Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Olympic Figure Skating Redux

Several months before the Torina Winter Games in 2006, I had written a piece on Michelle Kwan and her 3rd attempt at winning an Olympic Gold Medal. Of course, Kwan suffered an injury that season and was unable to qualify or compete in the games. My piece went unpublished and the rest is history (although the 3 women I pegged as Kwan's chief competition at those games ending up being the 3 medalists in the order I mentioned them). But, with the 2010 Vancouver Games about to start, I've revived the piece as an interesting timecapsule of speculation and figure skating analysis. If you are a fan of Kwan and follow figure skating, even if you only watch once every four years for the beauty and drama of Olympic competition, here's one to take to the kiss and cry area of your imaginations.

Kwan's Quandry
Why Michelle Kwan didn't Win in Salt Lake City and Why She won't Win in Torino

When Michelle Kwan skated to Fields of Gold in the 2002 Olympic Exhibitions, it was not as the nostalgic champion savoring her achievement, as she might well have envisioned the moment. It played more like a metaphoric smackdown for the forlorn bronze medalist, whose chance to win an Olympic gold medal seemingly had come and gone forever. By all indications it was time to move on. Her young competitors and, perhaps, the international figure skating judges had left her behind.

Four years earlier, it had been heartening to see Kwan stay in the amateur ranks after her narrow Olympic loss to Tara Lipinski in Nagano, Japan. She was only 17, after all, with her chief rival turning professional and four more years to grow technically and artistically—a chance to define the standard of women’s skating for the next generation. This is what appeared to happen in the intervening years between 1998 and 2002, at least on the surface of things, as the gold medals and kudos kept coming: a run of 5 consecutive national titles and 3 more world championships, including back to back wins in 2000 and 2001. Once again she was the overwhelming favorite going into Salt Lake.

But, in the months leading up to the 2002 Olympics trouble was brewing. Kwan made a move that shocked the figure skating world and concerned many of her fans. She parted with long time coach, Frank Carroll, and made a go of it alone, citing a growing need for independence in her career. After being second-guessed by practically everybody connected with figure skating, Michelle suffered a disastrous fall in the long program and placed a disappointing third. Conventional wisdom had it that without the support of her longtime coach, the Olympic pressure had been too great.

Pressure, yes, but Salt Lake City was going to be different. This time Michelle wasn’t going to hold back. In Nagano, you recall, she had been flawless—a rare feat under pressure and one usually good enough to propel a heavy favorite with a strong reputation to victory—but her performance had been a touch conservative, lacking the inspirational abandon of her winning skate at Nationals just a few weeks earlier. And, as luck would have it, Tara Lipinski not only bested Michelle jump for jump that night, but she had the extra spark that ignited the audience and swayed the judges. The outcome seemed more than a bit unfair to Kwan, when you consider how often reputation had rescued other Olympic favorites, like Viktor Petrenko, whose gold medal skate in Albertville included a stumble on the landing of his second triple axel and an ugly forward landing on a triple Lutz. What was more, Michelle’s music and choreography were head and shoulders above the girlish sweetness of Lipinski’s program. In fact, the seamless flow and spellbinding atmosphere of her Lyra Angelica program was groundbreaking. While I disagreed with the judges, I understood begrudgingly how they could have placed Lipinski first.

Although Michelle had an air of invincibility about her after the 1998 Nationals, the Olympics exposed vulnerabilities in her skating that even her musicality and exuberance could not hide. It became apparent in Nagano that Kwan’s lack of a consistent triple/triple combination left her vulnerable in the technical mark, as Lipinski had proven. And, while Kwan had developed into one of the most technically consistent skaters in the world, frequently completing all seven triples in her long programs, a tendency to approach her jumps conservatively had begun to take the excitement out of her programs. A lesser factor in her 1998 defeat, yet one that bears consideration, may have been that Kwan came away from Nationals with an over-hyped sense of invincibility. The perfect 6’s showered on her were as much a message to the international skating world about Kwan’s status as it was a reflection of her merit. In a sport where the politics of perception are blinding and reputation is nine tenths of the law, the US judges wanted to leave no doubt about Kwan’s placement heading into the all-important Olympics. In reality, the disparity between Kwan and Lipinski was nowhere near as wide as the results of the competition had indicated. Neither hype, nor nationalist declarations could obscure the fact that Lipinski was more polished and proficient in some areas than Kwan. She possessed a more daring array of jumps, displayed a more delicate landing touch, and, at times, softer and more refined positions, especially in her hands and arms. The international judges had taken notice.

Other weaknesses would quietly follow Kwan all the way to the Salt Lake City games, unchecked by coaches, unnoticed by skating commentators. In eight years at the senior level, she had never developed into more than an average spinner. Her positions were solid, but her spins lacked speed and impact. More troubling, she had made little effort between 1998 and 2002 to vary her spin combinations or expand her repertoire. There were never any blurred scratch spins, thrilling headless spins or barreling cannon ball sit spins to surprise and delight us. Her lack of a first rate layback became painfully obvious during the 2002 Nationals leading up to Salt Lake City, where all three of her chief American competitors, Angela Nikodinov, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen, boasted three of the best layback spins this side of Dorothy Hamill. With Kwan you hardly had a chance to notice that her knee was not properly turned out, because she always rushed past the classic position and settled into a much easier layback variation with her back arched nicely but with both feet on the ice.

While it may sound like nitpicking heresy to Kwan fans, there is one other neglected finishing detail that has kept Kwan from putting a little extra distance between herself and the quadrennial waves of young rivals: the way she comports her hands and arms. At any given moment, her hands can be observed shifting in random reflex, exempt from choreographic intent, be it the military flat palms that accompany her entrances to jumps or the loose open fists and splayed fingers we see as she executes a spin or some connective choreography. Her arms are too often bent sharply at the elbow, or cocked asymmetrically, which detracts from her line and creates angular moments. This is more noticeable because she generally wears sleeveless costumes.

This inattentiveness to fine detail begs an important question. Had anyone—coach, choreographer or father Danny—ever recommended finishing school with Rosalyn Sumners or Lu Chen? Perhaps there was more behind her dismissal of coach Carroll and her choreographer, Lori Nichol, than spreading her wings. Short of saying she’d gotten too big for her britches, there were hints in the media that Kwan either didn’t listen to advice or that people were reluctant to give it to her because of her accomplishments. During the 2004 World Championships, ABC’s Terry Gannon suggested that Kwan’s icon status made the giving and taking of instruction a delicate matter. Icon or not, the lack of focus in her hands and arms has prevented her from articulating subtle details in her wonderful musical selections and from fully embodying their atmospheric power. For she often colors outside the lines of her choreography, making little smudge marks with her hands or jarring the mood with her elbows.

