"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

Literary Pups Snap Savagely At Top Dogs


by Anne Roiphe

The New York Observer
October 27, 1997




It happened in this newspaper. Sven Birkerts and David Foster Wallace
went after Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike. In
the same issue (Oct. 13), Philip Weiss charged at David Halberstam and
Tony Lukas. Little wolf, big wolf, old wolf, new wolf, the literary
males are at it again. Puff, puff, snap, snap, yip, yip, every puppy
dreams of being top dog. Yes -- in time, the leader of the pack wearies,
his legs go slack and, at the first tremble, at the first drool, as soon
as his fur loses its glisten, the attack is on. Blood flows down to the
rivers. In this democratic manner, the savage pack elects its new
leaders. We are wee, timorous beasties whose predator genes are still
doing their stuff. We remember in our unruly souls what it was like on
the ice bluffs of the northern slopes where the gray rocks marked the
territory and the evergreens reached skyward.

So it is that certain writers are watching for signs of failure in their
mentors, their teachers, their honored colleagues. This is natural. It
is also natural for writers to replace each other in the public mind
just as old stars leave the stage to ingénues (All About Eve), and chief
executives take retirement packages while their protégés move up the
ladder closer to the top, ever closer to their own membership in the
American Association of Retired Persons. The old man could serve as
protector, as guide, as friend to the future, and the young man could
honor and cherish the old man -- when the Messiah comes, maybe!

Nevertheless (call me Candide), it does seem to me that this replacement
process, this change of leadership, this top dog moving on down, can in
a civilized society pass without the crazed offspring snarling at the
flanks of their elders. With respect or with spite, inevitably time
brings new interests, changes the subject; history makes new issues
relevant and marks new writers for their place at the center. But there
is no need to throw out the old in order to create the new. We don't
need to assure an orderly transfer of power. "The king is dead, long
live the king" is not relevant to literature. That's why we have
classics. That's why we have education, so that the past can influence
the present, so that as we live out our brief span, we reach beyond
ourselves into other times, other places, other ways of viewing the
present, most ephemeral scene.

So all this silliness about Mr. Updike writing with an alter ego -- who
didn't, including Jane Austen and George Eliot? -- and Mr. Bellow and Mr.
Roth being misogynists, or trying to erect the organs that have gone
limp, is pure rant and rave. All good writers write books that are less
than their best, sometimes it's the first or the third book or the fifth
or the 18th. All good writers can find a thought or a theme that
staggers us at the end of their lives as well as at the beginning. To
complain that Mr. Updike is writing about death is to complain that Mr.
Updike is writing about something that obsesses every mortal being, more
so as we age, as all will do, including the young pups currently nipping
at the heels. To complain about these writers' narcissism is absurd. If
they were really narcissistic, who would ever have read them, who would
ever have related to their stories, their themes, their thoughts? What
writer is not self-centered? In the postmodern world, the self has
become a subject, but it works only if that self mirrors or contains
others. The genuine narcissist is a bore at a dinner party and no fun
under the sheets, much less between the covers of a book.

What we really have here is the primitive competitiveness of males who
want to urinate on the books placed on the front tables of Barnes &
Noble in order to signify territorial ownership.

Yes, it is true that the great Jewish writers, born in the bruising
between old worlds and American dreams, are no longer at the center of
the crunch. It is true that many of their issues -- the shiksa beauty
(Philip Weiss still struggles with that one), the humiliations of the
old world and the new, the search for soul without traditional guides-no
longer apply. But others do. The gasp of self-knowledge, the fragility
of love, the relation of man to God, these issues are no less ripe in
the 1990's than they were in the 1950's. A writer's power is not, like
that of a basketball star, related to the strength of his legs: It
resides in his mind. The thing about books is that they are different
from slalom races, no one wins by a nanosecond. One success does not
take away from the next. Messrs. Bellow, Roth, Mailer and Updike may no
longer decorate the cover of Spin magazine, but they will continue, so
long as they breathe, to follow the thread of their inventions with
applause from those of us who aren't suffering from the anxiety of
influence.

The view that Philip Weiss presents us of a second-generation Harvard
Crimson one-upmanship is not pretty. It leads him to complain about the
book of a man whose accomplishments were remarkable and whose disease
was real and terrible. It leads him to trample on the mourning service
of that man's friends. It prompts him to admit that he, too, has felt
lifetime competition with another Crimson writer. Don't they teach those
Harvard men not to drop names (including the name of Harvard)? Yes,
Philip, literary communities tend to backbite, grouse and maul, but so
does every other community I've ever been a part of, including, perhaps
especially, my fifth-grade class.

Much of the alcoholism of that herd of writers who couldn't get through
the day without searing their gullets, frying their brains -- among them,
Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, John Berryman, Dylan
Thomas -- came from battle fatigue, battle fear; and what was the battle
but the scramble for fame better than, bigger than anyone else they knew
or had ever heard of, living or dead? It can be said that all that
drinking was an ill-advised plan by inept souls to clothe the naked,
tender, wanting, vanishing self. The need to be famous is a symptom of
the soul corroding.

Women writers are not without their mean streaks, but I don't really see
any female writers thumping their chests and throwing down challenges to
Susan Sontag, to Toni Morrison, to A.S. Byatt. Little girls see their
mothers as rivals, too, but grown-up women think that Oedipus is only
one of many good plays. Women, too, want fame, reputation, prizes and
any gold they can gather. But this literary generational warfare is the
fame-lust gone male, gone loony, gone dangerous to the writer and his
own work. I heard a young male writer say that he intended to be the
best writer of his generation. He would do better just to tend his own
computer. We're not just writers, but we're readers, too, and someone
else's good book is not a threat but a balm for the brain. Writing is
not a duel to the death with another writer.

So calm down, fellows, stop that frothing at the mouth. Time will give
you your place if you deserve it, and time, too, will take you away from
the center of things. Remember, fellows, not every little acorn becomes
a great oak. Some are just squirrel food.

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