Fraudulent fame

December 25, 2016

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**Zulfikar Ghose** *is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel* **The Murder of Aziz Khan** *and a collection of short fictions,* Veronica and the Góngora Passion. *He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas.*
Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas.

SOMETIMES when I have criticised a writer who is considered one of the monuments of literature, as I have E.M. Forster and Ernest Hemingway, in the reader response I receive there are often emails expressing relief and even gratitude that I have stated the reader’s suppressed doubts about the author’s greatness that — intimidated by that author’s hitherto unquestioned reputation — the reader had not dared to express.

When as a schoolboy and then an undergraduate some 60 years ago I was drawn to literature, I naturally assumed that my teachers and professors were unquestionably correct in their estimation of literary quality, which I thought must be an independent form of measurement, like the gold standard against which a currency had a fixed value. Once, for example, when hearing a lecture in which a professor spoke of the novels of Thomas Love Peacock in the same phraseology with which he had expressed his ideas on Charles Dickens, the undisputed master of English prose, I found on reading Peacock that there was nothing in his prose that justified the professor’s praise. My first reaction was to conclude that I had not read attentively enough, but on rereading it I still saw nothing out of the ordinary. One’s initial rationale of such a situation is to blame oneself for not sharing a common belief that has been founded by the high priests of learning, and so I wondered if the deficiency could be in my brain, instead of in Peacock’s prose.

Then there were the book reviews in the London papers. Again, I assumed that if a reviewer in the Observer or the Sunday Times or especially the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) was heaping high praise on a new novel or book of poems, then the writer whose work was being praised was surely a potential successor to James Joyce or T.S. Eliot, for the reviewer must surely subscribe to the universal gold standard of measurement. But again, reading the prominently reviewed book showed the work to be utterly mediocre and left me wondering what it was that I was missing. This was in the early 1960s when I first began to publish in London and to attract the attention of literary editors. Thus it was that I learned first-hand what was going on in the business of reviewing books and the promotion of literature.


There may be several reasons why a writer reaches the heights of popularity, but great writing is not necessarily one of them


Even before I had published my first book, editors at the TLS and the Guardian sent me books to review. The latter, no doubt concluding that my name made me an expert on oriental culture, asked me to review a translation of Sanskrit love poems; of course, anxious at that age to seize every chance to publish something, I did not write back to say I knew no Sanskrit and could not judge a translation of what might be an important work in Sanskrit literature, but, adopting a pontifical tone, proceeded to compose a review as though it were written by the foremost authority on the subject, which the Guardian printed as that week’s leading review. The TLS paid me the compliment of treating me as an established writer and sent me poetry and fiction by writers like D.J. Enright, Thomas Berger and Joan Didion; the TLS published reviews anonymously in those days and for all that its readers knew, the unnamed reviewer might be some eminent contemporary such as Eliot — who wrote for it — or some unknown nobody in his 20s like myself. In fact, I soon discovered that some of my fellow anonymous reviewers were indeed comparative nobodies and not the authoritative figures one assumed they were, and the reading public, tens of thousands of avid followers of the literary columns of the weekend papers, was having its literary taste influenced by these nobodies.

If, given my comparative ignorance at that age, I could convey the impression that I possessed mature literary judgement, then surely my fellow nobodies very likely did the same. However, in all fairness with regard to one’s comparative ignorance, I should add that being 50plus years older is no guarantee that one has attained maturity or that one’s ideas don’t exude the aroma of leftovers in the garbage can of trendy opinions. The only measure by which one can evaluate a critic is by applying Ezra Pound’s test: “Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.” But instead of applying Pound’s test, most readers pay attention to reviewers whose thinking is compromised by a personal bias in current literary politics.


The only measure by which one can evaluate a critic is by applying Ezra Pound’s test: “Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.” [...] I resolved to ignore any new book that received glowing reviews in the major London and New York papers, for in most cases the book was blindingly in the spotlight for reasons unconnected with literary quality.


Without seeking to be part of it, I drifted into the literary political scene of the 1960s and early 1970s in London and New York. This was when the first wave of writers from the former colonies were being accepted in England and the historical accident of our birth a decade or two before independence made several of us — Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Wilson Harris, V.S. Naipaul, Edward Brathwaite, etc. — receive generous, though ambiguous, attention by an establishment eager to alleviate its imperial guilt, which flattered some of us with an exaggerated aura of eminence. Hence, I found myself associated with various groups of writers and being befriended by editors, attending luncheons and dinners, even playing in cricket matches that pitched writers against publishers, all occasions filled with networking talk that led to attachments and the understanding between writers that the promotion of reputation was a reciprocal obligation.

