As honest readers and reviewers, we recognize, a little sheepishly, the experience. I refer not to good bad books – say, Tom Disch’s Camp Concentration or George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle – but bad bad books, run-of-the-mill dreck by Philip K. Dick or Dashiell Hammett. The former are pulpy but competent and honest. They don’t insult their characters or their readers. The latter are cynical, deeply childish cartoons – but sometimes you just can’t stop gawking. The sentence quoted at the top comes from a review by Hilton Kramer of two novels – V.S. Naipaul’s Guerillas and Joyce Carol Oates’ The Assassins – published in Commentary in 1976. John Podhoretz linked to it in his remembrance of Kramer, who died Tuesday at the age of eighty-four.
Kramer’s review is interesting for several reasons. He’s best known as an art critic, not a critic of books, but novice critics of anything could learn from his method (a misleadingly schematic word for describing the way he writes). For instance, Kramer judges the novels separately, not imposing common themes where they don’t exist, and not pounding home their obvious disparity in quality. Before recounting the plot of Guerillas, he assures us that by reading the novel we will “experience that peculiar sensation, a mixture of confidence, anxiety, anticipation, empathy, pleasure, and suspense, that every confirmed reader of fiction recognizes and yearns for (often, alas, to little avail nowadays) as the special satisfaction to be derived from this branch of literature above all others.”
He tells us what he values in fiction and assures us that Naipaul delivers it. The qualities Kramer enumerates embody a novelistic tradition seasoned readers of Fielding and Tolstoy would recognize. In praise of Naipaul’s prose, Kramer writes:
“It is not primarily of art that his accomplished artistry induces an intense consciousness, but of life—for Naipaul’s fiction has the classic centrifugal power of carrying us beyond the boundaries of its vividly rendered microcosmic events to that larger terrain in which we, too, feel implicated and portrayed.”
I remember reading Kramer’s review in the periodicals room in the basement of the main public library in Youngstown, Ohio. It was a crowded, stuffy place largely populated by readers two or three times my age. Sitting among them made reading seem respectable and serious, and eased the guilt of being unemployed and possibly unemployable. I had already read Naipaul’s novel, and most of his earlier work, and come to the conclusion he was among the best writers alive. In that same room I read an interview in which Naipaul likened reading Balzac to eating candy.
The fun in Kramer’s review begins with his demolition of Oates. I had figured her out half a decade earlier – unadulterated, sub- Dreiserian pulp, cranked out like “pink slime” – and had stopped reading her by the time of The Assassins. Already, just thirteen years into a publishing career that has continued hemorrhaging for almost half a century, it was a critical commonplace to diagnose Oates with literary logorrhea. Kramer puts it more wittily:
“Writers genuinely admired and enjoyed, writers whose works are actually read, are not, I think, very often admonished to write less. The suggestion so frequently conveyed, obliquely or otherwise, that Miss Oates writes too much speaks, I find, to a genuine grievance.”
Kramer’s next sentences are pure damnation, yet neither splenetic nor unfair:
“For The Assassins is the sheerest rubbish. It is a torture to read, as there seems to be no mind in charge of its inchoate assemblage of characters and events, and beyond that, it is extremely repugnant in what it substitutes—with a perfect confidence in its literary efficacy—for the work of intelligence or imagination.”
The passage might be rubber-stamped on every book by Oates I ever read, even now, thirty-six years later. Kramer might have devoted a career to book reviewing and literary essays, but his strength and love was pledged to the visual arts. He was a teacher of sorts. From him over the decades I learned to share a love for such painters as Milton Avery, Fairfield Porter and Richard Diebenkorn. I also learned the strategically sparing use of the autobiographical in critical contexts, and the poker-faced deployment of humor, witty or absurdist. In a 1992 piece about Porter (collected in The Triumph of Modernism, 2006), Kramer writes:
“When I first wrote about Porter’s work in the Times, in the late sixties, one of my colleagues on the paper—a critic in another field who lived in a state of acute anxiety lest he be caught missing out on the latest trend—took me aside to warn me that I would ruin my reputation if I continued to write about such boring, conventional stuff.”