Are Our Writers As Lousy As Our Bankers?

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

Jonathan_franzen_time_magazine There is a certain kind of art made here in America for a lofty but banal purpose: to enliven the contemporary educated mind.

You know: the mind of you and me, dear 3QD reader — the NPR listener, the New Yorker reader, the English major, the filmgoer who laps up subtitles, the gallery-goer who can tell a Koons from a Hirst.

This art is superior to the cascading pile of blockbuster kitsch-dreck-crap that passes for pop culture, but only superior by a few pips.

This art sure ain't Picasso, or Joyce, or Rossellini, or the Beatles, or even Sondheim. It's more Woody Allen than Ingmar Bergman, more Joyce Carol Oates than James Joyce, more Jeff Koons than Duchamp, more Arcade Fire than the Beatles.

It does not expand the borders of art or wreck the tyranny of the possible or enlarge our hungry little minds.

It is art of the day to inform the conversation of the day by the people of the day who need to be reassured that their taste is a little more elevated than that of the woman on the subway reading Nora Roberts.

For want of a better label, here's a suggested honorific for this kind of art:

Urban Intellectual Fodder.

Neither original nor path-breaking, this art is derivative hommage; postmodern commentary around the edges of art.

It is art born of attitude, not passion. It is art that postures but doesn't grip. It is art created by those who are more passionate about a career in art than about art itself.

It encompasses:

1. The indie rock spawned in urban art ghettoes.

2. The visual art spelonked in Williamsburg.

3. The movies sputtered by independents hoping to get into Sundance.

4. The novels spritzed by creative writing majors from Iowa University and other environs.


What distinguishes this art from actual art?

Primarily, this is art that thinks about art. Art of the intellect, not the heart. Art done to bring us the smart, not the art.

The artists of Urban Intellectual Fodder act like art critics doing art — they're better about their art than with it, better on their art than in it. Their art is done to show their smarts, and that's primarily what one gets from their art.

Smart art: in America, the land of anti-intellectualism, it's perhaps inevitable that our art should devolve into a screech against the national celebration of the dumb.

Unfortunately, this art does the smart thing to the detriment of the other things that art can do. It does the soothing, lulling thing, because it is art to make the viewer feel smart. The audience I'm talking about wants only that from art: to be made to feel smart. So they get their art of the brain, for the brain and by the brain. Art that panders with its braininess.

Urban Intellectual Fodder is the prozac of the American intelligentsia.

It's studiedly smart; it's properly elliptical; it's quite self-aware and often very meta; it is extensively footnoted, either actually or mentally; its distance from its material is either ironically remote or uncomfortably close-up; it is intensely minimal or wordy or effects-ridden, in either a refined or extravagant way; it specializes in conceits, and sometimes its conceit is to be devoid of one; and it makes its small points, and sometimes its big obvious ones, in either a very guarded or rather grandiosely ironical way.

Critic James Wood coined a name for it: “hysterical realism.” Dale Peck had a name for it, too: “recherche postmodernism.” Both ain't half bad.

You know who and what I mean: everyone you imbibe by book, CD, movie or artwork creates Urban Intellectual Fodder.

All it does is put a sheen of high-brow smarts on art that is actually middle-brow. And comes out bloodless.

But what then is actual art, whose heights Urban Intellectual Fodder so deliberately ducks — real art, high art, art for art's sake?


The art I'm talking about, the art that blows your mind, is something you feel with more than your mind. It makes your hair stand on end. It takes your head off. It has a physical effect, like some kind of vicious blow that makes you jitter with excitement, or some kind of fierce cloud that enfolds you in a hard, clammy grip. It's like getting a kick up the spine with a cosmic boot, or having your senses garroted by an expert assassin, or suddenly being plunged into water so cold it shocks you to death. Kafka's “ax that breaks the frozen sea inside us” springs to mind.

My brilliant poet girlfriend once said to me: “I want to write poetry that makes people cry, because it's so beautiful.” That might be a mite plain-spokenly bathetic, but that's more or less what I'm talking about: an effect on the mind that gets to the heart and the body.