Back in 1996 when Kwan won her first World Championship as Salome, I had never seen a fifteen-year-old skate with such a mixture of mature control and expressive fire. Here was somebody with the potential to expand the artistic boundaries of figure skating beyond what was merely ladylike and pretty. This young woman had guts. It was easier then to overlook the weak layback position and the slow spins. After all, she was so young, and surely she would refine all her elements in time. But, what was brilliant for a fifteen-year-old came off as merely ordinary for a four-time world champion at age twenty-one.

Prior to Salt Lake City, Kwan had always been a fearless interpreter. No other skater in my memory had so successfully explored musical possibilities outside the standard skating repertoire. And unlike many of her competitors, she has stayed in the amateur ranks long enough to develop a considerable body of work. From Strauss’s Salome, to Alwin’s Lyra Angelica, and Corigliano’s The Red Violin to Villa-Lobos Song of the Black Swan, Michelle’s oeuvre is unparalleled in a sport where the best skaters usually make off with the gold and run for more lucrative professional opportunities. The past three Olympic women’s champions, Oksana Baiul (‘94), Tara Lipiniski (‘98) and Sarah Hughes (‘02) had fewer seasons of international experience combined than Michelle Kwan currently boasts. They each will be remembered for only one performance, and in Baiul’s case her entire artistic reputation is built upon one short program skated to Swan Lake and one rather lightweight long program skated to a medley of show tunes. But, longevity is a double-edged sword. There is always a risk of repeating yourself and becoming stagnant. There is also the risk of coming under relentless scrutiny and being perceived as an obstacle to new competitors. Some of this may be at work in Kwan’s case. Nevertheless, I would assert that her performance of Salome at the 1996 Worlds, her short program to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and the long program to Lyra Angelica, both at the 1998 Nationals, represent the pinnacle of her artistic achievement. Since that time her skating has not exceeded the promise of those early performances.

By Febrary 2001 things had reached a critical stage for Kwan. Young Sarah Hughes was breathing down her neck, and her old rival, Irina Slutskaya, was skating circles around her in the Grand Prix series. In the Grand Prix Super Final, Michelle had premiered her most daring musical interpretation yet to Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. The performance was rough and the choreography needed refinement, but the program was Michelle’s most promising in three years, perhaps ever.
Yet, at least two major obstacles would keep MM (as Kwan chatroom fans refer to the notorious program) permanently on the shelf. First, it was roundly criticized. Immediately after the premier of this daring work in progress, ABC’s Peter Carruthers had condemned her choice of music as inaccessible. Maybe so for the Carmen generation, but in the age of the ISU Grand Prix Series, where the skater’s programs become old hat to the judges and the skating public by the time Worlds roll around in March, something like the Bartok would have likely borne up much better to repeated listening than yet another predictable run through Malaguena. All the more reason Kwan should have gone for broke and unveiled The Miraculous Mandarin as her Olympic program.

There was a second problem. To solve the choreographic and artistic challenges of articulating Bartok--translating it convincingly to masses of pop ballad junkies--would have required Kwan to overcome her own shortcomings as a skater: the spins would have to be faster and more energetic than any she had completed before, the positions would have to be exotic and unprecedented, the footwork must be fast and savage, yet clean as a whistle, the choreography must have the look of controlled chaos, and the jumps would have to be far flung leaps over a dark abyss. The Bartok was the challenge she needed to rise to her potential and far above her competition. It could have worked to her advantage. Being able to focus her energy completely on her program would have taken some of the pressure and focus off of her and placed it back where it belonged: on her art. But, under heavy criticism and its wake of self doubt, Kwan shelved it.

It was disappointing to say the least, when the 2002 nationals rolled around and Michelle had chosen the safe and conventional beauty of Scheherazade over the Bartok. Until Scheherazade, she had never succumbed to skating by numbers (old, worn out numbers, used by numbers of other skaters before her.) Whether scathing criticism or technical difficulties gave the Kwan team cold feet about The Miraculous Mandarin, it signaled a retreat from the culmination of an artistic vision that her Salome had promised. After all, how do you go from skating Salome at 15 to skating Scheherazade for an Olympic program at the age of 21? Artistically it made no sense, and tactically it was a mistake. For the very critics who called for something more accessible than MM, would be decidedly unimpressed by Scheherazade. By comparison, 16 year-old Sarah Hughes’ winning Daphnis and Chloe was easily the fresher and more sophisticated program. As further evidence of retreat, Kwan chose to perform her classic Rachmaninov from 1998 as her 2002 Olympic short program. Even when her skating had plateaued technically, playing it safe with her musical choices had never been Kwan’s style. With that distinction gone, there was little to separate her artistically from the Stepford Carmens and Cigne clones who surrounded her on every side. The result for Kwan was a very ordinary performance.
Despite finishing a step down on the podium in Salt Lake, Kwan surprised everybody once more by maintaining her amateur status. Only this time around, she was greeted by a good deal more skepticism.

In 2003, she temporarily silenced her critics by regaining her world title to the strains of Concerto d’Aranjuez, but in 2004, she followed this up with a 3rd place finish at Worlds, her lowest placement there in 10 years. Her use of Tosca, so soon after Slutskaya’s much applauded Tosca program, raises a red flag that she’ll be playing it safe when she makes her third Olympic run in 2006. If she does, it might as well be a white flag of surrender. In Torino, her main competition will likely be 2004 World Champion, Suzuki Arakawa of Japan, the overrated, but irrepressible, Irena Slutskya, and Sasha Cohen her American rival, or, just as likely, some unheralded newcomer (most likely from the U.S or Japan, with slightly longer odds going to somebody from Russia or China). Remember that both Oksana Baiul and Tara Lipinski made their big splasheson the international skating scene just a year before the Olympics. At any rate, the trend in the women’s competition is toward young precocious talent, preferably 16 or younger. By 2006, Kwan will be 25 and active on the senior level for almost as long as some of her competitors have been alive.

Michelle stated in a recent interview that it has to be more than a gold medal, or a few minutes on the Olympic stage, that keeps her lacing up her skates day in and day out, year after year. This is probably true on one level. The nervous excitement of amateur competition that “drives her crazy” obviously invigorates her as well. Outside of the state sponsored Soviet and East German systems, there have been few competitors in the world who have so often risen to the occasion, year after year, and under increasingly pressure filled situations. On another level she may have not figured out what she wants to do next with her life and skating is still the thing she loves and knows best. But, she is in serious danger of marking time, and God only knows how well she’ll be received by the Olympic judges the third time around. When the judges took note of her finishing two seconds after her music stopped at Worlds in 2004, it was reminiscent of the illegal lift deduction the judges used to explain the low marks given to the reinstated Torvill and Dean in the ’94 Olympics. The fact that the judges are using technicalities to mark her down is a sure sign they’ll be scrutinizing every edge she cuts into Olympic ice. One slip and don’t be surprised if she finds herself out of the medals altogether. No matter how much Kwan says it’s not about the gold, there’s no way she wants to end her amateur career with anything less. Anyone who has seen that look on her face when the marks come back lower than she thinks she deserved will take her protestations with a generous grain of salt. Besides, had she won the gold medal in either ’98 or ’02, does anybody really believe she’d have stayed amateur this long? I sincerely doubt it.

