Archive for February, 2009

Tom Perrotta’s pessmistic take on the cultural status of books

As far as contemporary fiction writers go, Tom Perrotta is extremely famous. He’s written several bestselling novels, more than one of which (Election, Little Children) have been made into popular and critically-acclaimed Hollywood movies. Given his considerable success, you might imagine that Perrotta would probably have a cheery take on the role played by books in contemporary culture.

But, not so: in a Big Think video, he espouses a decidedly pessimistic view on the cultural future of fiction. A generation from now, Perrotta predicts, the fanbase for fiction might closely resemble today’s audience for poetry—a tiny subculture with very few members who aren’t practitioners themselves. To back up his argument, Perrotta points to the heavy cultural weight thrown around by some poets in the sixties, and notes that no poet today has been able to capture the same kind of popular attention. He also talks intelligently about the recent Horace Engdahl kerfuffle (in which a Nobel judge trashed the insularity of American literary audiences).

Although it makes me sad to say it, I think Perrotta’s probably right. I also appreciate the matter-of-fact tone he brings to this video: he’s not offering an anguished lamentation over the fate of the book so much as giving a clear-eyed view of matters as they stand. Anyway, you can watch the video here.


The Graduate, or, becoming your parents

filmthumbiconI first saw Mike Nichols’ beloved 1967 film The Graduate when I was around the same age as its protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, a recent college grad who wants absolutely nothing to do with the upper-middle-class adult social and professional life that now awaits him. The movie follows Benjamin (played by the endearingly awkward Dustin Hoffman) as he spends a summer doing his best to avoid making any decisions about his future, and meanwhile becomes romantically entangled with both Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft, in a justly famous performance) and her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). At nineteen or twenty, I enjoyed the movie, and admired the fine filmmaking involved, but it didn’t involve me deeply or sweep me away. I suspect that the main reason for this might have been that it hit too close to home: it was difficult for me to fully appreciate the film’s sense of humor and ironic distance at a time in my life when my perspective on the world wasn’t necessarily all that different from Benjamin’s. I tried to empathize with Benjamin directly, and ended up feeling a bit put off by the ways in which the film treats his feelings from the perspective of a somewhat older and more experienced adult.

When I saw the film again a few years later, I enjoyed it a great deal more, and was able to see the humor in Benjamin’s predicament a bit more clearly. Still, it wasn’t until I watched it a third time (in preparation to review Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, a book about the 1968 Oscar race; you can read my review here) that I think I fully understood the import of the film’s memorable ending. (Be warned: spoilers ahead.) In the closing shot, Benjamin and Elaine sit together at the back of a bus, just after Benjamin has interrupted Elaine’s wedding to another man. It’s a very long take, and as their expressions shift between elation, confusion, and fear, it becomes clear that neither of them have the slightest idea what’s going to happen now that they’ve so decisively cast their lot with one another. It is certainly not a moment in which true love triumphs unexpectedly over all obstacles; in fact, the filmmakers have taken great care to sow doubts about the seriousness (or even existence) of the love between Benjamin and Elaine. After all, Benjamin has only recently stopped sleeping with Elaine’s mother, and very little time has passed since Elaine saw Benjamin as the kid who’d heartlessly and senselessly broken up her family, and then started stalking her creepily and declaring his love for her.

What they really have in common isn’t love at all: instead, it’s a desire to rebel against the wishes and expectations of their parents. In my previous viewings of the film, I didn’t catch the rich and extraordinarily well-observed irony in the situation that Elaine and Benjamin find themselves in. They’ve bonded over their desire to fight against the expectations of their parents’ generation: they don’t want to lead the same kind of blandly materialistic lives, and they don’t want to spend the rest of their days doing meaningless white collar jobs and attending miserably dull parties with people just like their parents. But despite the fact that their relationship is expressly against their parents’ wishes, they’ve entered into it purely in reaction to that fact. If they do end up staying together, their relationship will have no firmer basis than that of, say, the Robinsons, who married because the future Mrs. Robinson had become pregnant (while rebelling against her own parents, no doubt).

According to Harris’s book, young audiences in 1967 tended to strongly identify with the generational struggle in the film, and typically read the ending as a victory of Benjamin and Elaine’s generation over that of their parents. But when someone asked Mike Nichols what happened to Benjamin and Elaine after they fled the wedding together, Nichols answered, “They became their parents”—not at all what those younger viewers wanted to hear. But this, I think, is exactly what makes The Graduate such a great film. I think what’s happening in that final shot is that Benjamin and Elaine are beginning to realize that their life together will have to be founded on something more solid than just a shared sense of rebellion against their parents. Both of them have been so caught up in rebelling that it’s never occurred to them to consider what it is they’ll do with their lives once they’ve established their adult independence. Mrs. Robinson’s rage in the church is not only for her lost youth, but also for the fact that she never made very much of the freedom of her youth when she had the chance. The fear, confusion, and uncertainty on the faces of Benjamin and Elaine as they ride the bus away from their old lives suggests that there’s little reason to believe that they will manage themselves any better (or any differently) than their parents.

