a MobyLives guest column
by Steve Almond

29 September 2003 — In recent days, an opinion column written by the esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom has been making the literary e–rounds. Like most everything that makes the e–rounds, the piece is both trenchant and ridiculous. Bloom's basic point is that the National Book Foundation made an egregious error in bestowing its annual award for "distinguished contribution" to Stephen King.
      Egregious may be too mild a word, though. Bloom seems physically pained (in the manner of gastric distress, one imagines) at the thought that authors such as Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth should now have to share this distinction with a witless hack like King.
      To Bloom, who addresses us, as ever, from the ramparts of septuagenarian grumpiness, such reverence represents another example of our cultural idiocy. (Dumbing down is the phrase he favors.) His diatribe, not quite 800 words, also manages to fire broadsides at J.K. Rowling, the "fourth rate" playwright Aphra Behn, and a gaggle of female romantic poets "who just can't write." It is an impressive performance, one that may mark a new land–speed record in literary contempt.
      For what's it worth, I don't entirely disagree with Bloom. I've not read any of the Harry Potter books, but I'll trust the old guy when he tells me they are riddled with clichés. And I happen to share his skepticism when it comes to the made–for–TV idea that the Cult of Potter has been good for literacy. What's more, the modern appreciation for the genius of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets is woeful.
      What I don't quite get—and maybe this is because I haven't spent long enough in academia—is why Bloom feels it necessary to sound off against writers he deems inferior, as opposed to celebrating the writers (and the ideas) he admires. And, furthermore, why he chooses to do so in such a lazy manner.
      I don't think there's any argument on the matter of whether Stephen King belongs in the same league with Bellow or Roth. But he's no hack. He is, at worst, an uneven writer, one who dips down into pulp, but also has produced—particularly of late—some genuinely moving prose.
      But I don't think the merits of Stephen King are really the point here. The point, as I see it, is how most effectively to wake up our culture from its current stupor. By my reckoning, this is a job that falls to writers. Literature is nothing less, after all, than an ongoing discussion about what it means to be human. It is intended to awaken compassion within the reader and, when necessary, distress. King may not be doing as good a job as Bloom would like. But he is doing an honest job, at the very least, one I'm inclined to regard as heroic.
      Bloom, on the other hand, can do little more than holler insults from the sidelines. Or actually, check that. In the penultimate paragraph of his sermon he graciously informs us: "Today there are four living American novelists I know of who are still at work and who deserve our praise." There are: Bellow, DeLillo, Pynchon, and Roth.
      It's almost sad to see the Bloomster tip his speckled hand so flagrantly. This is all he can come up with? Is he kidding? No mention of Toni Morrison or Nadine Gordimer or Alice McDermott or John Updike or Evan S. Connell or Brad Watson. What cave is this guy living in? (Yes, I know, I know, Plato's.) Does he expect to be taken seriously by anyone other than the charter members of his faculty club?
      There's an entire world of literature, quite serious and beautiful, that extends beyond these names, as worthy as they may be of praise. In carting out the usual suspects, Bloom reveals himself not as a critic, but as a caricature—a narrow–minded snob who reviles anything outside his intellectual comfort zone.
      What's especially sad about Bloom is that he continues to pollute an otherwise vital message with fatuous derision. As someone who's been teaching literature to college students for several years, I'm in complete agreement with his basic complaint. It is entirely appropriate to lament—even rail against—the moral and intellectual sloth of our current historical circumstance. I, too, dread dealing with students who think that Hamlet was a really cool movie starring Ethan Hawke.
      But today's youth are not about to drop their Nintendos and pick up copies of the Middlemarch at the behest of some sourpuss curmudgeon. (I'm not even sure Bloom wants that. He sounds altogether too protective of the canon to allow the vulgar multitudes at it.)
      Indeed, Bloom's rage seems entirely misplaced to me. Rather than attacking writers, or those who bestow accolades onto them, he should be excoriating the true opponents of creative enlightenment. A short list would include: the deification of consumerism, the decline in funding for public education, the economic inequality that has become the hallmark of late–model capitalism. This culture discourages creativity, and deep thought, because such actions are not profitable. The horrible fact that people turn to Stephen King rather than Saul Bellow is, in other words, symptomalogy.
      Of course, Bloom prefers not to involve himself in anything as messy as socio–economic debate. Lest we forget, he is a scholar.
      And more's the pity. It would be nice to have him as an ally. I mean that. Bloom is a brilliant mind, and a true believer in the redemptive capacities of literature. Although he would be loathe to admit this, lurking beneath his petulant elitism is an egalitarian impulse. He knows that young people are turning away from the great books that might save them. But he fails to concern himself with why.
      In my own view, it's NOT because Americans are dumb or lazy, but because they fear the chaos of their feelings. Our masters of commerce are quite happy with this arrangement. They want us in this state of terror, as it makes us more likely to obey their constant buy messages. The unexamined life, it might be said, offers an extraordinary profit margin.
      But let's remember: it is the job of artists (and always has been) to awaken mercy, to help people feel less alone with their deepest, darkest emotions. And, of course, to encourage them to regard their minds as vibrant and expandable.
      I'm certainly glad there's someone like Bloom around to shout down from his ivory tower every once in a while. He may even have the eloquence (or the catchy crankiness anyway) to make his voice heard for a moment or two.
      He is not the cure, though. We writers are. We will achieve a greater measure of relevance not by tearing one another down, or making literature exclusive, but by working to promote our common goal, which is to get people reading, thinking, and feeling again.

Steve Almond's short story collection, "My Life in Heavy Metal," is out in paperback. Algonquin will publish his next book, "Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America" this spring. He runs the website StevenAlmond.com. He notes that he has not read "Middlemarch."

©2003 Steve Almond

  Letters policy: All letters must be signed and include an affiliation and/or hometown, although MobyLives will, upon request, run letters that are not linked to a return e–mail address. Correspondents are asked to keep their letters under a million words.

Thursday, 30 October 2003

Look inside the book ... or else . . .

Amy Gutnam's name DOES come up when you type it in, as does Julie Hilden's. So apparently they've reconfigured their algorithm, at least for a few search terms. But there are still issues.

Here are some additional tests using books that immediately catch my eye on my bookshelf. In each of these cases, I typed in the author's name. And in each of these cases, I received these results under the Book category—in this order. I obtained the results by typing into the main search box on the Amazon homepage.

