Saturday, May 24, 2008

perhaps there should be no literary awards

During my mother-in-law's last visit, I took her to a bookstore. She was drawn by the latest Richard Russo novel, "Bridge of Sighs", and I stopped her. "Don't waste your money. In fact, you can have my copy if you want, but I wouldn't recommend it." I urged her to get "Fieldwork" by Mischa Berlinski instead, one of the best books I've ever read, an unbelievably engaging and well-crafted first novel. You see, Mischa Berlinski has not yet been spoiled by literary acclaim. Richard Russo, I fear, has been forever damned by winning the Pulitzer Prize for "Empire Falls."

Russo used to be one of my favorite authors of all time. I have lent out my copy of "Straight Man" so many times and reread it so often that it's barely holding together (plus there are still some spray sparkles on some of the pages because I took it to the Burning Man festival). It's a brilliant academic satire, right up there with Kingsley Amis's "Lucky Jim". Indeed, a professor of art I loaned it to ended up buying several copies to give to his colleagues, but when he gave them out, he made sure to tell them, "Don't worry, I don't see you as "Orshee" (a highly annoying young professor who insists upon constantly correcting his colleagues with a lofty "or she" whenever they say "he"). Russo's "Nobody's Fool" is an ubelievably rich and amazing work, with a heavy-drinking, aging manual laborer for a protagonist. It's remarkable how gradually and subtly Russo changes the reader's perceptions of Sully, the loserish protagonist, and his nemesis, a wealthy real estate developer, as the book progresses.

He used to write with such humor and flair, but now Richard Russo is determined to Write A Big Important Book, which evidently means being dreary and focusing on depressing subjects and really, really obsessing about how adolescent traumas can never be overcome. Oy vey.

Tragically the same thing has happened to my beloved, beloved Jonathan Coe. Coe, a British author, wrote one of the most moving and beautiful books ever penned, "The House of Sleep." It's also in places almost unbearably funny. Coe's first big success came with "The Winshaw Legacy", which combined humor with seriousness perfectly. Indeed one of my current literary loves, Scarlett Thomas of "The End of Mr. Y", credits that book with inspiring her to become both a vegetarian and a successful novelist who tries to write about big issues.

It was almost unbelievable that anyone could write so beautifully as Jonathan Coe in his prime. His characters were varied and real (I will never forget the medical student with a fetish for sticking his fingers in the eyes of his narcoleptic girlfriend), and his craft was unparalleled. "The House of Sleep" shifts between decades seamlessly, and an article written by one character ends up libeling the Pope and Maggie Thatcher's husband, among others, due to a footnote labeling error. There's no one like Jonathan Coe... including the Jonathan Coe who is currently turning out depressing downers like "The Closed Circle" and "The Rain Before It Falls."

Like Richard Russo, Jonathan Coe has won awards and is now writing Serious Fiction which evidently means losing all of his sparkling wit altogether. Sad, depressed characters enduring one blow after another, that's what we get with these two authors. Bleh. I wish someone would remind them that Shakespeare used to insert a bit of humor here and there, even in "MacBeth" and "Hamlet", and we don't think any the less of him for it.

Shortly after I had warned my mother-in-law off the latest Russo, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about "importantitis." The author was addressing music, not literature, but it was just as I'd observed with poor Richard Russo. The writer used Leonard Bernstein as his prime example: after Bernstein won a particular award, he was never able to compose anything of any value again. His pre-award work was innovative and delightful, but what came after was stilted and trying too hard for greatness to achieve it.

Just the other day I read that Doris Lessing has been unable to write since winning the Nobel Prize for literature. Ms. Lessing warns authors to devote as much time as they can to writing while they still have the gift, since their abilities could vanish suddenly and unpredictably.

I really, really miss Richard Russo and Jonathan Coe. Lately the best books I've been reading have been first novels, like "Fieldwork" and also "The Lost City" by Henry Shukman. I can only hope that Mischa Berlinski and Henry Shukman don't win any major prizes any time soon.

16 comments:

hughman said...

damn, i was hoping for a tirade about the MIL.

the Drunken Housewife said...

Ha, I do have some stories to tell of that sort, too.

Marketeer said...

