By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Last month much ink was spilled (and pixels burnt) on Bill Clegg's Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. It's a blow-by-blow memoir about his monthlong crack bender in 2005 that temporarily cost him his job as a prominent literary agent. The Guardian published an excerpt. So did New York Magazine. The New York Times ran a profile in which Clegg describes how the memoir "gushed out like a transcription" and sold shortly after for $350,000. All three had pictures of Clegg's sleekly handsome face. The book is stacked high and glossy on the "new nonfiction" table at Barnes & Noble, the jacket filled with blurb hyperbole from Irvine Welsh and Michael Cunningham: "Heart-wrenching ... Amazing ... An instant classic ... Forget comparisons. Read this book."
Unfortunately, the book is a by-the-numbers account of the oft-chronicled highs and lows of addiction, a litany of scores, rocks, empty bags, hotel rooms, broken crack pipes and promises. The characters are vague and absent, the insights meager, the psychology lifted from a rehab pamphlet. Clegg comes across as a Patrick Bateman type who has recently been taught to say he's sorry. It might be harrowing if it weren't all so boring. Despite Cunningham's plea to "forget comparisons," the book suffers by them. Even within the sordid micro-genre of addiction memoirs and novels, this book does not stand out. It lacks the vitality of Jim Carroll's 1978 Basketball Diaries, the cruelty of Hubert Selby Jr.'s 1978 Requiem for a Dream, or even the corny bravado of James Frey's 2003 A Million Little Pieces. Clegg's entire book cannot speak to the allure of intoxications as powerfully as a few lines of prologue from William Burrough's 1953 Junky: "My earliest memories are colored by a fear of nightmares . . . I recall hearing a maid talk about opium, and how opium brings sweet dreams, and I said, 'I will smoke opium when I grow up.'"
It's not astonishing that Clegg's memoir is mediocre. What's astonishing is the sheer amount of energy, time and money that has been spent to push it into our hands. Why this book? What does it have to recommend itself? Only this: It is New while all the other, better books are Old.
We are sold books the same way we are sold cell phones, as if the latest models deserve the most attention. Each year, publishing houses churn out hundreds of thousands of new titles, including 35,000 works of fiction. The publicity machine goes to work, eager to fashion the rare success. Magazines and newspapers — the ones that still have book sections — chime in with opinions on which new books are worthwhile and why. Newspapers print their "summer reading" lists. The big-box bookstores pile their display tables with glossy stacks of fresh arrivals — for a fee, naturally. A relentless progression of the latest, freshest, greatest. Read this book! But all the middlemen along the way — the publishers, publicists, critics and book sellers — know the truth: The book they are hyping probably is not the book you ought to read, not even the book you would most enjoy reading. That book lies hidden in the back of the bookstore, or perhaps not even there. It is 10-, 20-, 35-years-old. However good it is, no one talks about it anymore. You might not have heard its title or its author's name.
A good example is Ann Beattie's Chilly Scenes of Winter, a wry little novel about the longing, confusion and disappointment of youth. As Charles McGrath wrote recently in The New York Times, Chilly Scenes of Winter was once "a kind of bible among 20-somethings." But Beattie's book is unavailable in the same Barnes & Noble that prominently features Hilary Thayer Hamann's Anthropology of an American Girl. Both novels are about the ironies and cruelties of youth, both are set in the 1970s, but since Hamann's novel is recently written, it is being sold, while Beattie's is not. This is, perversely, the way of things for even the best books: a flurry of attention in the beginning followed by an inexorable march toward obscurity. Great titles pop back into the public consciousness again if there's a movie made or someone dies.
The book industry's latest-is-best attitude seems out-of-kilter with our literary aesthetics. In 1939 Ezra Pound wrote that "literature is news that STAYS new." To this day, it's as good a definition as we have. It seems self-evident that a great book from 1973 is preferable to a so-so book from 2010. It seems obvious that an author's best book should be bought before his latest. (For example, Ian McEwan's first novel, the wicked, brilliant and little-known The Cement Garden deserves as much attention as his grandiose new satire Solar.) Novels of value should not be judged by their publication date. We should not read novels as historical artifacts or purely as commentary on our socio-political moment. Truly great fiction somehow manages to remain forever radical.
So who's to blame for the imbalance between the book industry's practices and the aesthetic reality? It's easy to point the finger at the major publishing houses whose reliance on large offset print runs pushes them to publicize each new arrival as an "instant classic" and to urge readers to "forget comparisons." Newspapers are also to blame. By demanding timeliness from their book reviews, they lock literary discussion to the present. (Indeed, McGrath only had the opportunity to write about Beattie's Chilly Scenes of Winter in the Times because she has a new novella, Walks With Men, coming out.) And, finally, readers themselves are culpable. We want our authors young and beautiful, our novels hip and topical. We are suckers for the concept of progress, eager to believe that today's novel, against all logic, is superior to yesterday's. Perhaps the system is not even broken, perhaps we are getting exactly what we want, or at least what we deserve.
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