Richard Powers:

1. The Time of Our Signing: Correct. His latest one.
2. Gain: Correct.
3. The Power of Purpose by Richard J. Leider: Incorrect.

John P. Marquand

1. H.M. Pulham, Esquire: Correct.
2. John P. Marquand by John J. Gross. Incorrect. It prioritizes title over author.
3. John P. Marquand and Mr. Moto: spy adventures and detective films by Richard Wires. Again, incorrect.

Richard Payne

1. Blood Moon by Ed Gorman: Incorrect
2. The Rhetorical Poetics of the Middle Ages: Reconstructive Polyphony: Essays in Honor of Robert O. Payne; Incorrect.
3. The life and death of Mahatma Gandhi: Correct.

Barry Miles

1. Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys: Incorrect.
2. The Beat Generation: Correct.
3. Conversations with Contempoary Writers: Incorrect.

And your fiction picks:

Quan Barry

1. Asylum: Correct.
2. Clinical Pediatric Urology: Definitely incorrect.
3. Navigating Public Opinion: Incorrect.

Sydney Blair

1. Buffalo: Correct.
2. What Liberal Media? Incorrect.
3. Variety and Daily Variety Television Reviews: Incorrect.

So if your name, or a portion of your name, comes up in the Search Inside feature, it looks like searches are skewered in favor towards references within the book (i.e., Quan, Sydney and Barry). And there's no way to turn the feature off.

It also appears that, with the introduction of the new feature, the Amazon logarithim favors (a) top or midlist authors (i.e., those that sell through the Amazon ranking system), (b) books in print, and (c) titles over author names.

Of course, if you kvetch about it like Amy Gutman, presumably there's some attribute within the Amazon logarithim that can be changed, causing certain authors to have their books appear before the Search Inside the Book results. Because Amy Gutman's books now appear FIRST (along with Julie Hilden), after her emails to Amazon. So here's the theory: Say you're a midlist or low-selling author and you DON'T know about this, or say you're an author whose books are out-of-prinnt or can only be found in arcane libraries. Worse yet, let's say you're no longer living. Amazon decides that you're no longer important, and your books drift off its results because you don't sell. What we have here, I think, is a promising technology. But like many U.S. innovations, it prioritizes commerce over knowledge. Or, as Indiana Jones once said, "It belongs in a museum."

Edward Champion
San Francisco, CA

Still looking inside the search engine . . .

I appreciate Amy Gutman's comments on Moby Lives about Amazon's new whole–book search. As a publicity manager for a small university press, I am also extremely frustrated with this system. Some of our recently released titles—ones that are in the middle of their publicity launch, no less—are now suddenly impossible to locate on Amazon. I have tried author, title, and keyword searches (and many combinations thereof), to no avail. The inability to find books by their title or author is a great disservice to the people who write, read, make, and promote books, and I'm grateful to Gutman for speaking out against this new system. Jane Carlson
Publicity Manager, Southern Illinois University Press
Carbondale, IL

Peck's bad boy . . .

Steve Almond's un–Peckian critique is dead on, and I'm grateful to him for persevering all the way through the Atlas piece. (I started it, and gave up in dismay/disgust after the first page.) My only quibble is with Steve's characterization of Peck as the Rush Limbaugh of American Letters; I think Ann Coulter—pace, PC police —is a more apt comparison.

I suppose there will be neo–con chortling in the corridors over Steve's final few paragraphs, about the writer's obligation to engage the real world. So who would you want to sit next to at dinner—Dale Peck or Arundhati Roy?

Phil Sheehan
Schenectady, NY

Monday, 20 October 2003

Escapism . . .

I did not want to return to this fray, but since it is continuing, why not? I cannot help but disagree with Mr. Acuna's assessment, as I do also somewhat with Mr. Mamatas, though I tend to agree with Mr. Goldberg. It is my belief that books have to be somewhat entertaining to read. I'll never forget the experience of falling asleep trying to highlight and read through a psychology text as a freshman in college. That they can enterain us, take us away from our everyday lives for a while, is a good thing. That they can inform us, educate us, or even perhaps as Mr. Acuna suggests, answer some of the deeper questions we have about existence, is also a good thing.

But escapist versus anything else? C'mon now. All books—yes, even LITERATOOR—are escapist. They remove us (read: facilitate escape) from whatever our current condition or situation is and, at least for a brief amount of that precious time Mr. Acuna mentioned, take us somewhere else, with someone else. Perhaps to see how someone deals with a situation we see as familiar; perhaps to let us experience something unfamiliar. Even reading books about things we have experienced ourselves are escapist, since if they merely repeated our interpretation of our experience they would not be interesting—the either burgeois or non–burgeois "been there, done that" phenomenon. We already know what we've experienced. How to deal with it, or how a character deals with this thing we've been handed without asking our permission that we're destined to live out to an uncertain period of time—life—is interesing to us.

But Mr. Mamatas is wrong when he explains the suburban experience. For one thing, suburbs have been a post–war phenomenon, but not post any recent war. They existed before World War I—as in Oak Park, the Chicago suburb that "protected" the young Ernest Hemingway until he got ideas of his own. Mr. King, like Mr. Hemingway, does well at "stripping the artifice." But his books aren't selling because people in suburbs feel a need to "live more authentically." What is more authentic than reading about people being authentic? Being authentic. But the people in fiction are not real, even if they may be based on the author's own experience. They are made up. What happens to them in the making of a point by an author may or may not be what actually would or did or could happen. Otherwise, all the characters whose lives are threatened or ruined or hopeless would probably end roughly at the point where the "character" encounters the greatest reality of all—life, real life, authentic life, has a limit. Real people have limits—whether it's economic, social, cultural, physical, or psychological.

Yes, many of the books Mr. Bloom recommends are worth reading. So are many books not mentioned by him. So hopefully will be many books yet to be written. So are King's books. Because we read for entertainment. To make printing bibles worth while, Mr. Guttenburg had to have people who knew how to read first—or people willing to learn to read. No easy task in a world where education was closely guarded by a few who told the rest of the world to trust them, they knew what was right, what was wrong, and how everyone should live.

