Top Four Cool, Tragic, Weird Literary Events of 2007
1. The Success of God is Not Great
Last year, high atop his perch in Adams Morgan, Christopher Hitchens put his finger to the wind and concluded that religion wasn’t as important as people thought, certainly not as important — or even as influential — as those on either side of the political spectrum believe it is. Perhaps the Hitch was on to something, because his broadside against the Almighty, God is Not Great, shot up the bestsellers’ lists and received generally favorable reviews. But adding even more credence to Hitchens’ point was the noticeable lack of a backlash against the book. In an age when cases regarding the teaching of “Intelligent Design” are making their way into the courts, I don’t remember reading or hearing of God is Not Great being banned in ways that other books critical of religion sometimes are (something that, I suspect, probably disappointed Hitchens on some Puckish level). Perhaps Hitchens gets a pass from the religious right because, despite his atheism, he’s one of the Iraq War’s most vocal proponents.
Or perhaps it’s because Hitchens did what some rarely do: take religion’s arguments seriously, so seriously that he brought all of his rhetorical and critical faculties to the table in a book-length polemic. Whatever you may believe about religion or about Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great is an object lesson in what public discourse on the important issues of our day should resemble, but rarely does.
Verdict: Cool, with a small side order of Pleasant Surprise.
2. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke wins the National Book Award
Remember Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier? Great. Now: name the novel he followed this with. Yeah, I can’t either. But, then again, I never thought he’d have a follow-up to begin with. I remember attempting to read Cold Mountain when it came out, discovering not a novel but a lot of purple upchuck book ended by incomprehensibility and pretentiousness; I thought it was a slavish attempt at out-Faulknering Faulkner that would hardly place in, let alone win, that Bad Faulkner competition held ever year. Of course, I was wrong. It won The National Book Award in 1997. By the way, Frazier’s follow up was called Thirteen Moons. I didn’t read that one, either, and neither, apparently, did a lot of people.
This year, both The Washington Post and The New York Times short listed Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke as one of their ten best books of the year. And, like Cold Mountain, the book also ended up winning the National Book Award. So, it must be good, right?
Not so fast: at least one person had a reaction to Tree of Smoke that was similar to mine regarding Cold Mountain. Writing in the December issue of The Atlantic, B.R. Myers shellacked the novel, providing a shortlist of howlers, incomprehensibilities, and plot occurrences and characters that, despite the novel’s pretense toward realism, in no way resembled anything approximating real life. Myers’ conclusion: “Once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.” While Charles Frazier appears to have been exiled, the jury’s still out on Denis Johnson.
3. The Death of the Book Review/The Death of Reading
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times decided to merge its book review section with its Opinion section, setting off a firestorm of controversy in the literary world about the future of Sunday book reviews, including speculation that The Washington Post’s Book World’s day are as well numbered. Book World underwent a redesign in January of this year, one that included more art, graphics and photos, which, on the face of it, certainly must limit review space in some way (though so far no one’s done the math to determine if column inches have actually decreased). Of course, there’s no need for book reviews when no one’s reading anymore, as this highly publicized study from the National Endowment for the Arts highlighted (from the study: “on average, Americans spend only seven minutes of their daily leisure time reading”; “reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups”).
Verdict: Tragic, utterly.
4. Oprah’s Book Club’s selection of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
Early last year, Oprah Winfrey selected the paperback version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for her book club.
I’ve read it. It’s just dark. And I don’t mean dark the way a Frank Miller graphic novel is dark. I mean the book is existentially and relentlessly bleak: in a lawless post-apocalyptic land, human beings reveal their true nature, which is shatteringly and irredeemably evil. How dark is it? Here’s how: I have a friend who’s a volunteer paramedic. There’s very little broken, mangled human carnage that he hasn’t seen up close, having been onsite for accidents that have happened only minutes before, accidents where people have literally died in his arms. Again, he volunteers to do this: clearly this is a not a man sensitive to loud noises or bright light. However, my friend confessed to me that, while reading The Road and a for a significant amount of time thereafter, he “wanted to keep the book in view and closed just to have reassurance that it was a mere physical object written by a man,” and not instead an idea pervasive enough to infect his and everybody else’s soul. That’s how dark.
Again, Oprah chose this book for her audience, an audience that generally turns to her for advice on decorating and weight loss advice or how to reignite a boring relationship or marriage.
Verdict: Either cool or weird. I can’t figure it out.
Perhaps even weirder or cooler? McCarthy, except for J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon the most missing man in the history of American letters, gave his very first televised interview to Oprah as well.
In 2007, truth was indeed stranger than fiction.