The Thee-ater of the Bozarts

by Katherine Dalton on April 16, 2009 · 11 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Writers & Poets

Louisville, Ky. “Rural dwellers may have boundless tolerance for exaltations of the wonders and mysteries of the natural world, but the urban spirit begins to rebel. By the time this well-intentioned but miscalculated show drew to a close, I was more than ready to hop on an environment-trashing jet plane and return to the soulless city, having acquired a pronounced and irrational antipathy to fertile farmland seen on misty mornings and dew-dappled fiddlehead ferns.”

So ran a recent New York Times dismissal of the new show Wild Blessings, a compilation of Wendell Berry’s poems that debuted last month at Actors Theatre of Louisville.  The show was part of ATL’s annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, and was created by the theater’s artistic director Marc Masterson and his company dramaturg, Adrien-Alice Hansel.  Wild Blessings combines five actors, music, and in the background a shifting photographic montage (those fiddleheads).

Why does a belittling review matter? Every artist gets bad reviews.  But I want to look at this one for two reasons.  First, because this review dismisses not just the play itself, but the author of the poems that make up the play, and even the rather large subject of his work.  Nature!  There’s just so much of it. As the reviewer left town he couldn’t shake the dust off his carbon footprints fast enough.

No doubt every crisis quickly instills crisis fatigue in some of us, and clearly this writer has heard one too many pieces of green advice.  But I was reminded of the suggestion a vehement libertarian gave at a meeting years ago, that we should regard the Great Hole carved out by the Colorado not as a national park, but as a convenient national dump.  Such a sweeping rejection of the beauty of the natural world is always worth remarking—in any case, I find it remarkable.

Also, as sorry as I am to acknowledge it, the review matters because this is the Times, and the Times, as has been true for decades, has a clout all out of proportion to the actual taste of its reviewers.

This piece is typical of the paper’s lack of real interest in Mr. Berry.  Perhaps no serious writer draws larger crowds at readings and gets shorter shrift in the Book Review.  He has his fans at the paper (notably, Michael Pollan), and he is not completely ignored, but he is ignored enough.  Jayber Crow, a beautiful novel, garnered about a hundred words when it was published in 2000.  And while every organ makes mistakes and misses important books, the fact is the Times has never found Berry’s work congenial.  Of the over 30 books Mr. Berry has published since 1990, only two collections of essays and the recent novel Andy Catlett were reviewed at respectable length (to be fair, positively).  Now try counting the Times’ articles on Philip Roth.

Two recent Sunday Book Reviews included novels on the following subjects (and the descriptive language is the paper’s):  urban portraits of status-conscious women.  The story of a World War II veteran who takes pinup photos of his downstairs neighbor—love and fame ensue.  Short stories on class conflict entitled Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. And a first novel of urban Bohemian Oberlin graduates, which ends with 9/11.  Not having read any of these books, I can’t say I know that they are bad.  I can only say they sound like many, many other new novels, and like the usual choices of editors who would indeed find, as one Times reviewer did, that the world described in Mr. Berry’s novels is “sepia-toned.”  To the Times the most foreign of foreign countries is a coherent rural America.  Unless someone is bludgeoned or abused here, or is making really good capriole, rural America bores the Times to death.

As for the play, and as is evident from its title, there is indeed some earnestness to it—an earnestness so grating to the sophisticated ear.  But surely all real emotion is emotion in earnest, and what would poetry be without it?  Wild Blessings is well constructed and at times moving, because beneath it all lies Mr. Berry’s beautiful bones.  Berry is not an obscure poet; the romantic love of “The Blue Robe” or the bawdy joy of “The Mad Farmer Revolution” are crystal clear, and one of the strengths of this compilation is that it shows the many sides of this often grave writer, including his humor and his affection.  If this critic disliked the performers and photo montage, restrained as they were, he need only have shut his eyes and listened.  But his dismissal was complete:  dulcimer, fern, field and poem.  If the poetry alone had no beauty for him, well, there’s no use trying to sell Gabrielli to the tone-deaf.

I lived in New York City for four years, and while I never liked living there, I like New Yorkers.  I even like their parochialism.  I think everyone should feel that his neighborhood is the finest place in the world, even when it’s part of a sprawling megalopolis of concrete and eight millions.  The problem is not that the city and the paper are biased towards their own people and their own concerns.  The problem is that both assume their biases should be everyone’s biases, and that both exert too much cultural influence on the rest of the country.  Literarily as well as theatrically, the Times speaks for the nation–not alone, but very loudly.  So to be dismissed by a Times critic, even a critic whose one book is a biography of a pornographic film star, matters far more than it should.