My first "litrury" influences were Marvel Comics, DC Comics, the fantastic Classics Illustrated, and eventually Alistair McLean, Ross McDonald, Josephine Tey, Sir Arthur C.D., Kipling, Masters, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Balzac, Zola, Kafka, Prevost, Lehrmontov, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Chekov, and eventually, Galdos, Loren D. Estleman and Barry Lopez. Have I learned from them? I hope so. Did someone tell me I needed to read them to learn things I needed to know to make my life worthwhile? Thankfully, no. If they had, I can tell you, I would not have done it.

Terin Miller
Maplewood, NJ

Friday, 17 October 2003

Steve's a genius . . .

I read in Rafael Acuna's letter that there are two types of books, those that are escapist and those that enlighten. I also noted that he declared that several of Stephen King's works fell under that category. My question is: which ones are those? Not the ones I've read.

The King titles I've read illuminate and explore the modern suburban soul like no other. The suburban experience is a relatively recent one, a postwar phenomenon.  People were cajoled or convinced to march out into what used to be woods and swamps and were now some sort of prefab bantustan based on one dubious promise—the 'burbs were to be a place where nothing bad would happen.  Artifice would finally triumph over chaos.  Such a promise is ludicrous on its face but still very compelling. People desperately want to believe in something that they cannot, and they desperately want to believe that they want a world laminated for their protection for "good" reasons (protecting the children, etc.) rather than the bad reasons (they're unequipped to deal with a more authentic kind of life).

King deals with the resultant anxiety explicitly, without allowing that escape. Where is the escapism?  Is it in "Firestarter" where a character simply refuses to believe this his everyday life will ever be shattered, in spite of all the evidence?  What's "Tommyknockers" about —those damn nuclear plants that were supposed to power the suburbs cleanly and permanently, but now they may fail and kill us all. Whoops. "The Stand"?  On what side will you fall when suburban artifice is stripped away and you have to live more authentically? "From A Buick 8" finally dumps the genre convention of social reclamation and closure to tell us that just a glimpse into the heart of darkness isn't enough, and that perhaps nothing will be enough.

What's the merit in King's work? What he's offering is a hard pill to swallow and he got 30 million people to do it. It's not due to a gimmick or pandering, but to his avuncular voice, which is hard to pull off amidst all the horrors he whips up. Further, he then decided that his work may have come off as pandering anyway, and then abruptly switched direction, trying out a new audience, a new means of publishing, and substantial shifts in the writing itself in "Bag Of Bones" and the work since.

The books Bloom and Acuna recommend are certainly worth reading, but the enlightenment they offer is hardly universal. Not everyone has the stomach for the platitudes of the bourgeoisie, even the self–critical bourgeoisie. We're too busy trying to navigate the world they made for us.

Nick Mamatas
The Nick Mamatas Fan Site
Port Jefferson Station, NY

Thursday, 16 October 2003

What it really comes down to: I'm not sure . . .

After carefully reading all the arguments for and against Stephen King, after rereading every single Stephen King novel and short story and renting all of his movies (The Lawnmower Man is still one of American cinema's finest examples), I have found that words fail me. So I have turned to a great American to settle the debate, a man of impeccable honor. A true patriot.

In the words of Sgt. Hulka, settle down, Francis.

Tod Goldberg
La Quinta, California

Wednesday, 15 October 2003

What it comes down to: Entertainment vs. enlightenment . . .

To address Mr. Hodge's request, I would like to come up with an argument that combines points made by Harold Bloom, Laurence Perrine, Henry Crimmel, and Sven Birkerts:

Human beings live for only around 70 years (and many will not live that long), and there are millions of book titles to choose from. Eventually, an individual will look for books that represent and address his concerns and questions about his life and his community. And there are many concerns and questions about life that are shared by people in different cultures worldwide: questions about the end of life and what comes after that, betrayal by a loved one or a close friend, an illness or other tragedy in a family, the loss of one's livelihood, and so forth. The need to confront these concerns increases as the individual becomes older and faces numerous problems about his health (physical, moral, spiritual, psychological, etc.) and about his relationship with others.

Selecting works becomes crucial especially when the individual realizes that he will not have enough money or time to read a lot of books. For example, given a full–time job, excluding traffic and over–time, and numerous distractions ranging from television to city night–life, an individual will be lucky if he gets to read (and re–read?) a book every two weeks, or 24 books a year, or around 1,250 books after fifty years. That is not much given the number of book titles available. Worse, the same limitations can appear for film, music, and so forth.

Generally, there are two types of literary works: escapist and interpretive. The former primarily entertains readers, and several of King's works fall under this category. Such works are mostly formulaic, have sympathetic heroes or heroines, have endings that leave readers satisfied, and are driven by plots that employ action, suspense, romance, or a combination of these. That is why these works are not only entertaining, they are also very popular. Unfortunately, they do not say much about human experiences that readers do not know. In contrast to King's works, consider, say, Kafka's.

The latter seeks not only to entertain but also to enlighten readers. "Middlemarch" and other works that form Bloom's canon are examples of such. They do not necessarily follow formulae that make works entertaining, and in many cases, employ complex characterization and plots. For example, there are works where one cannot tell protagonist from antagonist, where the ending is open–ended and leaves the reader bewildered, and where the reader is left pondering on his own experiences. That is why it is not surprising that such works do not sell very well.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to focus on escapist literature because it is entertaining. We also do not want to read works that remind us about our problems and boredom due to work or routine living. The bad news is that our addiction to entertainment does not make us forget those problems or get rid of that boredom. The pleasure that we feel is temporary, and after the euphoria disappears, we find no more knowledgeable about ourselves. Worse, continued exposure to entertainment may make us more disillusioned about our ordinary lives.

It's not a good idea to choose what we think is "interesting," because it is likely that we will just end up choosing works that are popular. We also cannot read every work available and decide for ourselves what is worth reading and what isn't due to time and money constraints. Finally, if we insist on emphasizing mostly entertaining fare, then we risk the possibility of becoming more disillusioned with life as we become older.

It is only through choosing works that are considered thoughtfully by those who have read much (like Bloom) do we get to read interpretive literature. It is not accidental that many works in Bloom's canon and those selected by Perrine belong to this category.

Rafael Acuna

Thursday, 9 October 2003

Who—or what—are people really responding to? . . .

