Archives for October 18, 2004
A reader writes:
I’m halfway through your book. It’s fabulous. Yes, why is dance considered the black sheep of the arts? Too feminine? Too sensitive? Too demanding? Or too impossibly brilliant to absorb?
He’s referring to this passage from the first chapter of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine:
Within the tight little world of dance, of course, he is a titan….But what of the larger world of art and culture? New York City Ballet no longer gets written about much in the national press, nor does it appear on television. I know few art-conscious Manhattanites who go to its performances more than sporadically–or to any other dance performances, for that matter. Nowadays, there are no “hot tickets” in dance, no events that attract the attention of a truly general audience, and few at which artists from other fields are likely to be seen. For the most part, ballet and modern dance have retreated to the periphery of American cultural consciousness, just as dance criticism has all but vanished from the pages of American magazines; you don’t have to know who Balanchine was, or what he did, in order to be deemed culturally literate. Most of my acquaintances regard my love of dance as a harmless idiosyncrasy, and when I assure them that Balanchine was every bit as important as, say, Matisse, they look at me as though I’d tried to tell them that Raymond Chandler was as important as Proust….
Why is that? My correspondent offers several possible answers:
– Too feminine? Of course dance is widely perceived as feminine–not to mention effeminate. But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to George Balanchine, whose ballets are mostly about women as seen from a man’s decidedly partial point of view. (Nor, I might add, is there anything effeminate about the work of such modern-dance choreographers as Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham.)
I always tell straight men puzzled by my interest in ballet that it was made for them, consisting as it does of large numbers of gorgeous women dressed in skimpy outfits. So far, though, I have yet to make any converts….
– Too sensitive? Maybe. Dance is, after all, a form of lyric theater, one in which emotions are portrayed on stage with a subtle blend of directness and ambiguity. This makes some people squirm–the same ones, I suspect, who are thrown by the fact that in opera, the characters sing instead of talking. Alas, I doubt there’s anything to be done for such hopelessly hard-headed folk, but I also doubt that most potential dancegoers feel that way.
– Too demanding? Now we’re getting somewhere. Any number of the friends I now take to the ballet used to be afraid that even if they did get up the nerve to go, they wouldn’t understand what they were seeing. This is nonsense on stilts. You don’t have to know what a gargouillade is in order to enjoy Square Dance. You don’t have to know anything at all. The pleasure–at first glance, anyway–is entirely sensuous. You let the music and movement wash over you, and the more you look, the more you see. Of course experience deepens the pleasure. (In the words of R.P. Blackmur, “All knowledge is a descent from the paradise of undifferentiated sensation.”) But I took most of the dedicatees of All in the Dances to their first Balanchine ballets, and watched them “get it” right on the spot.
Intellectuals typically feel more comfortable about experiencing a new art form if they know a little something about it going in. One of the reasons why I wrote All in the Dances was to give them enough information to orient themselves–but it’s strictly optional. As I’ve told a thousand nervous novices, “Point your head toward the stage and keep your eyes open. That’s all you need to know.”
– Too impossibly brilliant to absorb? Well, sometimes. Such Balanchine ballets as The Four Temperaments or Stravinsky Violin Concerto are so eventful, so tightly packed with complex movement, that they can overwhelm the first-time viewer. And you know what? They’re supposed to. Nobody in the world could possibly see all there is to see in The Four Ts on a first viewing, any more than he could hear all there is to hear in The Rite of Spring on a first listening. You see it, you’re blown away, your head is so full of dazzling images that you can’t remember any of them clearly…and there’s something wrong with this?
Remember that dance, like music and painting, is not an essentially intellectual art form. Of course it can exert an intellectual appeal (especially on intellectuals), and the more you know about it, the more you’ll appreciate it, but enjoyment of the immediate experience doesn’t require the participation of the higher brain centers. As the saying goes, dance hits you where you live–and some people, oddly enough, don’t like to be hit there. Perhaps the prospect of surrendering control of their feelings makes them anxious. Me, I eat it up and yell for more. As Arlene Croce once said, “I never saw a good ballet that made me think.” Afterwards, yes: I do plenty of thinking, not infrequently followed by writing. But not in the theater, not in the moment, not when the lights go down and the curtain goes up. That’s when I want to be blown away–and that’s what a good dance does.
