Friday, March 22, 2013

A man’s a man for a’ that

First it was the novel of religious belief. Last December Paul Elie took to the pages of the New York Times Book Review to lament that it has “gone where belief itself has gone”—to the margins of American life. (Well, that’s where nearly all American novels have gone in the last twenty-five years, but you know what he means.) Now it is “masculine writing” that has turned up missing and presumed dead. At least according to the novelist Frank Bill, who worries in the Daily Beast that

a large number of men have lost their ruggedness. Maybe they never had it. I believe to be a man is to be tough mentally and physically. To have a small set of skills to survive from day to day when needed. Like lifting weights or boxing in a dust and spider-web-infested concrete shed with a tin roof. Where it’s sweltering in the summer and freezer-burn-cold in the winter, to keep the body and mind tough. Hunting and fishing to hone the skills my father and grandfather passed onto me.Is it any surprise, then, that these things have disappeared from American writing? Now, the disappearances may be overdue: feminist critics have argued for two generations that masculinity is the default setting in American fiction. Hence the shaking of the canon, the predictable outrage when any book list does not contain enough women writers, the Orange Prize, the Vida count. A man need not be “rugged” to produce “masculine writing”; he need only not be a woman.

But masculinity means something more. For Bill it means “to be tough, to be rugged, to be able to take care of your damn self.” Among the writers who “shed light” on this side of masculinity, for him, are Charles Bukowski, Thom Jones, Jim Harrison, Larry Brown, Hubert Selby, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Cormac McCarthy, Roger Smith, and James Carlos Blake. O, how I love a list without explanations, as if I were going to take it to the bookstore with me! The only writer Bill says anything more about is Crews, who is “like rare bourbon, hard to come by, but worth every drop—we’d have to keep him behind the counter.” Has literary criticism ever been so definitive, so unashamedly literary?

The truth is that Frank Bill is on to something, but not in the terms he proposes. There are fewer men in American fiction, there is less masculinity, but not because there are fewer hunters and less weight-lifting. Richard Katz, the rocker in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, is a man in Frank Bill’s sense, a good man, a mentsh—not, however, because he uses power tools to build decks. He is a man because, even while “glimps[ing] his pride in its pathetic woundedness,” he renounces his adulterous lover (a woman he has loved hopelessly for twenty years) and convinces her to return to her husband.

Nestor Camacho, the 25-year-old Miami cop in Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, is a man in Frank Bill’s sense—a man who is “tough mentally and physically.” Not, however, because he climbs the 70-foot mast of a schooner to save a Cuban refugee and not because, without any help, he takes down a suspect who is a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. (Those actions make him a hero in the eyes of his fellow cops, although a taboo prevents them from saying so.) He is a man because official reprimands and suspension from the police force—public accusations of racism, ostracism by his own family—don’t stop him from investigating an injustice all on his own. “He was just being a cop,” his superior officer explains.

Charles Homar, the 31-year-old magazine writer in William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, is a man in Frank Bill’s sense, or at least he develops into one over the course of his novel—not because he shoots up the boat on which his fiancée leaves him, serves a stretch in prison, stalks Bigfoot, becomes what his old allies on the Left would call a gun nut (“You can find comfort in Misters Smith and Wesson”), and stays on the trail of his fiancée till he gets her back. He is a man because his brushes with danger lead to marriage and fatherhood.

Bill’s conception of it might called reactive masculinity, a backlash against the gender-neutralization of American culture described by Harvey C. Mansfield nearly seven years ago in his book Manliness. Bill is hardly alone: last week John Hawkins listed the “7 Movies That Show You The Masculine Ideal,” and predictably enough, all seven were action movies in which masculinity is a romanticized ideal, released from the realities (including the physical limitations) that drag upon ordinary men. Whenever reactive masculinity is confused with true manhood, I feel as if I were back in high school, being ridiculed once again by the heavy-set one-year lettermen who played offensive line on the winless football team because I was a three-year letterman in varsity track and cross country, too small to play the more “rugged” sport, not a “real athlete.”

Bill almost has it right, although his insertion of the word damn betrays his anxiety: to be a real man is “to be able to take care of your damn self,” but only because you have a horror of anyone else’s being obliged to take care of you. Taking care of others is a man’s job. A man knows in his bones that he is expendable, especially in his bones, and if he is to be indispensable, he must make himself so—by indispensable service to others. If I had to define masculinity while standing on one foot, I don’t think I could do any worse.