Your readers are many things and star–fucker is certainly one of them. You were kind enough to post my open letter to Stephen King asking him to reject the honor awarded him by the National Book Foundation.

You also posted Harold Bloom's ruder and less reasoned column on the matter.

Who got all the angry ink?

No doubt your readers felt a frisson of importance by taking on the famous old critic. But Bloom isn't going to respond to them for the same reason they didn't respond to me.

Fame trumps ideas in the land of the blow hole.

J. Peder Zane
Book Review Editor, The News & Observer
Raleigh, NC

Disturbing Almond . . .

I found Steve Almond's attack on Harold Bloom both interesting and disturbing. Interesting, because it touches on literary issues that intrigue me: the merits of Stephen King, the place of criticism, the line between high and low fiction. Disturbing, because although it touches on these issues, it ultimately proves to be a monumental failure not only because Almond has nothing of substance to say, but because he is incapable of engaging with Bloom's argument.

Bloom's central thesis seems simple: the NBF award for distinguished contribution should not have gone to King because King is, in a literary sense, substandard, particularly when compared with other significant American writers who have not received the award. I think Bloom is mistaken about why the award was given (the board's comments do not reflect King's literary merit being a substantive reason for him receiving the award, and instead focus upon his commercial success and influence. It's also worth remembering that Oprah Winfrey is a previous recipient), but Almond does not quibble with Bloom on this basis.

Rather, Almond calls Bloom's piece ridiculous without ever explaining why it is ridiculous as opposed to merely unpalatable to Almond (and in fact later goes on to say "For what's it worth, I don't entirely disagree with Bloom"), stereotypes Bloom as a grumpy old man ("the ramparts of septuagenarian grumpiness" or "sourpuss curmudgeon" or "What cave is this guy living in? (Yes, I know, I know, Plato's."), suggests—and then later retracts the claim —that Bloom criticises writers without championing good ones, and then finishes his opening ramble by conceding that "I don't think there's any argument on the matter of whether King belongs in the same league with Bellow or Roth. But he’s no hack." At which point, it seems to me, the argument is over, and I am left wondering what Almond actually objects to in Bloom's piece.

I suspect that Almond must have been wondering this as well, or at least, he must’ve been wondering what his rhetoric about how, "most effectively to wake up our culture from its current stupor", had to do with Bloom’s contention that King was not a very good writer and other writers were more deserving. So Almond simply abandons Bloom's opinion altogether ("But I don't think the merits of Stephen King are really the point here"—when that is exactly Bloom's point); but not, alas, the ignorant attacks.

The piece becomes more ridiculous when Almond levels two allegations that I think Bloom must be above:

1. Bloom doesn't appreciate the depth of modern literature. This starts as a repeat of Almond's claim that Bloom can do nothing but "holler insults from the sidelines" and then becomes an opportunity for Almond to confuse Saul Bellow with Cormac McCarthy. I think, to be fair, Almond's mistake is probably attributable to the fact that he hasn't read anything written by Bloom except this article, and therefore is unaware of Bloom’s breadth of appreciation (in Bloom's lengthy western canon list he includes Gordimer, Updike and Morrison— half of the writers Almond suggests Bloom doesn't like).

2. Bloom doesn't want youth to read Middlemarch (and by implication other literature), because he is "altogether too protective of the canon to allow the vulgar multitudes at it”". Ludicrous is probably an understatement: Bloom in the article is advocating the consumption of literature by the "multitudes"; why else would he rail against the dumbing down of contemporary culture?

Almond eventually reaches the point he really wants to make: that it would be better if Bloom was writing about socio–economic issues rather than about what he thinks of King as a writer. But Bloom is a critic, he is a leading critic, and therefore why shouldn't he attack King's writing, and leave other aspects of the cultural dumbing to those better qualified to write about it? The only reason I can think of, is that Almond just doesn't see any value in criticism whatsoever; but he has claimed in at least his Poets and Writers Magazine article, that he really does get the importance of criticism (though given that that article is essentially a massive whine—and I'm not sure there's any kinder word for it – about having his own work criticized, I wonder whether he really means what he says about grasping the value).

What I'd like to see, is a critique of King’s work that doesn’t include arguments for King such as: he inspired someone to write, or (as was advanced multiple times in etters responding to Mr Bloom's critique of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone in the Wall Street Journal) that the books may be facile but they're enjoyable to read. Responses like this fail to confront Bloom's accusation of little to no literary merit.

But I will have to continue to look forward to that case against Bloom, because Almond's piece is not it. Rather, it is another pointless, meandering article that fails to contribute anything other than misguided aggravation to the discussion of literature. I hope that Almond's inability to see the importance of literary evaluation (and that includes negative evaluation) is not representative of a widespread swing that will drown out voices like Bloom's, and I hope that Almond will not be too upset by another bad review.

Michael Hodge
Brisbane, Australia

Monday, 6 October 2003

Organizing ignorance . . .

I was tempted to jump into the Bloom/King fray; after all, I probably know less about the facts of the matter than most of the current disputants, and so could write with relative objectivity. By the time I had organized my ignorance for an attack, however, the battle had reached the "Hey, Harold Bloom; bite me" level of analysis, and I realized I was still overqualified. Alas.

Phil Sheehan
Schenectady, NY

Friday, 3 October 2003

Bloom too generous . . .

I honestly don't understand the harsh reactions that have been levelled against Harold Bloom. If he has asserted that there are only four truly great living American novelists, then let me be the first to say that he is incomparably generous in his assessment. There is, in fact, only one great American novelist. And if Steven Martin falls off a cliff, there won't be any.

John Wright
Louisville, Kentucky

What's all this defensiveness? . . .

There seems to be a great deal of defensiveness on the part of MobyLives letter writers and writers at both a) the suggestion that Stephen King's winning the award shows just how far great literature in the U.S. has fallen and b) how hard some are working to let King's receipt of the award be the trough rather than the node.

King writes horror fiction, mostly, but that doesn't make him any less of a writer or less profound a thinker or even social critic than, say, Frank McCourt, J.K. Rowlings, or Noam Chomsky (who I still contend is really just a speech, hearing and linguistic theorist in disguise).

And Bloom appears in his deprecating comments on the award to be "drawing a line in the sand" to use a recently overworked and terribly poorly thought–out cliche to defend "great" literature from usurpation by such barbarians.

