Category Archives: Literary Criticism

High on Hal

You can buy the witty detective novel, Stein Stoned, by Hal Ackerman, UCLA  screenwriting prof, at

Full disclosure: I’ve known the old author ever since he was a young author.


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Down with Profundity

The digitial revolution has made life a multiple choice, which is why I chose to categorize this post as “literary criticism.” It’s like those awful outgoing corporate phone message trees that give you a set of options, then another, then another — when the one you really want isn’t on the menu. And you think, “The bastards knew it all along, which is why they failed to respond in the first place or just buried the “operator” option beyond the horizon of  your patience.

What I’m posting about isn’t high falutin’ lit crit, but just ramblings. Observations about Updike and other authors with whose work I’ve bonded over the years. At 64 I have much less need for pretense  about my literary taste. It’s thoroughly middlebrow: Ukdike, R. Ford, Alice Munro — realists, all. Nothing experimental about them. Same with Coetzee.

In graduate school 40 years ago I did take up not so much with the avant garde as with modernists, which gave my an excuse to plunge into the circle of artists around William Carlos Williams. I liked him from the get-go. His work seems to me to exemplify a mission statement I saw in a furniture store window: Mies van der Rohe’s observation that what he sought was an interesting plainness. That’s Williams. His  work is words of one syllable — so plain that his red wheelbarrow has inspired and flummoxed and irritated generations of students trying to get his “meaning.” But his meaning is plain enough: So much depends on a red wheel barrow.

True, enough. In so many ways. We all depend on the darned thing, the implement. And because I  know Williams was a hobbyist painter, it’s plain enough for me to see the resonant red of that wheelbarrow and the white of those chickens beside that wheel barrow. Williams liked to write poems about painters — Pictures from Bruegel is the title of one of his finest collections — and he hung around with and corresponded with painters who saw the way he saw: Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth. The Ford Rouge plant. Hopperesque painterliness but stripped of the deep dark noir melodrama that jumps out at you in Hopper. Williams liked  plain things — flowers in his garden, broken glass in the street, brick buildings, fire trucks. He saw with a child’s eye and he heard fire engines with a child’s thrilled imagination of speed and daring, the way a child looks at a picture book of red firetrucks with big bold numbers across them.

I wanted to love Henry James and Jane Austen and Faulkner, but couldn’t get it up for them. What I like about Conrad is the exoticism, the escape, the redemption — a grownup Robert Louis Stevenson. Really, not that far from Swift’s Gulliver — all those bizarre places. Escape attracted me to literature in the first place. Escape from lies, lies and damned lies. Lies my parents told me, and lies that their evasions and silences told me. So here was Dickens who told the truth about isolation and anxiety and rejection and struggle. And here was Henry Miller who told the truth about desire — the way the outsized absurd outrageous farce of it put into perspective the fear of the body, the terror of social disapprobation, the discomfort over dirty words.  Unlike Lawrence, though, he never preached or philosophized or preened. He just catted around and burned the midnight oil and fucked and laughed and burned with ambition to be published and be known and be famous and have enough money to live on the other side of the hell of tedious stupefying ridiculous sorts of work

My tastes are pedestrian, all right. I like plainness well enough. Huck Finn’s my favorite novel because it gets me every time. It’s him — Huck. It’s him, Twain. Nor do I think it’s paradoxical that I was drawn to the phenomenologist Bachelard, with his delicious explorations of “spaces” in literature and life:the infinite tininess inside objects like shoes; the dark and passed-over spaces inside closets; the black and white vastness of the space above earthly space. All those spaces are plain enough. What’s not so plain is the imagination at work uncovering those spaces, those plain places that hide in plain sight.

I would have loved to interview Bachelard, as I interviewed Henry Miller at his home in the Pacific Palisades. So plain spoken and direct and full of good cheer for an 88-year-old guy. And why shouldn’t he have been? He seemed to be in reasonably good health and he had a succession of pretty young women coming in to care for him. He had another year of life and he’d already lived so richly and productively and brilliantly and articulately that he might well have given death hardly a second thought.

