Purloined Literary Putdowns

by Richard Kostelanetz (June 2014)

People always think that the reason Barbara Cartland is easy to read is that she is concise. She isn't. I hate conciseness; it's too difficult. The reason she is easy to read is that she repeats herself all the time, using “and” for padding.

With the single exception of J. D. Salinger, there is no eminent writer, not even Stephen King, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Susan Sontag. The intensity of my impatience with her occasionally reaches such a pitch, that it would positively be a relief to me to dig her up and throw stones at her, knowing as I do how incapable she and her worshippers are of understanding any less obvious form of indignity.

Putting my weakest books to the wall last night I came across a copy of The Bridge of San Luis Rey and had a look into it. Not good enough. Thornton Wilder never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there isn't any tea.

I grow bored in America, and the main reason is that everybody here resembles Danielle Steel, the queen of nincompoops, the princess of the superficial, the anti-artist, the spokeswoman of janitresses.

I haven't any right to criticize books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Zane Grey, but his books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Riders of the Purple Sage, I want to dig him up and hit him over the skull with his own shin-bone.

Tom Clancy is a bad novelist and a political fool. The combination usually makes for great popularity in the US.

James Fenimore Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

If anyone thought that anything written by me was influenced by Charles Bernstein, I would take that particular work of mine, shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes. A more sententious, holding-forth old bore, who expected every hero-worshipping adenoidal little twerp of a student-poet to hang on his every word I never saw.

Gore Vidal is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery, and he conceals his aristocratic birth as carefully as if he considered it a disgrace. How do I know? By the best of all evidence, personal observation.

Then comes Herman Wouk with his enchantments, and by his focused effort checks progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the silliness and emptiness, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote.

Isn't Norman Podhoretz a poisonous thing of a man, lying, concealing, flipping, plagiarizing, misquoting, and being as clever a crooked literary publicist as ever.

Reading War and Peace can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies. When the experience is over, and the old boy Tolstoy checks out at last (on page one thousand whatever -- his prose wedged tight), you will shed tears all right; not tears of relief or regret but tears of pride. You made it, despite all that his “reputation” could do.

To me Howard Fast was an enormously skillful fuck-up and his books will do great damage to our country. Probably I should re-read them again to give you a truer answer. But I do not have to eat an entire bowl of scabs to know they are scabs.

Louis L’Amour doesn't know how to write fiction, he can't create a character, he can't create a situation. You see people reading him on airplanes, the same people who are reading Stephen King, for Christ's sake. I'm using the argument against him that he can't write, that his sentences are bad, that it makes you wince. It's like reading a bad newspaper or a bad piece in a magazine. You know, if you were a good skater, could you watch someone just fall down all the time? Could you do that? I can't do that.

Anaïs Nin's lack of taste, her monotonous dealings with persons suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way she has of wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human dignity--all this is difficult to admire.

The Grapes of Wrath is one of the books that the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.

Also, to be fair, there is another word of praise due to this motel's library: it contains no copy of the Gideon Bible, that strange menagerie of complacent hypocrites and idiots, of theatrical cheap-john heroes and heroines, who are always showing off, of bad people who are not interesting, and good people who are fatiguing.

I have read several fragments of The Bonfire of the Vanities in its serial form. It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization; but it is a truthful one; and I should like to put a cordon around New York; round up every male person in it between the ages of 15 and 30; force them to read it; and ask them whether on reflection they could see anything amusing in all that foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity.

Concerning no subject would Ms. Ann Coulter be deterred by the minor accident of complete ignorance from penning a putatively definitive opinion.

Why do you like Louis Auchincloss so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written By Love Possessed than any of his novels? I should hardly like to live with his ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.

Have you ever heard of anyone who did drugs while he worked? If you're thinking of Allen Ginsberg, know that he did sometimes, and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he's had his first one.

I can't read ten pages of Toni Morrison without throwing up. I couldn't read the feminist crap that came out in the '80s.

John Updike's prose-song is a cold black suet-pudding. We can represent it as a cold suet-roll of fabulously reptilian length. Cut it at any point, it is the same thing; the same heavy, sticky, opaque mass all through and all along.

John O’Hara was a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.

I don't like Henry Miller, not at all. His last thing isn't a novel anyway, whatever it is. I don't like it. Not at all. It suffers from this terrible sort of metropolitan sentimentality and it's so narcissistic. And to me, also, it seemed so false, so calculated--combining the plain man with an absolutely megalomaniac egotism. I simply can't stand it.

I have been reading a translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir. Is it good? To me it seems perhaps the very worst book I ever read. No American woman could have written such a book. I cannot remember a single good page or idea. Is it all a practical joke? If it really is Beauvoir that I have been reading, I am glad I have never taken the trouble to learn French.

Figure a fat flabby incurvated personage, at once short, rotund and relaxed, with a watery mouth, a snuffy nose, a pair of strange brown timid yet earnest looking eyes, a high tapering brow, and a great bush of grey hair—you will have some faint idea of Walt Whitman.

If Katherine Anne Porter took twenty-two years, as she claims, to write A Ship of Fools, the book itself suggests at least eighteen years were wasted.