It's what I felt when I saw my first painting by Francis Bacon, or the sliced animals of Damien Hirst; when I saw Buried Child by Sam Shepard in downtown New York; when I read Lolita for the fourth time; when I saw all of Matisse at MOMA; when I first heard John Lennon nose his way through A Day In the Life; when I went to the bathroom one night reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and didn't get up from the toilet until I had finished reading it the next morning, with a semi-permanent indentation in my bum.

You know what I mean. You've had those experiences, and like me, you can probably count them on one or two hands at best.

I'm talking art of the first order. Art for the ages. Art that belongs in the top 100 novels of all time, the top 100 albums of all time, the top 100 paintings of all time, the top 100 movies of all time.

Compare this art to the book you read the past month, or the movie you saw this week, the play you saw, the contemporary art show you took in.

Compare this actual art to your steady diet of Urban Intellectual Fodder.

Compare this actual art to the art that comes off the assembly line of wise-ass Ivy League educated privileged kids: the kind of art that uses its tools with studious deliberateness, because they've been picked up for their strategic value from creative writing workshops. These tools are used to shout the significance of a burp out loud to heaven's resounding, and draw cosmic import from as pedestrian an event as a man brushing his upper molars or a woman scooping the poop off her baby's bum. Or they're wielded to burrow deep into some fashionable dysfunctional relationship, where this art will lay its various impotent eggs of quiet insight.


From where I read, my sweet confrere, this stuff sucks. At best it pulls the wool over enough reviewers' eyes to sell nine thousand copies, or even two hundred thousand, or even get into your local movie art-house, or be played on your local college radio station, or turn up at a gallery, or be feted in the blogosphere.

I'm not too hip on the new movies or CDs or artworks, but I am a big reader of novels, so the current output of literary fiction concerns me.

I must admit to a few biases here. I'm a bit of a snot-nose when it comes to literature.

I mostly read and reread classic novels published in the 19th century, and on my rare forays into the 20th century, only the absolute masters: J.M. Coetzee, Faulkner, Nabokov.

I think my fellow country woman Nadine Gordimer is OK, but she doesn't blow my mind, and neither does Philip Roth or John Updike. The Great Gatsby does, and Lolita, and Ulysses. Of D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers blows my mind completely, but his other stuff doesn't. To me, Margaret Atwood is light reading.

So I'm a total snob as a reader.

Every now and then, I will pick up a book by a contemporary writer, mostly because they've passed the Michiko Kakutani test, since a writer has to be quite good to get a nod from this Manhattan Chainsaw Massacre reviewer for the New York Times.

So I'll read Philip Roth's American Pastoral or Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles or whatever.

And invariably, I'll be disappointed.

The only contemporary novels I've read that I consider truly great, are The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Beloved by Toni Morrison. They're both worth reading more than once. So are four of J.M. Coetzee's books.

And that's it. That's my actual sum total of novels written in the last twenty years that are worth reading.

Yes, I know there's plenty of good stuff around, but I'm talking great. And great art for the ages just ain't a-comin' from the dull, dim vastness stamped out by protean hives of Iowa Writing School graduates and other creative writing programs.


Am I saying I've been born into an art-barren age?

Not at all. After all, I had acquired my snot-nosed mind when the Beatles made their albums, and Ingmar Bergman made his movies, and Bob Dylan came out of nowhere. Back in that day, I was practically breathless awaiting every new Beatles album and every new Bergman movie, and here was the thing: they never disappointed.

Do you remember when Rubber Soul came out? And Sergeant Peppers? And the White Album? You'd think Eleanor Rigby was the most beautiful song ever, and out they'd come with Hey Jude. It was incredible to be young in the sixties, and to have your ears stroked like that.

Do you remember when Bergman's The Seventh Seal blazed off the screen? And The Virgin Spring? And just when you thought it would be impossible for Ingmar to reach the level of The Silence, Shame and Persona ever again, up he pops with his first color movie, Cries and Whispers.