The literary politics of any period involve the creation and advancement of reputations for reasons unconnected with literary quality. In his book, The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America, Richard Kostelanetz gives a detailed account of the various participants — writers, publishers, magazine editors, reviewers, literary agents, professors — who constituted a sort of literary mafia in the first half of the 20th century in the United States. What had been the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment with its cultural centre in Boston was challenged by what Kostelanetz refers to as “the New York Literary Mob” where the “Jewish Mafia”, as Kostelanetz calls it, of publishers’ editors and editors of newly established magazines like Commentary and Partisan Review were instrumental in advancing mediocre Jewish writers like Bernard Malamud and Chaim Potok as important, and in making the world believe that Saul Bellow was the living genius of his time.


Among the many reasons why an established high reputation remains unchallenged, one is that some readers come to that writer’s work preconditioned to be impressed, and therefore while reading it perceive primarily those qualities which that preconditioning has prepared their brains to experience; and doing so, some of these readers fall into a self-congratulatory trance that makes them envision an awesome monument and not the figure covered with graffiti and bird droppings.


The “process of inflating” Bellow’s reputation, states Kostelanetz, “reflected not rare critical judgement but the more common technique of American advertising and publicity”. Bellow’s promotion was so well orchestrated that on one occasion — which I personally know of — when a critic commissioned by a leading paper to review a new Bellow novel turned in an unfavourable notice, the editor rejected it and commissioned a new one to make sure that what was printed was favourable.

The Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest has been held for 36 years in the writer’s home state of Florida, US.— AP
The Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest has been held for 36 years in the writer’s home state of Florida, US.— AP

The statistics Kostelanetz provides showing the correlation between advertising space bought by a publisher in a magazine and the number of that publisher’s books reviewed in that magazine are shockingly revelatory, the most striking example being the connection between Random House and the New York Review of Books. It was more about selling books and far less about broadcasting literary taste.

I was acquainted with the New York establishment in those years, after 1969 when my novel The Murder of Aziz Khan was published there, and could cite examples from my own experience that would confirm Kostelanetz’s description of the literary politics of that time. It was the same as I’d experienced in London, only much more aggressive; the political correctness demanded by the liberating movements associated with feminists and African Americans, each insisting that we put on their specially tinted glasses when reading their authors and thus remain blind to their errors and inconsistencies, made the inflated creation of a writer’s reputation a ruthless pursuit unconnected with that writer’s literary ability. Each generation produced a superstar that briefly beamed its fame only to fall into the black hole of oblivion; a few continued to be seen to shine, like Hemingway, whose eminence was sustained less by people reading him with care than by such public-relations spectacles as the annual Hemingway lookalike competition and visits to his Key West house where one could see the descendents of his cat.

Consequently — it having become a question of ‘once bitten, twice shy’ — I resolved to ignore any new book that received glowing reviews in the major London and New York papers, for in most cases the book was blindingly in the spotlight for reasons unconnected with literary quality. I’d also been bitten by very persuasive recommendations by certain minority groups, such as Catholics in London who had me read Graham Greene and Muriel Spark, insisting each time that the recommendation was not influenced by the book’s Catholic content, but solely by its literary quality, which turned out to be nonsense. I heard similar minority persuasions when I settled in the American south-west to take up a job at the University of Texas where a new wave of Chicano (Mexican American) writers was being extolled as the special dish of the day on the literary menu. Needless to say, given that one of the true geniuses of American literature, William Faulkner, had been a southerner, it was inevitable that there would be a new writer who the local literary punditry would call ‘the new Faulkner’. I soon heard of one: Cormac McCarthy.

A creative writing student in one of my classes had become so impressed by McCarthy’s novels that he insisted I should read him. I refused, citing my resolution to avoid a writer that everyone praised. Frustrated that all his attempts to persuade me to read McCarthy met with my stubborn refusal, he came to my office one day and brought me a present, a book that he placed on my desk: Blood Meridian, by McCarthy. A quotation on the book’s cover compared McCarthy to Herman Melville and Faulkner and called the novel McCarthy’s “masterpiece”. Normally, such lofty praise so prominently printed would have been enough to dissuade me from opening the book; it was common publishing practice to print a glowing quotation from a famous writer or critic on a book’s cover, and indeed, I knew one writer whose recommendation publishers so valued that they often printed a quotation from him on the cover, just below the title, with his name competing with the author’s: he had correctly concluded that it did not matter what he’d stated in the quoted words, the main thing was to have his name seen by the book-buying public — I know this because my New York publisher sent him a novel of mine and in his letter, in which the famous writer sent the quotation containing high praise, he stated that if that was not good enough, the publisher could print what was thought appropriate “as long as”, he added, “his name was used”.

