Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The verdict is in

In replying to my essay on the Los Angeles Review of Books policy to review first books positively or not at all, editor-in-chief Tom Lutz says all that is left of my argument, after you remove the bug from my ass and spice up the quotations from George Orwell and Arnold Isenberg, is “the standard, centuries-old idea that evaluation is an important part of the critical act.”

I’d be very disappointed if that were the case. But the problem may only be that I have been unclear. Let me be as plain as possible, then, and reduce my argument to propositions:

(1.) Evaluation is the critical act. It is not merely an “important part”; it is the whole. To speak of one is to speak of the other.
(2.) The critical act is a close-fitting interdependent system that requires (quoting Arnold Isenberg) a “value judgment or verdict[,] a particular statement or reason, [and] a general statement or norm.”
(3.) A critical verdict is not to be confused with evaluation. It is a partial evaluation.
(4.) If any part of the critical act is thrown into doubt, the entire system collapses.
(5.) To reduce critical verdicts to a single class of verdicts (e.g., “good”) is to throw the critic’s reasons and norms, upon which his verdicts depend, into doubt.

The sound you hear is the sound of collapse. And that, according to me, is the effect of the LARB’s policy of reviewing first books positively or not at all. My argument against it also falls back upon literary sociology, holding that the tenderness toward first-time authors reflects a generational shift toward the literary career and away from a conception of literature (in Cynthia Ozick’s words) as a “holy vessel of imagination.” (Philosophers continue to think about their vocation in terms almost as elevated.) Lutz suggests that I am a conspiracy theorist for thinking like this, but if I am, I am not alone. (Where did I put the aluminum foil?)

Perhaps the difference between Lutz and me can be put most starkly by laying his belief that “there are hundreds of great novels published every year” alongside my own skepticism that there are any more than one or two “great novels” published in a generation. Or, as Orwell says in the same essay I quoted yesterday, “Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.” And I think that a bad book needs to be called a bad book, even when it is a first book.

Our ideas of criticism have been diminished, though, by conceiving of it as the pronouncement of verdicts, no matter how sophisticated the critic at disguising his use of good and bad. In the last few years, I have tried out reviews without verdicts. (Editors hate them and insist that a verdict be appended.) Here, for example, is a first-novel review that I’m proud of, which works hard not to invent synonyms for good or bad. You’ll see that I observe the author failed to overcome his central difficulty, I remark upon his historical ignorance, I note his reliance upon the pathetic fallacy and his stumble into anachronism. My conclusion is to classify the novel rather than to give it thumbs up or thumbs down—to offer directions for readers who might not have a literary GPS system rather than warning them off going there at all. Even if it is implied rather than stated as such, my verdict is pretty clear, but would I want it said that my final judgment is that Woodsburner is a “bad” novel? I’d prefer it be described as a novel in which the central difficulty is not overcome, etc.

Every book deserves as much attention as its author gave it in writing it. For a critic to give it any less is to duck his responsibility to it. And I don’t see how the responsibility is curtailed by the various excuses I’ve heard for treating a first book differently—it is an easy target; it has no larger importance; trashing it adds nothing to literary culture. The truth is that, in advance of reading it, the critic cannot know any of this. And the only question is whether he is going to be permitted to say exactly what he has discovered in reading it. Anything less than a full disclosure of the critic’s opinion is, take umbrage at the phrase if you must, fundamentally dishonest.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

False positive

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a policy, which the editor Evan Kindley divulged in a Twitter back-and-forth on Friday, of reviewing first books positively or not reviewing them at all. The rationale behind the policy, Kindley explained, is “That most authors’ careers fade away on their own, and that it’s easy and not that interesting to eviscerate first-timers.” He allowed that the LARB “might make exceptions for insanely hyped debuts” like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and would “certainly run a constructive critique of a first book.” But it’s only fair—“ethical” was his word—“to give writers a grace period.”

Of course, the LARB policy is little more than the advice Nick Carraway’s father gave to him, albeit in clumsier words: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one . . . just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had all the advantage that you’ve had.” Or as my father taught me—a lesson that clearly did not take hold—“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” It represents the Elwood P. Dowd School of Life: “For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

As career counseling, or advice for the lovelorn, this is good stuff. As a literary ethic, it might be called the law of youth soccer—there are no losers, only winners. Trophies for everyone! I was surprised, though, at how much support Kindley received for his position on Twitter—and at how many misconceptions about reviewing abound.

