Saturday, October 17, 2009


There's a story in this week's New York Times Magazine about author Padgett Powell, the reading of which has really brought out my inner (and not all that deeply submerged at the best of times) B.R. Myers.

Had I been familiar with Powell's work beforehand, I would have skipped the thing. Indeed, knowing the kind of writers and artists and musicians the Times Magazine covers, and the manner in which it covers them, I probably should have skipped it. But for whatever reason, I am powerless to resist this kind of crap. So I read it.

In some ways, it's almost hilarious. Powell is described as follows, in a paragraph I'd have thought better suited to a profile of an actor in an issue of Esquire:

Powell has a congenital allergy to proper zones. He doesn’t fit in them very well. He has taught at the University of Florida for 25 years but claims to be disinclined to talk too much about what he calls “literary hogwash.” He would prefer to go fishing or shooting or boating. He knows what makes a quality knife a quality knife and has strong opinions about college football. He has great affection for dogs and snakes and alligators and has kept the first two as pets. Gators, he claims, are just what you’d get if you could mate a dog and a snake — not really dangerous, though you do have to watch out for the tail.

Really? This was written by a (I'll go ahead and assume) handsomely-paid Times correspondent (Dan Halpern, who we are informed "last wrote for the magazine about bull riding"), and not by Padgett Powell's agent? Okay, fine. And yet. And yet. This man who disdains "literary hogwash" writes paragraphs like this one:

Yesterday a few things happened. Every day a few do. My dog beat up another dog. He does this when he can. It’s his living, more or less, though I’ve never let him make money doing it. He could. Beating up other dogs is his thing. He means no harm by it, expects other dogs to beat him up — no anxiety about it. If anything makes him nervous, it’s that he won’t get a chance to beat up or be beaten up. He’s healthy. I don’t think I am.
What kind of shit is that? That paragraph is utterly without rhythm, or if there's one there it's one I can't hear when I read the sentences aloud. But I must be wrong, for in setting up this example of modern prose magnificence, Halpern says "What Powell does with language and sound, with timing, rhythm and cadence, is a thing of strange precision." Strange, yes. Precise, not exactly. And it's the cadence of a man attempting to play the piano with his elbows, not because he's lost the use of his fingers, but because he hopes people are watching. This is showy crudeness, and literary critics — and New York Times Magazine correspondents, apparently — eat it with a spoon. But people who open books expecting to be told a story tend to shake their heads and walk away.

They are almost certain to do so when/if they learn that Powell's new book, The Interrogative Mood, lives up to its title by consisting entirely of questions.

Admittedly, this guy's not some literary darling, at least not anymore; Halpern describes his downward slide, reputation- and sales-wise, and writes:

With critics — and readers — deserting him in greater and greater numbers, Powell found himself practically unpublishable. Powell’s last book came out in 2000, and the two collections of stories he wrote over this last decade failed to find houses willing to print them. He began to claim he was retired.

He then begins to describe The Interrogative Mood, and Powell's upbringing (literary and otherwise). But he doesn't answer the one question I would like answered, which is, How did this new book get sold? It sounds, if anything, even more infuriating and anti-reader than the stuff he's already published, and the bits of that stuff included in the article are awful. It seems to me that for nine years, the publishing industry had the right idea — leave this fool in the Florida swamp where he can't waste anyone's time but his students'.

Oh, well. I guess it's back to genre fiction for me...

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