I saw Cries and Whispers with a lady friend in London when it came out in the early nineteen seventies. It left us literally speechless. We were together for the whole of the rest of the afternoon and that evening, and we started speaking to each other only after three hours of total silence had passed between us, so blasted-out-of-and-into-our-skulls were we.

I'm sorry, but The Departed just didn't do that for me. Yeah, yeah, it gets a best picture Oscar for Marty Scorcese, but it's just another excellent crime movie, and not even as good as De Palma's Scarface. I won't even talk about Slum Dog Millionaire — that's just a Rocky for Occidentals who like their condescension towards Orientals to come back at them with a happy ending. The Hurt Locker was excellent, but not Godard. Or even Pialat.

Today's movies are as uninspiring as today's novels. There are enough indie and specialty films coming out to render the most diligent reviewer bleary-eyed. But of what quality, pray tell? The best commercial movie of recent memory, Revolutionary Road directed by Sam Mendez, as wonderful as it was, is no way near Billy Wilder's best, or Kubrick's best. The only movie I've seen in the last five years that was good enough to blow my mind was a movie called The Death of Mr. Lazarescu directed by Cristi Piui. And that was because of its artless, naturalistic style, which was so devoid of flash as to be revolutionary. The camera simply attended to what was happening. It was so uninterested in impressing the viewer with artistry, its non-style came across as a newly invented special effect.

How sweet it was to be alive when giants like Bergman and the Beatles were strutting their stuff. The poor kids of today: they have to live off the gruel-thin scraps of Arcade Fire and Sofia Coppola. What a thrill it was to enjoy the work of Bergman and the Beatles as they made their masterpieces, to follow them as touchstones to one's own life. The only comparable experience I can imagine in the 20th century would've been to be alive when Picasso was showing his work in the gallery around the corner from wherever you were living in Paris in the twenties and thirties and forties. Or to have got that Faulkner was one of the best writers ever, and to have waited in awe for every new novel he published. What an amazing experience it must have been to go and pick up Absalom Absalom at your local bookstore the week it came out.


So what do we have today? Not a giant in sight. J.M. Coetzee has delivered us his masterpieces already; he's been treading water for the last few years.

Is it just me? Am I jaded? I don't think so. I read Edith Wharton's House of Mirth for the first time four years ago, and it rocked me from my cerebellum to my toes. I have to tell you here and now, and I may be upsetting a lot of people: there is a clear difference of quality between House of Mirth and American Pastoral. House of Mirth is a great novel from a great mind; American Pastoral is an OK novel from an OK mind. Edith Wharton wrote for the ages, the shadow of George Elliot upon her; Philip Roth is writing for our time, and maybe feeding off Updike, and revered because he's the marginally best of a pretty bad lot.

If you know of a piece of magnificent current English literature I've missed, please enlighten me. I might be writing this for the sole reason of scaring up a great contemporary writer who has escaped my jaundiced eye. By now Midnight's Children is not contemporary anymore, and Salman Rushdie's later stuff is to Midnight's Children what Paul McCartney's last two albums are to Rubber Soul. Rushdie wrote Midnight's Children with the depth of his genius, but the rest of his stuff with the tips of his fingers. Who else is there? White Noise was magnificently smart and funny and readable, but every Dom DeLillo since then that I've read has been a slog through sticky mud arranged in precise, meticulous, magisterial steps towards some ever-receding insight. It's like slipping on great texture over a vast hollowness. It's like being in the presence of something great but when you look it's just your nephew.


When I think of the exemplars of this kind of art — the artists who are good at our current boulevardier type of smart art — the following names inevitably spring to mind:

In movies, Woody Allen. There's a mind there, sure, and an original one, too. But how much else? Ironically, Woody's hero is Ingmar Bergman, and would that Woody tried to swing that hard for the fences. Maybe the lad has it in him, and we should be patient: Crimes and Misdemeanors was a worthy attempt.

