6:55 PM, May 5, 2015 • By LEE SMITH
Early this week, PEN American Center named six new table hosts for its annual dinner on Tuesday, substituting for the six who opted out to protest the organization’s decision to present its “freedom of expression courage award” to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Nonetheless, an additional 198 writers have joined the initial six dissenters, Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi. The 204 writers (so far) no doubt understand that their vocation depends on the First Amendment. Of course they believe in freedom of speech, and it’s awful that 12 people were executed in Paris in January, but from their perspective that’s no reason to celebrate a bunch of cartoonists and writers who’ve made a habit of picking on a dispossessed minority still suffering the depredations of European colonialism.
It’s true, as critics of the PEN dissidents charge, that the letter and subsequent comments show that they don’t know much about the magazine itself—for instance, that it makes fun of sports more often than it does of Islam. Nor do they understand the role Charlie Hebdo plays in Parisian cultural life, as a pillar of the institutionalized nostalgia for May 1968. It’s not even clear how many of the PEN dissidents are able to read the left-wing French weekly.
But their gesture in reality isn’t about Charlie Hebdo or Islamist terror—rather, it’s about something much closer to home. It’s about literary politics: professional networks and advancement, ambition, jobs, money, and prestige—in other words, the sociological exigencies that are part of any industry, in this case, the American literary establishment.
It’s also about real politics and how the progressive camp in the Democratic party is advancing against the party’s liberal camp. The progressives have a huge advantage since their standard-bearer is the president of the United States.
Presumably, there were even more reasons for signing the letter than there are writers who signed it. The one all 204 share, both the name writers and the most obscure, is the desire to be relevant. It takes a long time to write a book, even a bad one, and it’s especially hard on novelists. If you’re a short story writer or poet, you probably publish a few pieces a year in between books, which signals to colleagues (agents, editors, and publishers as well as other writers) that you’re still grinding away. It’s much tougher if you’re a novelist and years away from delivering a manuscript—and hundreds or thousands of miles away from the New York publishing scene. Signing a protest letter reminds everyone you’re still out there, even if it’s somewhere in the Midwest teaching undergrads. I am sure I am not the only one surprised to learn that the author of Endless Love is still writing books—in the horror genre, no less.
Sure, there are some big names who signed the letter, like Russell Banks and Janet Malcolm, but notably absent are big-name writers who not only get large advances but also, and more importantly, earn lots of money for their publishers. Jeffrey Eugenides, for instance, isn’t among the PEN insurgents, nor is Donna Tartt or Jonathan Franzen. It is their success that helps convince publishing’s corporate owners that while potboilers and self-help books cover the rent, literature also sometimes pays off. In other words, the big-name writers who are not on the list make possible the careers of the big-name writers who are. Presumably the latter are consoled that while the former may earn real money, they have real politics. The letter then is a passage in a story about a family that like all families is scarred by jealousy and resentment.
The forgotten growing pains of American fiction. Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
For all of the just wars that have been fought over the cultural canon, one genuine benefit of the (still somewhat undulating) critical consensus is that it’s a pretty genuine aid for determining what you really needn’t bother reading right away. Or, as a professor once said while wielding Samuel Richardson’s 1,534-page doorstop Clarissa, “I’ve read it. You don’t have to.” So it is with most longitudinal surveys of literature.
Hawthorne as chronicler of the American unconscious.Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By MICAH MATTIX
Nathaniel Hawthorne is an enigma.
On the trail of a strange, elusive life in literature.
Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
My quest for Symons—A. J. A. Symons, that is—began when, many years ago, I first read that strange novel Hadrian the Seventh (1904). Written by the so-called Baron Corvo, and admired by D. H. Lawrence, among others, the book opens with a magnificent description of a hack writer suffering from writer’s block:
Germany’s Nobel Prize winner defends Iran.8:05 AM, Apr 5, 2012 • By BENJAMIN WEINTHAL
One of Germany’s most famous novelists penned a pro-Iranian regime and anti-Israel poem Wednesday in German and Italian daily newspapers, declaring the Jewish state the greatest threat to global security and denying the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
5:31 PM, Oct 4, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
Ladbrokes of London, the famous British bookmaker, lists the Syrian-born poet Adonis as a 4 to 1 favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize, due to be announced in the next few days. According to one Ladbrokes official, “I really think this is poetry’s year, and without a doubt, the politically correct choice would be Adonis.”
An intriguing, if unmentioned, biographical detail.2:53 PM, Nov 23, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
I couldn’t help but notice that the New York Times obituary this past week for Norris Church Mailer, widow of Norman Mailer, failed to mention the occasion that first brought their love affair to public attention. If the institutional memory of the Times has failed in this instance—which I doubt, since the obit is full of charming anecdotes about Ms. Church Mailer—it is worth resurrecting the story.
4:00 PM, Oct 26, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
A few months ago the Wall Street Journal ran a splendid essay by Allen Barra that could only be described as therapeutic. Entitled “What ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Isn’t,” it was a calm, clear-headed, even humorous, evisceration of a novel that seems to be universally admired, required reading in every classroom--and a sickening repository of every enlightened cliché about American life, with particular emphasis on the segregated South.
5:33 PM, Oct 7, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
An announcement of the Nobel Prize for literature is almost necessarily accompanied by columns listing those distinguished writers who were passed over, as well as more than a few clunkers who were not.
1:33 PM, Oct 7, 2010 • By LEE SMITH
This morning the Swedish academy awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature to Mario Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” With benefactors like the ones who authored this overwrought passage, who needs critics?
Forecasting the Prize is less like handicapping the ponies than shooting craps, so let the dice roll.2:55 PM, Oct 6, 2010 • By LEE SMITH
Tomorrow the Swedish Academy will announce the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and various sportsbooks, like Ladbroke’s, are laying odds. But since the Swedish academy’s methods for selecting the prize-winner are a mystery to all but its members, those odds reflect almost exclusively the opinions of gamblers, most of whom are rather like the horseplayers who bet their favorite number or color of the jockey’s silks. That is to say, they’re suckers.
On whether "The Hours" succeeds or fails in its ambition to profundity.11:00 PM, Jan 23, 2003 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
AS THE ONLY PERSON in North America with anything bad to say about "The Hours," I feel a certain obligation to speak up. Stylish and watchable, perhaps, graced even with some nice performances in the minor roles and some touching moments, "The Hours" tackles a challenging theme--mental disturbance and its toll on the sufferers and their loved ones--but makes of it essentially a heap of pretentious claptrap.
Promising profundity, the movie delivers scrupulously p.c. confusion.
Our holiday gift to you: We offer our choices for books to enjoy over the holidays or to consider as last-minute gift ideas.11:00 PM, Dec 19, 2002 • By
Editor's Note: We'll be on hiatus for the holidays, so next week, we'll be posting some of our favorite recent pieces from both The Weekly Standard and The Daily Standard--some holiday-related, some not. Enjoy, and have a terrific and safe holiday season!
William Kristol, editor
READ ANYTHING by the greatest living American comic writer (besides Andy Ferguson), Donald E. Westlake.