I find myself thinking of Swede Levov in Roth’s American Pastoral with his “golden gift of responsibility,” his “fatal attraction to duty.” He doesn’t change his own oil; he doesn’t lift weights or hunt deer; he isn’t even much of a do-it-yourselfer. But Swede is a man for all that—a real man, perhaps the manliest man in recent American fiction. Not his athleticism, not his rugged frame and youthful good looks, not even his hands-on knowledge of how to make something lasting and useful (gloves, in his case), but the responsibility that “follows him through life”—that’s what makes him, for Philip Roth and the reader of American Pastoral, a shining symbol of manhood. If there are fewer men in American fiction, if there is less masculinity, perhaps the reason is that more male characters are absorbed with their “damn selves” and fewer are willing, like the Swede, to accede to responsibility, no matter (really) what it is.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The irreconcilable conflicts within

Carlene Bauer, Frances and Bernard (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). 193 pages.

In late May or early June of 1952, Robert Lowell wrote to Flannery O’Connor after reading her story “Enoch and the Gorilla” in New World Writing (it was later revised for a chapter of Wise Blood):

[Y]ou’re as good as ever, only really and enviably professional. Ford used to say that you could tell if a writer was any good from the first sentence. . . . Your first two sentences show you know your craft, and the end of the first and the word “downpour” in the second do even more. When I was through reading I could have hugged the gorilla. The whole incident is rather epically dismal. . . . I’m delighted to see that your novel is about to be published; I think it will be something absolute of its kind and want to hail it and promise that we will keep a copy under our pillows so that we can always say “Isn’t it wonderful that life is so awful, and that man’s misery is without grandeur.”[1]They had met three years earlier when both were at Yaddo. Lowell intervened in O’Connor’s literary life, introducing his eight-years-younger friend to Robert Giroux, who was to remain her editor to the end. O’Connor intervened in Lowell’s religious life, serving as a witness to his “reconversion” to Roman Catholicism. In March 1949, on “the day of Flannery O’Connor, whose patron saint is St. Therese of Lisieux,” Lowell baptized himself in a cold bath in his New York apartment, praying “in gasps.” Years later O’Connor tried to “stash & obliterate” the “revolting story” that Lowell believed her to be a saint (he was “about three steps from the asylum” and was “canonizing everybody that had anything to do with his situation then”).[2] Who knows but that her later anger was rooted in her deep humility? Many of Flannery O’Connor’s readers have come to a conclusion not much different from Lowell’s.

Out of these materials, Carlene Bauer has constructed a first novel that is remarkable for its ambition (in such a short novel) and for the sureness of its historical grasp (in a novelist so young). Born nine years after the death of O’Connor and four years before the death of Lowell, Bauer comes out of a strikingly different milieu, as she made clear in Not That Kind of Girl, the coming-of-age memoir that was her first book. The daughter of a born-again evangelical Christian mother and a lapsed Catholic father, she was harried by rock music as much as questions of faith, and she had nothing like Lowell’s family tradition nor O’Connor’s Christ-haunted South (and the theological conception of man that came with it) to give her a place to start. She grew up in cul-de-sac suburban New Jersey.

In Frances and Bernard, Bauer imagines literary life and religious life under different circumstances. Frances Reardon is a Philadelphia-born fiction writer who has “just escaped from the workshop at Iowa.” (Her first novel, about a nun who receives stigmata, sounds suspiciously like Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy.) Bernard Eliot is a Harvard-educated poet with Puritan ancestors and sounds of John Donne “prowling around in the boiler room” of his poems. In the summer of 1957 they meet while in residence at “the colony” (it’s never called anything more than that). Both are Catholics. Frances is a cradle Catholic, and “a little Mother Superiorish,” according to Bernard. He is a convert. As a senior at Harvard, he met a theologian who urged him to read Jacques Maritain. (Reading Maritain became a convention of American literary intellectuals’ postwar Catholic conversion narratives, although by now Maritain is more a name to be mentioned than a text to be quoted.) After reading Maritain, Bernard decided to become a Catholic. He glimpsed in Catholicism “a way to make a sustained and coherent statement about what I believed.” Although Frances worries that it “could be a sign of delusions of grandeur, when a Puritan turns to Rome,” within a month of leaving the colony they commence an eleven-year correspondence.