Thoreau’s plain, too. Yes, I know: He’s a mystic. But the plainness and humor comes first. Like Churchill advised writers: shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, shorter words.

From this angle of mine, they’re all plain enough, the writers I’ve bonded with. Even Freud. You think I’m kidding? Not at all. I read a handful of his books when I was in high school.The Psychopathology of Everyday Life — the whole idea of that book is about the plain and the everyday. Same with Erving Goffman: The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Forget the “depth” and “profundity” (spatial metaphors, as Bachelardians know). Look to the surfaces of things. As Williams said, No ideas but in things. Wheel barrows. Chickens. Slips of the tongue. Verbal “strategies.” Mies van der Rohe chairs with no arm rests. The Seagrams Building on Park Avenue — all those little window spaces and the boxiness and straight up-and-downness of the pretty building. A squared-off beehive. How Miller looked at sex, as a natural, plain behavior — nothing to take with anything like what must have seemed like the  pretentious seriousness of Lawrence with his “peace that comes from fucking” and all that. Dickinson’s plain, too (“I felt a funeral in my brain”; “I’m nobody–who  are you?”). Her greatness lies precisly in her plainness; her littleness is her immensity.

So down with pretense and profundity and complexity and chaos theory and all that. The hell with it. Here’s to the exquisite plainness of things and to the artists who recognized it and took the time and had the talent to tell me about it.

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“That’s nice,” he says, and goes back  into his room and comes out a minute later wearing his bathrobe, for modesty she supposes, with his own mother. You think of all the times you changed their  diapers and gave them a bath and then one day you’re shut out. It’s a summer weight robe, purply paisley, that reminds her of what  rich people used  to wear in movies when she was a girl. Robes, smoking jackets, top hats and white ties, folowing white gowns if you were Ginger Rogers, up to your chin in ostrich feathers or was it white fox? Young people now don’t have that to live up to, to stive toward, the rock stars jut wear dirty blue jeans and even the baseball players, she has noticed  looking over Harry’s shoulder at the television, don’t bother to shave, like the Arab terrorists. When she was a girl nobody had money but people had dreams.”

–John Updike (1990). Rabbit at Rest.

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From Crisis to Poetry

Lead piece in this week’s New York Review of Books — crisis in the financial markets. a review of  a book called A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ’08 and the Descent into Depression.

Failure: the father of crisis. The failed state of Somalia launches the crisis of twenty-first century piracy.

The familiar crises of our time are the children of failed states, failed negotiations, failed systems, failed corporations, failed policies, failed leaders.

The anti-immigrationist right wing is blaming the breakout of swine flu (school children sickened in Texas and New York City) on the failure to wall out Mexicans from the porous borders of the U.S.

Has the world come down with a bad case of the vapors?  So it would appear.

Writing about the financial meltdown, Robert Solow blames the crisis, in part, on “the inevitability of market imperfections.”  Crisis is built into the capitalist market system. Crisis is pre-determined, like death and taxes. We should have learned to expect the next sucker punch.

Yet we are restive. Unprepared.  The world seems out of joint, foreclosing all around us, taking our homes, our jobs, our retirement funds, our sleep.

The age of crisis is at once the age of uncertainty, failure and the expectation of failure.

It has been often observed that there is no tragedy in America. We don’t have a taste for it. We prefer musical comedy, technology millionaires, American Idol and the Super Bowl.  This is an optimistic culture — the culture of Emerson’s self-reliance, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick and FDR’s outing of fear, in the end, as nothing to fear. We like scary movies because they’re movies.

The lack of a tragedy makes us a statistical outlier in the history of civilization. Rome had the entertaining brutality of the circus maximus, the gladiators eviserated by lions. Ancient Christianity had the crucifixion. Modern Christianity has Mel Gibson’s movies.

