By Alex Good

December 31, 2003

For personal reasons not worth getting into, 2003 was a very rough year. For the last six months my goal has been to just keep this site going. For those of you who sent e-mail and never received a reply, I can only offer a blanket apology for behaviour that drives me crazy too. Hopefully the hard times will soon be over and things will get back on track. Until then a special thanks to all of you for bearing with me.

I think I did manage to keep up with the reviews, mainly by getting very tough during the intake stage. My New Year's Resolution from two years ago (see here) was to stop wasting time on so many lousy books. This has resulted in less dog reviews, which I think is a good thing. While it's always fun to see a really bad book getting ripped, actually reading the stuff is a pain.

How does this strict new attitude play out in practice? For a look inside the thought process behind a review I offer the following:

I pick up a lot of the books I review at a newspaper office. There's usually quite a large pile of stuff, and I just dig through it until I find something that I think might be interesting. How picky I am can depend on the time of year. Sometimes you don't have a lot of choice.

One day a new literary biography caught my eye: The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara, by Geoffrey Wolff. Normally I don't go for literary bios, but this one recommended itself for two reasons: It was a decent length (only 372 pages), and it was about a writer whose work I had read but didn't know very much about.

So I've brought this book home, I'm interested in the subject, and I want to like it.

I open it to the epigraph, a blurb from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story that is almost wholly descriptive of a house. What could this have to do with anything? I know it seems a little thing, but I am officially on guard.

Next the Acknowledgments. Yes, I hate Acknowledgments. I don't even like them in non-fiction. I don't understand why so many of today's writers seem to need so much extra help. Here we get three pages of graciousness before the ball starts rolling, concluding with a really disgraceful tribute to the editor, Gary Fisketjon. "Gary," we are told, "despises effusive praise, so if you're reading this, if it hasn't been deleted, it's proof he's as good as his word, that what the writer finally wants to put in the record will go in the record."

Good for Gary, despising effusive praise. I despise it too. Unfortunately, Gary did not take it out. And now I have to read it. Damn you, Gary Fisketjon.

By the way: Is this the same Gary Fisketjon who paid a quarter million for Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden after only reading the first page? Didn't Dante have a corner in Hell reserved for these people?

Be that as it may, what did Gary do for Mr. Wolff? Apparently he sends back a typescript covered in "quibbles and cavils, squiggles here, there heads-put-on-tails and tails-on-heads, every sentence and thought put to the test." I guess this means he actually read the damn thing. But why does Mr. Wolff need such proof-reading skills (in addition to those of all the other people he thanks in his Acknowledgments)? After all, here is his jacket bio:

Geoffrey Wolff is the acclaimed author of three works of nonfiction . . . as well as six novels. . . . In 1994 he received the Award  in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Mr. Wolff is the director of the graduate fiction program at the University of California, Irvine.

All this and the guy can't write a book by himself? (Malcolm Cowley to Ernest Hemingway, November 3, 1951: "People like you who work over every detail of their mss are rare as hell in the country these days. They are the last individual handicraftsmen. Most of our so-called writers just do part of their work, as if they had only one job on the production line, before the ms moves on into the varnish room . . . ")

OK, I'm riled. Now, let's get on to the "Life of John O'Hara."

Not so fast, Alex. Next we have the Preface.

Here I have concerns. Wolff trots out an episode from the life of Sylvia Plath to illustrate how the writing of non-fiction is invariably concerned with relating an imaginary past constructed out of subjective impressions, hearsay and an imperfect factual record.

Is there anything so trite as this? I suspect not. Wolff drags the point out for three pages. But on with it.

Now: O'Hara!

But not quite. No, now we get . . . more Wolff! You see, it just so happens that O'Hara was a lot like Duke Wolff, the author's father. For two pages Wolff catalogues the "extraordinary - or is it? - alignment of tastes and circumstances."  Both were obsessed with automobiles, both were nasty drunks, both had their teeth pulled in order to qualify for enlistment, both owned blackthorn walking sticks, etc.

I am starting to get angry. This guy has already written a bio of his father - a man I couldn't possibly care less about. And now he's writing another.

My teeth are clenched for Chapter One: The Region. We begin: 

A decade later, the first time I visited the small city with the unmusical name of Pottsville, I was struck by a regional exhaustion awesome in its frank display. It's too easy to curl my lip,  I know. Pottsville had been obliged to accustom itself to disdain and condescension enough from John O'Hara, its most famous citizen. I resolved to remember that if the Region was sooty, grim and used-up, so were many places I'd lived and worked: Bridgeport, Providence, Waltham.

I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . and this in the first few sentences! What gives with this guy? Does he really think I give a damn where he lived and worked? Where is this leading? 

To a tour of present-day Pottsville, led by Geoffrey Wolff. Next page: "I walked along Sixth, across Norwegian Street . . . "; next page: "I was now at the downhill corner of Sixth and Mahantongo . . . "; next page: O'Hara's house! "Out front now - or at least the last time I visited - is a plaque confirming that O'Hara had indeed lived there." Is it there now? Does he even know? Does he care? Next page: "I recollected an offhand observation of O'Hara . . . "

I slam the covers shut. And there you have it. Page 7 and I have had enough of this shit. Another review has died in the wings.

Observing the scene online, the thing that struck me the most this year was the explosion in literary blogs. A couple of years ago there were very few of these. Now they are everywhere. And they amaze me. Many of these sites seem like they must be full-time jobs. Where do so many people find the time? 

I think this amount of online activity is a good sign. But I do worry a bit about how long it will be able to last. The days when anyone with a modem could set up a Web-page and start sounding off may be drawing to a close. I note the number 6 censored story from Project Censored 2004, "Closing Access to Internet Technologies":

[Under new regulations] Corporations and government agencies will hold tremendous power to filter and censor content. ISPs already have the capability to privilege, or block out, content traveling through their Web servers. With the demise of open access regulations,  Internet content will likely resemble the 'monotonous diet of corporate content' that viewers now receive with cable television.

God help us. I don't want to sound too loud an alarm, but if the Internet ends up going the way of television then I think we really will have lost the last best hope of an alternative, independent, and truly public media.

Best wishes for a safe and happy New Year,

Alex Good