King has written books on how to write—and been published for years—so somebody has been reading him for quite some time. John Gardner, who first got published by motorcycling a stack of manuscripts to a publisher's office and dropping them on the publisher's desk, also wrote about "writing," in terms that would make most "artists" and "purists" proud.

I'm sensing that a new wave of "modern" literature appears to be pushing towards public awareness. I'm not talking about Eggers or the McSweeney crowd, though I must say Madison had more than cheese–headed pseudo–literati with black-and-white photos of Capote on their walls when I was there. I'm not talkin Zadie Smith or Don Delillo. I'm talking about some of what B.R. Myers mentioned in A Reader's Manifesto—which I think everyone who wants to weigh in on this subject should read first. And I must say Bauman probably so far has done the most in my awareness to reach for the goal—to write something not only good, but more than temporary. For "great" literature to be truly great, I think Mr. Bloom would even agree, it has to endure the test of time. I'm not talking a decade or two. I'm talking like 100 years or more.

As an example, letter writers to MobyLives have resorted to words like "fuck" in print a number of times—perhaps trying to remain "street," "connected," or even, God forbid, "hip." When used in characterization of personalities in a narrative, it is effective, or as an expletive, it is effective. But when it shows you couldn't think of a better word, it shows laziness. And that, I think, is a greater threat to literature and writing than Stephen King winning an award.

I think there are writers perhaps not yet published who are still struggling to put experience and emotion into readable, graspbable form, who are purposely avoiding using the easy way out. But I think all the cheap shots at Bloom, and Almond, in this letters section are just that: cheap, easy, railing against the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

If you think King didn't deserve the award, prove it. Write something that does. A line in the sand tends to disappear whenever the wind blows. I feel somewhat sorry for Mr. Bloom. I can feel the wind blowing. Can you?

Terin Miller
Maplewood, NJ

Thursday, 2 October 2003

Read before you leap . . .

To be fair to Harold Bloom, it's worth pointing out that in those much–discussed lists at the end of "The Western Canon" he singles out far more than four contemporary American novelists for praise and attention. (In fact, some of his choices, such as John Crowley, raised eyebrows for their relative obscurity). It's true that his cultural commentary lacks consistency (and a sense of humor), and perhaps in the intervening years he's changed his mind, but I wish that some of those who find it so easy to jump on the anti–Bloom bandwagon would take a look back at some of his more substantive work before hitting the "send" button.

Jess Row
Bronx, NY

Wednesday, 1 October 2003

Ah, so THAT'S who we blame for Zadie Smith! . . .

I found Ed Tarkington's comments to be thoughtful and for the most part on the mark. But the point I must disagree with is the attempt to turn what Bloom wrote into a harmless "Pynchon (et al) deserves a lifetime achievement award in literature more than Stephen King does." What Bloom said, specifically, was that King (and J.K. Rowling, by name, and others by implication) wrote work that had done nothing (not even very little, mind you, but nothing) for humanity. That's a bold statement. Nothing for humanity. THAT's what Bloom said. His words.

His rant went so way over the top that it was obvious his resentments and bitterness went far deeper than his surface statements. Rowling, for instance, doesn't even have anything to do with this. And the entirety of his irrelevent argument against her seemed to be cheap shots aganist the prose contained in a first book by a woman who composed it sans editor, professor, or critic over her quite–poor, quite–imaginative shoulder.

If one has a problem with the post–publication commercial mania of a book, then say so. But why personally tear apart an author for crimes against Strunk and White that many, if not most, authors have made in their first novel. Especially those who have not spent ten years in post–graduate literature study, workshopping the same story or chapters over and over to an unnatural smoothness.

There is a class and culture gap at play here, and it cannot be denied. There is an elitism and snobbishness I find unbearable. Bloom denies it, but his denials don't make it not true.

I am a writer because of Stephen King. Other writers of my generation are on the record saying similar things about King (Zadie Smith, among them). So don't tell me his work hasn't done anything to better humanity; it bettered my humanity.

I am a writer because of Stephen King, I am a writer because of Ernest Hemingway, I am a writer because of Maurice Sendak, I am a writer because of Laurie Colwin, I am... You get the point.

Bloom's breathless, baseless, unfathomable argument that reading King (or Rowling or anything else he deems commercial and less than good) does NOT lead to reading other things is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. All reading leads to other reading. I watch it now in my own daughters, and I remember it in myself.

There are points to be made on both sides of this argument. But I fear what is being lost (to quote Bloom, sort of) is what Bloom actually said: that an author he didn't care for, or understand, was irrelevant, because he said so. You took me to task, Mr. Tarkington, for my sharp tongue in my last letter. And perhaps you had a point. So I'll rephrase. I no longer invite Harold Bloom to bite me. It doesn't matter, I now realize, because it is Bloom who is, truly, irrelevent.

Christian Bauman
Christian Bauman.com
New Hope, PA

Critcs — human, or not? . . .

Steve Almond writes: "Rather than attacking writers, or those who bestow accolades onto them, he should be excoriating the true opponents of creative enlightenment. A short list would include: the deification of consumerism, the decline in funding for public education, the economic inequality that has become the hallmark of late–model capitalism. This culture discourages creativity, and deep thought, because such actions are not profitable. The horrible fact that people turn to Stephen King rather than Saul Bellow is, in other words, symptomalogy."  This IS our current dilemma: that art and literature are devalued in our society.  Why?  Obviously we look towards celebrity, even in literature, with great adulation. 

  I agree that it is up to artists and writers to find new and stimulating ways to move the masses.  Maybe Bloom is, in his own angry way as a literary critic, trying to "stir things up" and awaken writers.  He is after all, as Almond states, a critic and scholar.  Writers and poets should be self–actualized, autonomous creatures (ironclad skin helps) passionately trying to outdo themselves in producing lasting art.  Yes, what it means to be human, indeed.  Even critics are human, right?

Tim Nelson, librarian
Baltimore, MD

Bloom doesn't matter . . .

I think it's adorable that everyone is getting their collective panties in knots over what Harold Bloom wrote about Stephen King and King's National Book Foundation award for distinguished contribution. It's just like when the kids got upset that Steely Dan won a Grammy! Oh, wait. The kids didn't care about that, because Grammys are given out by old people.