Frances and Bernard is a return to the English-language novel’s oldest kind. It is an episolary novel. And it puts out for the taking all the pleasures of the best epistolary novels—the shifts in point of view, the divergent accounts of the same event, the necessary inferences, the coy white spaces between the letters, the mysterious silences. Bauer has fun with the genre without making genre-fun the point of her novel. “To accept the fact that [other people] are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God,” Bernard significantly quotes Simone Weil at one point. “I am also other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.” The back-and-forth of letters between them demonstrates the truth of both these propositions—perhaps no other form of fiction is so effective at preserving the intransmutable otherness of fictional characters. As Patrick Kurp said in his recent review of Anthony Hecht’s letters, “Perhaps the most important ingredient [in a good letter] is revelation of character, the writer’s willingness to reveal, inadvertently or otherwise, some truth about himself.” And if the writer is not aware of the full truth about himself, so much the better!

Because they are rambles, because they have no other form than the movement of the writer’s mind, letters also permit the unsystematic discussion of pressing ideas. Bauer takes full advantage of letters’ capacity to include thought, which would otherwise have to be disguised as monologue. Bernard begins their correspondence by asking Frances, “Who is the Holy Spirit to you?” The resulting dialectic is promising. “I believe he is grace and wisdom,” Frances replies. To which Bernard says:I don’t know what the Holy Spirit is or does. I think this is because I came to Catholicism late and have felt hesitant to penetrate this mystery. Protestants shove the Holy Spirit to the side—too mystical, too much distraction from the Father and Son. They regard the Holy Spirit with the same suspicion, I think, as they do the saints—it’s a form of idolatry to shift the focus to a third party, whether it be the Holy Spirit or Saint Francis. To appeal to the third party is pagan. Is he grace and wisdom? How do you know?Over the course of the novel, they say other equally interesting things to each other. They quote Augustine and Kierkegaard and William James; they discuss prayer and the liturgy and the “craving for God’s mercy.” But the Holy Spirit is never spoken of again. They quietly drop the subject. Within a few pages, Frances is assuring him that she has “always voted for Democrats,” while Bernard is bragging about the demonstrations he has led, including one “to protest [Harvard]’s hiring of a right-wing ideologue whose work was a tract against welfare.” Thank goodness they’ve established their political fides, even if they must sound like they are writing in 1968 and not 1958.

The sad fact is that, with all its squibs and chatter about Catholicism and the thirst for God, Frances and Bernard advances religion as merely a complex series of steps in the dance of courtship. Bauer’s novel is not a religious novel at all; it is a love story—a marriage plot, as we’ve been taught to say—dressed up to look like something else.

Bernard first raises the question of love eight months into their correspondence—in his eleventh letter—at which point they begin to discuss their friends’ marriages. Frances takes a job in New York and a room at the Barbizon. Two months later Bernard comes to town for a visit. Thus ends the first chapter of their courtship.

“I did not come to New York intending to kiss you,” Bernard writes to close the second chapter and open the third. (I am supplying the old-fashioned numbers Bauer withholds.) What he describes as a kiss, however, Frances describes as a “manic episode,” an outbreak of the mental illness that has been “lying in wait for him.” He surprises her by showing up unannounced at church. “It’s your birthday,” he begins to rave, “your feast day, and this is why I have come. Today is the day of Frances Reardon . . . patron saint of frigid knees. Of unmet wishes, of idées fixes, of withering eyes, of docile guise.” He gets up and starts walking up and down the central aisle, shouting, “This place is a place where the people come to drink. . . . They drink to forget, to die to what is real, they slump over in prayer, drinking and drinking in remembrance of me.” He begins throwing missals. An ambulance arrives, and it takes four attendants to wrestle him down and bear him away. Bernard is committed to a mental hospital outside Boston. The whole experience has turned her “into a crazy person too,” as Frances writes to her friend Claire (an old married friend who is to her as Sally Fitzgerald was to Flannery O’Connor)—she has entered “into the realm of what if and who’s there?”

