Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dylan's Nobel and the State of American Literature

I was very pleased when Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize today. But I understand a number of people were not. Almost immediately upon the announcement my social media stream was full of disgruntled poets complaining that Dylan should not be eligible for the prize. (The silver lining was that one of the talented poets I know was immediately pushing back on this.) And by mid-afternoon the websites of major periodicals were full of think pieces, ready for tomorrow's print editions, about why Dylan should not have won.

So Friday morning America's newspapers will be filled with these editorials about how our fellow American Dylan does not deserve this prize. That will be a change from most years, when those same newspapers have no earthly idea whether or not the new Nobel laureate should have won, because even the editor of the books page does not really know who the new Nobel laureate is.

Do you see the connection? This year, the Nobel committee gave the prize to a figure with global stature and an international audience. That is not the only benchmark of merit, obviously, and I have always been glad that the Nobel sometimes elevates lesser-known writers. But to say that fame should not matter at all, in the terms of a global literary prize, is absurd.

Let's be clear: the idea that a songwriter is not a writer is transparently false and historically ignorant. By that standard Homer would not be eligible for the Nobel Prize. The Prize does not specify particular genres. It says only "in the field of literature" and the definition of literature changes over time. The novel was once a despised junk form, as was live theater before it, and the migration of low genres to high places will always continue. The real complaint is that a popular artist won. The horror!

The complaint is that a famous pop artist won something that "rightfully" belongs to more "serious" artists. But that complaint only masks the real problem. The real problem, for American poetry and all of American literature, is why none of the "serious" artists has a broad popular following.

The truth is that there is not a single living American poet who is a serious contender for the Nobel Prize. I wish that were not so, but it is. That is not meant as an insult to any of wonderful poets who are working today, or to the talented poets among my friends, or to my friends' accomplished mentors. Those poets are wonderful. A few are unsung national treasures. But they are, nonetheless, mostly unsung, and not one is a legitimate national figure, let alone an international figure. I saw someone today, in a serious publication, negatively comparing Dylan to Richard Wilbur. Now, Richard Wilbur is a gifted artist who deserves respect, but to say that he is a global figure in real contention for the Nobel Prize is simply delusional. If I could put an American poet up for the prize I would nominate Ferlinghetti, but I do not for a second expect that Ferlinghetti will win. No living American poet has that kind of international stature.

This is not because the individual poets lack talent or dedication. It is because American poetry, with its institutions and ambitions and professional culture, has turned away from wider relevance. No American poet is even attempting to write for a broad national audience today, and a young poet who attempted it would be considered a hack. More importantly, there is no infrastructure in place for an American poet to write for the general public. But if you ignore for the wider public for decades on end, it will ignore you back and then forget about you completely.

And, lest we forget, the Nobel Prizes are specifically intended for those who have done "the greatest benefit for mankind" and the Prize in Literature specifies "the person who in the field of literature the most outstanding work in the ideal direction." The "ideal direction" part clearly specifies some attempt at public uplift, which has not been part of American poetry's general ambitions for some time now. "The Times Are A-Changing" does display that ambition, pretty clearly, even if many working poets would find that corny. The finding-it-corny part, actually, is the heart of the problem. I get it, poets, I get it. You don't want to be Carl Sandburg. Congratulations: you're not.

Now, I have also seen a number of complaints by and on behalf of novelists and fiction writers, with whom I still strongly identify despite the long lapse of my artistic practice. But to them, too, I say: be honest. There may be, and I would say that there are, a handful of American novelists who are plausible candidates for the Nobel. But they are merely plausible, and perhaps even dark horses. If Oates or Pynchon or DeLillo or Roth won I would be happy, but I would never say that I had expected it all along. And I recognize that many people would have said, "Hmm. Okay." My own favorite for the prize is Le Guin, who would surely be a controversial winner in her own right, and who has done her work in a despised popular field. There are a few people who could win the Nobel, but no one who is an overwhelming favorite. None of them are culturally central in that way. Toni Morrison? Sure. But she's won already. There are other Americans whom I would like to see win, but none of them can say that they were robbed if they don't. None of them, much as I love them, are owed that prize.

But it's important to ask why not. It is not about lack of literary gifts. Nobody could ever say that Pynchon or Oates does not have enough talent. And some of this is audiences turning away from the written word to various electronic media. I know that. But American fiction has also lost part of its claim on the public arena by relinquishing that claim. Are we even trying to write the Great American Novel anymore? Maybe. But I'm not so sure. I worry that American fiction has ceded something of its public ambitions. If we don't have a Tolstoy among us, it is partly because, of course, the conditions are not there to create a Tolstoy may not exist any more, but also because American letters, not simply the writers themselves but the agents and editors and teachers and critics, have lost interest in producing one. I would like our ambitions to be greater and our horizons wider.

