Marginal Footnotes


Talk About Missing It
May 28, 2006, 4:57 pm
Filed under: Literary, Media, Random, Uncategorized

I haven't read Benjamin Kunkel's debut Novel, Indecision, and maybe one day I'll get around to it even though I'm fairly sick of the genre.  But I did read Michiko Kakutani's (two posts on Kakutani in one day!) review of the novel back in August, where she assumes the voice of Holden Caufield to render her critique.  It seemed to me then that the review was anything but 'laudatory'.  In fact I thought it was criminally sarcastic (i.e. not funny).  So I was surprised to read in Michael Kimmel's article on 'lad lit' (the male version of 'chick Lit', how clever) in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Kakutani's review was in fact 'laudatory'.  Thinking I was insanely dense, I revisited the review.  I've pondered.  I've considered.  And I'm nearly positive that I'm not the one who missed the (bad) joke.  

But this is not all Kimmel misses, since his article is so misinformed that it boders on incoherent.  Somehow, it was Helen Fielding who invented 'chick lit' (Jane Austen, anyone?) and Nick Hornby who 'provides the touchstone texts' of 'lad lit' (along with Jay McInerney in America).  Where is Eggers in this formulation?  How are the 'lads' of contemporary texts (other than being aesthetically inferior) really any different from the Stephen Dedalus of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?  It is Stephen (and Holden Caufield) who haunts all books of this sort.  All are modern incarnations of the same 'enduring' type.

[Let's just bracket off for a moment the general problem of Kimmel's uncritical acceptance of demarcatory (derogatory) terms such as 'chick lit'.]    

Anyway, it appears that Kimmel's prevailing criterion for the 'enduring novel' is that it be romantic rather than cynical.  Setting aside that I have no idea what this means since the term itself is beyond problematic (does he mean they should be sentimental; embrace Wordsworthian transcendence; pivot on asinine coincidences; suggest an easily-discernable ethical reading of the Nussbaumian sort?), Kimmel achieves a singularly new low in critical standard-setting:

'And that may be guy lit's biggest problem: Its readers are unlikely to resemble the guys the books are ostensibly about. As long as the antiheroes stay stuck, and the transformative trajectory is either insincere, as in Kunkel's Indecision, or nonexistent, as in Smith's Love Monkey, these writers will miss their largest potential audience. For it is women who buy the most books, and what women seem to want is for men to be capable of changing (and to know that a woman's love can change them)'.

(a) Kimmel ought to perhaps ask what it is about the modern condition which requires the anti-hero, stasis, and skepticism; (b) he obviously needs to make more friends.  There are lots of 'lads' stuck in a post-post-modern lethargy who will relate fine with these types of texts (as if that matters, critically); (c) good writers don't write to sell books to specific audiences.  Also, this claim is internally contradicatory with the one identified in subpoint a, in which Kimmel calls for a certain universality out of a particularity (an actual aesthetic concept, though I doubt he knows this).  Writing for women who 'seem to want' whatever is both ridiculously misogynistic in its presumption about women and in general a terrible point of departure for any writer.

It isn't until I reach the end of the article that I see the problem: Kimmel is a sociologist (not that there's anything wrong with that).  His piece is ill-informed because he doesn't know anything about literature; it proposes asinine literary criteria because he has no interest in literature. And now I'm the stupid one for wasting my time with this rant.

–mpd      

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