Back when I worked in academia, I just to be very fond of novels of academic satire. If you like academic satire and haven't read them already, I'd recommend Small World and Changing Places by David Lodge or Pictures at an Institution by Randall Jarrell. And yes, I love Straight Man.

Marketeer said...

That's "I used to be" in my post. Searching out more caffeine now.

Silliyak said...

Do you think it applies to bloggers when they get a book deal? An early favorite of mine gto vERY popular, then got a book deal, then it DID seem like he was trying too hard to "write well".

the Drunken Housewife said...

I love those Lodge books, Marketeer. I will look for "Pictures at an Institution."

There's a new academic satire out, "Beet" by Roger Rosenblatt, which is supposed to be quite good. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list.

Silliyak, I agree with you. I had two blogs I followed religiously, and they both went severely downhill after the bloggers got a book deal in the one case and a TV and book deal in the second. Sigh. I don't even have them bookmarked any more (and I removed their links from this blog).

More brightly, I can't think of any great comic writers or artists who stopped producing good work after winning an Eisner. I will have to mull that over.

hughman said...

i have to say, i have a friend who who had a blogdeal made into a bookdeal. in fact, i was the main subject of a chapter.

blog books can often be a subject of derision if they're are'nt outside of their blogging. the problem often is if they write outside the blog.

Brown said...

Alas, it afflicts all disciplines. Look at the media and punditry--heck, they practically invented it. What has become of Krugman? And don't get me started on David Broder or George Will (or, as I like to call them, David Fucking Broder and Buttnugget). I think in the case of novelists the award tells them they're close to something they tried never to think too much about, and it tightens them right up--too much pressure.

Either that or spending so much time alone with nothing but your keyboard and imaginary friends is bound to make you depressed.

Iris said...

I went by the Isotope yesterday, my favorite comic book store, and asked the owner, his girlfriend, and the comic book geeks hanging out by the cash register if they knew of any comics artists who had a spectacular success and then couldn't do anything decent afterwards. After a lot of cogitating, one of the CBGs came up with the best example imaginable: Art Spiegelman. Art S. was a brilliant cartoonist, but after the unbelievable success of "Maus" (a NY Times bestseller), he never did anything worth a damn again. Thankfully "Maus" is still selling and he also makes money off the lecture circuit.

the Drunken Housewife said...

Dammit, that was me. That child is ALWAYS using my computer and staying logged in. Can I ask no more than to be able to sit down at my OWN PERSONAL LAPTOP and write comments on my OWN PERSONAL BLOG under my OWN PERSONAL LOG-IN?? Is NOTHING SACRED???

Anyhow, if any of you have not read "Maus" parts I and II, you really have to. Brilliant. Heartbreaking. Funny at times. Absolute genius. Help support Art Spiegelman in his post-genius era by buying his amazing work of art.

Brown said...

In re: Maus.

Outstanding, moving, incredible. Sold me on the "seriousness" (gah) of graphic novels.

In his defense, maybe he's not a genius. Maus was the story of his life in a very profound way. Like "Cold Mountain" (book, not movie), it may have been the chief story that that author had to tell. (Though I did enjoy 13 Moons.)

the Drunken Housewife said...

But I think, Brown, he could have had more stories from his life to tell. I think there's no way you can top or live up to "Maus", though.

The CBGs were dissing something Spiegalman did post-Maus. One said, "You know my mother?" (I don't, but apparently the store owner did). "She was all excited when he did something new. EVEN MY MOTHER said it sucked!"

Truant said...

Hopefully you'll look back on this, But to you, DH, or anyone else reading this, look for a book entitled "House of Leaves".

It will take you awhile.

But it will change how you think. In many ways.

the Drunken Housewife said...

Oh, yeah, I read "House of Leaves" years ago. Mark Danielewski is great. I love those academic footnotes he made up; it's so Borgesian.

Anonymous said...

Hey Drunken Housewife.
It's been a dryspell for good books for me. I just can't find ones that grab me. I have drunkenly scribbled down your prferred titles by Joanthan Coe, Richard Russo, et al.
HGow aboutg a drunken housewife reading list? Or has it been done?
~Chiromamma

Anonymous said...

Oh Sh*t My "g" key is acting up. Seriously. I need a trip to the mac store.