Forgive me if this post has been negative. It was prompted by a wave of public grumbling and complaining, of the kind I like least: the claim that an artist does not deserve something. To say that Dylan does not deserve this prize is ungenerous and small-minded, because many more artists deserve than get. To say that someone else was owed the prize instead is vainglorious and delusional, because no artist is ever owed anything but the chance to make art. And the worst trap for any artist, or any artist's backer, is to complain about what someone else has achieved, when the answer -- the only answer -- is to try to become better. Talking about taking something away from Dylan is petty and mean. We should talk about making our "serious" literature more serious.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Hillary Clinton and the First Wives' Club

So, Camp Trump has decided, again, that the smart thing to do is to go after Hillary Clinton because her husband was unfaithful to her. When you're facing an opponent who has had trouble being taken as human and sympathetic, what better way to go?

And of course, because I am a human being with a functioning brain stem, I wondered, "How does a serial adulterer on his third marriage go after a woman for having been cheated on?" Only this week did I realize the question was really, "How do THREE serial adulterers on their third marriages go after a woman for having been cheated on?" Because it's Trump, Gingrich, and Giuliani, with their nine marriages between them, harping on the disqualifying vice of having a husband betray you.

Then it became clear: these men hate and fear Hillary Clinton exactly because she is a first wife. She reminds them of their own abandoned first wives, whom they hate and fear. And, because they scapegoat those wives, blaming the women they betrayed and abandoned for their own betrayal and abandonment, it seems only logical to them, as the night follows the day, that Bill's behavior is all Hillary Clinton's fault.

Don't believe me? Here's a notorious tweet from Frank Lutz (a Republican), highlighting a text sent to him by a Republican Congressman:

What's striking about that, first, is that the Unknown Republican Congressman does not distinguish between his wife and his mother: both "bitchy" old women who make him feel anxious about his own authority. What's even more striking, on reflection, is that the Unknown Republican does not like his wife or his mother. He thinks of them both as bitches. I myself happen to be fond of both my mother and my spouse and have never had the least trouble telling them apart. But maybe I'm just some liberal.

Trump, Gingrich, and Giuliani are counting on the electorate as a whole seeing things the way they do, on a pretty primal psychological level. They are counting on everyone else's hostility to first wives, to female authority figures, to mothers. That seems like a mistake. Part of what they are banking on is what Josh Marshall talks about as dominance and aggression, where the victims you mistreat are shamed for being weak enough to abuse. The thinking here is that Secretary/Senator Clinton is weak and contemptible because she let Bill cheat on her. But this leaves out the part where Hillary can routinely outdo all three of these chuckleheads. Note, for example, that Rudy Giuliani somehow never managed to become Senator for New York. Newt Gingrich hasn't won an election in twenty years. And Trump's last debate involved Hillary Clinton slapping him all around the room. If they're trying to brand her as a loser, they should really check their own resumes.

But it's deeper than that. Men like Trump and his spittle-flying monkeys hate their first wives because they fear them. Those men, and I am using that term loosely, don't have the confidence or security to deal with strong, accomplished partners their own age. So they run to younger, weaker, partners who are easier to push around. Guys like Trump, Gingrich, and Giuliani couldn't even feel confident dealing with their second wives, and ran to a third.

 (In related news, they also traded in for overtly sexier partners, but this may be because the men's libido is waning as they age and they need much more stimulation than they used to. Libido isn't masculinity, but Trump thinks it is, and it's not clear he still has the libido for a sexy older woman. Don't let the Slovenian model fool you: tweetmeister Trump isn't doing anything important in bed at 3 am.)

This is not alpha male behavior. It's a desperate imitation of alpha male behavior, getting a series of younger and more easily controlled wives as "trophies" of the personal confidence they badly lack. Bill Clinton, for whom confidence has never been the big problem, has no problem dating a major world leader. He clearly enjoys it. His ego is not only strong enough to let his wife be the boss sometimes, but to let her be the boss of the free world for four to eight years.  Bill Clinton does not seem intimidated by that possibility in the least. But it obviously makes Trump's testicles shrink in fear, just like it makes Gingrich's and Giuliani's. Their response to Hillary Clinton is terrified rage.

Trump is banking on the rest of the country feeling the same primal fear and hatred that he feels when a strong woman is speaking. And he's partly right. There are a lot of little men out there. The bad news for Trump is that the men who are most like him are losers.

[This post has been updated to remove a poorly-thought-through jibe at Trump's testosterone levels, in response to a persuasive complaint from a commenter.]

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog