Tag Archives: Books

Toni Morrison – RIP

In “Goodbye to All That: Race, Surrogacy, and Farewell,” the late Toni Morrison wrote the closest approximation to a manifesto:

From the beginning, I claimed a territory by insisting on being identified as a black woman writer exclusively interested in facets of African-American culture….I wanted this vocabulary to stretch to the margins for the wealth that lay there and thus, not abandon, but reconfigure what occupied the center [italics mine]

. Later in this fine, taut essay, Morrison writes, “Race awareness apparently can never be sundered from politics. It is the result of a shotgun wedding originally enforced by whites, while African American artists (in the public and academic domains) are faulted and failed for dealing with the consequences of the marriage.” Continue reading

‘I must get a new bird/and a new immortality box’

Thanks to Peter Gabriel, I discovered Anne Sexton; thanks to Harold Bloom, I practiced a received contempt. Sexton and Sylvia Plath, he said, “are not poets, merely case histories and hysterics. They could not write poetry that should matter to any serious reader.” Proposing that W.D. Snodgrass, John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Elizabeth Bishop, and above all James Merrill are superior shouldn’t detract from Sexton’s achievement . I’m not sure if she listened to rock ‘n’ roll, but her concision and affinity for the folktale give her strongest lyrics a performative power that her contemporaries lacked; you can read “The Ambition Bird” aloud and produce a helluva response. Continue reading

My favorite debut novels

Creating this list, I considered the arc of a novelist’s career: is the debut self-sufficient enough to be fully representative of his or her career? Hence the omission of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Also, did they only write one novel? Hence the omissions of The Bell Jar and Wuthering Heights. Others, like Jhumpra Lahiri’s The Namesake and John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle, don’t match the concentration of their short stories.

1. Kingsley Amis – Lucky Jim
2. Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood
3. Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre
4. Alan Hollinghurst – The Swimming-Pool Library
5. Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye
6. Philip Larkin – Jill
7. Saul Bellow – Dangling Man
8. Günter Grass – The Tin Drum
9. Zadie Smith – White Teeth
10 Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping
11. Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road
12. James Baldwin – Go Tell It on the Mountain
13. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
14. Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird
15. E.M. Forster – Where Angels Fear to Tread
16. Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility
17. Monica Ali – Brick Lane
18. Garth Greenwell – What Belongs to You
19. Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man
20. Michael Chabon – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
21. George Eliot – Adam Bede
22. Penelope Fitzgerald – The Golden Child
23. Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides
24. Truman Capote – Other Voices, Other Rooms
25. Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
26. David Foster Wallace – The Broom of the System
27. Ann Beattie – Chilly Scenes of Winter
28. Evelyn Waugh – Decline and Fall
29. Iris Murdoch – Under the Net
30. James Wilcox – Modern Baptists

Bret Easton Ellis, the scribbler as pedant

VOX’s Catherine Grady explains why Bret Easton Ellis is a pedant and the dullest of provocateurs:

Those who react with outrage to Trump and, for instance, the children who are being kept in cages as a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, need to take a deep breath and listen to Ellis. “You need to be sedated, you need to see a shrink, you need to stop letting the ‘bad man’ help you in the process of victimizing your whole life,” he advises, mere pages after patting himself on the back for his love of art and discourse that “challenge” him and make him “more empathetic.”

What is ostensibly animating Ellis’s rage here is his love for aesthetics over ideology, which he feels have become embattled in the current cultural discourse. But leaving aside the fact that there is no such thing as non-political art — that Ellis’s position as a white, gay, wealthy cis man has as much influence on his perspective as Barry Jenkins’s perspective as a black straight man has on Moonlight (“dour and downbeat,” Ellis opines) — Ellis’s ostensible love for style is not evident in the clogged and uninteresting White.

Again and again, Ellis earnestly relies on the wildly unspecific non-word “problematic” as his catchall criticism. (Suggesting that gay jokes are passé is “problematic,” as is writing off Ellis as a dick.) He glories in dad-like insults, like calling millennials “snowflakes” and “Generation Wuss.” He falls back time and again on the cliché rather than the original, the generality rather than the specific.

I’ve fought the Ellis type most of my adult life: the sort of person who chastises non-Ellises for sharing political points of view from which his wealth insulates him; a member of an ancien regime who assumes there’s bravery in conformity, going along, letting men like Ellis moderate discourse. This is a fellow whose novelized autobiographies suffer from a disinterest in natural phenomena and incuriosity about other people not Bret Easton Ellis so total that they’re as airless as a basement.