The mystery novelist Daniel Friedman, for example, conceives the reviewer’s role as telling book-buyers what to pick up and what to leave unopened (see here and here). The reviewer, in other words, is a literary Fodor’s, instructing the literary traveler where to spend the night and where to linger over dinner. His guidance is practical and timely and quickly outdated. (No one keeps a three-year-old Fodor’s lying around.) There is no intrinsic interest in what he says. His opinions are consumed—patronized, depleted—in the book-buyers’ following of them. At best the reviewer is a well-informed assistant to an adventure that less timid and uncertain readers might prefer to discover for themselves.

I don’t imagine that I speak for myself alone in saying that I have no desire whatever to fill any such role. Not that I think so highly of myself. If I am to be an assistant, however, I will be an assistant not to book-buyers, but to literature. I have always admired philosophers—have always preferred their passion for their subject to that of writers and critics, whose lukewarmness is legion—because philosophers are the sworn enemies of vagueness and confusion. Error is never afforded a grace period. It is corrected without regard to personal circumstances, which are too many in any case (marital status, health, age, psychological condition) to factor in with any degree of certainty. Philosophy is what philosophers protect, not the tender green shoots of younger philosophers’ careers.

The LARB’s very sensitivity to first-time writers’ careers gives weight to what I have been saying for some time—namely, literature (or, rather, creative writing) has become a bureaucracy, which shields its employees from markets and thus tends over time to put its own interests above the public’s. Why should I care whether a young writer settles comfortably into a literary career?—especially a writer whose mediocrity eats at the public reputation of literature. (Just look what the bureaucratic careerists have done to what is now called literary fiction so that readers know to avoid it.)

More troubling is the fundamental dishonesty involved. What, really, is the good being promoted? The book under review or the reviewing assignment completed and published? (Kindley was dismissive of the reviewer’s practical concerns, but it is no simple matter to place a review elsewhere when it was originally written for another publication. The critic is not quite so blithe to dismiss his investment of time and energy.) If the only values assigned to first books are going to be positive values, they will quickly become debased. Orwell understood the danger clearly:

For if one says—and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week—that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word “good”?If all first books are good in some fashion or other, what is the point of calling any of them good? No discrimination is involved, only a priori institutional policy. To lay down special rules for first books may seem to relieve the anxiety of criticism, but the problem of individual judgment is not solved; it is merely eliminated from critical practice. The consequences are not pretty. Arnold Isenberg wrote in 1949:A good starting point is a theory of criticism . . . which divides the critical process into three parts. There is the value judgment or verdict (V): “This picture or poem is good—.” There is a particular statement or reason (R): “—because it has such-and-such a quality—.” And there is a general statement or norm (N): “—and any work which has that quality is pro tanto good.”[1]If the critic’s verdict cannot be trusted then every element in his critical system is called into question. This seems a terrible tax to pay on the fragile ambitions of first-time authors.

Many thanks to Steve Abernathy for suggesting my title.

[1] Arnold Isenberg, “Critical Communication,” Philosophical Review 58 (July 1949): 330–44.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Unpacking my (academic) library

After nearly three years in Ohio, I was able to take my academic books out of storage yesterday and move them into my new fourth-floor green-apple-green office on campus. The office is as narrow as an elephant’s coffin, but there is room in it for eight bookcases. Unlike Walter Benjamin, who was jerked into reflection before his books were even on his shelves, I started in immediately to release my books from their boxed confinement and arrange them in a rough semblance of an alphabet—the A’s just inside the office door, the middle of the alphabet having to wait until I’d removed enough boxes to reach the shelves over by the window. Before leaving Texas, I had packed the books in “the mild boredom of order” and carefully noted the contents in Sharpie on all four sides of each cardboard box. I asked the movers to leave the boxes marked Aar–Aris and Aris–Barz in the hallway outside, and I attacked those boxes with a utility knife right away.

Before long, though, I was reduced to guessing where Henry James and Dr. Johnson would end up when, days from now, I would finally be done. I had gone without these books for almost three years, and though I had missed very few of them, I was warmed by their familiarity. My library is like an intellectual autobiography. As I lifted books out of their boxes, blowing the dust off the top edge, I was able to retrace my steps. There were the books from my undergraduate years, when I was an American studies major (just like Tom Wolfe!). There was John Kouwenhoven’s Made in America, Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land, Seymour Martin Lipset’s First New Nation. There were the poets I read to keep up with my friends at Santa Cruz, all of whom seemed to be would-be poets—John Haines, William Stafford, W. S. Merwin. There were the books from graduate school—D. W. Robertson’s Preface to Chaucer, L. C. Knights’s Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson, William Empson’s Milton’s God. There were the philosophers on whom I broke my teeth when I first arrived to teach at Texas A&M, because the younger colleagues whose company I preferred were in philosophy—Donald Davidson, Nelson Goodman, Paul Grice. None of these would I buy again, or even reread, but I have no inclination to dispose of them (even if I knew how), and to own them—to stand them in the light on my office shelves—makes me happy.