Joyce Carol Oates exaggerates in a useful way in saying that America’s only tragedy — in the sense of literary, dramatic nobility — is boxing. Real fear, real pain, real blood splattered on the fans in the expensive seats. Hemingway had to stoke his taste for tragedy elsewhere — in the European theater of World War I, the Spanish Civil War and the bull ring. Melville found his far from the New Bedford whaling industry, many miles out at sea in the hunt for the white whale.

Compared with the tragedies of literature and the countless horrors of modernity, mere failure seems rather bland. We are easily upset. We are what Freud says we are: the neurotic animal. We repeat mistakes with tragic and sometimes comic results. Comic, like the clownish characters in Beckett plays.

I know. None of this is new. But what feels different, if not exactly new, is the nonstop series of crises. As for apocalyptic thinking, that’s hardly new. Waiting for the eschatological denouement in the desert was trendy in the first century after Jesus, and in the years immediately preceding the end of the  first and the second millennia.  We await the curtain call, even as we engage in the denial of death, as Ernest Becker theorized as he himself waited out his own death.

All this prattle about death can be tedious.  Fortunately, these desert stretches of gloom are dotted with oases. I read again about one of those green and fertile places this morning in — of all places — the Wall Street Journal.  The subject was one of the finest poems by William Butler Yeats: “Among School Children.”  (” O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?”)

What I learned from reading Yeats and in conversations about poetry and poets, and in seminars,  and in the act of writing a doctoral dissertation, and in the slow descent into emotional paralysis and the slow ascent into the light again, was said movingly by another poet, William Carlos Willams:

				It is difficult
to get the news from poems
		yet men die miserably every day
				for lack
of what is found there.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Current Affairs, Literary Criticism, Poetry, Uncategorized

Twitter and the Age of Crisis

“I am Married to a Crowd”

Boston Globe, Friday, April 11,2009, A-15.

My wife (Twitter handle: @GirlsSentAway) was the muse for this article and its star.

According to Boston Globe statistics, of 5,200 Globe articles tracked, the humor piece about my wife’s tweeting was among the top 25 most frequently emailed. (Lots of twittering birds out on those limbs.)

Not that everyone approved — of Twitter, my article, the Globe’s decision to publish it,or what HBX, an anonymous commenter on the Globe site, said was a “puff piece”. Mr “X” also lambasted my twittering spouse and me for being a couple of shameless, fame-hunting “celebrities,” which got a giggle from the Twitter Queen and me. (Stand aside, Lindsay, Britney, Justin and A-Rod!)

At grad school in Eng Lit, we read Chaucer’s “House of Fame”.  The author of The Canterbury Tales had no more respect for fame than HBX. Whether Chaucer would have retweeted (RT) my article to excoriate it, however, is a matter I shall leave to literary historians.


While all this seem utterly unrelated, it has a more than a whiff of crisis communication, a specialty of general management and public relations, which I teach. What is fame, after, all, but a perception of reputation? In the era of constant communication, reputation — a public figure’s, a private person’s, a politician’s, an organization’s — is subject to the kinds of violent swings we associate with the stock market. Crisis has been described as a circumstance in which someone (or some organization) faces a significantly damaging blow to reputation, and has hardly any time to react. The usual examples: Monica’s impact on Bill Clinton’s presidency. The Valdez’s impact on Exxon. Abu Ghraib’s impact on foreign opinion of the U.S

It’s no secret that ours is an age of crisis. While poet W. H. Auden nailed the post-W.W.II era as the “age of anxiety,” the digital revolution has upped the ante considerably by speeding up, spreading out and constantly enabling  communication. For this reason, perhaps, even the most trivial matter can feel like a crisis and appear like one. As a result, persons and organizations may well be even more anxious than Auden thought they were in the early years of the A-bomb era.

Thus, to be a celebrity today is to be stalked by gawker, and one misstep away from a humiliating gotcha in The Smoking Gun. It’s enough to make even faux celebrities install alarms and surveillance cams in their underwater-mortgage homes.

