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

Monday, September 26, 2016

Thinking: Not Just for the "Elites"

The pundits handicapping tonight's Trump-Clinton debate were slowly driving me insane, and now they've speeded up. The debate is not a fair fight, and should not be. A guy who doesn't know anything is supposed to lose a debate against a smart person who knows a lot. Anything that makes those people an "even" match is a fix. But the craven attempts to frame Trump v. Clinton as an even-money proposition has finally put my finger on something that's been bugging me for a long time: the insistence that being smart is elitist. That is not true, and never has been, because there are a lot more smart people than there are elite people. The idea that only "elitists" are smart is complete bigotry. It flatters people who consider themselves elite, and plays on their stupidity. 

America was built upon a broad populace of basically smart and decently educated people. That is what makes the country work. The idea that average people are basically bright and remember things they've learned is not some fantasy. The idea that "intelligence" is confined to ten percent of the population, mis-defining intelligence as being in the top ten percent of the standardized test scores, is the shoddy thinking of the snobbish. 

A majority of people in the United States are smarter and better informed than Donald Trump, who has enough money not to think at all. You don't need an advanced degree to know Mexico is not paying for any wall. You don't need to go to Harvard to see that this guy is full of it. You need to be a pampered elite journalist to mistake that blowhard for one of the average people outside your little bubble.

Now, we have been steadily neglecting or attacking most of the institutions that support our basically-smart country: the public libraries, the public schools, the public universities. There has been an enormous slant in this country toward monopolizing education for the elite, to the benefit of those elites and the undoing of our country. Underestimating the average person's intelligence is the basic error of all American elitists, but a mistake that benefits them in the short term. Of course, in the long run, being at the top of the pyramid because you've undermined its base is a sucker's move. But nobody said the elite were actually very smart. Well, except them.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Why Art?

Why study the arts? Some politicians ask the question as a joke, mocking this or that discipline as impractical. Those who defend the arts and humanities answer in economic terms, arguing for the rich and versatile skills one learns in the humanities classroom. I have made that economic case myself. As far as it goes, it is true. But it is not the only argument, and it does not go far enough.

We need the humanities because we are human. We need the arts because we are mortal. We need art and poetry because everyone we love will some day die.

We are human, and so we have problems that we cannot solve. That is not pessimism. Life is also full of beauty, wonder, and fulfillment. But even the best life includes the certainty of pain and loss. They are sure to come, and there is no "practical" solution for them.

Medicine can cure disease, it can ease suffering, it can extend life. It cannot banish death. Medicine does remarkable things, and I am grateful for it. But the larger problem remains.

Human ingenuity and practicality and industry can do wonders, and I am lucky for everything technology has done for me. But technology does not end the problems of the human spirit: loss and loneliness, wounded hearts and broken souls. We will never have a technological fix for these problems. There is not an app for that.

Right now, somewhere in California, some of the richest men alive are trying to find a technological solution to the problem of death. They have come to believe, or at least to hope, that money and technology will buy them immortality. What does this teach us? That people like Larry Ellison, Sergei Brin, and Peter Thiel, for all their fabulous wealth and admirable math skills, can be complete idiots. This problem is not to be solved in the way they hope. (The idea that immortality would come out of Silicon Valley, whose products are not built to last even a single decade, is hilarious.) The problem that they want to overcome is called "thermodynamics." It is part of the nature of all things. Silicon Valley's riches do not change that. They only fuel the hubris that lets billionaires mislead themselves.

None of us, personally or as a society, are ready to look straight ahead at problems like death, or to think about them too long. We have built marvelous toys to distract ourselves, like children putting off bedtime. The old folk saying about only using ten percent of our brainpower is not quite true; the truth is we use ninety percent of our brain power to trick ourselves out of dealing with the truths we can't face.

But we will all find ourselves, sooner or later, dealing with problems that money and technology cannot solve:

                   Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
                   mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
                   che la diritta via era smarrita.