The end of Good Readings (but not of this blog)

Regular visitors to this site may have noticed that I’ve recently dropped “Good Readings” from the title. When I started blogging in April 2008, I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into naming the site. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would write about in this space, or any certainty that I’d keep at it for very long. As it turned out, blogging very quickly became an important part of my life—I’ve enjoyed doing it a great deal, and I plan to continue indefinitely.

Unfortunately, the name I chose in haste several months back has several significant drawbacks. The most basic problem is that I just don’t like it very much. It’s a bit bland, and not especially memorable. Also, the name “Good Readings” suggests a bit too strongly that this site is a book blog. I do write about books here more than any other topic—but I also write about music and movies regularly, and occasionally take on other topics, too. So, strike two is that “Good Readings” doesn’t really do a good job of expressing the range of this blog’s content.

Still worse, it came to my attention not long after I launched the blog that there’s a books-focused social networking site called “Good Reads.” That’s way too close to “Good Readings” for my comfort—I don’t want to create any confusion about any possible affiliation with Good Reads, nor do I want to come off as an unimaginative imitator. From what I understand, Good Reads is quite popular, and though social networking sites do tend to come and go, there’s no particular reason for me to imagine that this blog might outlast Good Reads.

In any case: goodbye, Good Readings. For now, I’m simply going to use my name as this blog’s title. I’ve been toying with various possibilities for renaming the site, and I’d be happy to take suggestions.

For the time being, I’m also going to keep the same URL ( No sense in changing that until I’ve arrived at something permanent. Also, changing the URL to something involving my name is a no-go, given that there are a distressing number of people named Ryan Williams (and even Ryan Michael Williams) out there. And for clarity’s sake: no, I am not the Ryan Michael Williams who does web design. I have never published a poem on (nor do I ever intend to do so). And though I do hold a master’s degree in Library and Information Science, I am all the same not the Ryan M. Williams, who, according to his website, manages a public library and writes science fiction. I do not live in Dallas / Ft. Worth, nor have I ever been arrested for making obscene graffiti in someplace called Parkersburg.

My review of Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution on PopMatters

Just in time for the Oscars, PopMatters has posted my review of Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, a book about the five films nominated for best picture in 1968. Harris’s book offers abundant insider information about how each of the films made it from conception to the red carpet, while also making a sustained argument about major generational and cultural shifts playing out in Hollywood.

Wallace Stegner at 100

booksthumbiconWednesday marked the 100th anniversary of Wallace Stegner’s birth, and Timothy Egan has written a New York Times blog post about Stegner’s lifelong struggle for acceptance by East Coast literary elites. Even after winning a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for his work, Stegner was frequently dismissed as a regionalist writer, and thus far beneath the concern of the New York Times. Egan mounts a vigorous defense of the importance of Stegner’s literary output, and also discusses his legacy as an environmentalist and as a mentor for other writers (including Tobias Wolff, who Egan interviewed for the piece).

Rare John Cheever story on Five Chapters

This week, Five Chapters is serializing “Of Love: A Testimony,” a John Cheever story that, according to Lalai Lama, was published in 1943, but apparently hasn’t seen the light of day since. Part one ran on Monday.

George Saunders on writing and politics

booksthumbicon From an interview with Nina Siegal, here’s what George Saunders has to say about the relationship between politics and art:

I am pretty far left but trying to cultivate a healthy disgust for hypocrites and liars of both political stripes. I think our country is better than our government would make people believe. I think the role of art is to continually complicate our views and move them along the continuum from conceptual knowledge toward specificity. Our current problems, seem to me, have all to do with people in power who believe in their own ideas too much, ideas that were too much formed in the lab and not enough on the street. So we took those naive, bookish, messianic ideas and mistook them for truth, and now are reaping the harvest. I don’t like the demonizing of Bush et al—it’s too easy and won’t help us not repeat all of this. The only thing that will help is going deep (in kindness and true curiosity) and trying to really understand how the world looks to them—people like Rumsfeld etc wake up in the morning feeling very energized at the good they’re going to do during the day. So this is where art comes in: It’s the one way we can become Other long enough to understand that Other doesn’t really exist—we have it all inside us, and can therefore understand, and can therefore transform.

I think this attitude is exactly what makes Saunders such a potent satirist. For all the barbed, bitter humor and comic exaggerations in his stories, Saunders at the same time operates from a position of fundamental empathy for his characters. He doesn’t assume that some of his characters will be good and others will be evil; instead, he understands that most people believe themselves to be acting ethically most of the time, and attempts to understand why people often make unethical choices anyway, and how they justify their behavior in their own minds. (For a fresh example of this, turn to his recent story in the New Yorker, “Al Roosten”, in which the title character’s behavior is often less than laudable, even if he doesn’t see it that way.)

Many artists feel there’s no room for politics in art, but I think the real problem is that many people who make art on political subjects come in without the ability to separate the clarity of their political convictions from the fundamental murkiness of minds and hearts of human beings. It’s fine to imbue a work of art with a particular political point of view. What you can’t do, however, is reduce the full complexity of a person into the one-dimensional simplicity of a political idea.

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

February 2009
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