The winner of the first National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry
Update: 2:25 p.m. Monday: A video of John Ashbery’s entertaining talk has been posted on the NBCC blog.
You might expect an anniversary party for a literary-critics’ organization to resemble a wake now that so many book-review sections have folded or shrunk. But the mood was lively at the festivities that marked the 35th year of the National Book Critics Circle last night at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in downtown Manhattan.
I spoke at the event along with the poet John Ashbery, the novelist E. L. Doctorow and dozens of current and former NBCC board members. Ashbery, born nearly a half century before the critics’ organization was founded, received the first NBCC Award for poetry in 1975 for his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which also won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. And he set the tone of the anniversary celebration when he said: “It’s great to be back here. Actually, it’s great to be anywhere.”
Ashbery praised the Rain Taxi Review of Books and offered it as partial evidence that serious criticism of poetry and other art forms exists amid the meltdown at newspapers. The NBCC has posted a brief news report on his speech on its blog. You’ll find excerpts from other speakers’ comments, including mine, in a separate post there. The full text of all the speeches is scheduled to appear soon the NBCC site.
The late John Ciardi talks about how symbols work in poetry, a description that also applies to other kinds of literature, in the quote below, which first appeared on this site 2007:
” … a symbol is like a rock dropped into a pool: it sends out ripples in all directions, and the ripples are in motion. Who can say where the last ripple disappears? One may have a sense that he at least knows approximately the center point of all those ripples, the point at which the stone struck the water. Yet even then he has trouble marking it precisely. How does one make a mark on water?”
John Ciardi in his classic textbook, How Does a Poem Mean? (Houghton Mifflin, 1959), once widely used in high schools and colleges.
Flannery O’Connor talks about the purpose of symbols in the Quote of the Day for March 21, 2007. These two posts, frequently linked to by high school and college English classes, are among the all-time most popular on this site.
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
American critics often complain that books are “too long” and “could have been cut” by a third or more. Why are so many books so bloated? Here’s answer from Gore Vidal, one of the great literary critics of our age:
“There is a terrible garrulousness in most American writing, a legacy no doubt of the Old Frontier. But where the inspired tall talesman of simpler days went on and on, never quite certain and never much caring what the next load of breath might contain, at his best he imparted with a new demotic flair the sense of life living. Unfortunately, since these first originals the main line of the American novel has reverted to incontinent heirs, to the gabblers, the maunderers, putters-in of everything. …
“For every Scott Fitzgerald concerned with the precise word and the selection of relevant incident, there are a hundred American writers, many well regarded, who appear to believe that one word is just as good as another, and that anything that pops into the head is worth putting down. It is an attitude unique to us and deriving, I would suspect, from a corrupted idea of democracy: if everyone and everything is of equal value, then any word is as good as any other to express a meaning. Or to put it another way, if everyone is equally valuable, then anything the writer (who is valuable) writes must be valuable, so why attempt another selection?”
Gore Vidal in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952-1972 (Random House, 1972).
A perceptive comment by Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. in the preface to the paperback edition of North Toward Home (Vintage, 1967), Willie Morris’s memoir of his Mississippi boyhood and later work as editor-in-chief of Harper’s magazine in New York:
“Rereading a special book is risky, like a rendezvous with a long-unseen old friend. It is a relief to find the remembered intimacy unwarped by time.”
On this site I’ve often faulted publishers’ reading group guides for their poor quality –- poor in part because they tend to pander to book-club members with loopy questions like: “The heroine of this novel is a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens. Have you ever known a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens?” Gee, I’ll have to think about that one! I might have known one-eyed snake charmer, but her parents got in the space ship voluntarily and technically weren’t abducted! How about you?
So I was heartened to find that the U.S. Government has posted more than two dozen free reading group guides that are more objective and helpful. The guides come from The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program intended to encourage reading, and most cover major American works of fiction for adults or children, such as My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence, The Call of the Wild, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But a couple deal with books by authors from other countries — Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – and the NEA plans soon to post companions to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.
You can download the guides for free at the site for The Big Read. And some libraries can get printed versions and CDs with more information at no cost. (I learned about all of this when I found a stack of free reader’s guides and companion disks for To Kill a Mockingbird at a small-town library giving them away to patrons.) Along with warhorses such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Read guides deal with a couple gems that are less well known, including Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.
It’s perversely satisfying to learn that a great critic dislikes a book that you thought you alone didn’t enjoy. In my life an example involves The Naked and the Dead, the 1948 World War II novel that grew out of Norman Mailer’s experiences as a rifleman on Luzon and made his reputation while he was in his 20s. For years I’ve considered this book one of the most overrated of the 20th century and far inferior to war novels often mentioned in the same breath, including All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. Chief among its problems is that it tells the stories of a variety of soldiers without making any of them uniquely memorable.
It’s always seemed to me that The Naked and the Dead might have had less praise if Mailer had been 30 years older when he wrote it and if the novel had not come out a few years after World War II, when critics could compare it to relatively few books about the conflict. So I was heartened to find that Gore Vidal — one of the great literary critics of our time — years ago had a similar response that I had missed. Vidal wrote in a 1960 essay in the Nation, reprinted in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972 (Random House, 1972):
“My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since, though I have considerably changed my opinion of Mailer, as he himself as changed. Now I confess I have never read all of The Naked and the Dead. I do recall a fine description of soldiers carrying a dying man down a mountain (done almost as well as the same scene in Malraux’s earlier work). Yet every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken not from life but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbon copies of a Dos Passos work.”
Wouldn’t you love to know what Vidal said when he learned that Mailer posthumously won the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award for for The Castle in the Forest?
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
“A good half of the humor of the late Mark Twain consisted of admitting frankly the possession of vices and weaknesses that all of us have and few of us care to acknowledge.”
H. L. Mencken in “The Ulster Polonius” in Prejudices: First Series (Knopf, 1919).
A series of five daily posts, “A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South,” will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews starting on Monday. It will review some of the best recent and classic books about the South as seen by a resident of New Jersey who has worked as a critic in New York and Cleveland. Parts of the series appeared in different form in the Mobile Press-Register.
Some people who liked The Story of Edgar Sawtelle were nonetheless put off by its mix of human and canine narrators, including a four-footed stand-in for Ophelia in David Wroblewski’s Hamlet-influenced novel. Almondine isn’t the most unusual narrator in fiction. Clyde Edgerton’s The Floatplane Notebooks (Ballantine, 1989) is told partly from the viewpoint of a wisteria wine. Then there’s William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel about a troubled clan trying to bury its dead matriarch. Faulkner tells the story from the viewpoint of each family member, including the corpse.