In person and on the page, the two men are as different as Laurel and Hardy: the one orotund, a gourmand, filling his mouth with the language of his forebears, digesting ideas with gustatory (sometimes dyspeptic) relish; the other lean, a scientific mind, cerebral, attenuated, his most pronounced feature a high forehead given to wrinkling in bemusement. I've been a student of both William H. Gass and E.L. Doctorow, and somehow have only now thought to compare them. But when I do, I see yin and yang, Epicurius and Zeno. (DeVito and Schwarzenegger?) Truly, the contrast here, in temperament and physiognomy, is like something out of a novel.Upon reflection, however, I'm discovering affinities. Gass and Doctorow are roughly coevals, celebrated novelists and essayists. Both attended Kenyon College as undergrads and finished in the Ivy League. More substantively, both go about their work - choleric or platonic - with a heroic seriousness that marks them as the product of the bygone moment of modernism. Both, that is, are unreconstructed believers in the religion of art. Notwithstanding reviewers' declarations that they are in the "twilight" of their careers, each has continued to produce vital work in his seventies.This year, each offers us a nonfictional map of his personal (and idiosyncratic) canon. If Gass' A Temple of Texts and Doctorow's Creationists diverge in temperament and taste, together they comprise a rich walking tour of world literature - and more importantly, an object lesson in committed reading.A Temple of Texts is by far the chunkier of the two books. Over 418 pages of dense, erudite, poetic prose, Gass covers American classics (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Gaddis, Gertrude Stein) and nominees for classic status (Stanley Elkin and Ernesto Sabato) and returns, again and again, to his beloved Europeans.The foundation of the book is the title essay, which accompanied an exhibition of Gass' "Fifty Literary Pillars" at Washington University's Olin Library. Here, we are treated to a highly personal take on the writer's favorite books; the net result has the compulsive fascination of one of those "Best 37 Novels of the Last 37 Months" lists, but is deeper, more varied, and in weird way more democratic. Gass makes no claim that Collette or Cortazar should be among everybody's literary pillars, but summarizes his relationship to their books with such gusto that we may be persuaded, at least, to add them to our reading lists, and to think about our own literary pillars. Along with "To A Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics" - Gass' Solomonic solution to the academy's "canon wars" - "A Temple of Texts" is the strongest thing here.The title essay also lends the book its canny structure: most of the other pieces here are pegged to a specific author. To sit and read the collection straight through is to subject oneself to a lot of Gass, which is to say a lot of philosophy, a lot of alliteration, a lot of wordplay. Characteristic Gass productions like the peevish "Influence" or "The Sentence Seeks Its Form" (the distillation of at least a dozen other essays from other books) may slow the reader down (as Gass no doubt means to do) or even trip her up (which can seem bellicose.) But those new to Gass can just as easily treat A Temple of Texts as a reference work, can dip into disquisitions on Rilke and Rabelais at will, and be rewarded. The accessibility of form, and the richness of thought, make A Temple of Texts a wonderful and unusually gentle introduction to Gass' extraordinary mind and, as importantly, to the works that formed it.Comparatively, Creationists is slender - 176 pages for $25, or 14 cents per page - and makes few claims for itself. Doctorow intends, he tells us, to stay close to the works he's writing about, rather than rising above them to make sweeping assertions. The word "modest" appears in the book's first sentence. But in its keen, almost surgical intelligence, in the sly insights smuggled into its readings, Creationists is a fraternal twin to A Temple of Texts. Where Gass' sensibility is European, Doctorow's is distinctly American - he is most convincing when discussing Twain, Melville, Fitzgerald, and Arthur Miller. Especially in the Melville essay, we see the way a life of reading has informed Doctorow's own fiction."It is indisputable in my mind that excess in literature is its own justification," Doctorow writes of Moby-Dick. Perhaps it is this dictum that leads him to the book's many feats of restoration; Doctorow's attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of Poe (a "genius hack") and Stowe make Creationists more than a simple top-ten list. As do his literary analyses of Harpo Marx, Albert