Monday, November 14, 2005

I shouldn't read these things

at midnight; now I'm all riled up from skimming through the latest issue of n+1. I did not renew my subscription before I left New York, in part because I don't think I've ever read another publication that seemed so roundly to remind me of the fact that I do not have a Y chromosome, but my friend S. has loaned me hers (we are in agreement that the editorial piece on dating that's currently excerpted on the website is distasteful, though I can see that if I try to explain why I think so, I will sound like a fretful and humorless feminist; perhaps I will instead just express my dislike for that editorial "we," on the grounds that it rarely leads to sharp and appealing writing).

I've been dying to read the Walter Benn Michaels essay on class (well, "dying" is a terrible exaggeration, but it's been nagging at me, not least because some paragraphs by Benn Michaels about the idea of "breeding" in his book Our America helped me realize that Breeding was the title for my new academic book). It's excellent, combative and sly in its framing of arguments that we on the whole do not want to hear about neoliberalism and Ivy League schools and the disingenuous American obsession with meritocracy. I must read Curtis Sittenfeld's novel Prep, too, I tried to get it at the library the other day but it was not where it was supposed to be (predictably stolen from the stacks?). The piece is very nicely paired with a great essay--story?--by J. D. Daniels. This is the magazine at its best, as far as I am concerned: intellectual but accessible, challenging, controversial--even slightly disagreeable, which gives it a nice edge--while still appealing enough to keep me reading.

My other two favorite pieces were Emily Votruba on women's boxing and an absolutely charming essay by Elif Batuman on Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees, another book I must get and read at once. (I also enjoyed Siddartha Deb's devastating review of Rushdie's latest--which I have here but am relatively unlikely to read, unless snowbound & fiction-deprived; I don't say that in the spirit of snark, just as a truthful observation--and two likeable essays, one by Pankaj Mishra and the other by my friend Marco Roth.)

It's the other stuff that gives me the feeling of guy-ness that I don't like. I don't want to read high-falutin philosophizing about pop music and reality TV; it seems to me that the ideal of crashing together the academic and the journalistic should take you altogether the other way, with a more accessible and down-to-earth prose style but a high level of intellectual acuity about important things. (It's not that I don't like Radiohead or think their music is important and interesting. I do. I just don't like this kind of cultural criticism, which seems to me to trumpet its superiority over the material it cannibalizes and to speak only to a tiny circle of insiders. It's a matter of taste, but it runs pretty deep. And I don't really like DeLillo and so I also don't like what seemed to me a vaguely DeLilloesque--what's up with that comma use, anyway?--story by Benjamin Kunkel that is also included in the issue. Sorry, guys. It is awkward blogging negatively about people I am reasonably likely to see at future parties in NY, isn't it? Take this in the spirit of rational dissent.)

Finally, I found James Wood's reply to the attack on his criticism in the magazine's first issue alternately engaging and maddening: there I am thinking "oh, how reasonable he sounds, and I don't at all disagree with his judgments of these individual authors" and then I come up against a sentence that completely alienates me in its anti-intellectualism and its deliberate refusal to entertain the rules of argument rather than masking its opinion-ness in an infuriating cloak of elegant phraseology. An example: Wood uses Henry James' phrase "'the present palpable-intimate'" as a rubric to describe his own credo for fiction, then glosses the term "present": "I think the novel should deal with current reality; I have no time for historical fiction, seeing it as merely science fiction facing backwards." Since when did cleverly and unexpectedly saying that thing X inverts thing Y count as an explanation for why thing X is bad, unless you cheaply invoke a set of unfair stereotypes about both kinds of novel, particularly disparaging about science fiction? "Merely science fiction facing backwards": that dandyish contemptuousness, that thoughtless sweep.... We all have our tastes, but there's no point kidding ourselves they're moral virtues. (I don't think that quite counts as an editorial "we," just an irritable generalization in the first-person plural, but perhaps it's a sign that I had better retire for the evening....) In any case, it's clearly contradicted by lots of his preferences: you would have to call Jonathan Lethem (whose writing Wood admires) a writer of historical fiction, wouldn't you, and probably of science fiction as well?


  1. Dear Jenny,

    I won't pretend that I haven't heard some of these criticisms before, but now that you've gone semi-public with them, I think I'll also repeat myself semi-publicly, for the record, as it were. First, though, since you seem to have liked a majority of the pieces in the issue, why not renew?
    Yes, we're men, and yes there's something often alienating about being forced to read from the standpoint of an intimate other--men or women of roughly the same social class, educational background, and familiar world of experiences. So much gets assumed and so much then gets left out and one's much more likely to feel skeptical and irritated than carried away into a truly other world. But what irritates me when I read this genre of criticism about n+1, and about Mark's writing in particular, is the way that it instantly sweeps a minority kind of masculinity into a big oppressive "Guy-ness" or male-ness. Would Mark or the composite character, "Intellectual Situation Man," be welcome in the now gender-balanced boys' clubs of the White House, the Wall Street Journal editorial page or the New Republic's, or even in the contemporary academy? I'm reminded of a nameless Renaissance studies professor, a woman, who once dismissed a question of mine because it belonged to a kind of intellectual history typical of Jewish male academics in the 1960s. Which is to say, the worm turns. Patriarchy exists, phallocentric analysis and heteronormativity exist, but I don't think reading n+1 is an existentially oppressive or exlusionary experience for those without y chromosomes. There are and probably there will continue to be pieces in n+1 that say "Behold a man" or "Behold a Guy," and some people will not want to look. Another question I'd ask, after your balanced review: why do you feel these pieces to be "dominant" and dominating?
    I know that your particular dislike of Mark's writing comes from his style as much as what he has to say. I would love for you to come to grips with your hostility to the whole Rousseau, Wordsworth, Emerson, Nietzsche, Benjamin line of aesthetic criticism. And I'd challenge you to find moments in Mark's essays that are as full of Johnsonian, male hot air as the James Wood sci-fi/historical novel sentence you rightly nailed. As a reader, you can always refuse to read something because you don't care enough about the topic to take it seriously, but if you find yourself reading it despite yourself, late at night, engaged in fervent argument, and, yes, even rational dissent, I think we've done our job pretty well. -Marco

  2. I have to admit that reading this issue made me feel like I do have to renew my subscription after all. You have certainly put your finger on the whole Rousseau-Wordsworth-Emerson-[well, I like some of Nietzsche b/c it's so crazy]-Benjamin-Greif thing. Next time I see you I will have to ask you about recommended strategies for coming to grips! It may be that I am simply destined to fail to appreciate that strand of modern criticism....

  3. Criticism, even of the most rational kind, sometimes, one discovers, has a way of invoking the atavistic in both critcizer and criticized. That's no reason to shrink from it -- but be forewarned.

  4. You’re both cracked. Geeking around with Hegel and art-rock is “guy-ness”? N+1 editor grunts: “Yes, we’re men ... Behold a Guy”?

    Technically I, too, am a man, but the fact of the matter is that I have only two penises while I have three or sometimes even four vaginas. My grandmother warned me that if I kept playing with those things they’d get stuck that way, and she was right. Don’t touch it, or them, she said. Then she fell asleep again on her sofa while watching General Hospital, which is presumably where she learned how I was or was not to surgically modify my own genitalia. I’ll admit it was kind of hard to cross my legs, but the truth is that all of this more or less escaped my notice until the census taker visited with his sharpened pencil and his yellow workbook. Take off your pants, he said. No, I said. Take them off or I’ll say ‘phallocentric’ and ‘heteronormativity’ at you, he said. Gee whiz, I said, just give me a goddam second.

    J. D. Daniels