The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘irony’

Under the Volcano

July 21, 2014 | by

img0000071A

John Gardner in 1979. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living.

That’s John Gardner, from his Art of Fiction interview, which The Paris Review published in 1979—three years before Gardner died in a motorcycle accident. As far as lines in the literary sand go, this one seems defensible enough: make salutary art, wall off the volcano, protect the crania of your babies, et cetera. But here Gardner has given us the distillate of what had been, a few years earlier, a very controversial opinion; he’s paraphrasing his thesis from On Moral Fiction, a polemical book of criticism in which he took to task nearly every prominent American writer, pissing off a good number of them in the process. As Dwight Garner wrote a few years ago, “It wasn’t Gardner’s thesis, exactly, that made him enemies. It was the way he indiscriminately fired buckshot in the direction of many of American literature’s biggest names.”

Pynchon? Too inclined to “winking, mugging despair.”

Updike? “He brings out books that don’t say what he means them to say. And you can’t tell his women apart.”

Barthelme? Merely a disciple of “newfangledness.”

And the whole New Yorker crowd? Too into “that cold, ironic stuff … I think it’s just wrapping for their Steuben glass.”

If you’re thinking that picking fights is a pretty poor way of seeding one’s literary philosophy, you’re completely correct. As Per Winther, the author of The Art of John Gardner, has written, “One cannot help but think that Gardner’s cause would have benefited from less stridency of tone … What Gardner risked in couching his arguments in such bellicose terms was a hasty dismissal of his book and all its views.” Read More »

2 COMMENTS

Thinking of You

July 17, 2014 | by

Doubling_Point_Light,_Arrowsic,_ME

A postcard from Maine. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When I was thirteen, and my dear friend Laura went on a teen hiking tour of the British Isles, I wrote her religiously. Letters, yes, but cards, too. I was stationary in New York, but I had found a lot of vintage postcards somewhere ,and sent a pair of fictional spinsters around the country on an imaginary road trip; each card chronicled their increasingly lurid and ridiculous adventures. One of the sisters proved man-crazy, the other developed a gambling addiction in Reno. When Laura transferred to a boarding school in Wales, their adventures continued.

Nowadays, that doesn’t seem like that big a deal. People are always sending Flat Stanleys and toys and gnomes around the world; you can download a template right from the Internet. Nothing new under the sun, I guess, but I loved having that imaginative connection to a friend across the world.

Now, as a grownup on vacation, I’m sitting here with a pile of postcards in front of me, wondering what to do about it. What, after all, is a postcard? In the age of e-mail and Instagram and Twitter, it’s a self-conscious anachronism. When you read an old postcard, their messages—in that spindly, legible, Palmer-script hand—are often strikingly banal. People really do say “wish you were here,” without embarrassment, and talk about the weather. With traditional postcards, the thought is what counts; these were, by and large, generic images bearing the most impersonal of greetings. Read More »

Comments Off

Love Story

June 26, 2014 | by

6a00e54ef13a4f8834019aff3a4089970c

From the cover of Barbara Cartland’s The Romance of Food.

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.” —Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’”

Too much camp is bad for the soul. It’s unwholesome, lacking in spiritual nourishment—like eating only processed foods. Irony is no substitute for feeling, detachment no replacement for intellectual engagement: enough camp begins to eat away at both. After a steady diet of midcentury educational films, salacious memoirs, and Florence Foster Jenkins recordings, one begins to feel oneself morphing into a sort of soulless Lord Henry Wotton, and the only remedy is beauty, spareness, and fresh air. Part of the problem is that earnest camp is heartbreaking; in order not to cry, one needs to put up defenses, and this is in itself exhausting.

Periodically, I need to go on cleanses. In these virtuous moods, I resolve to listen to only the finest music, read the best books, watch films worthy of the term. I banish my collection of 1930s Love Story magazines. I shun the “High Gruck and Outsider Art” playlist on my Spotify account. The words “Russ Meyer” are not to be mentioned in my hearing.

The problem is that in the midst of this, your copy of Barbara Cartland: The Romance of Food arrives in the mail from England and tempts you like a rosy-hued she-devil. And then it follows you everywhere, with the promise of easy laughs and garish pictures and oddity nonpareil. You can hide it in the closet. You can stick it under the kitchen counter with the other cookbooks. Still you hear its siren song, which is sort of quavery and backed by a lot of lush strings. Read More »

Comments Off

In Earnest

May 8, 2014 | by

Edelfelt_Läsande_kvinna Reading Woman 1885

Albert Edelfelt, Läsande Kvinna (Reading Woman), 1885

“Every time I buy a book here, it changes my life,” the man told me earnestly. He was not the bookseller, but he was minding the stand on Broadway and Seventy-Third Street while the proprietor got a fruit juice from the nearby cart. He clearly wanted to do right by his friend, the owner, in his brief absence, and I was eager to help him. There was not much that appealed to me, but I finally found a hardcover, lavishly praised the interim salesman to the returned proprietor, and handed him the five-dollar bill that would, he remarked, cover the cost of the mango drink he was now sipping.

I did not really think that The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook (1992) would change my life. If I’d thought more about it, I might have hoped to share the book with a few likeminded friends, where we’d marvel at the dated food styling and speculate about the quality of “Liza’s Salade de Provence,” which involves corn, raw mushrooms, pink grapefruit, and hearts of palm. In short, I guess you could say what interest I had was ironic.

But then I sat down at home and opened it, and I was reading it, and the act of reading—the process of assimilating letters and sounds and translating that into meaning—is not ironic, is it? In fact, in the absence of other people, there isn’t much irony at all. I might have tweeted something about Joan Collins’s menu planning—“Extravagance is the only way when it comes to buying beautiful dresses and to making salads”—or shared a picture of the “Smoked Salmon Bruschetta” that was allegedly a specialty of Elle Macpherson’s. But instead, I just read, and thought, and maybe smiled a little at some things, but not at anyone’s expense. We were in it together. Read More »

Comments Off

Stuck in Bed, Appropriate Irony

July 23, 2010 | by

I read a Richard Yates novel. And I'm fucking depressed. Like wow, what a downer. Give me something to cheer me up. —Jeff Swift

Like, you can't get out of bed? Get someone to bring you the Jeeves novels of P.G. Wodehouse. They are extra-strength heartening. Emergency use only. For a mild case of the blues, may I suggest either of Sam Lipsyte's last two novels, Home Land or The Ask? Some reviewers call them depressing, but they're not. They master depression. And they take place on Yatesian territory—the suburbs of failure. Yet they are full of Olympian laughter. Some people swear by Laurie Colwin. Try Happy All the Time. Or Consenting Adults, by Peter de Vries. If nothing else works . . . I'm not sure how to recommend this, but are you familiar with I Am a Bunny? I have come this close to stealing that book from two separate babies, during two different dark nights of the soul. If you ask me, the consolations offered by I Am a Bunny are wasted on the extremely young.

Read More »

3 COMMENTS