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January 31, 2007

The Lesser Known Heroes of Contemporary Criticism, Volume I

Steven G. Kellman is the winner of the latest award for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. As indicated in my column today, we have crossed paths before.

The piece opens with a section on Wilfrid Sheed's novel Max Jamison, which I'm now rereading. Sheed seems to be much on my mind of late. Evidently most of his books are out of print, which is insane.

There is a reference in this week's column to the work of Leslie Fiedler, another NBCC honoree. I first read Fiedler in high school (like any serious part of my education, not as part of the curriculum) so it felt like a prvilege to be able to interview him a couple of times.

This was not long before he died, as it turned out. Here's what I published out of it.

Posted by smclemee at 6:04 AM

January 29, 2007

Diabolos Ex Machina

Somewhere around page 60 of The Castle in the Forest, the new novel by Norman Mailer, my heart sank. Progress through the next three hundred pages or so demanded a steady effort to hoist it back into place, somehow, through sheer force of will and imagination -- to conceive some sense in which the "revelation" by the narrator about his identity could be justified, hence redeemed.

And so I tried, really I did. No reader could have been more willing to give Mailer the benefit of the doubt. A couple of times it almost seemed possible.

But by the final hours, the battle was lost. Each time we revisted the domain of Mailero-Manichean cosmological meandering, the sinking feeling would return, redoubled. (My review of the book ran this weekend in Newsday.)

When Mailer uses the essay or interview form to work out his thoughts and provocations, the result is often more artful, not to mention more cogent. The series of his miscellanious collections that began with Advertisements for Myself (1959) and ran until Pieces and Pontifications (1982) contains a lot of his best work.

So I was glad to see that John Freeman put up a short interview with Mailer yesterday at Critical Mass. Among other things, it includes one of the points he's been making over the past couple of years about democracy and eloquence -- something that strikes me as not simply interesting, but true:

Look, democracy depends -- it's very good when a democracy has a leader who speaks well. People really do take their cue from how well the leader speaks. FDR was able to turn the nation around because he spoke so beautifully. He had such command of language, such a love of language, such concern for it. The English were able to keep themselves together after losing the Empire because they had Shakespeare and they have a tradition of speaking well. And when you have a leader who speaks in dull slogans you are stupefying the mind of the country. That's his greatest sin -- even greater than Iraq. Is America is a dumber country now. The average person in America is dumber than they were in 2000.

This is overstated but he's on to something.

And now, because this is a blog -- which means total freedom from the obligation to create more than the most arbitrary transitions from one thing to another (yay! parataxis!) -- the present entry will end with a passage from Alfred Kazin that I read while doing laundry last week:

What makes this society so marvelous for the gifted rebel, and so awful, is that, lacking all standards by which to counter or question the new, it hungrily welcomes any talent that challenges it interestingly -- but then holds this talent in the mould of its own shapelessness; the writer is never free enough of his neighbors and contemporaries to be not simply agin the government but detached from it....What will become of [Mailer] God only knows, for no one can calculate what so overintense a need to dominate, to succeed, to grasp, to win, may do to that side of talent which has its own rule of being and can never be forced.

That, from an essay first published in 1959. It is reprinted in Kazin's book Contemporaries (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1962).

Posted by smclemee at 1:56 PM

January 28, 2007

Inaugural Noises

I've been publishing pieces of nonfiction prose, of one sort or another, for just over twenty years now - at first in small political or scholarly journals, eventually in some of the larger American magazines and newspapers, and from time to time between the covers of a book.

There must be hundreds of them by now. And yet I find it difficult to speak of having a "career." It has never seemed a particularly useful concept, at least for defining my own experience, and in any case, its presuppositions seem not to apply. For the notion of a "career" is always cumulative, progressive, relentlessly forward-looking. In that regard, you are now in the company of someone who is seriously out of his depth.

As a writer (hell, as somebody trying to live from day to day) I have for a long time been guided by various models from the past, even the somewhat distant past. That probably explains this recurrent experience of feeling totally out of touch with the contemporary world in general and my colleagues in particular. (To have a much greater interest in the past than in the present is no real advantage to someone writing for magazines and newspapers.)

Anyway, I'm telling you all this in lieu of preparing the manifesto that Doug McLennan, editor of Arts Journal, asked me to write for the launch of Quick Study. The invitation to blog here is extremely welcome. This a really good neighborhood. But explaining what I'm going to try to do isn't so easy.

Probably the best I can manage is to sketch, instead, where Quick Study is coming from: The baffled and anachronistic outlook of someone constantly zigzagging between deadline and archive, writing "pieces" but never quite able to assemble a whole from them.

Until about ten years ago, my understanding of being a writer took shape within a certain familiar horizon of what was meant by the term "publishing." Early impressions are deep impressions, and the formative ones, in my case, involved paper and ink.

I wrote for photocopied 'zines; for radical periodicals; for solemn newspapers read by the plutocrats; for academic publications read by no one; and, every once in a while, for magazines with slick paper (and even slicker editors). I would finish my manuscript and send it off, and at some point the text would come back from the publisher in a new incarnation. The resulting artifacts had different degrees of cultural authority and geographical distribution; and the paychecks were also variously large or small, at times to the vanishing point.

The whole experience varied from one publication to the next. But with hindsight the similarities were perhaps more important than the differences. Writing meant creating a certain kind of textual object - one that would later exist on the numbered pages of another sort of object, a material thing that could eventually be placed on a shelf.