                  (In the middle of our road of life,
                  I found myself in a darkened wood
                  Where the right path was lost.)

When that happens, and it will happen to all of us, we will be stuck with it. We will not be able to write a check. We will not be able to take a pill. We will not be able to ask Siri for the answers. The new car won't save us, because we'll already be off the road.

For these moments, humankind has invented the many arts and disciplines called "the humanities." Philosophy, art, literature, history, religion, theater. These disciplines do not solve the fundamental problems in the sense that those problems go away. No poem will keep you from dying. But all of these arts search for ways to deal with those problems, to come to grips with them honestly. Technology solves the problems that can be solved. Art faces the problems that cannot be solved.

Those problems do not go away. But the accumulated human wisdom of a few millennia does often help. Sometimes, what you need most is perspective, and sometimes, alas, there is nothing to give you but perspective. Philosophy, literature, and art are tools for broadening and deepening your perspective. You are a thinking soul in a difficult and transient material world. When there is nothing for you to do except to think, nothing you can change but your own thoughts, Tolstoy and Milton and Yeats are there to help.

And when all else fails, as eventually it must fail, the arts provide consolation. When the matter fails you, you will be forced to seek the comfort of self-deception or to reach for the hard-won consolation of difficult truths. For some, that consolation is philosophy, for others faith, for still others art. But I would humbly suggest that you rely on everything you can.

If nothing else, the arts and humanities give us something durable to think about in our fleeting, temporary world: things that, if not eternal exactly, are at least durable. When the world changes under your feet, the thought of something that came long before you and will remain long after you are gone is a kind of comfort. At least, it has been for me. And then I am like the poet Keats, who could no longer deceive himself about his death), looking at the ancient Greek pottery which would outlive him:

     When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man ...
What else to say? We are flawed and human and fragile, and we need all the friends that we can get.
cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, September 05, 2016

Balanced Coverage and Baseball

So today, Paul Krugman told it like it is about the newspaper that employs him and its strange "balance via bias" coverage of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, in which the Grey Lady tries to give both candidates equivalent amounts of negative coverage. This requires (or allows) the Times to exhaustively cover "shadows over" and "questions about" the Clinton campaign while outright ignoring outrageous Trump behavior (such as funneling $25,000 to a state DA who was considering whether to sue one of Trump's businesses). The Times has written multiple stories on donors to the Clinton Foundation asking for favors and (wait for it) not getting them, while writing no (none, nada, zero) stories about the Trump Foundation giving the Florida DA twenty-five grand while a lawsuit was being considered. That's fair, right?

And the logic here, as in much of the media coverage, is that Trump has done so many terrible things that there isn't room to cover them all. So if he behaves badly enough, he gets some free bad behavior as an incentive. What journalism!

Then the Times, in a not at all biased piece of behavior, responded like this:
The Times did eventually tweet a link to Krugman's column, about nine hours after Silver's public shaming. So public shaming, plus nine hours, to get the routine social media promotion that all the paper's op-ed columns get. Nice.

Now, I know some of you will want to get into the weeds about details of Hillary Clinton's e-mails and the penumbras and emanations of the meetings she did not actually hold. So let me switch the topic entirely. Let's talk about baseball.

Sixteen years ago (on August 29, 2000, to be precise), two baseball teams played a game in which an eye-popping eight members of one team, including the manager, were ejected by the umpires, while exactly none of the other team's players or coaches got thrown out. Eight ejections to no ejections. How can that be fair? I have occasionally heard sportscasters ask exactly that question. If one team has eight people thrown out and the other side none, I have heard one Hall of Famer say, something has to be wrong. Obviously, this discrepancy is a sign of biased umpiring, right? Right?

No. Not at all.