Bernard loses his faith, and Frances tries to comfort him as best she can. After six months, he moves to New York and the fourth chapter of their romance begins. “See,” he says, “We can keep up a conversation without God at the center. . . .” Living in the same city, though, they do not write to each other—their conversations are kept up with others, to whom they confide the romantic details. Bernard kisses her again; her friend Claire reassures Frances that Bernard is in love with her; his friend Ted writes to reassure her that she is not just another of the “many infatuations” Bernard has had “when he is not in his right mind.” Frances takes him home to meet the family, who demonstratively approve. “I bet you keep each other good company,” her father says.

Then a fight—and Frances and Bernard become unreliable narrators, offering irreconcilable versions of what happened in letters to friends. By this point in the novel, fifty pages from the end, you are more likely to credit Frances. She has become a fascinating woman by this point, worrying that she has “vinegar where [her] blood should be.” “No man should give himself the way [Bernard] does to me,” she complains to Claire, “and receive mere acquiescence in return.” The conflicts within her are irreconcilable too. She is not sure that she can be a mother and also the writer she has set herself to be. (Bernard agrees: “[A]ll the women writers I know are libertines,” he says.) She dismisses herself as “lukewarm,” but the truth is otherwise. “[T]he more consciously spiritual a person appears to be,” she writes to Bernard in an early letter, “the less truly spiritual that person is.” The truth is that Frances is afraid, really, of only one thing—that she will be accused of exhibitionism, the pride of self-display, in either religion or romance. But the truth is also that, for all her complaints about the Church, she is a Christian—she is sane—and Bernard is neither.

Thus the inevitable breakup. Bauer’s resolution is disappointing—Frances marries a French professor, Bernard marries the girl who interviewed him for the Paris Review—but the disappointment of the ending is as nothing compared to what Bauer leaves unfinished and unexplored. In what might have been the novel’s climax, Frances bares her soul on a dark night in a letter to a nun she has befriended. She ends up not sending the letter (a nice touch), but only perhaps because her quarrel with God, as she herself says, is adolescent:Some of us have a talent for suffering—but I guess I don’t. What is the point of God if he cannot soothe us? What is the point of believing in something all-powerful if he cannot give you the strength to go on at this very moment? What is the point of other people if you cannot keep your hands on them?It is difficult to imagine that Flannery O’Connor would have much patience for all this. In The Habit of Being, which Bauer lists among her favorite books, O’Connor says that “modern liberal Protestantism” encourages us “to turn religion into poetry and therapy,” and if we aren’t getting what we want (“security and emotional release and sense of purpose” and what all) then we might as well reject it:Of course, I am a Catholic and I believe the opposite of all this. I believe what the Church teaches—that God has given us reason to use and that it can lead us toward a knowledge of him, through analogy; that he has revealed himself in history and continues to do so through the Church, and that he is present (not just symbolically) in the Eucharist on our altars. To believe all this I don’t take any leap into the absurd. I find it reasonable to believe, even though these beliefs are beyond reason.[3]But then the religiosity of Bauer’s Frances, with her mistrust of “severity” and priests (“I have never gone to a priest about anything in my life”) and parishioners (“Parishioners are not Christians,” she writes. “They are parishioners”), may owe more to modern liberal Protestantism than to Rome.

At a time when the novel of belief is said to have disappeared, it is gratifying to see a young writer of Carlene Bauer’s seriousness and talent equip her characters with religious experience and a religious vocabulary, even if she falls victim in the end to what Denis de Rougemont calls the universal propaganda on behalf of romantic passion. It’s also gratifying to see such a gifted first novelist return to the riches of the novel’s tradition, although you turn the last page and turn from Bernard’s plea to be kept in Frances’s prayers to Bauer’s own acknowledgments of her own friends and mentors—in the same typeface but a different tone of voice, as if these acknowledgments were not another document to be included in this epistolary novel. For next time, a word of advice. Send a letter.

[1] Robert Lowell, No. 211 (To Flannery O’Connor), The Letters, ed. Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), pp. 187–88.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, To “A” [Betty Hester], May 14, 1960, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), p. 395.

[3] O’Connor, To Alfred Corn, June 16, 1962, The Habit of Being, p. 479.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A farewell to Roth (for now)

It may be time for me to shut the hell up about Philip Roth. On Sunday afternoon, at the local Jewish Community Center’s “Day of Jewish Learning,” I offered a session called “Roth Roth Roth Roth Roth Roth Roth”—a private joke, a twist on Daniel Hoffman’s 1973 book Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Hoffman took his title from a line in Poe’s story “Berenice,” in which the narrator longs to “dream away whole days” by (among other methods) repeating, “monotonously, some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatsoever to the mind. . . .” Mimicking the narrator, Hoffman found himself repeating Poe’s name to himself until it became “not a name at all but now a note, a tone struck upon some inward anvil of my being, one syllable in a chord I strained to hear, an ineffable harmony plucked from some sphere beyond the meshes of our common feelings” (Hoffman was also a poet).