When Michelle fired her coach and choreographer before the last Olympics, she was looking for some kind of motivational edge, a way to shake things up. Had there been major philosophical differences, it could have been a liberating move, much the way leaving coach Natalia Dubova transformed the skating of ice dancers Klimova and Ponomarenko back in 1991. But if Kwan’s goal was independence, why fire her choreographer and then use one of her old programs? It would seem the thing to do would be to try new choreography. Clearly, she knew something needed changing, but she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, admit that her skating rather than her professional relationships had become stagnant and binding.

In retrospect, it might have been better for her if there had been a consistent rival skater over the years with the jumps, spins and polish to force her out of complacency. With a parade of inconsistent foes the likes of shaky Maria Butyrskaya, effervescent but superficial Irina Slutskaya, and more recently, Sasha Cohen, the stylish diva of self-destruction, Kwan has been able to play a pat hand and walk away with a gold medal when she skates cleanly and passionately. Ironically, the greatest obstacle to Michelle reaching her potential is the continued success she enjoys while essentially remaining at the same level year after year. As long as she can do this and win world championships and national titles, she’ll have no real incentive to push herself. But, by now she should know the Olympics are another story. For whatever reason--either the aforementioned weaknesses in Michelle’s skating, or her maverick nature (perhaps a combination of both)—the international judges do not hold her in that highest esteem that renders her invulnerable in a close competition. That much was clear in 1998 when she did everything short of setting the rink on fire and still finished second. Tara Lipinski was their Olympic ideal then, and make no mistake they’ll be looking for another darling to place on top of the podium.

Does she stand any chance of taking the gold in Torino? To me it won’t matter one way or the other unless she raises the level of her skating. It is always possible that her chief rivals might also fall prey to nerves and falter, or that Michelle may come in feeling she has nothing to lose and skate with flair and abandon. For me it truly is not about the gold medal, especially when the judges cannot always be counted on to give a fair rendering of the competition. Rather, it is about creating something memorable and lasting, and these moments don’t always come attached to gold. My advice to Michelle is to attack her jumps like never before, go to work with a Swiss spinner, hire Rosalyn Sumners to help her with her arms and hands, and finally dust off the Bartok and hire choreographer Shanti Rushpaul to bring it to life. After all, Kwan is the only amateur skater in the world with the imagination and the desire to pull it off.

Friday, January 15, 2010

James Wood, John Gardner and the Moral Center of Fiction

The 1970’s debate between John Gardner and William Gass over the creative process and the nature of character in fiction is the same one that rages today between critic James Wood and writers like Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, the late David Foster Wallace and even Gass himself. Until the ascendancy of Wood in the past decade there was no voice with Gardner’s authority seemingly capable of championing fiction as an authentic extension of human experience, what Wood calls ‘lifeness’ and of recognizing an intense and free creative process as the source of fictions moral center—its ability to honestly probe human nature and emotion through imagined, fully realized fictional scenes. That Gardner is seldom mentioned in the current fray is particularly surprising given the striking parallels in Wood and Gardner’s views on fiction.

A recent exception to this is Nick Ripatrazone’s 2008 essay in The Quarterly Conversation, “Let Me Make a Snowman: John Gardner, William Gass, and The Pedersen Kid” http://quarterlyconversation.com/let-me-make-a-snowman-john-gardner-william-gass-and-the-pedersen-kid, in which Ripatrazone discusses, among other things, the differences between Gardner and Gass. It’s useful in stating Gass’s case that you could easily interchange both Wood and Gardner’s views on fiction as a direct refutation of it:

"In the…essay, 'Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,' Gass posits that 'creative thought and creative imagination are not so much stirred on by truth in any synthetic sense as by sublimity—a vision of absolute organization.' Rather than insisting on moral affirmations, writers should embrace the ability of language to create signs and images. For Gass, 'fiction held no moral lessons, no relevancy outside itself.'

Gass also revises the traditional view of character:

Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. . . . the language of the novel will eddy about a certain incident or name. . . . In a perfectly organized novel, every word would ultimately qualify one thing, like the God of the metaphysician, at once the subject and the body of the whole.
Gass’s definition of character has two implications: it is not the primary function of a novelist to create dramatized, lifelike characters, and the perfect novel would contain one character engaging in a pure internal discourse. Characters, for Gass, are not mimetic, because the language of the novel stymies any pure communication between a novelist’s conception of a character and the reader’s perception of that character. Character is still important to Gass because 'anything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point . . . functions as a character.' Character must always exist, Gass would argue, because the absence of character is a character itself."

As Gardner did then, so Wood does now take issue with this trend in fiction to diminish the importance of character, or, in Gass’s extreme view and post-modern practice, to see character as no more than a verbal construct or a vessel for thematic leitmotifs in an absolutely organized whole.

Here is Ripatrazone on Gardner’s view:

"Gardner criticizes the fiction of Jerzy Kosinski, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, and Joyce Carol Oates, along with Gass, claiming that his contemporaries value style and 'dazzling technical performances' over character development and the 'novelistic form.'"


"He attacks Gass’s theories of the conceptual nature of words, and claims that despite Gass’s consideration of characters as 'verbal structures,' Gass’s own early fiction contains 'magnificently vivid characters and scenes.'"

Compare this from Nigel Beale’s review of Wood’s How Fiction Works:

"For example, Wood rejects critic William Gass’s contention that character is just an assemblage of words, the novel a mere ‘codex of bound pages.’ Gass’s words, he says, pose as skepticism but in fact simply represent a 'dandyish flippancy', a refusal to be taught by literature about other people. To my mind, to deny character with such extremity is essentially to deny the novel.”

Here is Gardner warning young novelists of the pitfalls of the age in On Becoming a Novelist:

"…other schools maintaining, with much talk of Heidegger, that nothing a writer writes means anything, the very existence of his page is an amusing accident, all the words are a lunatic blithering (for all the writer’s care), since language is by nature false and misleading, best read from the bottom of the page to the top."

One of Gardner’s chief complaints, echoed above in Wood’s rejection of Gass’s idea of fiction, is that this skepticism about lifelike character’s and fiction as a representation of life is one they don’t actually believe in. It is no more than a ‘pose’ that masks a disdain for literature as something that teaches us about human nature.

