digression – honest to blog
May 10, 2008
But Baker never answers the questions that he asks. That is, he has not undertaken the historian’s task of hearing multiple arguments, listening to myriad explanations, looking at a wide range of evidence and then marshaling the evidence in order to draw a conclusion. He has not even carefully examined, as other historians have done, the various arguments about the aerial bombardment of civilians–the military tactic that appears to bother him most–to make a judicious argument against its use. Instead, he has used his license as a “novelist” to excuse himself from all of the tedious work of genuine knowledge. By way of research, he has read back issues of The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune, along with a notably limited group of other historical sources, all long familiar. From them, he has plucked bits of information, shards of the historical record that he finds compelling, or perhaps contrary to what he imagines to be the conventional wisdom–and left his readers to draw their own conclusions.
this description of nicholson baker, from anne applebaum’s new republic review of his book, “human smoke,” is unpleasant. the whole review is unpleasant for many reasons, but the part quoted above is particularly unpleasant because it seems like she’s not talking about nicholson baker but is instead talking about me, because to hear myself described so specifically is kind of disturbing and uncomfortable. one of her barbs (“he has plucked bits of information, shards of the historical record that he finds compelling, or perhaps contrary to what he imagines to be the conventional wisdom”) echoes uncomfortably against what i wrote recently when i felt intellectually intimidated by another blogger (“i am kind of trying to be academic and meta in a kind of have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too sort of way (i.e. when i can flip a couple quotes from some theorist to support some hare-brained idea of mine, i will; i’m aware this is not, like, real scholarship, but again, that’s not my goal.)”)
anecdotal bloggy digression: the event that cemented my decision to not try for an MA or PhD in literature was a term paper i had to write the second semester of my junior year of college. the class was an honors course about the way literature and philosophy deal with everyday life: we read debord and lefebvre and some other theorists, “mrs. dalloway,” georges perec, frank o’ hara, ron silliman, some other shit i can’t remember. also, “the mezzanine” by nicholson baker. i really liked “the mezzanine” by nicholson baker, so much that i checked out all the rest of his books from the library before i had even finished reading it and then i read them all, one after the other, over the course of a few weeks. i liked all of them (except “the size of thoughts,” which i found really boring and quit about a third of the way in) and so when it came time to write the term paper, i knew that i wanted to write about nicholson baker.
the problem with doing this was that i knew too much and too little at the same time, that i was too smart and too stupid, that i was both expert and amateur. if i had just read the one book by nicholson baker then i could have easily written some bullshit term paper about, i don’t know, the way nicholson baker describes paper clips or something. but that wouldn’t do; i had read everything this guy had written and i wanted to talk about everything this guy had written. after much frustrating deliberation, i sketched out some retardedly complicated plan which used david foster wallace’s “e unibus pluram” essay (another obsession of junior year) as a kind of jumping off point to show that baker’s work was the kind of new “moral fiction” that foster wallace described in his essay. as i worked on the essay, the list of things that i had to read to be able to write grew and grew. i knew foster wallace’s reference to moral fiction was a reference to some john gardner thing and i knew that john gardner had been an asshole to barthelme who i loved and who was an influence on baker and whose death was actually the inciting event for “u and i” and so i had to go find gardner’s moral fiction essay and then i found out that oh shit, it wasn’t just an essay, it was a book, and so i had to read the book and then i had to find some way to include all of this in the paper because i knew it all. i would read about something like reader-response criticism somewhere and think that it sounded interesting and could maybe support some point i was making and so to be able to talk about i had to read this book by fish i didn’t understand and to be able to try to understand that book i had to also read some book by barthes that i didn’t really understand. as the deadline grew closer and closer, the stack of books, the books i had to read to make the important points that i knew i could make if only i could figure out how to make them, grew larger and larger. the last twenty four hours before the paper was due were a coffee filled blur that i don’t remember. the essay was a disgusting mess that i can’t even look at now and the only two things that it coherently communicated were that 1) i really liked nicholson baker and 2) i desperately wanted to be smart and wanted my teacher to think i was smart and to tell me i was smart. i don’t know what grade i got on the paper, but my teacher was kind and gave me an A in the class.