It's also quite charming that Christian Bauman thinks he's one of only a handful of people capable of reading 800 words (from his letter to MobyLives: "and I'm wondering if I'm the only one who read all Bloom's words, all the way down to the last paragraph... ."). I guess even Bauman, deep down, thinks we're all kinda dumb.

But ultimately, how many people care what Harold Bloom has to say about this? His opinions on Stephen King are analogous to his opinions on Eminem—easily predictable and not very relevant.

Marie Mundaca
New York, NY

Bloom's a rotten reader . . .

In all the furor over Bloom's editorial, I'm surprised that no one has mentioned how poor Bloom's reading habits really are. Both the editorial and his Atlantic Unbound interview repeat the cavil that he found "fifty or sixty" examples of a single cliche ("stretching one's legs" for taking a walk) in HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE. As anyone has read the book knows—and as has been much–discussed on various Harry Potter websites—this is patently untrue.

Rowling's writing is not, of course, without flaws. (Her chief stylistic tic is the adverb, as none other than Stephen King pointed out in a review of the most recent book). Nor, perhaps, should one expect Bloom to lavish as much time on Harry Potter as on Hamlet. Still, this was a major gaffe, and one that Bloom insists on repeating. Is it too much to ask of a literary critic—any literary critic—that he advance at least one close reading against the value of the work in question?

That Steve Almond should feel compelled, in his otherwise thoughtful response to Bloom, to weigh in on the merits of a book he admits he hasn't even read once merely compounds the disappointment.

Vince Scoggins
Taylors, SC

Tuesday, 30 September 2003

Thanks, Steve . . .

Thanks, Steve Almond, for a great column on the true enemies of creative enlightenment, and for the willingness to enter into the socio–economic debate ("The Bloom is Off the Mark). Focusing our energies on tearing down the work of other writers helps keep the inequities of the system in place–energies that coould be much better spent working in whatever small or large ways we can for real social change.

Rosemary Zurlo–Cuva
Madison, WI

Closer reading . . .

I think the spirit of Steve Almond's commentary expresses what many if not most American writers and readers are feeling about Harold Bloom's recent excoriation of Stephen King and the National Book Foundation. But, in fairness to Bloom, Almond probably should have done a little homework and a little fact–checking/proofreading before launching his impassioned plea into cyberspace.

To begin with, Saul Bellow is not among the four living writers still at work whom Bloom signals for praise—Bellow is mentioned, but as a past recipient of the award. The fourth writer named in the editorial, along with Roth, Pynchon, and Delillo, is Cormac McCarthy, whose novel Blood Meridian was recently reissued in a Modern Library edition with an introduction by none other than Harold Bloom (I think McCarthy knows 'who the fuck' he is, Mr. Baumann). This disproves Almond's implication that Harold Bloom specializes in 'attack(ing) writers or those who bestow accolades on them.' Bloom has vocally championed the contemporary writers he admires for years—among them Wallace Stevens, Walker Percy, Ishmael Reed, Bellow, Roth, Pynchon, and McCarthy—and has helped establish many of their reputations. His objections to the celebration of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling have been accompanied by explanations of why other authors and books are more deserving of wide acclaim, along with a sensible (if a bit cranky) objection to the cultural validation–as–art of work that is at best uneven and at worst inferior to the standard set by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or Rudyard Kipling. He mentions Delillo, Pynchon, and McCarthy to point out that there are at least three clear future–world–historical American novelists of enormous significance to our literature who have not been given career honors by the NBF. I've heard and read plenty of defenses of King, but I've yet to hear anyone suggest that he is more deserving than Thomas Pynchon. Bloom never suggests, as Christian Baumann has clearly interpreted, that the four living writers mentioned at the end of his editorial are the only worthwhile or serious novelists still at work; rather, he insists that three of them (excluding Roth, who received the award in 2002) are unquestionably more deserving of the honor than Stephen King. And as for Christian Baumann, well, I've heard only good things about his work, but using 'bite me' as a comeback to a guy who can recite the complete works of Shakespeare from memory sort of proves Bloom's point about the dumbing down of American culture, now, doesn't it?

Let's remember that, as far as Bloom's concerned, it's all been downhill since Shakespeare, whose achievement is so monumental that every subesequent attempt at literary distinction must necessarily fall in its shadow. Bloom is not an enemy of contemporary literature—he simply refuses to compromise his standard of greatness to account for popular success, the rise of film and television, diminishing attention spans, and all the other excuses that are made to obfuscate the fact that the average American reader is no longer bright or intellectually curious enough to prefer a truly great poem or novel over lighter, less demanding fare. Bloom argues that popular taste should not be the primary determining factor in the evaluation of literature as art. I seriously doubt that Steve Almond, Christian Baumann, or any of Mobylives' readers or contributors would dispute this.

Despite my respect for Bloom, I'm not ready to dismiss Stephen King just because he writes bestsellers. Even one as brilliant as Bloom should refrain from sweeping dismissals of pop culture icons—after all, Shakespeare was originally popular entertainment for the masses. Nevertheless, I can't rid myself of the suspicion, however cynical, that Mr. King's recognition by the NBF is motivated primarily by a desire to exploit his fame and popularity as a means of drawing more attention to the NBAs. Perhaps I'm wrong; perhaps the Foundation does in fact believe that King is more deserving than Pynchon or McCarthy (neither of whom would have been likely to show up for the award presentation anyway). But if it is true that the NBF cognosenti are honoring King for his ability to generate publicity and sales rather than for his committment to writing and storytelling, then Bloom is more right about the whole mess than any of his critics would like to admit.

Ed Tarkington
Tallahassee, FL

Nuts . . .

Steve Almond, a nut by name, has written a dumbed–down response to one of America's greatest literary minds for writing—can it be?—criticism!!??

To take Harold Bloom to task for taking Stephen King to task is ample evidence of the thinness of Almond's shell and the infertility of the nut within.

I object and thus register my objection with you.

Stuart Denenberg
West Hollywood, CA

Steve: Consider yourself informed . . .

Please inform Mr. Almond that Nadine Gordimer is not American.

Evan Richards
Nashville, TN

Monday, 29 September 2003

Harold Bloom and the artist's responsibility . . .

