Walter Benn Michaels, Way Down in a Hole

When we last checked in with literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels, he was bemoaning the lack of literature that addressed America’s brutal, caste-creating economy head-on. For some reason, books about immigrants didn’t count, nor did historical novels. The only cultural works that even came close to satisfying him back then were The Wire and Bret Easton EllisAmerican Psycho. The Baffler recently resumed publication, which has given Michaels an opportunity to revise his essay—roughly meaning he’s added passages on Ayelet Waldman‘s boots and found another entry for his doofy canon: Jonathan Littell‘s The Kindly Ones. That novel is, to the best of my understanding, a historical novel about the Nazi era, but let’s set that aside for a moment and see where he goes:

[W]hen Michiko Kakutani (also writing for the Times) attacks Jonathan Littell’s recent novel, The Kindly Ones, because its central character, the Nazi Dr. Aue, is a “cartoonish” “monster” we can neither “sympathize” with nor “understand,” and when she applauds the “appealing” central character in Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in whose “plight” the reader becomes completely “absorbed,” we should understand that she is invoking political as well as literary criteria of evaluation: Good novels are defined by their interest in character; neoliberal politics by their respect for individuality.

From there Michaels argues that the threadbare characterizations in The Kindly Ones are a kind of asset, because they foreground ideology—and to foreground ideology at the expense of character is no great loss to society, or to the fiction that he believes ought to do a better job serving it. It’s probably not worth attempting to figure out what he might see in The Wire when he’s done being interested in all the characterization in it. (Maybe he just reads the plot summaries on the DVDs.) At any rate, Wire creator David Simon isn’t on board. Late last year he talked with Vice magazine about his experience on a panel with Michaels after the first version of the essay was published in Bookforum:

I was on this panel with this guy Walter Benn Michaels at the New York Public Library, and I didn’t dig it because he was basically using The Wire as a cudgel to beat up on literary fiction. But I don’t want to beat up on anybody. I don’t want to generalize, because there are some good literary novels. There’s also a lot of navel-gazing—and there’s a lot of navel-gazing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I find that stuff unreadable and a waste of my time, but there’s a lot of good stuff, too. And then there’s a lot of really smart stuff and there’s a lot of crap in crime writing…

There’s no reason to generalize. But the highest end of crime writing is doing everything right now that literary fiction claims for itself. That is true. And much of what passes for quality literary fiction is not accomplishing very much at all that I find to have merit. So that’s my opinion. But having said that, this panelist took it to an extreme where he was literally saying, “Can we just write about economics and money and politics?” He was saying that literary fiction should be like The Wire, which is nice and flattering, but then he was saying, “Can we stop writing about slavery? Can we stop writing about the Holocaust?” He was basically saying that writing about cultural identity is bullshit. But it’s like, I don’t buy that either. I couldn’t write effectively about people if these sort of core 20th-century experiences or 18th-century experiences that still influence us were not part of who we are.

(h/t Andrew Seal)

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