so, nicholson baker was my favorite writer when i was a junior in college (both before and after the paper writing event) and he remains very dear to me. i haven’t read “human smoke” and i don’t know if i will anytime soon. if i do read it, there’s a good chance i won’t like it at all, since the main thing i like about nicholson baker is his ability to write really kickass sentences and there are only six paragraphs of his writing in the whole of “human smoke” and also it is big and heavy and expensive and the other reviews of it i have read, the more measured ones styled as book reviews instead of polemics, have all said it’s pretty crappy. but still, anne applebaum’s review pisses me off, which i’m sure is intentional, but still, gosh damn hell, it pisses me off. it is interesting that in condemning a writer for being selective and unscholarly, she does not pause anywhere in her 4000+ word review to consider said writer’s oeuvre, and does not deign to mention, in fact, any of his other books (although she does mention his NYRB wikipedia essay – perhaps a friend e-mailed her a link). i don’t know why she doesn’t discuss his other books, other than a desire to use as much space as possible to get her big, important point out of her big, important mouth. if she did read some of them, she would probably find yet more fuel for her fire (pyre?). she could kindle the flames of her anger with baker’s book “u and i,” possibly one of the source texts of this radical anti-intellectual movement she warns us of (this rash of library burnings, it’s so frightening. i’m sure nicholson baker is involved – i heard on w.a.s.t.e. that he lights small fires in periodicals sections, that’s how much he hates those dead trees newspapers). “u and i” is so boldly anti-scholarship that baker doesn’t even read – that’s the conceit of the book, that he’s going to write a book about john updike without reading anything by john updike. it is literary criticism without the literature to criticize. what a self consciously joe-six-pack sort of stunt, right, anne? it’s no different than morgan spurlock’s chugging milkshakes for a month and calling it a documentary or a.j. jacobs growing a beard and reading the bible and thinking that it’s such a big fucking deal.
it’s also a wonderful book that is touching and human and obsessive and weird and wonderful, that sentence by sentence, page by page, is a pleasurable and joyous experience that while making you smile and laugh also makes you think, maybe not in pulitzer prize sized thoughts or world war II sized thoughts but not in toenail clipping sized thoughts, either. it’s been a long time since i’ve read it, but they seemed like just the right sized thoughts to me, then. but, ok, back to anne for the finish:
But if we have arrived at the point where a solemn and excited individual can cobble together anecdotes from old newspapers and Nazi diaries, and write them up in the completely contextless manner of blog posts, and suggest that he has composed a serious critique of America’s decision to enter World War II, and then receive praise from respected reviewers in distinguished publications, then maybe it is time to say: Stop.
a lovely flourish at the end there, anne, absolutely chilling, but please, do tell me, what the fuck does it mean? stop? stop what? stop the presses? stop the clocks, stop the wheels of time? stop living, stop moving, stop breathing? stop the blogs, stop the internet, stop technology? stop writing, stop writing self consciously repetitive passages as a rhetorical flourish, stop doing that, stop it? stop? how? will you be kind, rewind, anne? are you superman, anne applebaum, are you going to fly around the world and go back in time and kill al gore before he could invent the internet? should those of us without pulitzer prizes not be allowed to write without some kind of license? maybe we should have to wear some kind of marking so that we can be identified from a distance by those who are policing the “stopping.” wait, believe me, i really don’t have any of this unearned bloggy hauteur or contempt for the mainstream media or intellectuals or academics that a lot of these other bloggers do, anne. i often find them embarrassing, like all those ron paul assholes or when edward champion went off on terry gross for no reason, that was just stupid and ridiculous and awful (i know i should make a citation, but i can’t find it within a couple of google searches so i just gave up. lazy, i know, i’m just making your argument for you). i respect people who are smart and know lots of things and are trying to learn more things and teach other people those things in a respectful way. i will admit, i will be the first to admit – i am not smart as you, anne applebaum, and i may not ever be as smart as you, but i want to be, i really do. and the way i know how to do that, to get smarter, is to keep trying, to keep reading things and talking about things and writing things. i know that through all this trying and talking and writing i will say really fucking stupid shit that is embarrassing, like all this shit i am saying right now, and i will be embarrassed not only by the solipsism and the vapidity and linty-ness of the content but, even worse, i will be embarrassed that all my personally revealing blog posts all seem the same, formally, and all end with this overheated passage where i sort of figuratively climax in a horribly cliche way, and that all my shitty short fiction that i used to think was great does this same thing too, this one move is seemingly the only one i can do right now, that i seem to only have two volumes as rhetorician, quiet and loud, like a fucking pixies song, and that i would make a pixies song as a reference to binary dynamics, i’m sure looking back i will be embarrassed by that, and will be embarrassed that i don’t go to the trouble of putting an accent mark over the e in cliche even though i write the word cliche a lot or i that enclose the names of novels and books in quotation marks because i’m too lazy to italicize them. but, fuck, i’m trying, anne, i’m doing the best i can for now, damnit. stop? can’t stop, won’t stop.