Vacuum-packed literary criticism, Or: No there there


By Scott Ross

My current reading is Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, a pastiche that posits the way various lives, real and imagined, intersect in New York City during the early years of the 20th century. I picked up this fat paperback at my favorite second-hand bookshop after a cursory glance at the back cover indicated it was comparable to E.L. Doctor’s Ragtime, one of my very favorite American novels. Not that I wanted Ragtime Redux; few things are more dispiriting than bloated imitation. But having recently fallen in love with Helene Wecker’s similarly placed, rhapsodic fantasy The Golem and the Jinni, I was in the mood to discover how another writer, new to me, tackled what is in many ways a defining period of recent history, terrifying in its (to us moderns) jaw-dropping poverty and rampant criminality.*

Dreamland cover

Setting aside for the moment my reactions to Dreamland, I was struck, on first sitting down with it, by a lengthy quotation on the back cover, from a review in Esquire — or rather, by one particular observation by an unidentified critic that positively maddened me. “Dickensian in scope and intellectual breadth,” writes the anonymous scribbler, “Kevin Baker’s (dare it be said?) masterpiece is Ragtime but without the sprawling misanthropy; Tom Wolfe but with characters that are human, not merely theoretical; Dreiser but superbly written; Sinclair Lewis but with a mystic’s heart.”

I cannot quarrel with the reference to Wolfe, and admit to a profound ignorance regarding both Dreiser and Lewis, only one of whose novels I’ve read. But I admire Doctorow almost inordinately as a stylist, and Ragtime in particular as an example of the unfettered brilliance of a prose-poet on a par with the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby and a literary experimenter on the order of a modern Faulkner. The snideness of the critical remark aside, the more I read of Kevin Baker’s (dare it be said?) masterpiece, the more incensed I became on Doctorow’s behalf.

There is scarcely a page of Dreamland that does not present some fresh atrocity perpetrated on either an animal or a human being, occasionally both at once. This is not a criticism. It was a brutal time, and an especially brutal place. Several years ago New York magazine printed an excerpt from Luc Sante’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York entitled “These Are the Good Old Days,” in which the stunningly casual horror of the City’s haunts from 1840-1920 as described by Sante was the stuff of nightmares, particularly in its depiction of the many ways one could disappear forever in the Bowery — not coincidentally the setting for much of Baker’s novel.

Sante’s piece was a vision of Hell undreamt by Dante, where life was cheap and violent death as common as the rats and the cockroaches and the pestilent disease that made survival past infancy something of a miracle in itself. Baker’s world is that of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, of obscene Tammany corruption running hand-in-glove with appallingly cavalier capitalist exploitation, of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and cops beating female strikers with impunity, where even the smallest pleasure is paid for with grotesquerie and humiliation. No serious writer — and Baker, whatever my reservations about the ultimate worth of the tale he’s telling, is certainly that — could, describing the place, avoid steeping the reader in all that was vile and insupportable about it.

But what about that “sprawling misanthropy” of Doctorow’s? I Googled the review in question, seeking an explanation, and locating the critique on the Esquire webpage. (“A Jew, a Lithuanian, and an Erudite Dwarf,” March 1, 1999.) There was the review, all 300 words of it, by one Adrienne Miller, a former Esquire Fiction Editor. Would Miller, in the space allotted, define her terms? She would not. She merely hurls her little semantic Anarchist’s bomb at Doctorow et al., and moves on.

Ragtime cover

Given that Ragtime is, for all its stylistic dazzle, one of the most achingly humane novels of the past 40 years, and taking into account the historical parameters common both to it and to Dreamland, whence Doctorow’s “sprawling misanthropy”? Or is that Miller, in common with so many of her ilk, is, as I suspect, on the one hand parading her erudition (“Look! I’ve read Doctorow, Wolfe, Dreiser and Lewis!”) and on the other — and secure in the knowledge that few readers will be willing to admit that they don’t know what the hell she’s talking about — tossing wild, context-free and utterly unfathomable brickbats at her literary betters? We’ve seen this sort of thing before: The sweeping put-down that says, Logic, or even rudimentary rules of composition, be damned: I’m slapping that pesky author [or artist, or filmmaker, or composer] down, and the devil take the meaning along with the hindmost: The off-hand insult that challenges without recourse to anything like precedence or example or even a simple definition of terms.

Even presuming one has a passing knowledge of the work of the artist being referred to, Miller’s statement represents a kind of academic and critical shorthand that, on its face, and even below the skin, means absolutely nothing. It’s the literary equivalent of schoolyard bullying. And it’s practiced all too bloody often. (John Lahr used to do it all the time, in the pages of the New Yorker.) I’m not talking about fairness here… although that, too, is in short supply. Nor is my veneration of Ragtime definitive; it’s merely how Doctorow’s novel strikes me, viscerally, emotionally and intellectually. You’re free to find it meretricious, or self-consciously arty, or even misanthropic if it strikes you so, but for the love of critical honesty, not to mention readability, at least have the decency to explain your goddamn terms. Tellingly, Miller does so for Wolfe (“with characters that are human, not merely theoretical”), with Dreiser, and with Lewis; Doctorow’s magnum opus she merely dismisses, as “sprawlingly misanthropic.” In what way? No, sorry — Madame cannot be bothered.

To quote E.B. White in another context: If this is what passes for serious criticism now, I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

I say it's spinach - Carl Rose and E B White

*Poverty in 21st century America is every bit as pervasive, if not indeed even more so, only with a few more modern conveniences… which the complacent, of course, very much hold against those poorer than they.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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