Einstein, and the Atomic Bomb. As does the peculiar tension between analytic coolness and immoderate passion; in this way, Creationists is of a piece with Doctorow's best novels.In the past, both Gass and Doctorow have invoked Elkin, quoting someone else: there are two kinds of writers, putter-inners and taker-outers. If Gass is the former, Doctorow's the latter, and many of his ideas - about the creative temperament, the value of writing, the fruitful democracy of contemporary culture - emerge only through implication. The subtlety and brevity of Creationists don't make it any less valuable, though. It may be far from novel for novelists to reflect on the works that influenced them. But the complementary traits of these American masters - their uncommon intelligence and reverence for literature - make A Temple of Texts and Creationists gifts for the reading public.Sidebar: Books these books made me want to check out: Man's Hope by Andre Malraux, Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katharine Anne Porter, On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sabato
Don writes in with this question:Philip K. Dick wrote seven mainstream novels. I think they are pretty terrific, but except for sci-fi fans, no one pays much attention to them. Can you or your readers explain why these novels have received so little recognition among readers of "literary fiction"?Long before Dick became a science fiction icon, before he began writing the sci-fi novels he's most famous for, Dick aspired to write "serious," mainstream fiction. He spent much of the early part of his career, in the 1950s, writing these novels and was devastated by the rejections he received. In his biography of Dick, Divine Invasions, Lawrence Sutin writes of Dick's early career, "from 1951 through 1958, [he wrote] eighty-odd stories and thirteen novels-six SF, seven mainstream. The six SF novels were all promptly published, but the seven mainstream novels languished. It was an anguish to him. And out of that anguish, his best work would come."From what I can tell, in total Dick actually wrote at least eight and as many as ten or more (though some people classify different books differently) mainstream novels, some of which are still unpublished or were destroyed by Dick. Here's a list of the eight I found: Confessions Of A Crap Artist, Gather Yourselves Together, Humpty Dumpty In Oakland, In Milton Lumky Territory, Mary And The Giant, Puttering About In A Small Land, The Broken Bubble, and The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike. Most of these were eventually published after his death, and many are out of print. Certainly, none of them even approach the popularity of most of his sci-fi novels.The obvious answer as to why Dick's mainstream novels are underappreciated is that he was long ago pigeonholed as a sci-fi writer, and the blockbuster movies based on his books have only exacerbated this phenomenon. It's not news to anyone who pays attention to books that "genre" fiction - be it sci-fi, mystery or romance - is "ghettoized" in bookstores and in book review sections and that crossover success is rare. But, at the same time, as any real book-lover knows - readers who ignore the best of what genre fiction has to offer are doing themselves a great disservice.With regards to Dick, specifically, though, I'd like to return to the quote above. Sutin writes that Dick's failures pushed him to write his best work - his famous sci-fi novels. Now I've never read Dick's mainstream fiction, but I'd wager that despite the quality of that work, Dick's well-known, award-winning science fiction represents the pinnacle of his body of work. Many of history's greatest writers have impressive bodies of work, but they become known for what is considered their best work and - often unfairly - the lesser work is underappreciated. Herman Melville wrote a lot of great stuff, but Moby Dick gets all the attention. This phenomenon is likely doubly true for Dick because his underappreciated work is in a different genre from his best and best-known work, so casual fans don't even know that these mainstrem novels exist. I didn't.Thanks for the question, Don! I'm no expert on sci fi, so, readers, please share your thoughts in the comments.
File under odd marketing ploy: Penguin UK is offering up 30 audio samples from their catalog of books for intrepid djs to incorporate into their mashups. (I think of got the lingo straight here, no?) Spoken word snippets are available from classic titles like The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, and Nick Hornby's How to be Good. So, as all media continue to converge toward a single point do not be surprised to find some "Call me Ishmael" in your hip hop.