Culture Clash On The Road Photography The Political Animal

Politics and Art

Vladimir Nabokov did not like the novel of ideas. Artists often have their idiosyncratic dislikes, contrary expressions of the unique aesthetic vision that drives their own work. Particularly, Nabokov did not like the work of those monuments of great-idea novels, Dostoyevsky and Mann, though there is no reason his distaste should have excluded the novels of Camus, say, or those of Malraux, like Man’s Fate, which is, also, a political novel. I’m wary of this kind of work too, though I love all of the above mentioned, which rise greatly above the limitations of their conception. I’m especially wary of political art because political art tends to be long on the political and short on the art, and if what I really wanted was political opining, I would read a blog post. Political expression is polemical and polemics is usually the death of art.

Nabokov offered good reason for his distaste. By ideas he meant

general ideas, the big, sincere ideas which permeate the so-called great novel, and which, in the inevitable long run, amount to bloated topicalities stranded like dead whales.

He himself preferred, evident in his own work,

the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to dear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.

Any creative writing class will teach this.

Political art that seeks to transcend the mere, sentimental “boo” or “yea” is a specific type of the work of big ideas, and in seeking to ascend to the intellectual ether, it generally leaves human particularity behind. “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Wallace Stevens wrote. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams.

Here is an especially bold, exemplary contrast below.

When James Agee and Walker Evans produced their landmark work on the lives of three Alabama sharecropping families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, they famously presented the prose and images separately, not interspersed, and Agee informed in the preface that the photos were not intended as illustrative of the text. Further, after extended amounts of seeming throat-clearing about the nature of the project and the human and moral complexity of inserting oneself professionally and journalistically into the lives of an “appallingly damaged group of human beings,” Agee went on to produce prose that, at an extraordinary level of particularity, presented a verbal equivalent of photographic realism, but going beyond the photograph, as the human sensibility can do in words, to attempt to capture the texture of objects and even the multifarious contributors to the odor of a tenant shack, or the smell of his own blood from a crushed bed bug .

In the preface, Agee wrote,

The nominal subject is North American cotton tenantry as examined in the daily living of three representative white tenant families.

Actually, the effort is to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense. More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.

The immediate instruments are two: the motionless camera, and the printed word. The governing instrument – which is also one of the centers of the subject – is individual, anti-authoritative human consciousness.

Ultimately, it is intended that this record and analysis be exhaustive, with no detail, however trivial it may seem, left untouched, no relevancy avoided, which lies within the power of remembrance to maintain, of the intelligence to perceive, and of the spirit to persist in.

… If complications arise, that is because [the authors] are trying to deal with it not as journalists, sociologists, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists, but seriously.

The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative. By their fewness, and by the impotence of the reader’s eye, this will be misunderstood by most of that minority which does not wholly ignore it. In the interests, however, of the history and future of photography, that risk seems irrelevant, and this flat statement necessary.

The text was written with reading aloud in mind. That cannot be recommended; but it is suggested that the reader attend with his ear to what he takes off the page: for variations of tone, pace, shape, and dynamics are here particularly unavailable to the eye alone, and with their loss, a good deal of meaning escapes.


This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.

(Emphasis added)

In the vaguest manner of speaking, any true work of art is a political statement, but Famous Men, through its subject, and in the reverence of its authors for their subjects, is both much more political than vaguely so, yet not remotely political in the manner to which Nabokov might object.

Agee is both febrile and puckish in his multiple hems and haws by way of beginning, and this is his most provocative guttural clearance, as epigraph:

Workers of the world, unite and fight. You have
nothing to lose but your chains, and a world to win.

However, he footnotes this quote from the Communist Manifesto so:

These words are quoted here to mislead those who will be misled by them. They mean, not what the reader may care to think they mean, but what they say. They are not dealt with directly in this volume; but it is essential that they be used here, for in the pattern of the work as a whole, they are, in the sonata form, the second theme; the poetry facing them is the first. In view of the average reader’s tendency to label, and of topical dangers to which any man, whether honest, or intelligent, or subtle, is at present liable, it may be well to make the explicit statement that neither these words nor the authors are the property of any political party, faith, or faction.

Not the property of any political party, faith, or faction. Then what?

Walker Evans: Sharecroppers Family - Hale County, Alabama 1936

This is the book’s dedication.

To those of whom the record is made.
In gratefulness and in love.

Those are the politics of the book, in detailed confrontation with “certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”

In contrast, we offer Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a resurgent libertarian-conservative favorite and a “dead whale” of a book, concerned only, in its grandiose fantasy, with a different level of existence, where “the lowly and invincible of the earth” are merely clots of soil thrown from the wheel ruts, and dedicated, rather, to the egoism of a different conception of “human divinity.”


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Culture Clash

The Five Most Misconceived Criteria for Determining the Fifteen Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers

Yes, that may be the longest title I have ever placed above a piece of my writing, but only the first six of the words are mine. The remainder is appropriated from Anis Shivani’s post the other day at Huffington Post. It’s gotten a lot of reaction, elsewhere, and, as I write, over 1650 comments at HuffPo. I predict I will receive fewer.

