The Art of Tetman Callis Lit & Crit Infinitely American

Infinitely American

“Big books, big Novels, as Martin Amis diagnosed long ago, seem inherently an American addiction. America, vast in space and in ambition, seems to goad its writers to impose a brazen intentionality onto the marketplace. The American writer’s appetite must be omnivorous, his palette the trunk of a sequoia, his cast not smaller than a minor duchy, a perversion of Dostoevsky. And yet how often you read one of those baggy monsters and there’s nothing there but explosions of trivial pleonasm. The imagination slumbers, the talent something that happened to other people. That’s one tendency. On the other hand you have those endless, sentimental, middleclass novels of domestic interaction, a perversion of Chekhov. Whether it is the vastness of the country or its multifariousness, each year brings a thousand thousand-page bricks, each usually a tomb for dead language, and a desiccated, catastrophically pious imagination. For each DeLillo, a thousand of these others, for each McCarthy another thousand tumble forth in unison.

“Byron used to say that he never saw a doctor without thinking, Here’s a man who missed his vocation. For me, a trip to the bookstore does the same, once I’ve read a page or two of almost any of the fat new books huddling on the shelves. So much misplaced ambition. So much banality. Often you see material perhaps sufficient for a five-page story stretched to six hundred of the soporific best.

“Who writes these things?

“Often, it seems, it’s some person burnt out in the workplace, hoping for an easy career change. Imagine, I can sit at home, and get paid to make shit up! And the air thins along with the crowns of trees.

“I also think about all those MFA programs in, gasp, Creative Writing. (Are there other kinds of writing? Even The Da Vinci Code is some sort of creative writing, so why the modifier?) Are they improving or simply flooding the bookstores? Are they too narrow in their catechism? Do we have too many writers?

“I am reminded of that story by Will Self, ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity,’ and the idea of a finite amount of mental equilibrium. Does talent not figure in the same way? There are only so many good and great writers at any time.

“Let us assume that a thousand new-minted writers exit the universities with their writing diplomas each year. Of these, reasonably, only a fraction can be good, good meaning necessary, the rest adequate. Don’t get me wrong, I think a genuinely gifted writer could use a few years intensely scrutinizing his work with other gifted, literate people. Above all, with other gifted readers. But how many are those? And the art (not the habit) of reading is as endangered in academia as out of it.

“Now, many of the best and most prestigious literary journals are run by MFA programs, edited by MFA writers, filled by MFA writing. Notice the circularity, like in a consummated nightmare.” — Elvis Bego, “Dr. Aira: In Defense of Short Books”

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