That’s a pretty good description, at all events, of the sense Roth’s name has come to have for me. I talk about Roth so often—I have become identified with Roth so closely, by those who know me and those who don’t—that my unwearied Roth-flogging has become a cliché, if not a joke. On Saturday night my wife and I went out with friends to see A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth installment in the Die Hard series. (Give me John McClane, shaved head, two-day stubble, old tee-shirt, over James Bond’s oversexed elegance any day.) My friend Benjy asked whether I would be teaching at the Day of Jewish Learning the next day. When I admitted I was, he said, “On Roth, right?”

When it came time for the class, exactly five students showed up. Including one man, a little younger than I, who demanded, as he was sitting down, “Just who is Roth?” Damned good question. In The Ghost Writer, an older Nathan Zuckerman explains why, at twenty-three, he had made a literary pilgrimmage to E. I. Lonoff, what Lonoff meant to him:

[His] fiction seemed to me a response to the same burden of exclusion and confinement that still weighed upon the lives of those who had raised me, and that had informed our relentless househould obsession with the status of the Jews. The pride inspired in my parents by the establishment in 1948 of a homeland in Palestine that would gather in the unmurdered remnant of European Jewry was, in fact, not so unlike what well up in me when I first came upon Lonoff’s thwarted, secretive, imprisoned souls, and realized that out of everything humbling from which my own striving, troubled father had labored to elevate us all, a literature of such dour wit and poignancy could be shamelessly conceived.Roth, in short, is someone the Jews might be proud of—a kosher end for this most treyfe of Jewish writers, about whom Marie Syrkin complained, in a 1973 letter to Commentary, that his portraits of the Jews are “straight out of the Goebbels-Streicher script.”

A large part of Roth’s genius is to have taken his critics seriously, even the most pious and disdainful among them. “Opposition determines your direction,” Maria tells Zuckerman in The Counterlife. “You would probably never have written those books about Jews if Jews hadn’t insisted on telling you not to.” Roth’s novels are (to use another phrase from The Counterlife) “conversational duels” between the spokesmen for different Jewish ways of life. Roth did not set out to take revenge on his critics; he admitted them into his fiction, where he could debate them (but only if he allowed them their say). And as the great Ruth Wisse says of much Jewish fiction, the drama is in the debate.

Of all Jewish writers, then, Roth is the one whom Jews, especially secularized American Jews, have a moral obligation to read. At least that’s what I claimed at the “Day of Jewish Learning.” (Fat lot of good it did Roth. Even if I convinced my listeners, I won him only an additional five readers.) If you aren’t going to go to shul and pray three times a day, if you aren’t going to emigrate to Israel and raise children to speak in Hebrew, then you can be a Jew, you can establish and explore your Jewish identity, by reading the fiction of Philip Roth.

None of the five “learners” laughed. Who deserves the credit for that? Maybe they were unsure whether to make me seriously. I meant every word, though. Postwar Jewish fiction, especially Roth’s fiction (but not only his), could be a source of pride to the Jews almost as gratifying as their chest-swelling Zionism. And why? Because it is very nearly as great a triumph as the establishment of the state of Israel. Heretical, I know—but only, perhaps, because the critics have been too nervous and indecisive to say so. (Hello, outrage!) And even if not quite as remarkable an achievement as the creation of a Jewish state, postwar Jewish fiction was nevetheless an indispensable means and an important symbol of the Jews’ advancement into the social and cultural mainstream. Consider the record. Saul Bellow, Vasili Grossman, Bernard Malamud, Amos Oz, Yehuda Amichai, Chaim Grade, Albert Cohen, Henryk Grynberg, Cynthia Ozick, Shulamith Hareven, Mordecai Richler, Aharon Appelfeld, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, Francine Prose, Leon de Winter, Howard Jacobson, Steve Stern, Michael Chabon—and those are just the biggest names! No matter how you slice it, postwar Jewish fiction is a monument to Jewish imagination and persistence. And Roth might just be the best writer of it.