Steve Almond writes:

"But let's remember: it is the job of artists (and always has been) to awaken mercy, to help people feel less alone with their deepest, darkest emotions. And, of course, to encourage them to regard their minds as vibrant and expandable."

The "let's remember" is cute. It virtually screams out, "We're all a bunch of nice folks who want kids to eat their vegetables." Well, I'm a dad, and I do want kids—my kids, your kids, everybody's kids—to eat their vegetables.

However, I don't think "it is the job of artists (and always has been)" to get kids to eat their spinach (or the moral equivalent thereof). At least, it wasn't in my job description when I signed up. I think my contract said something about writing honestly about the world and my thoughts and emotions as honestly as I could bear to.

If this awakens somebody's mercy great. I'm a big fan of mercy. I love that the Hebrew Bible says the Lord punishes sinners to the third of fourth generation but grants mercy to the thousandth generation. Certainly, there have been notable occasions (Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Hamsun's Growth in the Soil) when writers set out to condemn and ended up producing thoroughly sympathetic accounts. Still, I don't think this was their job.

And I don't think Dostoyevsky or Kafka—to cite just two examples—were trying to help their readers feel less lonely or alone. Readers might feel, "Hey, this writer felt as lonely or alone as I feel now (or a good deal more lonely and alone). I guess I'm not so bad off after all. (And I was sad because I had no shoes until I met a man etc.)"

Then again, they may not. Notes From Underground is a literary masterpiece. Prozac is a prescription medicine. Only one has been proven in clinical trials as a safe and effective treatment for depression.

And is it really the job of the artist to convince people their minds are "vibrant and expandable"? In my part of town, we still leave that task to the friendly neighborhood dope peddler.

And yet, elsewhere Almond makes a good point that could be taken further. It is logical that a society built on mass–consumption should encourage constant anxiety rather than profound contentment or satisfaction. People need to be convinced that buying things will make them happy, and, when they discover that's not true, they need to be encouraged to buy more stuff.

What I imagine that Bloom AND Almond want is a society where people read with all their heart and soul and strength, indeed, where people live with all their heart and soul and strength. As for King, I have no strong feelings either way, having never read him, although Brian De Palma's Carrie (based on a King novel) remains a favorite, unforgettable film for me.

And Steve, do yourself an enormous favor: Read Middlemarch. It's not just better than spinach; it's better than asparagus.

David Ghitelman
Brooklyn, NY

Bloom comments inspire, er, something to chew on . . .

Let's put aside, just for a moment, what Harold Bloom has to say about Stephen King. His insults to King are grabbing the headlines, and I'm wondering if I'm the only one who read all Bloom's words, all the way down to the last paragraph where, after insulting and dismissing all others, he says this:

"Today there are four living American novelists I know of who are still at work and who deserve our praise."

Hey, Harold Bloom; bite me.

While your fat old white ass stands guard over your precious bookshelf, my bookshelf is coming to life with books (paperbacks, mind you) jumping and spinning, cries and yelps filling the air. I can hear them now . . .

Who's that? Oh, it's an Annie Proulx novel! It's singing, "Bite me, Harold Bloom."

What's that noise? Dear jumping Jesus, it's grumbling ol' Tim O'Brien. "Bite me, Bloom."

There's John Irving, and there's Doctorow, and whoops there goes a Toni Morrison flying off the shelf (far too much class, her, to actually say "bite me," but I swear I saw her scratching her nose with her middle finger).

Over in the corner, there's an Ann Beattie collection crawling atop Robert Stone (sturdy, one of the few hardbacks) to get a better view. She's beckoning to Joyce Carol Oates and Lorrie Moore and screaming something in Italian or French or something . . . what is it? Oh. "Bite me!"

There's some younger paperbacks, too. They're not sure what all the fuss is, but seem to be enjoying the fun. Say, what's that coming out of Darcey Steinke's mouth? Oh my gosh, she just said "Bite me, Bloom!" And there's Regina McBride, and a really really big book by William T. Vollmann and that slim, sexy thing by Jhumpa Lahiri, and a stoned-looking Michael Chabon and—uh, oh—here comes an advance copy of the new Neal Pollack novel. It's waving arms and babbling something. What could it be? Well . . . you know.

Over on the far left there IS a line of Stephen King. But the Kings all seem to be keeping quiet. Well, that's a Maine native for you. Let's see, who's that under the King? It's a whole row of paperbacks, all obviously agitated, but mostly keeping to themselves. There's Peter Straub, and over there is Anne McCaffery, and I think that's a Piers Anthony novel. Funny thing, I have it on good faith that even people who go to Yale have read some of these books. Even a few people who taught at Yale. I have a friend there. He told me so.

One thing I want to check on is the copies of the books by the four living old, white, male American novelists who get Bloom's praise. You know, the only ones doing good work in American literature today. I'm curious to see what they have to say about all this. Hmmm . . . Let's see . . .

Well. We'll have to reserve commentary on their opinions. There doesn't seem to be one single copy of any of their books on my shelf! Not one. Well, that's a lack of education for ya.

Oh . . . wait! Nope, spoke too soon. There's a couple from good ol' Cormac, way up there, away from everyone else on the shelf. As usual. Guy keeps to himself. Well, that's genius for you. What's he saying, anyway?

"Who the fuck is Harold Bloom?"

Christian Bauman
Christian Bauman.com
New Hope, PA

Thursday, 18 September 2003

Bloom an idiot? . . .

Considering that the National Book Award is presented to someone who promotes reading and literacy, I¹d say that best–selling–author King does that quite well, regardless of what Mr. Bloom says of his literary merit. Has he ever read DIFFERENT SEASONS, which illustrates his ability to write in various genres? Some old curmudgeons, with lesser book sales, should keep their stale opinions to their grumpy selves. He only made himself look bad with these comments.

Tim Nelson, librarian
Baltimore, MD

Friday, 12 September 2003

The anti–anti–hipsterism movement . . .

Speaking as a man who once shared pot brownies with Neal Pollack in our Prairie–Home–Companion style apartment on a cold night in Madison, WI, I have to say that the man's anti–anti–hipsterdom (read: he wears a Hulk tshirt, not faded enough) doesn't qualify as hipsterdom, whereas I would certainly deposit Eggers' McSweeney's and their half-baked aren't–we–ironic Suck–esque design well in the realms of me–too–Interpol hipsterdom (read: Salon does a piece on being approached in the NY subway for reading the Believer).