In visual art, Matthew Barney and Jeff Koons. They're showmen, they'll go down in art history, but are we talking the revolutions of Picasso, Matisse, even Andy Warhol? Hardly. Theirs is the art of gesture and drama and not much else, like a grammar without a language.

In rock 'n roll, the usual suspects. Arcade Fire, The Shins, The Killers, Yeah Yeah Yeah, the Decembrists, etc. etc. Are we talking the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin? Hardly. These bands don't even measure up to the second rank of U2, REM and other placeholders. Jesus, they're not even as good as the Zombies, for chrissake. (As for rap, I draw a blank. I loved the first rappers — Run DMC, Planet Rock, that shit — but heck, I just don't have an ear for what everyone else proclaims as clever rhyme. Yeats it ain't. It ain't even Bob Dylan. Rap strikes me as on a level somewhat below Ogden Nash, without the urban sophistication. Eminem is to Bob Dylan as Nancy Drew is to Sherlock Holmes.)

In novels, well, I'm at a bit of a loss here. There's that Brooklyn McSweeney McSmugley lot. Very smart, for sure. Kind of like unripe Woody Allen. Philip Roth is still at it, like a gray-haired beaver, but don't expect him to turn into Dickens or George Elliot all of a sudden. That much life the wily bugger doesn't have in him.

Jonathan Franzen? WTF? He doesn't write novels; he writes prose. Holding up a middle-brow mirror to middle-brow America: that's not going to be interesting two decades from now. Franzen is today's James Gould Cozzens. Of course he'll always be an Oprah Winfrey pick.

So what do we have? Between Woody Allen, Philip Roth, a few indie bands, Jeff Koons et al, we have what one might call a batch of mini-Masters of the mini-genre of Smart Art as mini-purposed Urban Intellectual Fodder. And they're the pick of the crop. As for the rest, ugh.


Here I am, a guy who has written seven novels about life in my 20th and 21st century (and has had five agents sell none of them), and I find less than seven contemporary novels worth reading about my time on earth. (The Road is about a blasted future. Beloved is about a blasted past.)

I'm operating in a vacuum. All my really big hero writers are long dead. All my models hail from two centuries ago. My unpublished epic saga about the struggle for freedom in South Africa, Love and Gravity, a novel that spans fifty years, is seven-books long, way longer than the Bible. I can't even find enough contemporary books worth reading that add up to that length.

My sister is my severest critic, and here's what she said about this big blob of an epic I wrote: “Evert, it's better than Nadine Gordimer, but I don't want to hurt your feelings, it's not as good as J.M. Coetzee.” Heck, I don't mind playing second fiddle to Coetzee at all, because I happen to think Waiting for the Barbarians, The Life and Times of Joseph K, Age of Iron and perhaps even Disgrace are unbelievable masterpieces that orchestrate a marriage between two favorites, Samuel Beckett and Michel Tournier, and resound louder in my mind than the bells of a thousand Notre Dames. Plus, I'm pretty sure the sex I get from my brilliant girlfriend beats whatever J.M. Coetzee gets. And who knows, maybe there are three or four other unpublished writers out there, and we could start ourselves a publishing company.

But that won't solve my reading problem. When I walk into a bookstore, and I open the latest novel hailed on the front cover of the New York Times Book Review, and I'm bored after seven sentences, I get a twinge.

And here is the nature of my twinge. It's not the twinge you think, the one that says, “Jeez, how come this dude is out there getting good reviews, and all I've got is a letter from a publisher that says I'm the new Terry Southern but my book is not for them.”

No. I'm standing in the bookstore, driven there by an ecstatic review yet let down on page one — I, a major market of one for literary fiction, with the hard cash to fork over to get my mind bent — and my twinge goes like this: “Why in heaven's name can't I find a great book to read this week by someone who is actually alive today? What is going on? Are our novelists as lousy as our bankers?”

Listen, you living writers out there. Write us a masterpiece or two, for chrissake. We need something more solid than Urban Intellectual Fodder. What's with you — do you want us to die from starvation?