It happened in this newspaper. Sven Birkerts and David Foster Wallace went after Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike. In the same issue (Oct. 13), Philip Weiss charged at David Halberstam and Tony Lukas. Little wolf, big wolf, old wolf, new wolf, the literary males are at it again. Puff, puff, snap, snap, yip, yip, every puppy dreams of being top dog. Yes-in time, the leader of the pack wearies, his legs go slack and, at the first tremble, at the first drool, as soon as his fur loses its glisten, the attack is on. Blood flows down to the rivers. In this democratic manner, the savage pack elects its new leaders. We are wee, timorous beasties whose predator genes are still doing their stuff. We remember in our unruly souls what it was like on the ice bluffs of the northern slopes where the gray rocks marked the territory and the evergreens reached skyward.
So it is that certain writers are watching for signs of failure in their mentors, their teachers, their honored colleagues. This is natural. It is also natural for writers to replace each other in the public mind just as old stars leave the stage to ingénues ( All About Eve ), and chief executives take retirement packages while their protégés move up the ladder closer to the top, ever closer to their own membership in the American Association of Retired Persons. The old man could serve as protector, as guide, as friend to the future, and the young man could honor and cherish the old man-when the Messiah comes, maybe!
Nevertheless (call me Candide), it does seem to me that this replacement process, this change of leadership, this top dog moving on down, can in a civilized society pass without the crazed offspring snarling at the flanks of their elders. With respect or with spite, inevitably time brings new interests, changes the subject; history makes new issues relevant and marks new writers for their place at the center. But there is no need to throw out the old in order to create the new. We don’t need to assure an orderly transfer of power. “The king is dead, long live the king” is not relevant to literature. That’s why we have classics. That’s why we have education, so that the past can influence the present, so that as we live out our brief span, we reach beyond ourselves into other times, other places, other ways of viewing the present, most ephemeral scene.
So all this silliness about Mr. Updike writing with an alter ego-who didn’t, including Jane Austen and George Eliot?-and Mr. Bellow and Mr. Roth being misogynists, or trying to erect the organs that have gone limp, is pure rant and rave. All good writers write books that are less than their best, sometimes it’s the first or the third book or the fifth or the 18th. All good writers can find a thought or a theme that staggers us at the end of their lives as well as at the beginning. To complain that Mr. Updike is writing about death is to complain that Mr. Updike is writing about something that obsesses every mortal being, more so as we age, as all will do, including the young pups currently nipping at the heels. To complain about these writers’ narcissism is absurd. If they were really narcissistic, who would ever have read them, who would ever have related to their stories, their themes, their thoughts? What writer is not self-centered? In the postmodern world, the self has become a subject, but it works only if that self mirrors or contains others. The genuine narcissist is a bore at a dinner party and no fun under the sheets, much less between the covers of a book.
What we really have here is the primitive competitiveness of males who want to urinate on the books placed on the front tables of Barnes & Noble in order to signify territorial ownership.
Yes, it is true that the great Jewish writers, born in the bruising between old worlds and American dreams, are no longer at the center of the crunch. It is true that many of their issues-the shiksa beauty (Philip Weiss still struggles with that one), the humiliations of the old world and the new, the search for soul without traditional guides-no longer apply. But others do. The gasp of self-knowledge, the fragility of love, the relation of man to God, these issues are no less ripe in the 1990’s than they were in the 1950’s. A writer’s power is not, like that of a basketball star, related to the strength of his legs: It resides in his mind. The thing about books is that they are different from slalom races, no one wins by a nanosecond. One success does not take away from the next. Messrs. Bellow, Roth, Mailer and Updike may no longer decorate the cover of Spin magazine, but they will continue, so long as they breathe, to follow the thread of their inventions with applause from those of us who aren’t suffering from the anxiety of influence.
The view that Philip Weiss presents us of a second-generation Harvard Crimson one-upmanship is not pretty. It leads him to complain about the book of a man whose accomplishments were remarkable and whose disease was real and terrible. It leads him to trample on the mourning service of that man’s friends. It prompts him to admit that he, too, has felt lifetime competition with another Crimson writer. Don’t they teach those Harvard men not to drop names (including the name of Harvard)? Yes, Philip, literary communities tend to backbite, grouse and maul, but so does every other community I’ve ever been a part of, including, perhaps especially, my fifth-grade class.
Much of the alcoholism of that herd of writers who couldn’t get through the day without searing their gullets, frying their brains- among them, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, John Berryman, Dylan Thomas-came from battle fatigue, battle fear; and what was the battle but the scramble for fame better than, bigger than anyone else they knew or had ever heard of, living or dead? It can be said that all that drinking was an ill-advised plan by inept souls to clothe the naked, tender, wanting, vanishing self. The need to be famous is a symptom of the soul corroding.
Women writers are not without their mean streaks, but I don’t really see any female writers thumping their chests and throwing down challenges to Susan Sontag, to Toni Morrison, to A.S. Byatt. Little girls see their mothers as rivals, too, but grown-up women think that Oedipus is only one of many good plays. Women, too, want fame, reputation, prizes and any gold they can gather. But this literary generational warfare is the fame-lust gone male, gone loony, gone dangerous to the writer and his own work. I heard a young male writer say that he intended to be the best writer of his generation. He would do better just to tend his own computer. We’re not just writers, but we’re readers, too, and someone else’s good book is not a threat but a balm for the brain. Writing is not a duel to the death with another writer.
So calm down, fellows, stop that frothing at the mouth. Time will give you your place if you deserve it, and time, too, will take you away from the center of things. Remember, fellows, not every little acorn becomes a great oak. Some are just squirrel food.