Madison was overrun by brain–dead cheesy would–be literary types with the black–and–white photographs of Capote on their walls and a vague love for any literary types who made it without much literary talent, just using the Internet for well–worn pranks when it would serve them—but, at about the time Eggers' ejaculated a Heartbreaking of work of blah blah, and the same type of critics who would gush over the hare–brained hip–hop of Northern State (and probably masturbated to the first drumbeats of Riot Grrrl backlash) started heralding the new wave of younger literature, most people who loved McSweeneys starting distancing themselves from Heartbreaking Work. It's not funny, and simply arduous and painful to wade through. Its TOO self–aware (yes, Knight–Ridder, even we can pick that shit apart) and yet intensely un–profound.

Anyway, props to that guy who ripped on Julavits and snark and whatnot. But (despite the hi–larious laugh that ensues from comparing ANYONE to Karl Rove), Eggers' eromenos he is not. Now let's get away from this fucking topic.

Yoni Reinberg
Philadelphia, PA

The Hatchet Man Responds . . .

Dave Eggers has let me out of my cage long enough for me to call Rick Schleisser a goddamn moron. Growl! Growl! Oh, thank you, Dave, for allowing me to attack this worthless nobody! May I have a cookie, master?

McSweeneys published my first book. I feel no reason to apologize for my past involvement with the magazine. Those early years were very fun, and very exciting. But if you care, Mr. Schleisser, and you obviously do, you might notice that I haven't had a piece published on the McSweeneys website in more than two years. McSweeneys took down the link of my "archives." That's because Eggers and I had an aesthetic (not a personal) split. For some reason, I found and still find myself growing angrier, more bitter, and more confrontational. He was interested in starting 826 Valencia and The Believer, which, whatever their intent, simply aren't my style. So we remained friends and parted company in print.

I'm fully capable of forming my own opinions and expressing them in my own way, and I am not Eggers' "hatchet man." Now you must excuse me. Dave is calling on the special hotline I've set up for when he wants me to do his bidding. What's that, Dave? Someone said something nasty about you in print? Lemme at him!


Neal Pollack
The Neal Pollock Invasion
Austin, TX

Thursday, 11 September 2003

Let's keep Phillip Downer howling . . .

The item about Borders UK is amusing, as British booksellers raised similar howls in the 1920s. Dust jackets were just coming into common use, and publishers began using the jackets to affix prices to the books. Prices were eventually banished to the back or inside of the jacket, because what really drove sellers bonkers was that publishers initially put prices on the jacket's spine. Customers could see the price before they even picked up the book. Horrors! (Spine pricing lives on in the US, weirdly enough, with Signet Classics and some other mass market paperbacks.)

So, editors: if you really want to drive Phillip Downer insane....

Paul Collins
The Collins Library
Brooklyn, NY

Meanwhile, back at The Believer/McSweeney's compound . . .

One thing I find remarkable about The Believer is the dearth of actual articles about literature. Wasn't this supposed to be the publication to champion the underdogs, to shine bright lights on the under–appreciated, etc.? Instead we get a few—and remarkably weak—pieces here and there about some deserving books and authors lost among articles and interviews that concern themselves with Andy Richter, Martin Short, Rudy Guiliani, Donald Rumsfeld, Howard Dean, various filmmakers and musicians, and the umpteenth expose of the ULA. Not to mention a poem by David Berman in practically every goddamn issue. I enjoy Berman's work, but aren't other voices worthy of attention?

There was all that grand hoopla in the manifesto of the first issue, then not much to back it up. Just the talk, not the walk. Of course this led some paranoid types to speculate that the manifesto itself was the point, that the initial plea from Julavits for everyone to get along, and for reviewers to be nice, was a pre–emptive strike because both her new novel and a novel by Vendela Vida, another Believer editor, were due out soon. It seemed maybe the whole anti–snark campaign wasn't designed with a greater good in mind at all, but to forestall unwanted criticism of their own works in particular. Who knows?

I do know that erecting these sorts of forcefields against criticism is at least one talent that Dave Eggers (husband of Vida and backer of The Believer) truly does possess. Eggers has shown himself to be thin–skinned and mean–spirited, not above intimidating or humiliating reviewers or features writers he has not personally vetted. Then he'll do an about face and write a piece urging everyone to play nice. When accused of bitchiness, he employs the annoying "it's–irony/no–it's–not–irony/nobody–even–knows–what–irony–means–anymore" schtick so often it's ridiculous. It's a neat way to brush away harsh accusations concerning his own forays into snark. "See, it's just a joke. I didn't mean it." Like someone else who promised to "change the tone," he's also got a handy hatchet man, his very own Karl Rove, in Neal Pollack, master of the "I'm only kidding" High School cafeteria style of discourse. Pollack handles the messy work of attacking writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen, James Frey, and so forth, while back at The Believer/McSweeney's compound, there are rainbows and hummingbirds and everyone repeats, glassy–eyed, "If you can't say something nice, don’t say anything at all."

The new Snarkwatch feature on The Believer website is truly disturbing. Great. Just what we need. An online army of McSycophant tattletales, scouring for some supposed rudeness, maybe getting necessary blunt opinions and hard truths confused with snark. Attuned to the possibility of a hint of some off–putting tone, rather than the real content of the review or intent of the reviewer.

In essence, the message I get from the McSweeney's/Believer people is: "Do as we say, not as we do." Or: Writers on our team should be coddled, but everyone else can fuck off."

Which brings us to Eggers’ recent novel "You Shall Know Our Velocity." You shall know that it is trite, clumsy, emotionally stunted, immature, and in serious need of an editor. You shall know that it's basically "Brewsters’ Millions" with frat boys and dialogue that could have been written by Harold Pinter— if Pinter had written " Dude, Where's my car?" after a lobotomy. And there are lots of exclamation points. And I mean lots!

"This is fucked!"
"So totally fucked!!!"
"Oh fuck, man!"
"Yeah! Fuck!"

But you wouldn't have heard that from many reviewers. And you probably wasted some money and time best spent on another book. Maybe on a real unknown talent out there. If you only knew the name of the author. If only there were a journal that might tell you.


Rick Schleisser
Brooklyn, NY


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