By the Book, the weekly Q&A conducted in writing for the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, uses boilerplate questions to peek into the reading lives of writers and other prominent figures, especially actors with sideline literary careers. It lets us imagine, perhaps erotically, Jesse Eisenberg’s nightstand, and encourages interviewees to let fly with unsupported endorsements and dismissals. “There’s a fashion now for fat, hyper-intellectual, cooler-than-thou novels that are loaded with lard and siphoned of believable feeling,” Mary Karr complains in last Sunday’s column, “and those bore the dog dookey outta me.” The format doesn’t permit follow-up questions, so one doesn’t learn the names of any of these monstrously fashionable books.
A later stock question about disappointing or overrated books forces Karr into specificity. “I feel like a turd naming names,” she writes, “but the poet John Ashbery’s reputation is inflated enough to take it.” One notes that this is the interview’s second down-home scatology while entertaining doubts about Karr’s qualms. She has already condemned Ashbery’s work in her 2009 interview with the Paris Review, and in a post to her Facebook page in 2013 (“John Ashbery’s poems are the greatest case of the emperor wearing no clothes in cultural history,” a hyperbole she tempers in the Times). In both interviews Karr concedes Ashbery’s brilliance and explains that she was once taken with his work, wrote a 100-page thesis on Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but later “recanted” (I like the word choice and support its recycling). In the Times Q&A she writes, “His poems are about (he admits this) zippo, and his seductive voice is the most poisonous influence in American poetry.” In the Paris Review she says, “Most young poets cannot reproduce the interesting rivulets made by Ashbery’s stream-of-consciousness. In my early work I tried to sound cool, like Ashbery—though I’m profoundly devoid of cool.”
I’m often moved and delighted by John Ashbery’s work, but he can, as Karr says, endure formal and casual dissenters. And one expects unusual work even of firmly established unusualness to breed a certain amount of ongoing hostility; it’d be no fun if it didn’t. In any case, my gappy knowledge of contemporary poetry doesn’t equip me to speak with authority on Ashbery’s influence, though in a moment I might try to speak without it. What interests me is the common idea (not necessarily embedded in Karr’s complaint) that strong avant-garde or otherwise abstract artists yield an especially pernicious influence. Why should this be true?
As two of the above quotes demonstrate, Karr is particularly on guard against fashionable nonsense and emotional reticence, and she wants to steer young writers, at least most of them, away from the defensive poses she bumbled through on her way to a direct and more authentic voice. Also, we can assume, she’d like to steer people away from received sophisticated tastes if those tastes prove, preferably after some serious examination, to be at odds with their dispositions and talents. In some cases, this might be sensible. One doesn’t, after all, want to fake it eternally; one wants to find a mode suited to one’s personality and intellect. Maybe you’re writing fragmentary lyric essays of thudding incoherence when you could be writing memoirs of chiseled clarity; maybe you’re eight years into the draft of a preeningly make-it-new novel when you could be presiding over a drawerful of witty and unproduced screenplays; maybe you’re a not-bad underground poet destined to be a mercilessly effective literary agent.
Whether or not Karr has continued to follow Ashbery, whose later work is often more approachable, she’s not a skeptical dabbler but, it seems, a confident, lessoned apostate whose volte-face apparently came about through overcoming her own insecure charlatanism. If we aren’t instinctively and perennially hostile to avant-garde work, we will almost certainly, at one time or another, be conflicted and anxious in its presence. That’s after all part of the point. (I’m thinking here of self-conscious avant-garde movements from the time of Baudelaire to the present, particularly historical work that still presents challenges to conventional taste.) Many of us can acknowledge, sincerely or in deference to prevailing opinion, that abstract, innovative, tricky art is sometimes great, but we figure its production should be left to those who seem to have some inborn aptitude for it: polymaths, iconoclasts, lunatics, and other oddities. We might think: I could never be James Joyce; he was a genius and learned Norwegian just to write a lousy one-off Ibsen essay; but maybe I could be Anthony Trollope; he just forced himself to bash out two thousand words every damn morning. Alas, we can’t be either of them.