But while I regard Auden’s anxiety-tagging of the nuclear era as insightful, I am unpersuaded by HBX’s of the world the sky is falling because of Twitter. Those sorts of perceptions are right out of the Chicken Little playbook — just plain silly.

What is not so silly or trivial is the way in which communications revolutions like the one we’re experiencing has a way of making us feel even more anxious and insecure and neurotic than ever.

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Filed under Literary Criticism, Personal Essays, Social Media, Technology

Music in the Snow

OK. Here’s a bit of parallel thinking about a snowfall heading up the coast from Florida to Boston. See if you can navigate all this without losing your balance and falling into the slush.

Let’s begin with some music.

James Taylor’s “Frozen Man”: Overture for a snow storm heading up the coast

Regressive of me, sure. But when the weather service predicts “plowable” snow for a school day, I’m already imagining the joys of forced malingering.

And as we all have a musical score for our lives, I YouTubed James Taylor’s “Frozen Man.”

I know. “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” would be more appropriate. He sang a duet with Nathalie Cole. Very sweet. But the frozen man story always gets me — along with that signature acoustic guitar style and one of the great voices of the past quarter century:

Last thing I remember is the freezing cold
Water reaching up just to swallow me whole
Ice in the rigging and howling wind
Shock to my body as we tumbled in
Then my brothers and the others are lost at sea
I alone am returned to tell thee
Hidden in ice for a century
To walk the world again
Lord have mercy on the frozen man

Next words that were spoken to me
Nurse asked me what my name might be
She was all in white at the foot of my bed
I said angel of mercy Im alive or am I dead
My name is william james mcphee
I was born in 1843
Raised in liverpool by the sea
But that aint who I am
Lord have mercy on the frozen man

It took a lot of money to start my heart
To peg my leg and to buy my eye
The newspapers call me the state of the art
And the children, when they see me, cry
I thought it would be nice just to visit my grave
See what kind of tombstone I might have
I saw my wife and my daughter and it seemed so strange
Both of them dead and gone from extreme old age
See here, when I die make sure Im gone
Dont leave em nothing to work on
You can raise your arm, you can wiggle your hand
And you can wave goodbye to the frozen man

I know what it means to freeze to death
To lose a little life with every breath
To say goodbye to life on earth
To come around again
Lord have mercy on the frozen man
Lord have mercy on the frozen man


Can’t resist those tales of redemption. Dante himself might have admired it, except his frozen Judas and other nasty boys. But America’s the land of second chances, isn’t it? Of underdogs like Stallone’s Rocky getting up off their ass and taking their punishment as a triumph?

But there’s a counterpoint to this: There are no second acts in American lives, said Scott Fitzgerald. (Of course, he never saw all the “Rocky” sequels or “Godfather II”.)

Then there’s Robert Bly’s “Silence in the Snowy Fields” poem:

Poet Robert Bly

Poet Robert Bly

(Are you still with me? Lost you yet?)

Something about snowfalls stops us in our tracks. Poems — with their inner-silence capabilities — can capture that. Robert Frost could, of course. Even a lesser light like Bly.  (No sin to be a “minor poet”. Get a couple of good shots off. Heck, even one beauty’s enough for a whole career.).

Then there’s Emily Dickinson (#341) to give us the dark side of the snow, so to speak:

“After great pain, a formal feeling comes —

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs

. . .

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —

First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go –”

True enough. Naturally, death becomes poets, and they do it well (didn’t Sylvia Plath write that she did dying well?).

Look: Find me a poet who hasn’t written about snow and I’ll find you the coordinates of an humid, equatorial country.

I met my wife on a snow day, when my classes were cancelled, 10 years ago this week.

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Filed under Literary Criticism, Media, Music, On Writing

Rabbit’s At Rest

The Early Stories

The Early Stories

Lorrie Moore’s splendid little piece, “The Complete Updike,” on the NY Times op ed page on Jan. 28, 2009, reminds me that there are writers and there are super writers. John Updike (1932-2009) was in the super category.  The only other American author I can think of  — top of the head — who belongs in that category is Philip Roth.