The reason did not strike me until I had unpacked several volumes of essays by now-forgotten critics who were not prominent even in their own day—William Troy, Theodore Spencer, D. G. James, Benjamin DeMott (his Supergrow was badly damaged by mildew), W. C. Brownell, Maxwell Geismar, Mark Krupnick, John Fraser, Arnold Isenberg, F. W. Dupee, Eliseo Vivas. I who dislike story collections am a sucker for Selected and Collected Essays, and have been since long before I began to identify with their authors. Theirs are the books that give personal character to my library like drapes and wall colors in a room. What they suggest is that my library is also a geniza, where I keep and store (in Hillel Halkin’s words) “books of which no one had known; known books of which no copies had survived; the lost works of . . . poets and philosophers.” My library is a monument (or tomb) for a way of literary life that is quickly passing (and perhaps has already passed away).

Its motto is something I tweeted earlier this morning: If you are committed to good writing, then everything you write is in its defense. Substitute good scholarship or good thought for “good writing,” first here and then there, and you can account for the commitment that produced every book in my library. Can the same principle account for every book in the public libraries, which are furious to buy up multiple copies of current bestsellers for readers unwilling to invest their own money in things that cannot last? I may be the last man alive who recognizes some of the authors in my library, but there is something strangely consoling in that. My library is organized upon the principle that obscurity is not the same as being utterly forgotten. And who knows? Perhaps the principle will hold good even for me!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

All the sad young onlooker narrators

With The Great Gatsby back in the news because of Baz Luhrmann’s new film version, so too is the special kind of narrator Fitzgerald enlisted for his great novel. On Twitter the other day I suggested the term “onlooker narrator” for Nick Carraway’s kind; in The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth further subdivides the class into “mere observers (the ‘I’ of Tom Jones, [George Meredith’s] The Egoist, Troilus and Criseyde)” and what he calls “narrator-agents, who produce some measurable effect on the course of events (ranging from the minor involvement of Nick in The Great Gatsby, through the extensive give-and-take of Marlow in Heart of Darkness, to the central role of Tristram Shandy, Moll Flanders, Huckleberry Finn, and—in the third person—Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers).”

Booth’s own examples break down the subdivision, though. The “narrators” of Tom Jones, The Egoist, and Troilus and Criseyde are not characters in the narrative. The omniscient narrative style of The Portrait of a Lady might as well be called an “observer narrator,” since James drops into first person here and there—even though he is pretty clearly referring to himself, the author of the novel held in the reader’s hands. (If you ask me, so is Fielding.) But modernism is modernism: if the use of the first person indicates what Booth calls a “dramatized narrator,” then what is good for Fielding is equally good for James. After all, it represents a break with the omniscience of the Victorian novel, as implied by both E. M. Forster (“One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister”) and Zadie Smith (“One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father”) before both of them proceed to write something very much like a throwback to the Victorian novel.

The far more beguiling technique, because far less common, is Fitzgerald’s secondary character who also participates in events. His access to facts is limited, because he is a person in the drama, but he conceives his role as a secretary, a gatherer and reporter of information—at least Nick does—and so he may try to find out about events he does not witness firsthand. If this kind of narrative is to succeed, the novelist (or his critics) must be able to answer the question that the Amateur Reader, during a discussion of Gatsby, posed on Twitter the other day: What does the narrator understand himself to be doing? The novelist Wright Morris adds one more question in his little-known 1975 book About Fiction: “How do we distinguish, with assurance, between the ‘I’ of the narrator and that of the author?”

Oddly enough, Morris’s question comes up in praising Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, which Will Wilkinson advanced as a classic of the “onlooker narrator” method. What are the others? The narrator must not be telling his own story, but someone else’s—not even his own story at a distance in time, making him an “onlooker” upon his younger self. He must be a witness, close to the action, even involved in it (peripherally), but not swept up in the catastrophe. All characters in fiction are “agents,” to greater or lesser degree; the smallest gesture may cause the universe to rock on its axis. Booth’s distinction between “observer” and “agent” is all thumbs, then. His example of Marlow in Heart of Darkness is on target, though (again) the line of demarcation between an onkooker’s narrative and a frame story is thin and faded. The method is also standard in detective fiction, when the detective tells in first person the solution to a mystery in which he is not implicated.