I was going to write about New York City Opera’s new production of Dialogues of the Carmelites, Francis Poulenc’s masterpiece, but it seems that Bernard Holland, writing in the New York Times, already said much of what I wanted to say:
“Dialogues of the Carmelites” is a meditation on death by men on the far side of middle age, contemplating their own mortality. The story of 16 nuns guillotined by French revolutionaries in 1794 is true. Georges Bernanos, in his play 150 years later, used history to confront his own terminal cancer. Francis Poulenc, six years from his own death in 1963 and witness to the slow dying of his closest friend, took up the thread in this chaste and touching opera….
The paradox of composer and theme hardly needs to be restated: Poulenc, the dashing boulevardier and tasteful sentimentalist; these 18th-century women of the church confronting the fear and exultation of martyrdom. Poulenc succeeds by being himself. There are the floating, open textures of his lighthearted period, the same gentle mockery devoid of cynicism, the melodies colored by popular culture and the harmonic gestures closer to Nelson Riddle than to tragic Verdi.
Indeed, in its pursuit of disagreeable profundities, Poulenc’s music resists heaviness. As it examines the dying and their various executioners, a certain innocence–a na
The Chicago Sun-Times ran a story about blurbs last month (the free link has gone dead, but Galley Cat posted the gist of the piece here) in which Scott Turow, who has long been known in the book business as something of a blurb whore, was quoted to devastating effect:
“Once you blurb one book,” he says, “it’s like giving to charity. No good deed goes unpunished. That is the first law of blurbing. As soon as you’re kind enough to do this for somebody, then everybody in the world is there with their hand out or a manuscript.”…
“You have to understand, this is an avalanche,” Turow says of his onslaught, which he smilingly agrees is indeed “part of my junk mail.” “It is no exaggeration,” he adds, “to say that there are several requests every day.”…
“There are certain relationships where, whether I like it or not, I feel like I’ve gotta say something,” he admits. “Now, I think you can put Turow blurbs side by side and the discriminating reader can detect the enthusiasm level.”
Turow’s confession slipped past me when it first rippled through the blogosphere, but now that I’ve seen it, I admit to feeling a certain amount of sympathy with his plight. Not that multiple requests for blurbs clutter my mailbox each morning, but I am asked to supply quotes fairly frequently, occasionally from friends and colleagues, more often from publicists and authors I don’t know. Every time I open such a letter, I remember the wise words of an editor of mine who once assured me in a moment of candor that blurbs don’t sell books. “You know who they’re really for?” she added. “Our own salespeople. We use blurbs to convince them that our books are worth selling.”
A sobering thought, that.
I have, thank God, reached the point in my writing career when I’m no longer obliged to go snuffling for blurbs. (It’s almost as embarrassing as asking a friend to loan you money.) My publishers now solicit them without consulting me, and Ken Auletta was kind enough to supply a nice one for The Skeptic that Harcourt recycled for All in the Dances: “Terry Teachout is the kind of tour guide a first-rate biography requires–vivid storytelling by a guide who is both appreciative and independent.” I’m not aware that it’s sold a single copy to date of either book, but nobody ever said that publishing was a business–it’s more like a game of blindfold darts–so I expect that Ken’s blurb will follow me from dustjacket to dustjacket as long as we both shall live.
My own blurbing policies are straightforward:
– I don’t read manuscripts–they’re too bulky and clumsy to handle. Unsolicited ones I throw away automatically. It’s rude to send an unsolicited manuscript to an author you don’t know, and rudeness should never be rewarded.
– When strangers send me a set of bound galleys and ask for a quote, I almost always say no, explaining that I’m simply too busy. If the subject matter is of special relevance to me, though, I’ll take a furtive peek at the first few pages, after which I usually lose interest.