Though Wood and Gardner may use different words, or frame their ideas in different ways, there are several major common threads in their critiques that place them together in direct opposition with the overwhelming trends in serious fiction.

First is the primacy of lifelike characters in fiction arrived at through a free creative process. Through the act of imagining fictional scenes, the writer achieves a broad sympathy by which the people in his novel’s are granted a kind of independence. She listens for their distinct voices, thinks what words they would actually speak and how they would act, instead of speaking over her characters in the author’s own idiosyncratic, stylized voice. This has a moral dimension because it is a sign of the novel's concern for real human beings and emotions, and the surrendering of control to fictional characters in the creative process is an affirmation of human autonomy and openness. To treat characters as mere pawns, mouthpieces for the author's pet theories, or cartoon figures to be yanked about in a convoluted carnival of plot, shows a lack of concern.

Second, this imagining involves dramatization, through a highly developed craft, a way of seeing that achieves some form of verisimilitude, which connects the reader directly into the world of the characters, what Gardner calls “the continuous dream of fiction”. The writer avoids anything that disrupts this dream, especially that which draws specific attention to the writer and away from the drama of the characters.

Both Gardner and Wood are sharply critical of theoretical fiction that circles around and around itself in self-consciousness with its ironic distance and “smart-mouth satire” (Gardner’s words). It is either completely preoccupied with language itself (Gass)—which is only a kind of game, and can’t be trusted to communicate any values or ideas—-or the conventions of narrative, which involves a deep mistrust of storytelling itself, and, especially, of the idea that we can and should feel anxiety and emotion for, let alone believe in, fictional ‘characters’.

In reading both Wood and Gardner it is fascinating to see the facets that each reveals in turning over the same problem. In this rather lengthy quote from a discussion between Wood and Richard Lamb on Nabokov in Slate Magazine, we see Wood speak about the difference between the creative process in Nabokov as compared with Chekhov:

"...consequently, the Nabokovian idea of cherished detail and stuffed perfection is too artistic an idea for a form that must surrender itself to the freedom of its characters. For characters are generally not artistic at all, are they? In this respect, novels are not like poems, and it is wrongheaded to try to turn them into poems. We do not read novels to feel the constant artistic control of the author, but to share in the wayward, inartistic freedom of created human beings. (That such humans are set free by that same artistic control is, of course, merely a trivial paradox, and not a hindering one.) Thus, the problem with Nabokov's beautiful details, his 'making strange,' is that they are the kind of details that only Nabokov could notice and write up so perfectly. Very few of us will come to see an oil slick as 'asphalt's parakeet.' As a result, Nabokov is forced either to speak over his characters, or to make them into artists of one kind or another.

Nabokov was dismissive of Chekhov's 'prosaicisms,' but the wonder of Chekhov's similes and metaphors is that they are not, in this sense, 'artistic' at all, but are the kinds of connections that ordinary people--i.e. Chekhov's characters--might make. For instance, when one man in Chekhov hears the lonely cry of a bittern, 'which sounded exactly as if a cow had been locked up and left in a shed all night.' Or when a peasant hears 'an expensive-sounding' accordion. This seems to me a much purer idea of 'making strange' than Nabokov's more obvious, 'artistic' one. And Nabokov's version is easier too, in the end, than Chekhov's. Chekhov's involves the surrendering of the 'artistic' while, of course, retaining final artistic control; Nabokov's involves the mere assertion of artistic control. After several hours of effort we might well come up with, in our study, 'asphalt's parakeet.' But you have to know a community to let a character hear 'an expensive-sounding accordion.' That takes a lifetime."

Notice this passage of Gardner’s from On Becoming a Novelist:

"For some novelists…the main accuracy required by their art has to do with self-understanding. Novelists of this kind—Beckett, Proust, many writers who favor first-person narration—specialize in private vision. What they need to see clearly and document well is their own feelings, experience, prejudice. Such a novelist may hate nearly all of humanity, as Celine does, or large groups of people, as does Nabokov. What counts in this case is not that we believe the private vision to be right but that we are so convinced by and interested in the person who does the seeing that we are willing to follow him around…For another kind of novelist the accuracy required is, I think, of a higher order, infinitely more difficult to achieve. This is the novelist who moves like a daemon from one body—one character—to another. Rather than master the tics and oddities of his own being and learn how to present them in an appealing way—and rather than capture other people in the manner of a cunning epigrammist or malicious gossip—he must learn to step outside himself, see and feel things from every human—and inhuman—point of view…He must learn, by staring intently into the dream he dreams over his typewriter, to distinguish the subtlest differences between the speech and feeling of his various characters, himself as impartial and detached as God, giving all human beings their due and acknowledging their frailties."

On the endings of novels and what makes for good ones these couple of snippets are food for thought. This again from Ripatrazone’s piece:

"Gardner’s aesthetic hinges on several salient points, less critical than craft-oriented. Profluence, or forward progression of plot, is connected to causality, the expectation that succeeding events are born from narrative precedents…This 'built-in need to return and repeat' is as endemic to fiction as the vivid and continuous dream. Gardner is concerned with the emotion and symbolism of a plot accumulating toward a resonant conclusion. As we near the 'inevitable and surprising' resolution of a successful work, 'unexpected connections [will] begin to surface; hidden causes become plain; life becomes, however briefly and unstably, organized.'”

And from Wood’s 2005 essay “The Last Word”:

"Of course, the basic conundrum that attends any organic process is that in one's beginning is one's ending: the entire length of a novel or symphony can be said to be a kind of drawn-out ending...

It is one of those endings that reformulates everything that has gone before, giving it a final power it had not possessed before its ending.

One of the most beautiful last lines must occur in To the Lighthouse: 'Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.' For that is what we want to be able to say at the close of every novel. Lily has finished her painting; and Woolf has now finished her open and fluid novel, which we, as readers, have helped to 'paint'. In this case, we have all indeed had our vision."

The striking ideas shared by Wood and Gardner in these quotes are that of profluence—a causal relationship between what has come before and the ending—and the related idea of reformulation (Gardner calls it the ‘need to return and repeat’) which then leads to “unexpected connections” surfacing, and a “final power it had not possessed before its ending”. The effect is that “life becomes, however briefly and unstably, organized." Is this not the same sense of having had our vision that Wood is talking about? Surely, it is.