Despite the distinguished examples of Conrad, Ford, and Fitzgerald, though—despite the intrinsic fictional interest of the method—it is rarely tried. More recent examples are thus more difficult to come up with, although they are almost always enjoyable to read. Pnin is narrated by Pnin’s colleague, a fellow Russian emigré named Vladimir something. R. V. Cassill’s 1961 novel Clem Anderson is the story of a famous larger-than-life drunken and destructive poet (modeled upon Dylan Thomas), told by a witness to the destruction. Steven Millhauser’s 1972 novel Edwin Mullhouse goes a step further than Cassill: it is a faux literary biography of a great American writer, who dies at eleven, narrated by a friend who is six months older.

Calder Willingham (a clever novelist who does not deserve to be forgotten) used an onlooker narrator to tell the story of Rambling Rose (1972), a family housekeeper and the young narrator who has a crush on her. (Martha Coolidge’s 1991 film version mislaid the novel’s charm, because it could not invent an equivalent of the onlooker narrator’s voice.) Malcolm Bradbury’s Mensonge (1987) is both a hilarious send-up of literary theory and perhaps the best single-volume introduction to it—a professor who is “in the know” sets out to write the biography of theory’s most obscure theorist (“If I will thus have played some small part in lifting him from nowhere, and putting him somewhere, then I fancy my life, or one very small part of it, will not have been totally—despite what everyone says—in vain”). And though the last thing I want is to sprinkle any more praise on its head—in Mark Sarvas’s words, people are going to start thinking my relationship to the author is more bromance than Boswell—Christopher R. Beha makes brilliant use of a witness who is too self-involved to understand exactly What Happened to Sophie Wilder, but whose witness is indispensable to the whole picture.

Beha’s novel is a reminder than our method is native and necessary to the saint’s life, in which a scribe must testify to a saintliness he himself cannot lay claim to. But at least since Sholem Aleichem, it is equally native to Jewish fiction in which a famous writer serves as an amanuensis for a more responsible and less literary soul, who needs his story told. Who, after all, is Nathan Zuckerman if not a Jewish Nick Carraway?

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Darlings of oblivion

Vladimir Nabokov was wont to fall into a reverie over nail clippings, bitten-off cuticles, tufts of lint plucked off a sleeve, bits of food picked from between the teeth and spat out. After disposing of these tiny scraps of human life, no one thinks of them any more. Since matter is neither created nor destroyed, what becomes of them? They go on existing, but in a realm beyond human concern. Nabokov called them the darlings of oblivion.

After nursing two of my children through week-long stomach viruses and then watching them bounce off to school this morning as if nothing had happened, I’ve been thinking about how much of human life consists of events that are also darlings of oblivion—the stomach cramps, the headaches, the sleepless nights, the full glasses of milk that are knocked over and spilled across the clean kitchen floors, the flat tires, the dead batteries, the traffic jams, the appointments that are late. Entire days can be lost to these events; they can be, at the time, as absorbing as tragedy; then, once they have passed, they are forgotten. How much of human life disappears into oblivion like this?

These darlings almost never find their way into literature. And why is that? Does literature represent an altogether different ideology of human experience—the ideology of the dramatic occurrence? Despite all the political radicals who have written literary masterpieces, does it turn out to belong to philosophical idealism, postulating the human being not as a material creature, defined by the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, but a spiritual being who recognizes himself in the heights and depths? Is literature, in short, a relic of pre-scientific understanding, a nostalgia entirely innocent of evolutionary psychology, consoling itself with the charming fantasy that all of human behavior is not a product of natural selection? Or in a way that neo-Darwinist thought never could be (since it denies to itself the very possibility of appeal to a non-materialist mind), is literature founded upon the necessary relationship between dramatic occurrences and the darlings of oblivion?

My cancer has left me with one leg that is a half-inch shorter than the other. I walk with a cane now and a permanent limp. Even worse, my bones creak and click together when I walk—nothing painful, but a little creepy. In a word, walking is effortful. I watch my five-year-old daughter Mimi dash off to class and I sigh with pleasure. I might as well be watching the Blue Angels for all I can imagine myself doing the same thing. Every morning I forget how difficult it has become to walk—every time I sit down, for that matter—and then I get up, and every stride absorbs my full attention. No more tumbling into ditches while walking around daydreaming for me!