Then, in 1997, I was asked to write something for a web-based publication. It was a strange experience. The thought that the piece I was working on would never be sent to the printer (and so never come back from the printer, that phrase by then being part of my sense of the natural lifecycle of any finished text) was actually somewhat distasteful.

So was the discovery - once the piece actually ran - that an editor had gone through the text inserting various hypertext links. A couple of them were useful, but others reflected a fairly juvenile sense of humor. Now, my own sense of humor is not always refined (as my wife can document) and so that was not, as such, the problem. But the jokes, aside from being dumb, were not organic to my intention. They had been grafted on arbitrarily.

What I had not yet learned (and this would take some time) was that hypertext links were not so much an option as an obligation. The medium is the message - and this one is dialogical in a pretty strong sense.

Over the first half of the decade, more and more of what I wrote ended up online, although the majority of it was still appearing first in print. More and more, the old attitude that something was "really" published only if appeared on paper fell away and even reversed itself. It felt as if something didn't count if people couldn't find it online.

In early 2005, I left my position at a well-established and prominent newspaper in order to accept an invitation to write a column for an online journal that promised to be somewhat livelier. And that promise has been realized. I've continued to publish in "dead tree" periodicals more or less frequently (at least a couple of times a month) and am now working on a couple of books of the old-fashioned, paper-and-ink sort. But the vast majority of what I have produced since February 2005 has appeared only online.

Now, no huge mutation of sensibility accompanied this change of venue - nor even any very obvious alteration of my writing habits. I still do a certain amount of writing with pen in hand, for example, which is incredibly inefficient but a step evidently impossible for me to skip. I still think of a text as being a certain kind of object to be constructed and shaped, rather than (as seems a lot more appropriate for this medium) a species of performance taking place upon a virtual stage.

It seems that I am living through - or rather embodying - what sociologists used to call "cultural lag." My outlook is outmoded.

It's true that, as someone in his early forties, I would probably be having such thoughts in any case. In other ways it is seems like a repeat of earlier experiences. (The best years of my life have been spent in the decades before I was born.) Once you establish a recurrent pattern of being always out of step, that becomes, in time, your normal rhythm

At the same time, like most people, I now do a lot of reading online, or at least onscreen. There are a couple of dissertations on my laptop right now, for example - things I might never have had a chance to see otherwise. Films that would be unavailable from the best video store in New York are available online, if you know how to find them. I read a lot of books that are long out of print, but often find out about them online. And so forth. You don't need more examples. You know how things are.

In fact, chances are my situation is anything but unique. The contradictions are in reality itself. It is obvious that this medium is doing strange things to the culture at large, and also to our attention spans. (Not necessarily shrinking them, either, or at least not just doing so, though that is the only thing that gets discussed much.) I'm hoping against hope that not all of the changes are for the worst. Quick Study will a running commentary on how it looks from here.

Posted by smclemee at 6:33 AM | Comments (7)

January 25, 2007

A History of Violence

An occupying army, an Islamic insurgency, and no end in sight: Fifty years ago today

Posted by smclemee at 7:37 AM

To the Tehran Station

Not about Edmund Wilson

Posted by smclemee at 1:13 AM

The Politics of Pants

And the secret origins of the leisure suit

Posted by smclemee at 1:12 AM


National Get Organized Month? Make it a decade, then we'll talk.

Posted by smclemee at 12:48 AM

Possibly the Smartest Blogroll in the History of Blogrolls, to Date




An und für sich

Beautiful Screaming Lady


Bitch, Ph.D.


The Book Maven

Books, Inq.



Butterflies and Wheels


Confessions of an Aca/Fan

Conversational Reading

Critical Mass

Crooked Timber

Jonathan Derbyshire


Dial "M" for Musicology

The Elegant Variation


The Ept, The Ane and the Fantile


Fade Theory


Ghost in the Wire

Grand Hotel Abyss

The Happy Booker

Christopher Hayes

Hey Mako!

House of Mirth



Lenin's Tomb

Limited, Inc.

Lance Mannion

Maud Newton


Open University

pas au-delà

The Pinocchio Theory

The Piraeus

Political Theory Daily Review

Progressive Historians


Raw Thought


The Reading Experience

The Revealer

Rick Perlstein

Silliman's Blog


Slaves of Academe

Some Trajectories

Steamboats are Ruining Everything


Stochastic Bookmark

University Diaries

The Valve

The Vanity Press



Wax Banks

The Weblog

Words Without Borders

Posted by smclemee at 12:37 AM

January 24, 2007

Quick Study

Speculations, mediations, musings, glosses, and occasional dire mutterings at barely audible volume.
Quick Study will offer an array of notebook entries, hypertext links, and unfamiliar quotations -- some topical, some not; usually conversational in tone and intent, but at times in dialogue with figures who have long since disappeared, except for their work.
Consider it the work of a perpetual student who does a lot of independent reading but isn't seen in public, let alone at any university, all that often. (He doesn't even like the expression "public intellectual" very much, because it sounds as if it would require him to be more gregarious than he usually feels.)
Tips for the proprietor are welcome here. Many of his other writings are available elsewhere.

Posted by smclemee at 9:26 PM

Scott McLemee

is an essayist, critic, and digital feuilletonist (rather like being a blogger only it sounds more distinguished somehow).
From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs.
His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.
A selection of his work is available at his website. He is also a member of Crooked Timber and Cliopatria.

Posted by smclemee at 9:24 PM