On the home team's first at-bat, the visiting pitcher, Pedro Martinez, hit the leadoff batter with a pitch. (Full disclosure: I am an ardent Red Sox fan, and a pretty big Pedro fan. But I will fully admit that Pedro Martinez sometimes threw at guys intentionally. I might be biased in the Red Sox's favor, but in this case all of the facts are clear beyond question.) The umpires, rightly or wrongly, believed that Martinez had hit the home team player (Gerald Williams of the Tampa Devil Rays) by accident.

Williams, however, chose to run out to the mound to attack the pitcher. This is a clear baseball no-no. It also led to nearly all the players from both teams rushing onto the field, pushing and shoving each other. Have I mentioned that the game had just started? The umpires regained control, sent everyone back to their places, and resumed the game. They ejected one player, the player who had rushed the pitcher's  mound, and kept everyone else in the game. That was basically the last eviction that involved the umpires' judgement calls. One Devil Ray ejected, no Red Sox ejected. Still with me?

A couple of innings later, the Devil Rays pitcher hits a Red Sox batter. This, too, may be an accident. But there is a clear baseball tradition of pitchers retaliating for hit batsman by going out and hitting one of the other team's batters as payback. At this point, the home team pitcher is not ejected. But, in baseball parlance, the benches are warned. This means that any further hit batters, or clear throws at batters, will lead to the automatic ejection of that pitcher AND his manager. Automatic. No questions. Great. Each team has hit one batter, one player has been ejected for starting a fight, and now both teams face automatic ejections if someone else gets hit.

Two batters later, the Devil Rays pitcher hits another Red Sox batter, the Red Sox's best hitter, pretty clearly not by accident but that's no longer even the question. The pitcher and the team manager get run off the field. 3 Devil Rays ejections, 0 Red Sox ejections.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are doing pretty well. They build up a three-run lead and -- this part will be important -- their pitcher Pedro Martinez is throwing a no-hitter. After hitting that first batter, he hasn't let anyone else on base. He has gotten every single Devil Ray batter out, inning after inning. They simply can't hit him. They can't even work a walk.

So, eventually, the Devil Rays pitchers hit, or try to hit, more Red Sox batters. When they do this the pitcher, and whichever coach is filling in as manager at that moment, get ejected. In one memorable sequence (and I still remember watching this), the Devil Rays pitcher throws at one Red Sox batter so that the pitch is literally behind the poor guy. That pitcher gets ejected, taking one of his coaches with him. The Devil Rays bring in a new relief pitcher, let him warm up, and he immediately hits the very same batter that the last pitcher was ejected for throwing at. Four ejections in one at-bat. This is how you get to eight.

Why did this happen? Because, after a certain point, the Rays kept hitting batters because they wanted to bait the opposing pitcher into hitting one of them. If he got upset and retaliated, he would be thrown out of the game. They desperately wanted him out of the game, because he was throwing a no-hitter. But he obviously was not going to do anything to get thrown out of the game for the very same reason: he was throwing a no-hitter, a record-book accomplishment that he had never achieved. He was not going to be ejected if he could help it, and since he could help it, he did.

The team that was getting repeatedly ejected were not being treated unfairly. They were breaking rules that the other team was following. They were doing it to bait the other side into a misstep, and also trying to work the umpires. Should one of the Red Sox been ejected for "balance" every time a Devil Rays player got ejected? If that were true, the Devil Rays could get the Red Sox punished for the Devil Rays' own bad behavior. Which brings us back to the 2016 election.

The Clinton-Trump election is like this. One side is way outside the established rules and falling behind. The other is playing carefully by the rules and winning. The rule-breakers are protesting loudly that things are not fair and many in the media (who now behave, in the worst possible way, like sportscasters) are coddling those complaints and seeking to punish the winning campaign for the losing campaign's misdeeds. This dynamic will only intensify when Trump next falls further behind in the polls. He will do his damnedest to get Hillary thrown out of the game.

To some, including some people who make their living as Serious Journalists, this seems only fair. Because they have lost their sense of what fairness actually entails.

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