The darlings of oblivion are not the contraries of the dramatic occurrences, not their contradictions and cancellations—they do not represent the fundamental truth about man. But they are not insignificant either. They are the discards and shavings, the elemental remains of elemental human living, which serve as reminders—they call to mind—that man is not merely mind. They give material reality to human experience, but they are not merely matter: they are also reminders. No wonder Nabokov called them darlings. He wanted them to have meaning, and more than oblivion. They are, after all, incapable of saying what they themselves mean—just as natural adaptation is incapable of formulating the theory of evolutionary psychology. Only the human mind is capable of such self-reflection, and of transforming ordinary events into dramatic occurrences—like the day-to-day struggle with cancer, for example.

Friday, May 03, 2013

First instinct of her generation

Claire Messud’s impatience with an interviewer from Publishers Weekly who asked it she’d want to be friends with her own main character caused a stir, but nowhere more so than at Slate, where Katie Roiphe attributed Messud’s impatience to a “certain prickliness on the part of women writers” which is “currently fashionable.”

First Messud’s outburst, which has gone “viral” (as the saying has it). She had just finished describing Nora Eldridge, the narrator of The Woman Upstairs, her fifth novel, as middle-aged, single, and angry. “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Annasue McCleave Wilson, the interviewer for PW innocently asks. Messud explodes:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”Unlike the Paris Review, the publishers’ trade weekly does not explain the format and setting of its interviews—whether Messud was speaking extemporaneously, from an edited transcript of a face-to-face conversation, or is engaged in an email exchange is left undisclosed. Whatever the case, her response is remarkable. It summarizes an entire literary worldview and theory in one breath. It should be taped to the foreheads of all those readers who want characters they can “relate” to. Is this character alive? Is she, in other words, a human being? For a novelist of Messud’s realist presuppositions and allegiances, any other question made primary would be naïve and irrelevant.

Now, I’ve been an admirer of Messud for a while. Her 2006 novel The Emperor’s Children, I wrote in Commentary, “is probably the best novel to come out of September 11.” So I’ll acknowledge that I was predisposed to applaud Messud’s response. And what is more, Messud says in far fewer words, far more memorably, what I had struggled to say about the real existence of fictional characters earlier in the year (“To pretend to know something about a character when the novel is silent about it is to reveal something about ourselves, not about the novel”).

At all events, what I heard in Messud’s outburst was a working novelist, a species whom, in its most powerful form, displays the highly developed instincts of a fearsome literary critic. What I heard was a serious writer viciously attacking a serious problem of literature.

But that’s not what Katie Roiphe heard. What Katie Roiphe heard was gender. In her opening sentence, she categorized Messud’s outburst as the “latest fracas over literary sexism.” She allowed that Messud “does not say overtly that her interviewer is being sexist,” but the question about befriending literary characters is implicitly sexist—Messud herself implies it is. How? By “listing male writers who would never be asked that question (and tacking on Alice Munro ‘for that matter’ to make it clear that her list had been about men).” Then, bored with the “fracas,” and having satisfied herself that she knows Messud’s mind, Roiphe hurries on to talk about her own literary experience.

Roiphe’s interpretation of Messud’s response was so distant from mine, so foreign to it, that I was thunderstruck. Belonging to a different sex and an older generation (Messud and Roiphe are fourteen and sixteen years younger than I), I concluded that I was merely demonstrating, once again, how out of step I am. Rereading the whole PW interview with a renewed attention to gender, I found that it had been Messud who first introduced its note. After naming the fiction about which she is passionate (Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Beckett, Camus, Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, Thomas Bernhard), she went on to say:[T]hese books I love, they’re all books by men—every last one of them. Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.But damn me, I couldn’t stop hearing the voice of a writer who was setting herself an interesting literary problem to solve. If it is unseemly and dangerous for a man to be angry, a fortiori it is worse for a woman: what then would it be like? Gender revealed the problem but did not constitute it. Any more than the physical condition of a woman with an artificial hip, who sets off the metal detector every time she goes through airport security, is the problem. The problem, God forgive me for saying it, is a human one.

Everything else about her language suggests that Messud agrees. As a writer, she is concerned with illuminating, she says, a “particular human experience.” The question at the heart of her fiction is “how then must we live?” And this question can “only be addressed in the individual, not in the general.” Her narrator Nora is an angry woman, but she is also single and approaching middle age, and[a]s any of us approaches middle age, we inevitably come up against our limitations: the realization that certain dearly-held fantasies may not be realized; that circumstances have thwarted us; that even with intention and will we may not be able to set our ship back on the course we’d planned.Messud habitually speaks the language of humanism, not feminism.