– With colleagues and acquaintances I open the bidding by raising my all-purpose deflector shield: “Remember that if I blurb your book now, there’s no possibility that I can review it later on.” Since I do a fair amount of book reviewing, this usually stops them cold, and also has the advantage of being true. If, on the other hand, I’m interested in the book but know I won’t be able to review it–usually because of a conflict of interest–I agree to look at the galleys.
– I always agree to blurb the books of friends, so long as they’re professional writers. Unlike Scott Turow, I’ve yet to be cornered into praising a bad book. (Sooner or later, every published author lets his guard down and agrees to read a manuscript by a friend who isn’t a professional. Hard experience has taught me that such manuscripts are never, ever any good.)
Bill Buckley used to have a wonderfully evasive form letter that I liked:
Mr. Buckley has asked me to interdict all requests for interviews, articles, reviews, etc., for the next period–probably about six months, as he is drastically in arrears on commitments he has already made. I hope you will understand that to take on any further commitments at this point simply means failing to keep those he has already made. Thank you for writing.
Edmund Wilson, who was one of God’s grumpier souls, opted instead for a postcard that read as follows:
Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to:
Write articles or books to order,
Write forewords or introductions,
Make statements for publicity purposes,
Do any kind of editorial work,
Judge literary contests,
Conduct educational courses,
Give talks or make speeches,
Broadcast or appear on television,
Take part in writers’ congresses,
Contribute to or take part in symposiums or “panels” of any kind,
Contribute manuscripts for sales,
Donate copies of his books to libraries,
Autograph works for strangers,
Allow his name to be used on letterheads,
Supply personal information about himself,
Supply opinions on literary or other subjects.
Evelyn Waugh had a Wilsonesque postcard of his own (“Mr. Evelyn Waugh deeply regrets that he is unable to do what is so kindly proposed”), but he could occasionally be persuaded to supply blurbs, usually for friends and/or fellow Catholics. Strangers rarely fared as well.
In 1961, for instance, Waugh sent this characteristic letter to a Simon & Schuster publicist who was looking for blurbs in all the wrong places:
Thank you for sending me Catch-22. I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady’s reading. It suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. It should be cut by about a half. In particular the activities of “Milo” should be eliminated or greatly reduced.
You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches–often repetitious–totally without structure.
Much of the dialogue is funny.
You may quote me as saying: “This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.”
Me, I’d have printed it, but Simon & Schuster thought otherwise.
Said at dinner the other night by a friend who recently moved to New York:
“The trouble with living here is that whenever you feel lonely, the very next thing you run into is a cellist in the subway station.”
My old friend Joan McCaffrey (whose e-mail address recently vanished from my address book, in case anybody who knows it wants to help me out) was cleaning out a closet the other day and came across an H.L. Mencken piece hitherto unknown to me. Vanity Fair (the old Vanity Fair, that is) asked Mencken to contribute to a 1923 symposium called “The Ten Dullest Authors.” I regret to say that I overlooked it when researching The Skeptic, so I’ve decided to post Mencken’s contribution on “About Last Night” for the retrospective delectation of my readers.
* * *
It is hard for me to make up a list of books or authors that bore me insufferably, for the simple truth is that I can read almost anything. My trade requires me to read annually all the worst garbage that is issued in belles lettres; for recreation and instruction I read such things as the Congressional Record, religious tracts, Mr. Walter Lippmann’s endless discussions of the Simon-Binet tests, works on molecular physics and military strategy, and the monthly circulars of the great bond houses. It seems to me that nothing that gets into print can be wholly uninteresting; whatever its difficulties to the reader, it at least represents some earnest man’s efforts to express himself. But there are some authors, of course, who try me more than most, and if I must name ten of them then I name:
2. George Eliot
3. D.H. Lawrence
4. James Fenimore Cooper
5. Eden Phillpotts
6. Robert Browning
7. Selma Lagerl
“Small inward treasure does he possess who, to feel alive, needs every hour the tumult of the street, the emotion of the theatre, and the small talk of society.”
Santiago Ramon y Caj