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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

what do you mean we, kemo sabe: the new yorker we



The New Yorker "we"
Renata Adler, in her intemperate book against the new New Yorker of the 90s, Gone, took particular offense at the very person of Adam Gopnik. "I had learned over the course of conversations with Mr. Gopnik that his questions were not questions, or even quite soundings. Their purpose was to maneuver you into advising him to do what he would, in any case, walk over corpses to do." James Wolcott is also a non-fan: “He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much.”
Myself, I have never met the man, and I liked the winsome Paris to the Moon, which was in the fine New Yorker tradition of accounts of an exotic Paris that was at once more civilized and more backwards than the good old USA. I accept the limitations of that vein, and then read Thurber or Flanner or Gopnik (less Flanner, actually – the best Paris correspondent ever) for the humor.
But if the early career of Gopnik seems, at least in the eyes of his colleagues, to have been Gollum-like (I wants the ring, precccioouss!), it is his incarnation as a New Yorker mandarin that bugs me. The pixie dust of the Paris book has fallen away, and the man so revealed does, as Wolcott put it, seem born to annoy me.
Which brings me to his essay about Henry James in the latest New Yorker.
For Gopnik, a book review or essay is not complete if it isn’t also an intellectual fashion report. If it isn’t, that is, aimed at the hip “we” which finds a tight little place in his paragraphs. Thus, the status report on James begins with an implicit we – the we of contemporary readers, a category that Gopnik never quantifies in some dirty way by looking at, say, sales figures or essays in magazines or things like that. Gopnik is his own authority on the contemporary reader, and that reader better be damn proud of it.
“For freshness of voice, firmness of purpose (if a firmness always subject to scruples and second thoughts), and general delight on the page, the memoirs are fully alive to the contemporary reader in a way that James’s late novels may no longer be. Although the sentences are always labyrinthine and sometimes exhausting, the feeling at the end of each chapter is one of clarity rather than of murk: a little piece of memory has been polished bright.”
A little piece of memory? Out of some great gurgling whole of memory? I suppose just saying a memory has been polished bright would expose the dubious, hallmark card proposition in the sentence.
But why have James’s late novels failed our sophisticated contemporary readers? And isn’t there evidence against this? Of the three late masterpieces (Wings of the Dovc, the Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl), the last – GB – was filmed in 2000, and Wings of the Dove in 1995 according to IMBD.. Now, perhaps Gopnik is talking about contemporary readers born in 1995, but I think probably not. Given the regularity with which James is dramatized in tv series and movies, I’m guessing the late novels (besides The Ambassadors, which would be extremely hard to film) will sooner or later be recycled on the wheel, at which point the New Yorker will have some writer on hand to tell us why the late novels are so relevant to the now.
The IMBD list does chart a growth in the industry of bringing James to film, which, I suppose, could probably be used to chart spurts in the buying and reading of his books. Gopnik employs an entirely different method to tell us about James’s relevance – which depends entirely on the New Yorker “we”:
“Certainly, the great cult of the later James, which arose in the propaganda-fearing nineteen-forties and fifties, when he and T. S. Eliot stood above all other writers for sighs and scruples, could use a new infusion of objects. James remains a classic, of course, but a classic is not necessarily a presence. David Foster Wallace, the saint of under-thirty readers, mentions James not at all in his critical writings, and though one might take his qualifications and circlings back as Jamesian, they are employed to discriminate not more finely but to discriminate not at all—to get it in, rather than to pare it down. In a time of linguistic overkill, like the nineteen-forties, we look to literature for a language of emotional caution; in an age of irony, we look for emotional authenticity. Feeling ourselves in a desert of true feeling, we look for a feeling of truth.”
Who, exactly, feels in a desert of true feeling? And, by the way, when did David Foster Wallace become the saint of under-thirty readers? And, third question, how can we expect a new infusion of objects from a dead writer? We might live in the age of raising the level of exploitation, but even capitalism has not yet figured out how to raise the dead. Surely that should be 30-40 year old readers. I am unsure who is the patron saint of under thirty readers, or if they have one, but I do know that the New Yorker we, peering dimly out there towards Dubuque or Brooklyn, probably has decided that it must be DFW, just as they probably decided, in 1978, that all the kids were listening to Bob Dylan. As fashion reports go, the New Yorker is in a position, almost by definition, of being behind the fashions.
Once Gopnik drops his idea that he, we, and the contemporary reader are one and the same, he does same some interesting things about James’s autobiographies. As Wolcott wrote, long ago, Gopnik is decidedly smart – that is, he is smart when he decides to be. I simply wish he would decide to not issue memoranda on what we are reading or thinking or feeling today. The we reminds me of an old children's joke, the one where the lone ranger, holed up in a hut with bad guys outside, tells Tonto that we are in a bad spot, and Tonto says, what do you mean  we, Kemo sabe?

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