My point is not to scold Katie Roiphe, even if I believe the implication of sexism that she finds in the interview question that so angered Claire Messud is only the anger over sexism Roiphe herself brings to many literary encounters. If I am right about Messud’s motivation, however, it means that she is just as badly out of step as am I—that putting literary problems before gender is not the first instinct of her generation, nor of the literary present.

Update: Corey Robin blasts Katie Roiphe for being “inattentive” to Claire Messud’s words, anticipating many of the points I would make a little later.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

An old story for the National Day of Prayer

An autobiographical story about prayer on the National Day of Prayer. Those who know both of us, at least through our writing, know that the young literary critic Michael Schaub was once my student at Texas A&M University. If I had anything at all to do with Michael’s development into such a promising critic, he is my greatest achievement in twenty years at A&M.

On Twitter, Michael and I tease each other a lot about our teacher-student relationship, now more than a decade and a half old, but neither of us has ever told the full story of how we became more than just names on a class schedule to each other.

Every semester, the A&M Christian Fellowship would bring an evangelical preacher named Tom Short to campus. He would preach in the central plaza on the College Station campus while students milled around, some listening, some jeering, some merely passing by. In the fall of 1996, Short was embroiled in a controversy over an antisemitic remark that he allegedly directed at a Jewish student. The next semester, shortly before Easter, I staged an unannounced protest during his spring visit to campus. But let Michael tell it. A sophomore at the time, he was writing for the Battalion (the student newspaper), and this is the story he filed with his editor:

      On a hot Thursday afternoon, David Myers walked to the mall in front of the Academic Building with his prayer shawl and prayerbook and began to recite his afternoon prayers. Yards away, evangelist Tom Short was speaking to a small group of students.
      “I was unfolding my prayer shawl, and Short said, ‘Here we're going to have some self-righteousness,’ ” Myers said. “He started to rant about how my prayers were wrong, how I shouldn't pray in public. But Jews have to pray in public.”
      Myers, an associate professor of English, addressed the crowd, telling the gathered students that “every man should have a right to choose how he's going to worship his God.”
      The crowd applauded Myers, who walked away, telling Short, “You're not worth listening to.”
      The A&M Christian Fellowship brought Short, a professional “campus preacher,” to speak on campus on March 20 and 21.
      The confrontation between Short and Myers punctuated a growing national controversy over religious intolerance on the Texas A&M campus.
      Short’s last appearance at A&M, last semester, made national news when he told Jewish student Lisa Foox that “Hitler did not go far enough” and that Jews were condemned to “burn in hell.”
      The incident led to A&M being listed as a major center of hate by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a civil rights organization for Jews.
      Rabbi Peter Tarlow of the Hillel Foundation said Short is an anti-Semite. “He's done A&M a lot of harm,” Tarlow said. “This reconfirms the stereotype that A&M only cares about white Christians.”
      But members of the A&M Christian Fellowship deny that Short advances anti-Semitic ideas.
      Melissa Villarrel, a junior education major, said Short’s message is positive. “He tells the truth, just like Jesus did,”" Villarrel said. “He is in no way anti-Semitic.”
      Short also denied charges of anti-Semitism in a tract he distributed at his rally. The tract states that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
      “I don't have any hostility at all toward Jews,” Short said. “You can love a person and disagree with them. Anyone who knows me as a person would be shocked by that [allegation of anti-Semitism].”
      But Foox, a journalism major, disagrees. “If you put in a phrase that the Jewish people killed Jesus Christ, there's no worse form of anti-Semitism you can promote,” Foox said.
      Despite the attention that Short’s last visit brought A&M, campus leaders have not denounced his anti-Semitism, Myers said.
      “The administration, the local clergy have not made a public statement to condemn this man,” Myers said. “He is a force for division, hatred, and violence.”
      Short accused Myers of name-calling after the professor left the rally.
      Foox’s Mail Call letter [to the editor] last year prompted Short to write a response to the Battalion. “In his letter, he called me a liar like Hitler,” Foox said. “My grandmother's family was all killed in the Holocaust. This has been very, very difficult.”
      Short denies he ever made the remark that "Hitler did not go far enough."
      “I was grossly misrepresented,” Short said in his tract. “The Holoocaust was a terrible evil. None of the victims of the Holocaust deserved to have been persecuted as they were.”
      Short's denial of his anti-Semitism is ridiculous, Myers said. “This guy is an obvious anti-Semite,” Myers said. “Anti-Semitism is the teaching of contempt. I can’t think of a better phrase for what Tom Short does. He teaches contempt. The Holocaust came out of that kind of behavior.”
      Short said he has suffered from misrepresentations of his statements on the A&M campus.
      Short’s tract contains the sentence, “Whoever rejects Jesus Christ will surely be damned.”
      “Why would anybody not be a Christian?” Short said. “God does not give us the option to believe differently.”
      Tarlow compared Short to Hezbollah, the Muslim terrorist group. “At least he’s an equal opportunity hater,” Tarlow said. “Gays are still his favorite group to bash. And I guess we [Jews] are No. 2. But he's also started to bash Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Catholics.”
      Tarlow said he advises his congregation to react to Short's attacks with dignity. “Don't lower yourself to his level,” Tarlow said. “You can't expect everyone to go around loving you, but you can expect a certain level of civility.
      “Tom Short went beyond that level of civility.”
      Myers and Tarlow both said they worry about the image Short and the A&M Christian Fellowship are giving the university.
      “He's an intolerant bigot,” Myers said. “He's unchristian. He teaches contempt for homosexuals, non-Christians, nonwhites, anyone who’s not like him.”
      Tarlow said Short's appearances on the A&M campus prove the campus is insensitive to Jews.
      “Are there people here who are ignorant? Yes,” Tarlow said. “Are people insensitive? Often. Is the campus racist or anti-Semitic? No. This is not by any means Berlin, 1939.”
      Eddie Vitulli, a junior horticulture major and A&M Christian Fellowship member, said he supports Short’s “message of truth.”
      “He's preaching the gospel the way it’s supposed to be preached,” Vitulli said. “There's nothing wrong with that.”
      Short said he is confident of the message he preaches.
      “Sure, God hates, absolutely,” Short said, “God does not say, ‘Believe what you want to believe, follow what you want to follow.’ ”
The story doesn’t end there. After the A&M Christian Fellowship complained to the Battalion that Michael could not possibly be objective because he is gay, his story was killed—even though neither the paper’s editor nor its faculty adviser tried to demonstrate any lack of objectivity in the story itself. The principle was clear: a gay man was prohibited from reporting on an evangelical preacher who is anti-homosexual, even if there were no evidence the reporter’s sexual orientation affected his reporting in any way whatever. Robert Wegener, the faculty adviser, explained to Schaub that his story was not newsworthy, despite the rather striking appearance of an Orthodox Jew in the middle of an overwhelmingly Christian campus, swaying in a tallit just feet from an angry preacher who was denouncing him.

