to worry about what the chairman of the English department referred to as “career logic,” wherein every printed word must contribute to the building of a limited but national reputation.

Other than the stray political or scandal-mongering post, which always accumulates more “hits,” my five most popular literary essays of the past five years have been these:

(1.) Review of Tim Winton’s novel Breath, probably because the novel’s subject (surfing) causes my review to pop up in search engines.

(2.) My lament “What Became of Literary History?” which mourns the success of New Criticism in reducing the study of literature to “close reading.”

(3.) “Darlings of Oblivion”—a reflection on cancer and the small struggles of daily living, inspired by a phrase from Nabokov.

(4.) My most popular list—“The 10 Worst Prize-Winning American Novels of All Time.” From Jerzy Kosinski to John Updike.

(5.) A reconsideration of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Samson, a novel that is hard to find, despite Ruth R. Wisse’s inclusion of it in The Modern Jewish Canon. My essay on it is one of the few in “print.”

That two of the five are reviews or review-essays is oddly cheering. Book pages may be dying (and they never gave their reviewers enough space or pay to begin with), and reader reviews may be squeezing out professional reviewers, but I remain convinced that readers are starved for intelligent and serious book-talk. I am proud to have contributed my share over the past five years.


Andrew Fox said...

David, congratulations on the fifth anniversary of your wonderful blog. I have spent many happy, pleasing hours reading your essays, and you have led me to a number of fascinating books with which I might otherwise never have become acquainted. Thank you!

PMH said...

Thanks for the writing and the thinking. Still waiting for that Roth and Winters stuff. :-)

Rand Careaga said...

I add my congratulations, and venture to hope that your oncologists will fight the good fight (you might not be battling, but they are, and they're heavily armed) with terrier-like tenacity for years to come.

Rand Careaga said...

I've long admired Gann's memoir Fate Is the Hunter. Which of his books did you review? I assume it wasn't FItH, which was published a couple of years before either of us even considered attaining our full growth.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Thanks for all of the writing and good argument. I cannot tell you how helpful it has been. That was a good day, when I cam across your blog.

jwthomas said...

Congratulations on your excellent blog and your continuing survival to write it.

mike zim said...

David, I've enjoyed and learned much from your blog. Keep it up. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I've been a silent admirer and constant reader of this blog for about two years. Keep up the outstanding work. In a literary review world where everyone pretty much says the same thing, and celebrates and lambasts the same books, I look forward to your frankness, originality and sharp criticism.

Judith said...

I'd like to add my gratitude and admiration. I've learned a great deal from your writing and have enjoyed it a lot. I don't think I knew about the cancer diagnosis. I'm happy your health seems to be holding out and hope very much that continues.

Paul Strassfield, Ph.D., LCSW, PLLC, (Retired)/WRITER said...

This is an occasion to reread The Elephants Teach!

Literacy-chic said...

I'm happy to have found your blog, having known you a very little bit at TAMU. I really like what you're doing here.
~Nicole d.

Anonymous said...

As always thinking about you old friend please be well!

Lee Ellen Bornstein Scharhon

Ian Wolcott said...

Congratulations and thank you, from a loyal reader.

KAP said...

Congratulations! For style, perspicacity, and heterodoxy--and all around excellence--yours is the best literary blog there is, bar none. Keep it up!

Levi Stahl said...

Congratulations on the anniversary, David. Your writing and thinking remains a reliable, much-appreciated pleasure.