Updike’s famous and enormously under-rated little dictum of ‘three finished pages a day is a whole lot harder than it sounds. Try it. For a week. See if your three pages look finished or merely typed.

Updike had the eye-memory coordination that allowed him to describe almost anything in precise detail. Try it sometime, writers. See if your description of objects and actions and faces turns out vivid or pedestrian. See how many times you ask yourself, “What is that thing called?”  Like Flaubert — whom I’ve barely read, but who’s widely considered the first great master of realistic fictional detail — Updike made the world of things and people and places come alive. Sex, of course. (“The Transaction.” Couples. ) Places. His prose could rise to the high diction, the sweet music of poetry. He broke your heart describing the way the Maples told their children that they were going to get divorced. He “got” big cities, small town, farms, suburbs, exurbs, malls and airline waiting terminals. He got New York and Shillington, Pennsylvania, and Miami Beach. He got young jerks (as does the wonderful Richard Ford). And he got old fools: variations on the jerky sides of Updike. His avator, the depressive tumler Jewish novelist Beck, got to interview his “real” self, the suburban WASP star novelist John Updike.

The Nobel Committee is no more infallible that the Pope.  The committee failed to award the great and learned and graceful and often profound Updike the prize he deserved. Thirty years ago, when I interviewed Henry Miller, I asked him why he’d never won a Nobel. He told me that someone on the committee thought he was a pornographer. Miller said he didn’t care — but he could have used the cash.

In my eyes — and I’m certain in the eyes of so many of our great authors (see Lorrie Moore’s touching op ed in the NY Times) — Updike was in every way a Nobel Prize winner. But the prejudice against American authors — that they’re somehow less worldly or more provincial than, say, authors from New Zealand or South Africa (I adore Coetzee) or Portugal. It’s just plain silly and condescending, no less than it was when the British snubbed Melville’s Moby-Dick in the 1850’s because whale oil is identified as the substance anointing a king. How absurd an objection, and one I can imagine that would have amused Mark Twain.

Maybe Updike’s snub will be good news for the other American literary giant, Philip Roth. I had the good fortune to be his student at UPenn in a world lit class in the spring of l965. He knew verimsilitude. He explained what Tolstoy was doing when he showed us Vronsky’s muscularity, and when he averted his eyes from Anna’s sex scene. He wanted to cast Groucho as the lead in Kafka’s The Castle. He duck-walked into class, although probably just one time. (It has been more than 30 years since.)

I was editing a magazine called Mankind (I know — no one’s heard of it) when Saul Bellow’s Nobel was announced in 1976. I immediately called his office in Chicago. His secretary said he was home, and that he’d cut himself shaving. Bellow’s prize made me proud. I was 30-something, but so what? I felt like a fan, which I was. Which I am. Which I have always been. Which I always will be.

So maybe the Nobel snobs in their stubborn snubbery will do what sports referees do when they’re hectored by furious coaches for missing a call. That coach’s team seems to always get the next call. Maybe it’ll be that way for American authors. For ever since before Washington Irving, American writers were tarred with the prejudice that this is a country of provincial rubes, and it’s therefore no great shakes to write a novel about this cultural backwater.

Say, World. I know you were watching when Aretha sang at the Obama inaugural. How about a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T for our authors?

Well, I’ve got three words for you, World:  The Great Gatsby.

I’ve got a list of authors for you, Sweden: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Morrison, Updike, Roth.

You want poets, World? You want a piece of me? Whitman, Dickinson, Pound, Frost, Stevens, William Carlos Williams.

So here’s to you, Mr. Updike. Rabbit is finally at rest.

(The NY Times featured a videotaped conversation with John Updike in October 2008.)


Filed under Literary Criticism, On Writing, Personal Essays