Saturday, June 17, 2017

`Books on Concrete Subjects, and Old Books'

Roy Newquist was a syndicated reviewer who wrote a book column for the long-defunct Chicago American in the early nineteen-sixties and later worked for the New York Post.  His specialty was interviewing writers. Transcripts of sixty-three such conversations are collected in Counterpoint (Rand McNally, 1964). Most of his interviewees are trifling – William Peter Blatty, Dwight Macdonald, Howard Fast, Harper Lee. Others have been blessedly erased from cultural memory – Eileen Bassing, Hoke Norris, Maurice Dolbier, Morris L. West. It’s salutary to be reminded that fame and influence in any realm are fleeting, though Newquist does speak with a few writers of lasting worth, including Louis Auchincloss, Peter De Vries and best of all, A.J. Liebling.

I never knew of the Liebling interview and Raymond Sokolov makes no reference to it in The Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling (1980). Newquist spoke with Liebling shortly before The New Yorker writer’s death in December 1963, though no mention is made of his multiple illnesses. Liebling comes across as an enthusiastic conversationalist:

“Reporting, by and large, is being interested in everyone you meet. It’s surprising how often the most casual meetings turn up fascinating material. This goes for Egypt or a fight club in London. If you don’t consider anybody as being beneath consideration, it’s rewarding and it’s fun.”

When I worked as a newspaper reporter I frequently repeated a remark attributed to Liebling, though I’ve never identified the source: Good reporters report with their feet. That is, they get out of the newsroom and walk their beat, meet people and talk to them. The Liebling passage quoted above is a natural corollary to this idea. Everyone you meet is potentially a story if you listen and observe long enough. Liebling, a congenital introvert, was a gifted listener.

Newquist asks Liebling what he “admire[s] and deplore[s] in today’s literary world,” and the writer answers, “. . . I can’t regret the mere absence of more good books, of more good novels in particular. I think this is the age of the journalist and the historian.” That idea, often self-fueled by its practitioners (Mailer and Capote in particular), was in the air in the nineteen-sixties. None wrote as well as Liebling, who continues:

“There’s very little humor being written now. I think everyone will agree with me on that. Again, it may be the times we live in, but as terrible as times may be, I don’t see the need for the let’s-dance-on-the-casket sort of humor that does pop up.”

I suspect he refers to the vogueish school of black humor flourishing at the time, epitomized by Joseph Heller’s seditious cartoon of a novel. Liebling, who covered World War II for The New Yorker, was a patriot. He was also the wittiest of American writers, not the sort to dance on a casket. Among writers from his day he praises his dearest friend, fellow New Yorker reporter Joseph Mitchell, and Katherine Anne Porter (though not his wife, Jean Stafford). “But I guess it doesn’t matter greatly what I think of the troubled area of fiction [written when when Nabokov and Bellow are at the height of their powers],” he says. Most of my interest lies in reading historical books, books on concrete subjects, and old books.”

I thought of Liebling recently when noticing that some of the most tedious conversation and writing I’ve heard or read of late had food as their subject. Everyone feels qualified to talk about it (“We all eat”) but few have anything interesting to say. Listen to Liebling in Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1959):

“The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite. Without this, it is impossible to accumulate, within the allotted span, enough experience of eating to have anything worth setting down. Each day brings only two opportunities for field work, and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol.”

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