He was certainly the one who made an issue of it. The Jews’ obsession with Jewish status, and the effect of that obsession on the Jewish writer who tried to write about it, was his overriding subject. After four decades of writing my own things about Roth, however—I wrote my first essay on him, “Philip Roth and the Toilet Bowl of American Fiction,” for my high-school literary magazine, although the faculty adviser spiked it—I am finding my own arguments less and less compelling. Perhaps because the Jews’ obsession with Jewish status belonged to a specific historical moment, which has now passed. The debates over Jewish identity in Roth’s fiction have begun to read like historical transcripts, and reading them has begun to seem like reading about the debates that determined and swirled around the Oxford Movement—fascinating but also foreign, fusty, and even a little amusing. It’s sometimes hard to believe that anyone got so worked up about such issues as the status of the Irish church and William Palmer’s “Branch Theory.” Or about the deracination of Jews in the suburbs. Or about fears of American antisemitism.

“What, another book on Poe!” Hoffman begins his own book. “Who needs it?” I suspect that’s what editors have said to themselves when I have pitched to them my plan for a comprehensive study of Roth, an intellectual biography from “The first time I saw Brenda” to “he seemed to us invincible.” No one seems to want any such book. Farewell, then, O friend of my youth and middle age! Farewell—until I can find a more compelling argument for your indispensability, a wider context for your peculiar genius.

Monday, March 04, 2013

A critic’s jealousy

In a Salon essay that is attracting a fair amount of attention, the critic Alexander Nazaryan has confessed that at least some of his book reviews will have to be tossed out now; they carry the “stench of bitterness.” He “trashed” the first novels by young men his own age (“young men whose profiles were similar to [his],” whatever that means away from Facebook), because he was “set aflame by jealousy.” They had done, you see, what he had not. They had finished a novel! They had gotten it published! His essay at Salon is Nazaryan’s apology to them.

Let me hurry to confess that I am jealous of Nazaryan, because he has a staff position at the New York Daily News, editing the paper’s Page Views book blog, and I do not. (By the way, does it qualify as Schadenfreude to observe that Commentary has not published a word of literary criticism since firing me in November?) I am not jealous of Nazaryan’s confession, though. Don’t misunderstand me. I am as beset by small-mindedness as any other critic. But I have never written a review out of jealousy, and cannot really understand what it would mean to do so. I have abused my share of bad books—Richard Ohmann’s Politics of Letters, Rafael Yglesias’s A Happy Marriage, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Rodger Kamenetz’s Burnt Books, Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet—but never out of the fear that their authors’ success magnified my own failure. For one thing, I did not consider the authors to be successes (even if I acknowledge that I am a failure). For another, I do not think literary success is a zero-sum game. Nor (although Nazaryan holds that only “hopeless naïfs” fail to do so) do I equate literary success with “fame, greatness and immortality, preferably in that order.”

My own small-mindedness, when I am overcome by it, reveals itself as self-righteousness, as if the Holy One, Blessed Be He, had called to me from a burning bush to act as the defender of literary tradition. I am not bitter that some writers have succeeded where I have failed; I am angry that they have settled for such a measly simulacrum of success. Consider Nazaryan’s own literary ambitions:

Allow me to be immodest: I would like to write the best thing about Brooklyn since William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and a campus novel to rival Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.William Styron and Donna Tartt? Really? That’s your idea of literary greatness, is it? Now imagine a young actor’s announcing his “immodest” ambition to do community theater.

Like Nazaryan, I too wanted to be a novelist once upon a time. (Till I admitted to myself that I lacked the talent.) My thwarted ambition to write fiction did not leave me jealous of published novelists, though. It gave me a specialized knowledge, an insider’s vantage—the same way an amateur tennis player can see things at the U.S. Open that escape those who have never tried to master the difficult game. But an amateur who is jealous of Roger Federer isn’t particularly interested in tennis; he is engaging in a narcissistic fantasy.

Nazaryan is quick to say that his confession of jealousy has not tainted all of his reviews, and I hope he is right. (I am personally grateful to him for his report on my firing.) I worry, though, that he may be wrong. He is like a crime lab that admits it fudged the results to get a conviction, but just in this one case—all its other results are accurate! A critic asks his readers to trust that his judgments are motivated by a disinterested passion for good books. And once that trust is lost. . . .