November 9, 2007

Writers I like more than I should

Mood: charmed, I’m sure

Recently, I wrote about writers I don’t like. Criticism is cheap fun, but risks nothing. This time, I thought I’d put my taste on the line by listing writers I consider underrated, or whom I like more than they deserve.

  • John Dos Passos. He’s out of style now, but his U.S.A. trilogy is the Great American Novel. The later Dos Passos, like the later Wordsworth (and for many of the same reasons), is best left to oblivion. The younger Dos Passos lives on in Eternity.
  • H. P. Lovecraft. He gave novice writers wonderful advice. He followed none of it. You don’t read him for his characters (colorless and passive), or his plots (he only had one), or his eldritch, dank, squamous, adjective-laden style. You read him for his cosmic imagination. He was a bad writer, but a great one. (Borges agreed with me on this.)
  • William Morris. A revolutionary whose motto was “forward to the 13th century!” The archaic prose of his fantasy novels moves, if it can be said to move, with glacial slowness. There’s little I like better than getting lost in one of his pre-raphaelite worlds. I can also recommend his translations of Scandinavian literature, and such of his poetry as is not “improving.”
  • Kenneth Patchen. He wrote too much, too quickly, and his experiments often seem purposeless. But he was his own storm, and I stick around for the occasional blinding crash of lightning. His poem “In order to” is marvelous.
  • Edgar Allen Poe. No one denies his primacy as a short story writer, but I’d like to see his poetic reputation revived. His most famous pieces are not always his best. I used to have “Dream-Land” memorized, and it’s a fairly long poem. I liked it that much.
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was preachy, self-righteous and condescending. His personal life was a tangle of troubled relationships. As a thinker, he was vague and self-contradictory. His poetry is diffuse. Yet, there’s something about him that appeals to me. Maybe I see more of myself in him than I’d like to admit–and if I could become as good a poet, I’d be happy to be in the second tier of literature. Also, his poetic reputation has suffered because modern poetry has cast Abstraction into the outer darkness. But with political poetry so much in vogue, isn’t Shelley due for a comeback?
  • A.E. van Vogt. Nominally, van Vogt wrote science fiction, but his understanding of science was neither deep nor broad. He wrote insanely dream-like stories — cheap diner Kafka with a side of Breton (and Breton’s lack of humor).

November 1, 2007

Writers I should like but don’t

Mood: esthetically fleeting

Writers I should like, or have been told I should like, but don’t. Some I think are overrated. Others are quite good, even magnificent, but I’d rather have my tonsils pulled out slowly with pliers than read them.

  • e. e. cummings. strip awa yhis (man)nerIsms and
    he’s no grot-
    esque and beautyful orc-
    hid, but a banal lielac. his images of(ten
    do not co(her)e.
    (I’m being unfair to him, and he’s probably a very good lyric poet, but too precious for me.)
  • Joan Didion. She wears her nakedness on her sleeve.
  • Robert Frost. I know he’s one of the great poets of the 20th century. Once I read a Frost poem, it’s in my brain forever. But his Yankee-farmer-philosopher persona draws a nutmeg-grater across my nerves. I have no problem with literary personae. In fact, I’d argue that every narrator is a work of fiction. I just don’t like his.
  • Horace. I wrote about him in an earlier post, and won’t go into detail here.
  • Henry James. I used to be an English major. I can give you a dozen reasons James is a world-class writer. But lordie, don’t ask me to read him. He bores me silly.
  • C. S. Lewis. I know he’s a hero to conservative Christians and fans of the fantasy genre, but a bitter hatred of life oozes from every paragraph.
  • Ezra Pound. He was a brilliant translator, a gifted mentor and editor, but his own works are either Edwardian knock-offs or madly-gummed treatises. Also, I have trouble getting past his anti-Semitism.
  • Rainer Maria Rilke. Everything is carefully wrought and fatally earnest. RMR had no sense of humor.
  • Voltaire. He had a sense of humor. (Rape is funny, isn’t it?)

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