Monday, January 4, 2010


"John Caruso has written a brilliant novel that gives an electrifying interpretation of some of the foundation myths of human history."
--David Ely, author of Seconds

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Don DeLillo and Post Modern Theory: The Sphere of Magical Thinking:

The debate is already in the air, when it comes to such touchy subjects as criticism and scholarship, whether the academic blog will ever gain acceptance alongside the literary journal as a legitimate forum for academic discussion, as noted by Daniel Green in his blog, The Reading Experience; (http://noggs.typepad.com/the_reading_experience/2007/11/index.html); November 20, 2007; “Responding to Other Scholars”. Green argues that while the blog might not provide room for the 20 page critical essay that “still stands as the paradigm of academic publishing” it can provide a venue for a potentially longer literary discussion over the course of many blogs and a format that promises to cut out the formulaic filler and “mindless repetition of academic conventions” that pads the essay in literary journals. That may or may not happen depending on whether you can generate enough disagreement to keep a substantive on-line thread going for more than one or two exchanges, or avoid the other extreme of pedantic overkill.

Acephalous, another academic blog, had a tedious 32 post discussion (33 including mine) about how to explain the difference to students between a perceived lack of African Americans in Sophocles (http://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/2007/11/perceived-lack.html#comments) versus a meaningful absence and whether the example of differences in two versions of a Springsteen song was sufficient to explain the distinction. Needless to say the discussion was often difficult to follow, the result of brevity combined with abstraction, tangents, and having to listen to two Springsteen tracks to understand the blogger’s point (I couldn’t get my sound player to work) which made getting to the heart of the question far more difficult than it should have been. Reason enough for Acephalous to receive a nomination for Most Pretentious Blawg from the Cultural Parody Center (CPC) in its “Parody Oscar Nominations” (http://parodycentrum.wordpress.com/2007/12/31/the-final-parody-oscar-nominations/). Then again pretentiousness is quite a brick to throw for the CPC, whose subtitle “challenging the status quo of global culture” and the crypto-Marxist rants in its blogs and comments present tempting glass houses themselves, and whose Oscar parody includes an Adumbration of the Year award that is not only pretentious, but lazy parody, ignoring the “Best_____” structure of Oscar categories.

If the CPC is a Never Never Land of liberation from the status quo, then its on-line counterpart is the Orwellian etiquette of agreement on mainstream communities like Gather.com and sometimes even highly literate and professionally oriented sites like the litblog co-op. The academic celebrity blog (if academic credentials can bear that appellation)--where a published writer or professor holds court and usually gets the last word (as in a teacher/student relationship)--may be potentially less liberating than what you find on either populist sites where almost everybody’s a nobody, or the classroom the academic blog has a tendency to model. In other words, despite Daniel Green’s surmise that “it's really this disinclination to entertain ‘queries or dissenting views’ that accounts for the blogophobia among certain critics and scholars”, academic blogs may be encumbered already with more academic baggage than Green would like to think, including readership leanings toward celebrity suck-up. On the one hand the academic blog can be refreshingly informal and surprisingly inviting, giving the non-academic reading public unprecedented access to the academic world and in turn giving academics a wider reading audience than ever before. Good things to be sure. On the other hand, even though the most erudite academic blogs are treated like stepchildren of letters by the academy, they are pretty much the professional's domain, an extra-curricular on the curriculum vitae, making them just as likely transmitters of the same abuses and obfuscations of critical theory that are walling literary fiction behind the dull mortar and brick of ivory towers and keeping the reader (academic or not) at a worshipful distance from its lofty silos.

Aspiring writers, who may legitimately find in the literary blog an extra-academic, back door entrance to the literary and publishing worlds, may be especially vulnerable to the magical realism of post-modern critiques. Advanced degrees and publication credits confer an authority that usually prevails in disagreements not involving peers. The evidence of that authority shows when the supporters of a challenged blogger rise up in his or her defense and smother the opposition in a barrage of vitriolic and sometimes personal attacks, or when the on-line dissident’s contribution to a discussion may simply be ignored in a way that it would not be in a classroom setting. To the degree this dissent is dismissed or squashed, it ominously mirrors the restrictive quality of the current discourse found in American electoral politics, where the candidates who are the most outspoken critics of mainstream policies are iced out of the debate. Even when the outsiders’ ideas reflect the change voters say they want, maddeningly the public refuses to rebel against the mainstream candidates who pander, flip-flop and outright fabricate for votes. In other words, the blog reader may be every bit as pragmatic as the American voter—less concerned with truth than with backing a winner or with the possibility of becoming an insider.

It doesn't seem to matter where on the Internet I post my dissatisfaction with the literary establishment (the academy) or the publishing industry, raining on the parade of some new literary darling's magnum opus, I seem to run into space restrictions, an aversion to close analysis, and the more ominous etiquette of agreement. Given that I almost always find myself in disagreement with the majority of opinions expressed in the media, on-line or anywhere else, I'm quite used to being shouted down or ignored. Yet, this doesn't make me optimistic about the ways in which the Internet is evolving, or, rather, the way it's being co-opted to make unpopular opinions go away by the politics of unity, the self-imposed circumscription of ideas called the “center” and by celebrity power. Because dissent with an authority figure is overwhelmingly cast in terms of negativity, the dissenter is a sour note, a shrill voice, a grammar flogging pedant, or, you name it, whatever ugly appellation the critic of popular notions may foolishly label his or herself by speaking out. You only need to read books reviews on Amazon.com, the archetypal populist website, to notice that those with the most “helpful” votes reflect the most positive attitudes toward the work reviewed, and because helpful votes determine reviewer ranking and positive reviews sell books, it is easy to see why positive responses toward a work, especially as product, are rewarded and help reinforce the institution's goal of selling books rather than honestly reflecting objective literary appraisal.

Sadly this may differ little from the pattern of critical review within the Academy. No matter how free-thinking academics may believe themselves to be, they still hold the keys to the kingdom and as such are gatekeepers for institutions and their entrenched ideas. For better or worse, we live in the age of literary professionalism where writers and their critics are housed in the same academic institutions and thus have an economic and professional incentive to cooperate. To the degree that academic and literary blogs retain some independence from theory and the academy, they will likely remain on the fringe of academic acceptance. The question is whether these blogs (and I do not pretend to make a survey) are really dancing on the edge, or are tethered to the academy and merely miming an edgy dance. The blog certainly has subversive roots, emerging as a journalistic alternative to the stranglehold of corporate publishing and media giants. No doubt the yearning for a wider audience and the more relaxed let-your–hair-down breeziness of the blog, not to mention its potential grassroots power, drew many academics and writers to this new form to find a possible best of both worlds, somewhere between the obscurity of the academic scholar and the media personality, between the isolation of the literary novelist and the celebrity of the best-selling author, or a place where they could maintain academic ties and develop a non-academic audience. It is the tether of professionalism, however, that keeps the literary blog from fully embracing the outlaw independence of truly alternative media. Instead of riding the blog clear out of the academy’s orbit, academic bloggers like Daniel Green want to dock the blog safely at the academy.