Shivani’s is the kind of provocative piece people write periodically, often in the arts. Not long ago at all – like two months – it was Lee Siegal proffering that fiction is now irrelevant. Here it is Shivani identifying the fifteen so designated writers whose syntax isn’t all it is currently arranged to be. These guys are big thinkers. It’s breathtaking. I’m not that the confident (Y2K) a prognosticator or comprehensive a critic. As Paul Simon sagely summed it all those years ago, “Can analysis be worthwhile?” Ask Woody Allen. “Is the theater really dead?” Apparently not.

So I’m thinking rather smaller – rather than fifteen writers, one: Shivani. I haven’t read him. Actually, I’ve now read one thing, this piece of his on the fifteen writers. It is an essay that one can confidently describe as criticism in both of its common senses. It is negative characterization and it is evaluative analysis. It is, in vitriol, rather a lot of the former and in length more a blitzkrieg of the latter. I’m going to focus on the latter, because the latter is the basis, if not the justification, for the former.

When we evaluate, for our judgments to be meaningful – for they themselves to be evaluated by readers as a basis for the readers themselves to judge well our judgments – we need to operate from a set of criteria. When we are unknown to our readers, it is helpful to be explicit about those criteria. Shivani is.

If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.

So, now, as I consider with what regard I am going to approach Shivani’s criticism of his benighted fifteen, I should be considering what I think of his criteria. The latter part of the paragraph above is aesthetic peroration, mostly to the issue of a writer’s possessing a “moral core,” one of five specific criteria of bad writing that Shivani sets forth. Shivani says we must know bad writing to know good writing. That right there is a curious prioritizing of categories. It is true that the process of definition often makes use of negation – the delineation of what a thing is not, in order to establish more firmly the boundaries of what it is. But Shivani seems to conceptualize good writing as whatever has managed to resist the invasive advance of bad writing. Wherever the “38th parallel” may be at which bad writing is stopped sets the boundary of what is good – on the other side of it. But, notably, Plato did not first seek to arrive at the Form of the Bad, and only then by its lights (or darkness) proceed to determine the Good. Kant did not first elaborate a Categorical Prohibition, before enunciating his Categorical Imperative. Shivani is – how can I best say this? – kind of negative.

All right, so what about the criteria themselves, of bad writing. I’m afraid I have a problem at the start. Shivani says bad writing is “characterized by obfuscation.” The problem with this criterion is that obfuscation is an intentional act. It is not a simple absence of clarity; it is purposeful obscurantism. Did Shivani really mean that? I do

Tree of Good Writing

not know, but attributions of intent in such matters are an aimless critical ramble to nowhere. Clarity is certainly a time-honored ideal of good writing (if I may be so positive), but even so, we must ourselves be clear about the kind of writing we address. Creative writing has different purposes from critical or reportorial or even the merely functional. Shivani includes novelists, poets, newspaper critics and academics in his list. Academics are often accused of unnecessary difficulty and obscurity in their writing, but it is not a charge usually leveled against Helen Vendler, the academic Shivani criticizes, though it is sometimes a complaint against Jorie Graham, a poet Vendler has championed. Yet how differently must we address the issue of clarity with regard to poetry, which the uninitiated often find, functionally, unclear, and, in their more insecure moments, even think perversely obfuscatory?

What about “showboating”? This actually seems to create, along with “style over substance,” a redundancy from two among the only five criteria. It also raises an old, irresolvable matter of simple taste. When does style assert itself so far as to overwhelm substance and become showboating? And does Shivani mean linguistic style or style as represented in form? Did Joyce showboat, or Faulkner? David Foster Wallace or Gerard Manley Hopkins? Does Pynchon? Simplicity of style, even minimalism, have long had their adherents, to the point that here, where I live, in the city of angels and roaring lions, with Hollywood nearly an enemy of the word, screenwriting cant for years now has been that “less is more.” Sometimes, however, it is observably so that less is regrettably less. Shivani, if I may say, has clarified nothing with that criterion.

This leaves us with “narcissism” and the question of a “moral core,” which latter criterion seems for Shivani to be related to the question of confronting the “issues of the day” and being politically relevant. On that latter as a necessary characteristic of good writing, I’ll direct Shivani to Vladimir Nabokov (a little something of a showboater himself), who was distinctly disparaging of the literature of ideas. Narcissism, of course, has been a personally unfortunate, artistically blessed condition of many great artists of all kinds. Presumably, confessional poets would qualify, and not be to the taste of the non-confessional in nature (say, a Lutheran, why don’t we), but fine production has not eluded them either.

Which leaves us where, after this review? With a critic who here and there may have hit upon a reason to consider some among his fifteen “overrated” writers with a more critical eye, but who has offered no basis – the criterion upon which his criticism is supposedly based – to credit him with the coherent vision and with the trust to follow his analysis to like judgments of our own.

Got people talking about literature, though.

And about him.

Couldn’t hurt.



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