Those of us who have acquired some taste for vanguard art in most cases developed it through work that had already been celebrated, historicized, or canonized. We could try to understand the work’s methods and discover its pleasures without great fear of being duped. It can take a long time, however, to feel qualified to judge experimental work not yet endorsed by reputable authorities. “I had read L’Après d’un faune without extracting a glimmer of meaning,” Max Beerbohm writes in his great story “Enoch Soames,” in which an aspiring young writer meets an alluringly affected Symbolist manqué. “Yet Mallarmé—of course—was a Master. How was I to know that Soames wasn’t another? There was a sort of music in his prose, not indeed arresting, but perhaps, I thought, haunting, and laden perhaps with meanings as deep as Mallarmé’s own.” That doubled perhaps is the echo of a sentence from earlier in the paragraph: “It did now occur to me: suppose Enoch Soames was a fool!”
The unproven experimentalist always takes this special risk: of not only being epigonic or downright inept, but of being ludicrously so.
The shame of pretentiousness, the absurdity of conformist nonconformity. Mark Greif’s recent work of intellectual and literary history, The Age of the Crisis of Man, deals in brief with the American vogue for Kafka’s work sparked by the 1937 publication of Willa and Edwin Muir’s English translation of The Trial (the Muirs’ 1930 translation of The Castle was quietly received). By the early forties, Kafka had inspired colonies of imitators in the little magazines, and Greif quotes several observers who had grown exhausted with this particular and sudden flowering of ersatz strangeness. Here is Philip Rahv: “It is necessary to say to them: To know how to take apart the recognizable world is not enough, is in fact merely a way of lettings oneself go.” This is familiar skepticism: we allow that distinguished works are often (always?) ambiguous and that they might remain somewhat mysterious to their creators. But we’re particularly offended when intellectual status is granted to pro forma, undisciplined, purposeless strangeness. By the sixties and seventies, Clement Greenberg, the great champion of abstract expressionism, post-painterly abstraction, and other innovations, had grown suspicious; he worried about “the large absence of decisions that could be felt as ‘meant,’ as intuited and pressured, and not just taken by default. That’s just it: that so many of the decisions that go into the supposedly newest art go by default, become automatic, and by the same token arbitrary, decisions.”
I just wanted to post a paragraph to Facebook! A few stray thoughts, then, in closing:
“Weaker talents idealize,” Harold Bloom wrote, “figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves.” Exciting, innovative, great artists will naturally prod undistinguished derivations. Extravagant innovations might lead to impasses for pathbreakers and followers alike. Needless to say, great art will also inspire other great art, as well as worthy art from those of us who are less than great. It’s true that John Coltrane’s later music led some tenor saxophonists to falsely believe that they too could sustain half-hour free improvisations climaxing with emotive explorations of the instrument’s most Himalayan register. It’s also true that, in and out of jazz, Coltrane suggested extremely rich avenues of expression, and continues to do so. I think maybe John Ashbery’s model has made my relatively conventional novels slightly better; sometimes you need to roll with these optimistic hunches.
It’s blandly true that artists grow interesting through the often humiliating discovery of their strengths and limitations. Maybe you’ve read work in the style of David Foster Wallace or Maggie Nelson by a writer who doesn’t evince extraordinary intelligence. Maybe you’ve thought, condescendingly, that the writer might turn out okay if only he or she could settle on more modest aims. Maybe—sigh—you’ve come to such conclusions after reading work stored in the memory of your own computer. Okay. But do we really believe that apprentice or enduringly minor artists would be better served by different models? Wouldn’t they just create minor work in a different style?
In her perhaps cathartic dismissals, Karr is careful to say that Ashbery is modest and charming—in other words, not a charlatan, even if his work is in her view ultimately empty. Still, general concerns about an avant-gardist’s influence often betray the prejudice that experimentalists are desperate for in-crowd approval and will pursue any abstruse sham to win it. (Similarly, experimentalists will often impute venality and dull-wittedness to formally conservative artists.) Have you ever attended a party where one of the guests is wearing a silly hat? Did you speak to this guest and discover that she was not in fact insufferable? In my experience, experimentalists are no more likely to be phonies than artists working in more traditional modes, though of course their work might be terrible, might cry out for naysaying.
Clarity is a virtue worthy of a life’s pursuit; it’s probably more threatened by careless or dishonest convention than by virtuosic abstraction.
All right, “now give me my pants and money and let me go back and join the others. They’re crying, you know.”