While blog shopping some time ago I stumbled onto the litblog co-op I mentioned above, (yes, the masthead is in all lower case script). I smelled the false-modesty of hipsters. Naturally, being drawn to what I oppose, my eye immediately rested on a piece by guest blogger Matthew Sharpe titled “DeLillo and Things that Become other Things”; http://lbc.typepad.com/blog/2007/08/delillo-and-thi.html#comment-90453122); August 22, 2007, about DeLillo’s novel, Falling Man, a meditation of sorts on the various collisions and convergences of 9/11 and its aftermath.

Sharpe’s own novel, the recent Jamestown, is advertised on the litblog co-op and was selected as the site's Read This! pick that summer. His worshipful advocacy for DeLillo, a response that is mirrored overall by his readers both toward DeLillo and toward him, provides a perfect example of academic professionalism and its chain of received authority passed down intact from academia to the blog.

For Sharpe, DeLillo's distinction as a novelist is asserted in terms of his lyricism and his innovative use of language, that is, his post-modernity (albeit in relationship to modernism via Stein's verbal Cubism or by Faulkner's stylized dialogue). Sharpe also indirectly identifies DeLillo with the Beat Generation and the Pop Art movement by describing White Noise as “doing a kind of poetic ethnography of campus life, small town life, American life; how he was attempting to figure out the meaning of TV, of supermarkets, of tourism”. On DeLillo's importance Sharpe significantly quotes DeLillo himself:

"We have a rich literature. But sometimes it's a literature too ready to be neutralized, to be incorporated into the ambient noise. This is why we need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation. We're all one beat away from becoming elevator music."

It is not surprising then that Sharpe appeals to post-modern theory and corresponding modes of criticism to justify the “verbal nonsense” and “violations of grammar” as DeLillo’s stand against “entrenched power”, yet many of the claims he makes for DeLillo's stylistic virtuosity and the technical mastery he uses to “bore into the texture and meaning of contemporary life” depend on traditional textual analysis for their comprehension and rest on the assumption that such an analysis has been made.

In this latter vein, Sharpe begins by asserting his longstanding admiration for DeLillo's analytic rigor. It's amazing how long Stepford Critics have been reciting that blandishment without thought or pause. B.R. Myers acknowledged that already mythic attribute verbatim in his 2001 bombshell critique A Readers Manifesto, just before he skillfully exploded it. Sharpe apparently wasn't within earshot. Either that or he was deafened by the report.

In any case, examples of derivative theoretical buzz like 'analytic rigor' and 'verbal Cubism' litter Sharpe's critique with now stock approaches to writers like DeLillo—a sure sign he has nothing new to add to our understanding of his work. Far from injecting life into the inner world of DeLillo's prose, his over-the-top gushing, awash in academic jargon, only serves to further anesthetize the senses to any close scrutiny at all.

Sharpe apparently has a Jones for DeLillo's use of appositions, “one of the grammatical constructions he uses repeatedly as a vehicle for his insights…” In full professorial mode, he even gives us a straight-from-the-dictionary definition of an apposition, assuming we wouldn't know one if it hit us on the head. Here he extols the practice: “Apposition allows a writer two or more passes in a row at coming up with a verbal equivalent for a given phenomenon, wherein each pass amplifies the others. The result can be a kind of verbal Cubism, a grammatical form of hopefulness in which each periphrastic utterance brings you closer to the truth of the subject under discussion.” Most readers know this grammatical structure in practice as saying the same thing in a different way, but Sharpe invests it through theoretical jargon with the sophisticated sound of “semantic doubling”. He quotes from DeLillo’s Falling Man and then expounds upon it for our delight and edification:

“He began to think into the day, into the minute. It was being here, alone in time, that made this happen, being away from routine stimulus, all the streaming forms of office discourse.” There are several felicitous turns of phrase and modifications here—DeLillo is one of my favorite wielders of a comma among contemporary writers—but I will limit myself to suggesting that not only is the first appositive phrase “routine stimulus,” given specific embodiment in the second, “all the streaming forms of office discourse,” but the repetitions of vowels and consonants that constitute the sentence's melody serve as acoustical underscore to the semantic doubling of the apposition. In other words, part of what makes DeLillo good is that his sentences sound good, and that the sound reinforces the meaning by giving it a physical dimension, as in music or poetry."

To what felicitous turns of phrase can Sharpe be referring, “being away from routine stimulus”? This is not felicitous in either sense of the word. For one thing “routine stimulus” is jargon and abstract to the point of meaninglessness. DeLillo has often used this kind of jargon in his fiction to mock corporate culture. Here I think he's caught filling in a moment of supposedly soulful introspection with habitual parodies of corporate abstractions that couldn't be less appropriate, less emotionally resonant and less pleasing to the ear. Sharpe makes another claim that vanishes into thin air. In the midst of rhapsodizing about felicities, he begins a digression about why DeLillo is one of his favorite wielders of the comma in contemporary literature, then so overcome with the literary riches of this passage, he forcibly limits himself to the apposition at hand. (A sensible and rare use of restraint, given how conventionally the commas are used in this sentence.) Yet, barring any grounds in the quotation for such a claim and lacking an explanation of what it means to “wield a comma”, Sharpe creates an unproven if unwarranted impression of DeLillo's prowess with punctuation. In the absence of proof, I suspect he's merely repeating something he's heard someone say about DeLillo before.

As Sharpe gets rolling, the more extravagant and absurd his claims become. He asserts next that “the first appositive phrase 'routine stimulus'” is “given specific embodiment in the second, 'all the streaming forms of office discourse'”. I can't let this pass without noting that “routine stimulus” is so vague and abstract that almost any concrete description could be said to embody it. Here the second phrase does contextualize the first, but embodiment is certainly the wrong word to describe the correspondence between these two phrases. Sharpe invokes it, however, implying a precision that results in a magical embodiment right before our eyes, willing us to accept his claim and forget what embodiment means—namely giving something a body or concreteness, even capturing its spirit. Upon examination, the second phrase is merely a lengthier abstraction itself that doesn't embody much of anything. DeLillo gives us nonsensical non-images like streaming forms, which is the equivalent of describing flowing solids, while “office discourse”, borne as it is upon those undifferentiated streaming forms, is more vague corporate jargon that barely embodies its own essence let alone that of the nebulous “routine stimulus”.

