Monday, March 16, 2009

¡Un Puñetazo!

That's Gabo. Gabriel García Márquez. With a black eye. That Vargas Llosa gave him. Gabo had "allegedly" been putting the horns on Mario. Mario found out about it and went up to him in a movie theater and hit him in the eye. What's funny is that there are numerous reasons to hit Gabo in the face. Such as going back to his hometown, for the first time in years, on a butterfly-covered locomotive called the Macondo express, for example. But no, just a dalliance with the Mrs. Just the plot of an early John Cheever story. Yawn. By the time these fisticuffs took place, Gabo and Mario both were pretty well established. So of course it would have to be something boring and macho like adultery to make the whole thing happen at all.

I remember a story in the New York Times (which I hate) a while back about how literary feuds just ain't what they used to be. It was basically just a list of Norman Mailer anecdotes, but at some point they quoted Gary Shteyngart on why the feuds have fallen off over time: "We’re none of us really heavy drunks, we all have health care plans, there’s too much at stake. We all have our appointments at universities. It’s not in our interest not to make nice-nice." Which is obviously one half of the truth, the other half being supplied by Fran Liebowitz: "It’s not because we no longer have feuds. It’s because we no longer have literature."

I made the mistake of looking at some photos from the most recent National Book Critics Circle award ceremony last week. It reminded me of those Washington dinners where the press and the politicians get together and booze and buddy it up like any other co-workers. Meanwhile we're all wondering how it could possibly come to pass that Cheney leaks fake news to the Times, then quotes the Times as confirmation of his own bullshit, and when it comes out that this happened the reporter goes to jail "to protect a principle" and acts like she's Henry fucking Thoreau, heroic bio-pic and all. Anyway, the NBCC shindig was an awfully big party for an industry that never tires of whining about how it's going broke in the course of it's selfless mission to bring Culture to we, the little people.

Really the publishing industry has a lot in common with other failing institutions. They're middlemen, like financial services. They purport to make a complicated subject comprehensible, when in fact they merely complicate it further, so as to keep themselves in work, like academics. They run their operations on an obsolete model that they will never abandon, because their customary luxury depends on it,like record companies. And in every case they're just shaving a percentage off of other people's money. The trouble is that none of these businesses does a very good job of serving their customers, who they have more contempt for than anything else. And their cash cows, be they investors, students, musicians or writers, are starting to figure out that maybe they don't need all these middlemen anymore. Uh-oh.

And the mainstream book critics merely aid and abet Big Publishing. They're lazy and they have no standards at all. Watching the book press closely, it starts to look like fast food marketing, where every month there's some new, horrible concoction, like that waffle sandwich from Dunkin Donuts, and everybody's just SO fucking excited about it! Until next month, when it'll be some new monstrosity, and the waffle sandwich, wait, what waffle sandwich? I don't remember any waffle sandwich. That sounds disgusting.

All of which could, I feel, be fixed to some extent by a good, old-fashioned sock in the eye. Or at least the feeling that anything could possibly matter enough to punch somebody over. Or the fear, in the back of certain people's minds, that somebody might actually slug them. If nothing else, it might revive the now moribund genre of the literary anecdote, which has gone from: Gore Vidal looked up from the floor and said "Words fail Norman Mailer yet again," to: and then Editor said "I can't believe how bad the pinot noir is and anyway who drinks pinot noir anymore, what is this, 2003?"

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