What did the Battalion consider newsworthy instead on the day when Michael’s story would have run? The paper’s lead story was headlined, Resurrection Week: Activities focus on outreach, and it began like this: “Easter weekend is approaching and Resurrection Week, a week that commemorates the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is here.” Later in the story, reporter Jackie Vratil writes without attribution: “People of all kinds come out and participate in Resurrection Week.” All the news that’s fit to print!

Although I petitioned and agitated the Texas A&M administration for redress of the patent discrimination against Michael by a faculty member and an official organ of the university, nothing was ever done. I was successful in enlisting the English and philosophy departments in our protest—perhaps the only time my colleagues in English ever followed my lead in anything—but the administration waited out the incident in unbroken silence and permitted the official silencing of a young gay man, to say nothing of an evangelical Christian group’s intimidation of the student newspaper, to go unchecked. The experience cemented Michael’s and my friendship. It also taught me that Kierkegaard was wrong in saying that prayer only changes the person offering the prayer. It can also change a public, even if it is barely audible and offered in protest.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Your summer reading list

Last year about this time, when I was still being paid regularly by a national magazine for doing such work, I drew up a summer reading list. It’s May now, and I’m working for free. Classes are over or are ending at most universities. Time to stock up on books that are sprawling (“We laid off our best editor before this came in”—Mark Athitakis), brave (“We couldn't talk the author out of these terrible, terrible sex scenes”—Michael Schaub), lyrical (“Uses adjectives”—the Amateur Reader), and luminous (“Also adverbs”—ibid.).

I don’t know how good these are; with the exception of the first one listed, I haven’t read them. Some sound better than others; some of the authors are better known than others. But somewhere among these twenty-five titles there must be something you can take along on vacation without regret. Me? I’m most excited about Rick Bass’s novel and Allison Lynn’s. I’m skeptical of Roxana Robinson’s, but can’t wait to finish it. The real addition to American literature, though, is Katherine A. Powers’s collection of her father’s letters.

• Kingsley Amis, The Alteration (New York Review Book Classics, May). Amis’s brilliant alternate history of the modern world if Martin Luther had become pope and the Reformation had never occurred. Originally published in 1976.

