Sunday, May 14, 2006

I was going to write about Psycho

But I don't have the kind of nimble fingers necessary to blog (articulately) at the speed of thought. I went to see Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho for the very first time last night. It was one on a gradually shortening - but nonetheless painfully long - list of movies that I, as a self-proclaimed movie buff, am ashamed to say I have never seen. A lot of times I come out of these movies thinking that they aren't worth a quarter of the sound and fury surrounding them, but Psycho delivered. I knew every major plot twist and had even seen a few of the key scenes before setting foot in the theater, and it still had me glued to the screen. Rear Window is still my favorite Hitchcock for all-around quality film-making, but Psycho wins best screenplay.

I had more to say, but that's all you're going to get. Why? Because of A.O. Scott.

From a glance at Clay's, and then Jim's, blog, I found out that next week's New York Times Magazine will publish a list of the best American novels of the last 25 years. I won't comment (not here, at least) on the contents of the list, partially because too many of these books I just haven't read (another list I need to get to work on) and partially because Jim and Clay do it just fine, themselves. Mostly, however, I abstain from commentary because A.O. Scott submits an essay to accompany the list and I have a thought about that instead.

The bulk of the essay just explains the premise of the contest and then offers a bit of insight into the top five selected, which is fine, but what interests me here is the end. Scott observes that the top five writers (or, rather, the writers of the top five novels) are all currently over 6o years old. Where are the babyboomers? The GenXers? The GenYers? It was 1965, he notes, the last time there was a contest such as this, and precious few of the selected authors on that list were above the age of 50. So, what has changed since then?

Scott asks: "Is this quantitive evidence for the decline of American letters - yet another casualty of the 60's? Or is the American literary establishment the last redoubt of elder-worship in a culture mad for youth?"

The second question, for me, holds no water, but the first is compelling. It's late and I'm tired so I won't interrogate this idea as fully as it deserves, but I think (I considered using the word "fear" there, but decided against it) the reason for the list's domination by the half-century club is that literature is gradually losing its alluring sheen. You can couch it in both positive and negative terms, but either way, our culture is becoming faster and more visual; several generations of creative and artistic people have begun to think in two-word phrases instead of sentences,* images instead of words, and, dare I say, movies instead of books?

Which is why I think it's interesting and just a little funny that it was the newspaper's senior film critic who wrote this very literary essay.

*Have a look at a four year-old interview with Kurt Vonnegut on McSweeney's.


Blogger Rival said...

AO Scott is mainly a book critic, he only switched to being a movie critic with his Times job. You're the one who's always talking about how great Slate is and you didn't even know he used to be a literary critic there? You should know more about the people you write about as well as the world in general.

May 24, 2006 12:37 AM  
Blogger ErrantDigeratus said...

Steve- It's got to be great to be read. Although, it may be better to be left on the shelf than read exclusively by the "ad hominati" of the internet.

A few points about why so many of the writers on the list are over 60: For one, we're talking about writers who are age X at time of listing, not at time of publication. So someone who's 60 could have been 35 when his or her book was published, and still younger when it was written, to be on the current list. for one, a comparison to 1965, in terms of demographics, can be misleading. Marilynne Robinson, for instance, whose Housekeeping is on the list, was born in 1947 (so, very much a babyboomer), and although she'll turn 60 next year, Housekeeping was published in 1980, when Robinson was 33. Presumably, she took some time to write it. Mark Helprin was also born in 1947, so he was 36 when Winter's Tale was published, in 1983. Raymond Carver was born in 1938. Although Where I'm Calling From wasn't published until 1988, most of the stories in it where originally in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and Cathedral (1983), as well as still earlier works, representing stories he wrote through his late thirties and into his forties. Denis Johnson was 43 when his Jesus' Son was published in 1992; Tim O'Brien was 44 when The Things They Carried was published. My point here being that although most of the writers on the list are over 60 now doesn't mean that they were so old when they wrote the books for which they are being recognized.

A second point to consider: to be 50 in 1965 would have made you 26 in 1941. First of all, a whole generation was largely wiped out by WWII. Secondly, much of the most powerful fiction written during the fifties and early sixties was written by people who were heavily influenced, during their formative years, by the war, either as soldiers or children or siblings of soldiers. So while many of the people who perhaps would have been great writers died in their twenties and early thirties in Europe or the Pacific, or came home too traumatized to write, the generation immediately following them, the people coming of age in the late 40s, had gone through such power emotional experiences at home and abroad that they would have had plenty of fodder to write (Heller was 18 in 1941, for instance; Catch-22 published in 1961, when he as 38, but was written throughout the 50s).

The most significant point here is that you can write a clever or eloquent or beautiful book when you're 26, or 36 even. But you need a deeper well of emotional experience to write a great book. In 1965, a generation of young writers had been thrown down that well by the depression and WWII. In 2006, nothing equivalent has happened to young writers. Which means that only way to get the kind of emotional depth and maturity required to write the kinds of things that we call "great" books is to grow old and watch.

May 25, 2006 3:15 PM  

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