Of course, Sharpe is only suggesting this embodiment, as if DeLillo's feat and his claim are so bold he's going out on a limb to do so. In an ironic way he is. For while certain structures and phrases are identified in the text, claims about them are made without regard for their specific content or meaning--a slight of hand (textual analysis implied but not undertaken) that transubstantiates a very elementary technique (apposition), even an imprecise and possibly juvenile habit of exposition, into a significant literary feat. Yet, expose the rhetoric and the passage to close analysis and the boast Sharpe makes for DeLillo's rigorous pursuit of “the texture of contemporary life” through apposition is like claiming the apposition as a significant thing in itself, as if a writer stringing two phrases together meaning roughly the same thing with a slight shift or expansion demands our awe, in effect claiming that what I've just done twice (now thrice by self-reference) in this sentence took extraordinary thought. Sharpe bids us marvel, with proverbial dropped jaws, at the fact that repetition repeats and variation varies. Yet, even in that elementary groping after meaning, DeLillo fails to deliver not only the specific embodiment and felicity Sharpe claims for him, but also the insight that is the author's supposed quarry.

And small wonder. Look at the tired and generic language DeLillo uses in this passage: 'He began to think into the day, into the minute. It was being here, alone in time, that made this happen.' Surely Sharpe has picked a poor example of DeLillo’s prowess; for it never gets below the surface generalities of day, minute and time. Of course, these iconic divisions of time are recited for rhetorical effect to signal some weighty utterance, but their generality is an absolute barrier to thought and emotion. For example, what exactly does DeLillo mean by 'alone in time'? People experience aloneness socially, spatially and existentially, but not temporally. Is he intending to say something about how aloneness changes our perception of time? We don't know because he doesn't articulate it. Time, I suspect, is there because DeLillo thinks it sounds profound and therefore bestows an importance on what his character feels without his having to articulate or even discover what that is. Far from boring into the texture of contemporary life, this passage, which Sharpe extols as rich in insight, is totally committed to its surface—a pop lyric truism.

The only crumb we can take from it is this: being alone in time (whatever that means), being away from streaming forms of office discourse (whatever they are) is making him think into the day and even into the minute (whatever that constitutes). This crumb is even smaller than the pea H.G. Wells' hippopotamus hunts down in his metaphor for the sum and substance of a Henry James novel. Only DeLillo’s hippo needs a telescope, because--alone in time, lost there in analytic rigor, searching into the day, into the minute, the second and the millisecond too, away from normal conditions (concrete thought)--that streaming form of insight, the apposition, a grammatical form of hopefulness, may, with more periphrastic utterances, eventually, with further correspondences and equivalencies, result in a kind of verbal Cubism, and, in time, materialize, become visible, resembling the subject under discussion.

The truly interesting possibility this sentence presented—of exploring some transformation in the character's consciousness of time and possibly of himself and how it feels to be utterly alone for perhaps the first time is walled up behind bland rhetorical bricks painted over with abstract appositional graffiti. Instead of feeling the deepest anxiety for this character, we feel nothing. For there is not even a single solid image to arouse our fear and no contrasting image from that former comfort zone of “routine stimulus” by which we come to understand this strange, new awareness.

The last claim Sharpe makes about the quoted passage is indeed going out on a limb:

"...the repetitions of vowels and consonants that constitute the sentences melody serve as acoustical underscore to the semantic doubling of the apposition. In other words, part of what makes DeLillo good is that his sentences sound good, and that the sound reinforces the meaning by giving it a physical dimension, as in music or poetry."

First of all we have ample grounds for disputing that DeLillo's sentence, filled with jargon and bland generalities, sounds good. Certainly 'being away from routine stimulus' and 'all the streaming forms of office discourse' are not phrases rich in music or poetry. The first phrase uses passive voice and both are as dull as an interoffice memo. Moreover, given the evasion of deep communication and concrete imagery in this passage, and the substitution of empty rhetoric in their stead, how indeed does Sharpe expect consonants and vowel sounds to shore up the meaning? It's like trying to plug a burst dam with all the exploded debris.

It is imagery, if anything, that lends physical dimension to the meaning of a sentence, and it is imagery that is totally absent from this passage. Sharpe tries to make his case for the semantic weight of sounds through a comparison with music and poetry—two forms of communication wherein sound no more achieves physical dimension than in the prose he's recommending. It is well to ask, then, how might a repeating ā or ē sound reinforce DeLillo’s insight about being alone in time? Even in a sentence with concrete imagery to support meaning, such as--The steely-eyed boa unreeled and serpentined toward the peacefully sleeping baby--it is easy to hear the repeating e sounds (the s’s also) and how they are spaced to make a rhythm, but it is more difficult to explain how those sounds lend physical dimension or reinforce the meaning any more than if we had written a sentence emphasizing long a's--The slate-eyed snake uncoiled and wound sideways toward the napping babe. Ultimately what makes the threatening quality of either sentence clear is the concrete image of a deadly snake approaching a sleeping infant, while the recurrent vowel sounds, apparently any one will do, don’t precisely carry meaning, though their use in a rhythm within the structure of the sentence could be said optimistically to echo the hypnotic movement of the snake. This may indeed enhance the physical dimension of the image of the snake, but is that the same as giving physical dimension to the meaning of the sentence? In any case, if this “semantic” effect of sounds depends on sentence rhythm, than it is more a function of structure than sound. In my example sentences, at least the S’s, both in appearance and in sound, resonate with the image of a snake. It would be quite a feat indeed to show how sounds can bring physical dimension to the meaning of a sentence as devoid of images as DeLillo’s. As it is, Sharpe fails to identify specific sound repetitions, if indeed they are present, and how they either constitute a melody or reinforce meaning. We are supposed to take this on faith. At least in one sense, not the one Sharpe had in mind, the vowel and consonant sounds succeed in their reinforcing effect--they are every bit as undistinguished as the thought behind DeLillo’s sentence.

Sharpe, like DeLillo apparently, can make things become other things, but only by passing off high-flown nonsense as close reading. Much like the senseless lyricism B. R. Myers has pointed out in Proulx, Guterson and even Cormac McCarthy meant to be swallowed in a breathless gulp for sonorous effect, analysis of this kind is like a magic-carpet-ride offered to you on a shabby living room rug on condition that you close your eyes. All the while your literary genie sits behind you shouting, “Up we go, uh, don't look now, wait, we're going over the moon—keep ‘em closed. I've just touched it! Hey, how great is this?” A child could see the patent pretense in such a game. But then its fitting that co-opted criticism should use the same literary techniques to fool the reader as the literature that co-opts it, and vice versa. Not that Sharpe has set out to defraud his readers. He makes these claims and provides no support for them because in his studies and reading he’s received, and now imitates, a certain way of talking about DeLillo on good authority—a seductive use of sophisticated theory as defacto proof of a sophisticated literature; and by conferring greatness on an author by virtue of that theory in the absence of close reading, theory inserts itself like a metatext into the fabric of the novel. All criticism does this in a sense, but at least criticism that is deeply committed to examining the text has earned the right to influence the way we think about it. Sharpe's analysis does not. He has accepted and internalized his advocacy without close examination, and in turn he passes it on to those next in the academic chain of authority--blog readers--offering no evidence for his claims, yet with the expectation that he’ll be believed as an authority. And who’s to stop him? He has at his command a theoretical vocabulary that may have a seductive, if not coercive, power over undergrads and academic groupies.

