Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Why do we care about The New York Times?

With all the hubbub about the lack of a suitable New York Times obituary for Gilbert Sorrentino (see, for example, Dan here, here, and here, and Scott, and Ed), I've had to ask myself, why do we care? Since we obviously didn't expect the Times to do right by Sorrentino, it begs the question as to why it really matters. He was ignored by the paper when he was alive--if they had miraculously managed to produce an acceptable obituary, would it not have been a situation of "too little too late"? Seems to me that it might, in fact, be more than a little insulting.

In my last post, I talked about another neglected American master, James Purdy. There is a New York Times blurb on my copy of Eustace Chisholm and the Works that says "James Purdy is the outlaw of American fiction." I don't know what the context of the blurb was, but in the interview cited in that post, Purdy says that the Times "has given [him] some good reviews but also many vicious ones—reviews so vicious that I don’t think any civilized newspaper would publish them." This he attributes, in part, to the fact that the Times "has always been violently homophobic", but also "to a level of philistinism and ignorance that is abysmal; these are people who just do not respect culture or humanity." I have no trouble imagining Sorrentino saying those exact same words.

But, at some point Purdy gets labeled an "outlaw" or something like it, and it sticks. And, his work gets generally dismissed, relegated to a "gay lit" ghetto (a point touched on by Gore Vidal:
"Gay'' literature, particularly by writers still alive, is a large cemetery where unalike writers, except for their supposed sexual desires, are thrown together in a lot well off the beaten track of family values. James Purdy, who should one day be placed alongside William Faulkner in the somber Gothic corner of the cemetery of American literature, instead is being routed to lie alongside non-relatives.
--also in The New York Times, coincidentally, this time on the occasion of the reissue of Eustace Chisholm and other Purdy books; note that, unlike Sorrentino, Purdy does get some review attention from the paper of record, and yet he remains an outsider and largely misunderstood. It just goes to show that there are any number of ways for a great writer to be unappreciated.) Like Sorrentino, Purdy does not play ball. He is not interested in currying favor with anybody. He is irascible, borderline misanthropic, intensely literary. While with Sorrentino, it was probably his experimental bent that effectively locked him out, with Purdy my guess is that it's his "content". In a mainstream literary culture obsessed with content and which valorizes books that tackle big, important issues, issues that end up being the essential subject of most reviews, Purdy's novels are difficult to incorporate, difficult to assimilate.

I know, The New York Times is the major American newspaper; it ought to be an important part of the cultural conversation. The fact of the matter is, it's not, at least not when it comes to books. But it has long since stopped being important. There has been much documentation in a variety of places, particularly by Ed, for example, about the state of The New York Times Book Review since Sam Tanenhaus took over--about the explicit shift in focus towards more non-fiction, the paucity of female voices, a certain tone-deafness and lack of humor. But in my experience, the Book Review has never generated much excitement. Granted, I was never a regular reader, but in large part that's because I've very rarely found much of interest in it. If the situation is dramatically worse since Tanenhaus, I haven't been able to tell the difference.

The problem is not that The New York Times has not seen fit to recognize Sorrentino with an obituary worthy of a great writer, but that it is institutionally incapable of being part of the wider conversation about books in the first place. It is irrelevant.

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