AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« Supersonic Sky Cycle | Main | Around the Web »

December 4, 2007

My Hat ----> The Ring

To serve as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle sounds like whatever the exact opposite of a sinecure would be. Lots of work, no tangible reward.

The intangible rewards are enormous, however. Or so it has been said a number of times over the past few months by people trying to get me to consider running.

Now, I became an essayist and critic in order to become fabulously wealthy and powerful (which, for some reason, is not really working out very well) and so would prefer to think that there really are tangible rewards, and that everyone has just been very, very discrete about it.

Even if that turns out to be true, I suspect the swag will consist of free books. And heaven knows we don't have enough books around here.


But after declining when asked for the first time last year -- then dithering for the past few months -- I have submitted the statement necessary for candidates for the board. That decision was a matter of feeling both a kind of debt of gratitude for the Balakian Citation a few years ago and a sense that NBCC has become a national organization representing and acting in the interest of people in this line of work. Perhaps the latter has always been true, in principle. But now thanks largely to Critical Mass and to the initiative of outgoing president John Freeman, NBCC's presence seems much less tied and limited to New York. Where I do not live.

My statement will run in the next NBCC newsletter, and might be boiled down to:

"This is a great organization, but let's face the future by knocking off any posturing about how appearing in newsprint confers upon us a degree of profundity and lasting value that no blogger will ever attain, because come on, that's crap and we all know it; and if we never want to recruit smart young critics, we'll just keep indulging in it."

Not to deny the obvious reality that (1) working with an editor can be good for a writer in a multitude of ways and (2) the internet often seems like one big cultural affirmative-action program for the bellicose, the ignorant, and the deranged. But essentialism doesn't make much sense here. The gatekeeper function does not operate only in print media, nor do the latter automatically preclude malice and stupidity.

I suspect most of the bash-the-bloggers sentiment has reflected a kind of status anxiety (not that some bloggers haven't exhibited plenty of that at times).

And with that in mind, I will launch my bid by quoting (once again) from Wilfred Sheed's essay "The Politics of Reviewing":

No occupation designed for dim younger sons was easier to enter than book reviewing; or, once entered, easier to rise in. You go immediately to the top, it is the least you can ask.... So whatever politics a microscope may turn up in this game can have little to do with upward mobility. Since there is absolutely no way of not reaching the top -- and since the top proves to be so close to the bottom -- the satisfaction must be sought crabwise, foraging side to side, magazine to magazine; passing on the way other reviewers of similar, sometimes almost interchangable sensibility, who are lurching counterclockwise.

And lurching now in ways Sheed could not have imagined at the time.

As for a campaign slogan, I cannot do better than to quote what Kang said when debating Kodos during the 1996 election:

We must move forward... not backwards, not to the side, not forwards, but always whirling, whirling, whirling towards freedom.


Posted by smclemee at December 4, 2007 11:49 AM


[When Dole and Clinton are revealed to be Kang and Kodos]:

"We'll vote for a third party!"

Kang: "Ha ha ha. Go ahead and throw away your vote!"

Posted by: book.daddy at December 4, 2007 11:08 PM

Thrilled you're running, Scott -- I think the organization would benefit enormously from having your archivist's passion, your wonderful synthesizing, skeptical intelligence and erudition at the table. Now if we can just make a silk screen shirt with those aliens on it.

Posted by: John Freeman at December 4, 2007 11:10 PM

Scott, I think you would bring an important perspective to the organization. Still, as a cautionary note, I send along this bit from Ezra Pound's "Mauberly":

In the cream gilded cabin of his steam yacht
Mr. Nixon advised me kindly, to advance with fewer
Dangers of delay. "Consider
Carefully the reviewer.

"I was as poor as you are;
"When I began I got, of course,
"Advance on royalties, fifty at first", said Mr. Nixon,
"Follow me, and take a column,
"Even if you have to work free.

"Butter reviewers. From fifty to three hundred
"I rose in eighteen months;
"The hardest nut I had to crack
"Was Dr. Dundas.

"I never mentioned a man but with the view
"Of selling my own works.
"The tip's a good one, as for literature
"It gives no man a sinecure."

And no one knows, at sight a masterpiece.
And give up verse, my boy,
There's nothing in it."

Posted by: joseph duemer at December 6, 2007 9:01 PM

Thanks, Joseph. I know that one, and for that matter have read Enemies of Promise a couple of times, not to mention Wilfred Sheed's great novel about a critic, Max Jamison.

But I've never had Mr. Nixon's sense of "making it." And while I did read Norman Podhoretz's memoir of that title with great interest as a young man, it was always with a certain amount of contempt at the fact he meant that phrase to refer to upper middle-class comfort. It was supposed to shocking, but it just seemed like the proof of a trivial man.

That bit above about taking up writing as a path to money and power was a joke. It was sort of a wink at friends -- an invitation to them to imagine me clad in Armani and acting like David Rieff. The idea would make a cat laugh.

Someone with a cannier sense of careerist self-interest would never had penned an extremely negative piece about a book by James Atlas -- let alone begun a review with the line, "Adam Bellow has written a book in praise of nepotism, as well he might."

For the uninitiated: both Atlas and Bellows are prominent literary editors in New York. No doubt Pound's Mr. Nixon would be aghast.

This leaves open the question of why I do do keep at it. And that is a matter probably best left for a trained clinician to address.

I'm guessing that the figure in Pound's poem is based on Arnold Bennett. Is that right?

Posted by: Scott McLemee at December 6, 2007 9:09 PM

Scott, of course I don't think there is any chance of you becoming a Nixon. I sent the bit of Pound along exactly because I knew you would get the joke. You might well have sent me back the concluding lines of the passage -- "And give up verse, my boy, /
There's nothing in it." Alas, too late to save me!

Posted by: joseph duemer at December 7, 2007 7:35 AM