Therefore, paying no attention to the quotations that decorated the front and back of Blood Meridian that not only compared its author to Melville and Faulkner but also to Homer and Dante Alighieri — those two standard flag-bearers that writers of blurbs often fall back on when they’re lost for fresh quotable words — but wanting to follow up my student’s insistent recommendation, I took up the novel and here’s what I saw: the young hero who’s born with “a taste for mindless violence” runs away from home when he’s 14, and in the novel’s second page he’s in a tavern where he’s shot in the back and when he swings around, “he is shot again just below the heart” and has “blood running out of his shirt”. The tavern keeper’s wife looks after him — we’re not told how — but she must have been a doctor, nurse and pharmacist all in one because we’re expected to believe that under her care a person shot just below the heart, and in the back as well, is fit enough in a fortnight to go sleep in the open on the riverbank. A few pages later, in a place where it’s been raining for 16 days, the kid has a fight with a man in a saloon who smashes a bottle on his head and then tries to stick the jagged bottleneck into the kid’s eyes. His hands are “slick with blood”, and a little later someone else knocks him with a club: “the kid went face down in the mud” where he’d have died “if someone hadn’t turned him over”. He seems to have been left there at least overnight since it is daylight when he awakes. Apparently, being bloodied by a bottle smashing on his head and then being hit by a club is no worse than being in a pillow fight; he’s just slept it off and is ready for new action, and goes into a hotel with a companion who, wanting to set fire to a room, asks, “You got a match?” and the kid “came up with a crushed and stained wooden box”.

Hold on there, McCarthy. You told me it had been raining for 16 days, the kid had been knocked into the mud where it must have been rather wet and where he’d lain a whole night, and you want me to believe the matchbox in his pocket, though crushed, was just fine? Ah well, let me not quibble over what some will call a silly detail. In the second chapter I read about the night sky in which the stars “fall all night in bitter arcs” and I stop and stare at the words. I’ve seen falling stars and sometimes seen a star make an arc across the sky as it goes shooting down, but I’ve never seen ‘bitter’ arcs. What makes an arc bitter, I wonder; does a star fall in a wider, or narrower, arc to show it’s making a bitter arc, or is the author suggesting that the star resents having to fall and, obliged to do so, makes the arc of its fall look bitter, but then, what does bitter look like? Only another silly detail, you’ll say, why make such a fuss? Perhaps, but what is prose made of if not sentences that contain details?

I’ve barely read a dozen pages and pretentiousness is creeping into the prose. The masterpiece proceeds with no diminishing of the silly details that McCarthy’s admirers pass over unnoticed as the author shows off his disdain for punctuation, as if not to use apostrophes in words like “can’t” and “don’t” is a modernist mark of originality; at his best, he creates sequences of violent images that evoke disgust and horror and infuse his prose with a familiar vividness which will persuade those readers, whose minds are impressed by the unfurling of clichés, to make an association with Inferno.

Among the many reasons why an established high reputation remains unchallenged, one is that some readers come to that writer’s work preconditioned to be impressed, and therefore while reading it perceive primarily those qualities which that preconditioning has prepared their brains to experience; and doing so, some of these readers fall into a self-congratulatory trance that makes them envision an awesome monument and not the figure covered with graffiti and bird droppings.

Then there are the professors who make a lifetime career writing articles and books on a writer they fell in love with in graduate school and consequently have a vested interest in resisting any criticism that shows that writer’s work to be flawed, for that would make their lifetime’s work irrelevant and futile. One American professor who had made his career devoted to Hemingway’s work, having no answer to my detailed criticism (in the chapter titled ‘Imperfection’ in my book The Art of Creating Fiction), defended Hemingway by offering no literary argument, but by dismissively saying to me that being a foreigner I could not be expected to appreciate American culture. Ah, well! What was it that Samuel Johnson said about patriotism being the last refuge?

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 25th, 2016