• Rick Bass, All the Land to Hold Us (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August). All about George W. Bush’s hometown in multiple layers of fiction about oil wildcatters, high school football, displaced Mormons: a novel to prove me wrong about place in the contemporary American novel.

• Robert Boswell, Tumbledown (Graywolf, August). In his first novel in a decade, Boswell tells the story of a 33-year-old man who appears headed for success and steers for failure instead.

• Italo Calvino, Letters, 1941–1985 (Princeton University Press, May). The first collection of letters by the great Italian novelist.

• Truman Capote, The Complete Stories (Modern Library, May). Does not, however, include “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

• Edwidge Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf, August). Seven years after her mother dies in childbirth, a Haitian girl disappears before her father can give her to another family to raise.

• Cristina Garcia, King of Cuba (Scribner, May). A Miami exile in his eighties plots to murder Fidel Castro, who has tired of life and torturing dissidents.

• Gail Godwin, Flora (Bloomsbury, May). For her fourteenth novel, Godwin rewrites The Turn of the Screw among an atomic scientist’s children at the end of World War II.

• Allan Gurganus, Local Souls (Liveright, September). In his first book of fiction since 1997, Gurganus returns to the setting of his celebrated first novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All for three linked novellas about the South in the internet age.

• Dara Horn, A Guide for the Perplexed (W. W. Norton, September). A software prodigy invents a program that is like a postmodern Cairo Geniza, recording everything computer users do. Like many other novels right now, an “interweaving” of stories from different time periods.

• Thomas Keneally, The Daughters of Mars (Atria, August). The author of Confederates, perhaps the best historical novel about the American Civil War (yes, author of Schindler’s List too), turns his narrative talents on World War I.

• Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Knopf, September). Two lifelong Indian friends are torn apart by a radical political movement.

• Allison Lynn, The Exiles (Little A, July). Starting over in Rhode Island—after losing everything except the ten-month-old kid upon arrival.

• Colum McCann, TransAtlantic (Random House, June). A tour de force in which three different transatlantic crossings—each separated by some seven decades—are juxtaposed with implied linkage.

• Alice McDermott, Someone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, September). A family chronicle set in Brooklyn during and after the Second World War by the underappreciated novelist of Irish-American Catholic life.

• Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, May). Not exactly ripped from the headlines, but a lucky accident of timing: a first novel about the Chechen war.

• Steven Moore, The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600–1800 (Bloomsbury, August). From Don Quixote to Cao Xueqin’s Dream of Red Mansions, which Moore calls the greatest novel of the period, a contrarian and international history.

• Howard Norman, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July). Mark Athitakis praises it as the best book of the year so far. A coming-of-age memoir by the author of The Northern Lights.

• Craig Nova, All the Dead Yale Men (Counterpoint, June). A sequel to his brilliant Good Son, originally published three decades ago, in which the son of the earlier book becomes a father (no less dictatorial?) in the later.

• Thomas G. Pavel, The Lives of the Novel (Princeton University Press, September). The history of the novel from ancient Greece to the program era, arguing that a conflict between idealism and satire makes sense of the genre’s progress.

• Katherine A. Powers, ed., Suitable Accommodations: An Auto­bio­graphical Story of Family Life—The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August). The great comic novelist, author of the classic Morte D’Urban, had long planned to write a novel of family life. His daughter, one of our best literary critics, has collected her late father’s letters and organized them into the novel he wanted to write.

• Roxana Robinson, Sparta (Sarah Crichton, June). The author of Cost tries her very best to give a balanced account of a U.S. Marine’s return home from the war in Iraq.

• Jane Urquhart, Sanctuary Line (MacLehose Press, September). The eighth novel by the Canadian novelist whose Underpainter won the 1997 Governor General’s Award tells the story of a woman who, hammered by loss, returns to her family’s deserted farmhouse to study the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly.

• Adelle Waldman, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Henry Holt, July). For her debut novel, Waldman sets out to upset the Vida counters and everyone unhappy with Wikipedia’s category of women writers by telling the story of a male hipster’s literary debut.

• Steve Yarbrough, The Realm of Last Chances (Knopf, August). A loosely attached couple relocates from California to Massachusetts and settles in next door to another loosely attached couple. Guess what happens.

Steve Abernathy points out a forthcoming novel that I overlooked: The Shanghai Factor by the great spy novelist Charles McCarry, one of my personal favorites. The only reason it doesn’t belong on the list above is that I have no doubts about how good it will be.