My post on Saturday regarding Walter Kirn’s parody of book reviews in yesterday’s New York Times generated an unusual amount of traffic. I am able to track what kinds of Google searches lead to my posts, and this one attracted many people looking for a biography of Kirn’s fictitious Samson Graham-Muñoz or the novelist’s similarly fictitious essays in Harper’s. A great many intelligent people seem to have been wholly taken in by Kirn’s bagatelle, despite the many signals that it was, in fact, a parody, not the least of which was that it appeared on the inside back cover of the section, which has always featured short essays, usually of the light-humorous variety, and never reviews.
Perhaps it was because both the imaginary novel under review and the review itself reflected a kind of fiction current in the United States that resists parody. My survey of my Web statistics was far from scientific, but I imagine that a large minority of readers were indeed taken in, and I wonder if it was because the cultural artifacts that Kirn was parodying belonged to what William Deresiewicz called “Upper Middle Brow” culture in a short recent commentary for The American Scholar. Deresiewicz manages to get it right and wrong at the same time, but he’s on to something:
The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk … .
The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb — the definition of a true avant-garde — our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world.
Most Upper Middle Brow culture, as Deresiewicz describes it and which The String Theory Quartet, its author, and its reviewer exemplify, does not possess “excellence, intelligence, and integrity.” It is literate and educated, it is clever, it is no doubt sincere — as educated, clever, and sincere as most TEDx talks. It is what we now call “smart.” But this doesn’t make it excellent or intelligent. It runs along the surfaces and partakes of trash culture. It presents a surface of titillation, obscuring the something — or, more often, the nothing — which runs under it. It amuses us, it flatters us. But this is all it does.
I suggest that Deresiewicz also gets it wrong when he describes and defines the avant-garde, which, in his construction, seeks “to disturb … our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world.” This is not the function of the avant-garde; it is, I hope, the function of all art.
It is as true of traditional writing as it is of what we’re fond of calling experimental or contemporary. I was led to this conclusion this weekend as I treated myself to reading Philip Roth’s 2010 Nemesis, which will likely be his final novel, and some of the poems of Louise Glück, a collected volume of which was just published. Neither author can be considered avant-garde, and they’re about as far from Graham-Muñoz’s rhetorical twirls as they can get. But I found myself admiring the clarity, concision, and compassion of these writers, a clarity and compassion I don’t find in the objects of Kirn’s parody or the list of Upper Middle Brow artifacts that Deresiewicz provides. Under their surfaces, they contain remarkable depths, and they are as much of this world as they are of the individual imagination. Standing behind these, somehow, is Benjamin’s conception of existence as expressed in Klee’s Angelus Novus — personal and social history as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” It also partakes of Simon Critchley’s recent description of a pessimism which provides a glimmer of hope.
Roth and Glück and others of their generation provide this insight far more effectively and brilliantly than Graham-Muñoz and those of his. The earlier generation encourages us to pierce the surface and explore our own depths; the later is content to float happily atop the waves. Roth and Glück insist that we read deeply of life rather than skitter across the sleek surface of a titillating image. There is something in this contrast that speaks to the decline of our culture. Kirn doesn’t go so far as to suggest this, of course, but he provides this reminder to more careful readers, of whom there seem to be fewer and fewer these days.