I haven't any right to criticize books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Norman Mailer, but his books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read The Deer Park I want to dig up Mailer and hit him over the skull with his own shin-bone.

It may be laziness, but on the rare occasions when I do pick up Kurt Vonnegut, whose early books I enjoyed before he was as celebrated as he is now, he seems to me to suffer from American cleverness: the fear of being thought stupid, or dull, or behind the times. I think that’s a very bad attitude for the novelist to adopt. He must not mind being thought boring and pompous from time to time—let’s hope he avoids it, but if he runs too far in the opposite direction, he’s heading for disaster.

To be a really lousy writer takes energy. The average novelist remains unread not because he is bad but because he is flat. On the evidence of Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann deserves her high place in the best-seller lists. This is the second time she has been up there. The first time was for a book called Every Night, Josephine, which I will probably never get around to reading. But I don’t resent the time I have put into reading Valley of the Dolls. As a work of art it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks, but as best-sellers go it argues for a reassuringly robust connection between fiction and the reading public. If cheap dreams get no worse than this, there will not be much for the cultural analyst to complain about. Princess Daisy is a terrible book only in the sense that it is almost totally inept.

André Malraux, though later on he was to write a history of the world’s art, looks at the past with the same sort of surprised disgust as a civilized man contemplating a tribe of cannibals. Writers like him, whether they liked their own age or not, at least thought it was better than what had gone before, and took the literary standards of their own time for granted.

I dined with Edmund Wilson the other night. Do you know him? He is a kind old walrus, who suddenly shuts his eye like a dead fish and waits three minutes before he can finish his sentence. He makes enormous sums of money; but has horrible dinners. He says that great critics need all the comfort they can get. But is he a great critic? I detest all criticism, so I can’t say. 

I finished Infinite Jest, and think it a misfire. Genius it has I think, but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, David Foster Wallace respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts.

Heller’s Catch-22 suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches, often repetitious, totally without structure.

I have heard a good deal about the wonders of Gertrude Stein’s style. She sometimes discovers a truly brilliant trope. The form of her sentences is rather tryingly monotonous, and the distance between her nominatives and her verbs is steadily increasing.

Now, of course, James Dickey did not sell himself solely for money. No writer ever does that. Anyone who wanted money before all else would choose some more paying profession. But I think it probable that Pound did sell himself partly for prestige, flattery and a professorship.

You could tell by Saul Bellow’s conversation which volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica he'd been reading. One day it would be Alps, Andes and Apennines, and the next it would be the Himalayas and the Hippocratic Oath.

Flannery O’Connor writes of her characters as though they were animals circling around each other. On this sub-human plane no human destinies can be decided.

The cruelest thing that has happened to Abraham Lincoln since he was shot has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.

I love Elizabeth Barrett's verse, even a great deal of it that is not lovable or even respectable, but it is also true that I am frequently and thoroughly bored by its continuous attitudinizing and its dogmatic preaching. I have often felt that there must be something secretly wrong with this cult of spontaneity and individuality, that these attributes have to be insisted upon to the extent to which she insists on them.

Bernard Malamud is a Jewish-American writer and has no choice but to be acutely aware of it. He is not the first American Jew to find the war between his social and artistic responsibilities all but irreconcilable. In his novels and stories, Malamud has working for him the power and the beat of Yiddish speech and Jewish music. Yiddish speech is vivid largely because it is private. It is a kind of emotional shorthand--or sleight-of-hand--by means of which Ashkenazi Jews express, not only their relationship to each other, but their judgment of the gentile world. And, as the gentile world appropriates this vocabulary, sometimes without the faintest notion of what words like “schmuck” really mean, the vocabulary is forced to change.

Nothing in Theodore Dreiser’s books is so dim, significantly enough, as the human beings who live in them, and few are intensely imagined as human beings at all. It is obvious that his mind moves most happily in realms where he does not have to work in very complex types. What one sees in his handling of these types is not merely a natural affection for this simplicity, but a failure to interest himself too deeply in them as individuals.

Sylvia Plath took every unattractive aspect for the ambitious artistic psyche and shoved it right up front. In short, she pushed it. In retrospect it turns out that she pushed it to the limit. It’s doubtful whether the suicide of an artist should be allowed to lend force to her work, but it’s hard to see how one can stop it happening.

Christopher Hitchens’ recent prose is characterized by professional haste and a desire to be a stylist. The result is a knotted, cadenced, bogus lustiness: Every sentence is sure to contain some virile quirk or other, often (you feel) as a product of will rather than of inspiration or care.

I suspect that Joyce Carol Oates’s huge productivity is, paradoxically, a form of self-defense or self-effacement: several hundred pages a year disarm a lot of criticism. She can't, in the nature of things, revise much and probably she never re-reads; she just “gets on with the next one.” Were she to slow down, were she to allow one of those ominous silences to gather, silences such as more tight-lipped novelists periodically take a “break,” she would be accepting a different kind of responsibility to her critics and to her own prodigious talents. She would, in short, begin to find that strange and fearful discovery of how good she is.



Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.


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