Perhaps the most insidious part of Sharpe’s blog is the way he preemptively manufactures dissent by anticipating potential arguments and then dismissing them without the presence of a dissenter in the mix, who might actually argue back. He is as schooled in the complaints of what he calls DeLillo’s “grassroots detractors” as he is in the conventional modes of praise for him. Here he quotes a passage and begins to analyze the “grammatical infelicities” and the nonsensical elements much the way I analyzed the previously quoted passage--one that possessed similar deficits--though ironically there the same kind of infelicities were praised by Sharpe for their insight and to show analytic rigor. Here Sharpe proposes masterly intent in DeLillo’s grammar and sense lapses:

"So DeLillo the rigorous analyst of the texture of contemporary life is also a guy who regularly makes stuff be other stuff that it shouldn't logically be: 'The rented beach house was sex, entering at night after the long stiff drive, her body feeling welded at the joints, and she'd hear the soft heave of the surf on the other side of the dunes, the thud and run, and this was the line of separation, the sound out there that marked an earthly pulse in the blood.'

Well, “entering” is a dangling participle, among other grammatical infelicities, and while “thud and run” and “the sound out there” are clearly two phrases describing the same thing, how is either of them a “line of separation”? But DeLillo throughout his work has lavished attention on uses of language that aren't correct or don't quite make sense. His people make a hash of grammar-“Which, by the way, did you get my postcard?”-while he investigates everyday vernacular's routine betrayals of its own presumed sense-making efficacy-“Light-skinned black woman,” for example, or, in reference to the physical therapy Keith does for his injury from the tower, “He used the uninvolved hand to apply pressure to the involved hand.” DeLillo's people struggle valiantly with or against language as a way to get a foothold in their own chaotic lives…Moments of verbal nonsense and misapprehension are DeLillo's way of representing the mind's-even the intact mind's-logic-transcending representation of the world.

The question is, regarding the quoted passage, whether DeLillo has really made something become something it logically shouldn’t be, that is, whether some genuine, meaningful transcendence has occurred or whether he is guilty of carelessness—the grammatical infelicities that are just as easy to find in embarrassing juvenilia—and has merely parodied his own style in a way that invites more of the rather baroque critical praise dished up by Sharpe, a reception DeLillo has no doubt helped orchestrate himself in his numerous interviews (so many a whole volume has been published) with quotes like the one I prefaced at the outset, offered by Sharpe as a justification of DeLillo’s grammatical and sense transgressions as acts of defiance against entrenched power.

Sharpe never explains, given the inarticulate mess he openly acknowledges, how this sentence can challenge anything except grammatical rules themselves, what if any value there is in this particular grammatical hash, and, finally, why this meaningless imprecision “excites” him. Instead he turns our attention to other more sensible examples of DeLillo showing how languages supposed sense making betrays sense. He has to turn away from the example at hand because it tends to justify DeLillo’s critics. The appositional phrases do little to support or illumine the clunky trope “The rented beach house was sex…”, not being particularly sexy.  It’s just a bit of vague philosophizing that doesn’t add up to a coherent thought. The closest the rest of the passage ever comes to approaching the subject of sex is the vague “earthly pulse in the blood”.

It is clear that what is important to Sharpe is DeLillo’s ideological aim to “challenge entrenched power”, and his agreement with DeLillo’s ideology is the basis of his critical favor. We noted earlier how Sharpe attempted to exalt DeLillo’s standing as writer on an assumption of textual analysis that was never made. Here we see that Sharpe uses approval of DeLillo’s ideological intentions as a justification for discarding textual analysis when he so chooses. The end result is the same: an appearance of rigorous analysis, whereby sophisticated theoretical claims are a means of transmitting complexity to the supposedly examined text, when in reality no deep textual analysis is made and the text in question is actually exalted on the basis of its favored ideology not literary value.

All of those who commented on Sharpe’s blog are believers too. Even those who found fault with some aspect of DeLillo’s style, did not argue on the points made by Sharpe in his piece. One comment in particular shows the closed critical circle that this blog represented:

"A fine analysis on the transformative power of apposition in Delillo's (sic) prose."

"Defenders of book grammar in fiction remind me of the armed guards in those little outhouses by the driveways at the borders of Gated Communities. They stand posted to serve the interests of literature as the guards stand to serve the interests of greater humanity."

"In the attacks on Delillo's prose, I perceive a deeply conservative and parochial fear of contingency, of the conditioned and relative nature of authority. His sentences tear down the hedgerows and fences that protect us from an open and unguarded encounter with the world; by freeing us from _comprehention (sic)_ they expose us to _apprehension_, which the conservative mind experiences as intolerable anxiety."

Sharpe’s reply presents some contrast to the commenter’s view about what kind of reader dislikes DeLillo and why, but ultimately the awareness of dissident opinions is manufactured and presented second hand, not as a means of considering dissent but as a means of generally defining those who would offer alternative critiques without actually allowing them into the discussion.

"…though DeLillo does indeed seem to be reviled by conservative readers, I have writer friends whom I admire and respect who actively dislike DeLillo, and these are people who are themselves deeply thoughtful and adventurous writers, not at all conservative, so go figure. But I like your point about DeLillo's relation to authority. I am also inspired by him as someone resistant to accepted ways of thinking and seeing, and resistant to entrenched power."

If indeed Daniel Green is justified in his aspiration for the academic blog as a place where “critical discussions…can really turn into discussions across and between blogs, discussions that actually advance the consideration of writers and texts rather than personal agendas and careers” and a place that entertains “queries or dissenting views”, why were there no dissenters among those who were part of the discussion on Sharpe’s blog?

The answer is self-evident—the litblog co-op is ideologically aligned with the academy and mirrors the dominant modes of instruction and student response there. Although you wouldn’t know it from the David versus Goliath rhetoric of Sharpe, the kinds of literary theories he espouses and writer’s of DeLillo’s ilk, who are taught in universities, now represent entrenched power in the academic world not its overthrow.

Be assured, if the literary blog ever finds its way into academic good graces it will be at the further expense of the liberating aspects of the blog as alternative media source and as a place where orthodoxies may be challenged, not only in discussions of literature, but in all matters of academic freedom. Like so many other forms of dissent, it will have been completely co-opted.