At a recent conference held in honor of the late Wallace Stegner, a colleague revealed how grieved Stegner was to have been ignored by the New York Times.  Over two thousand miles away in California, successful and loved as he had been, it had stung—as it will continue to sting every writer who does not fall within the scope of a paper whose influence is wide, but whose worldview stops dead at the Hudson.

As for Mr. Berry, full of “hope but not necessarily optimism,” I expect he’s all right.

To be sane in a mad time

is bad for the brain, worse

for the heart. The world

is a holy vision, had we clarity

to see it—a clarity that men

depend on men to make.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Katherine Dalton April 16, 2009 at 7:37 am

In checking this piece again this morning I realized something I need to mention in fairness: that Stegner’s complaint about the NYT was discussed by Timothy Egan in an op-ed in that paper in February. So while the Times misses a lot, it does occasionally acknowledge it misses a lot.

avatar Bob Cheeks April 16, 2009 at 8:08 am

I’ve been reading Berry since 1974-I think-when his Unsettling of America was published and reviewed a half dozen of his fiction works for various publications, though not for the Times. Although you know Berry and I’m merely a fan who often visits the membership for restorative reasons, I find it difficult to believe that he would spend too much time being offended by a Times review.
Your essay clearly illustrates, for me, the continuing hypocracy of the left. Excellent essay, Ms. Dalton.

avatar Josh Cooney April 16, 2009 at 8:40 am

I would expect a book reviewer in the New York Times to have some knowledge and appreciation of the American literary tradition. This level of competence would be hard to achieve if one is dismissive of Nature and rural life as subjects, since these are the subjects that form the main body of our national literature.

And they are not simply arbitrary subjects. Nature, especially, both as a thing and an idea, is inseperable from American history. Our poets have been wrestling with the conflicts and problems that resulted as European civilization pushed itself into a vast wilderness, a New World.

And what kind of literature would we have without rural culture? Not much. Of course having a dearth of literature means that there is an absence of culture to nourish it. At some point, the Times will feel the consequences of this loss of culture, but, I expect, they will fail to recognize its cause.

avatar Tom Murphy April 16, 2009 at 11:10 am

Thanks for teasing out the threads of that dismissal by the Times. I was struck dumb by the reviewer’s refusal to engage the work on its own terms. We expect … and should call for … better from such an influential media outlet.

avatar Henry Chappell April 16, 2009 at 11:24 am

The parochialism isn’t restricted to NYT reviews. I sometimes suspect that a modern-day Faulkner would struggle to get his work read by agents and editors in New York. To a degree, that’s perfectly understandable given the millions of manuscripts floating around, the number and increasing influence of prestigious creative writing programs, and the background and sensibilites of folks working in the New York publishing business.

Who has the better shot? A bright kid studying at Princeton under Joyce Carol Oates or an elderly, unpublished genius laboring in a burg in Oklahoma? This is nothing new, of course.

Certainly, the folks in NY choose many worthy works and authors, including a few from the hinterlands. They take risks on young and unknown writers, and, often as not, lose money in the bargain. But I suspect that most editors and agents make their choices with a sophisticated (and perhaps subtle and unconsious) urban bias. If you were born and raised in New York City or choose to live and work there, you might wonder who’d care about a collection of stories set in and around Winesburg Ohio. In Sherwood Anderson’s time, an urban sophisticate probably wasn’t more than a generation or two removed from the farm and probably counted farmers or small town merchants among his kin.

To be fair and honest, if I were an editor or critic and something like Portnoy’s Complaint crossed my desk, I’d probably pass. I was born, raised, and educated in Kentucky, and during the past 26 years I’ve lived in Texas, I’ve spent as much time as possible in what many people call The Sticks. As hard as I try to avoid provincialism, my experiences (reading included) shape my outlook. I find small town and rural concerns very real and worthy of exploration. Sure, I can enjoy an urban novel, but it’s unlikely to resonate like a story or essay by Eudora Welty or John Graves. That says a lot more about me than about the urban novel in question.

As newspaper book and arts sections continue to shrink and disappear, it seems likely that the infliuence of the New York Times and a few other publications will only grow, and their outlook will become even more provincial. Sure, blogs and online reviews will help, and regional and university presses are publishing works that NY publishers wouldn’t touch, but unless newspapers like The Courier Joural, Dallas Morning News, and Houston Chronicle can afford (and choose) to publish substantial reviews of works by local artists, writers, and producers, indifference from NY will continue to sting far more than it should.

(Full disclosure: My books are published by a university press. This subject is near and dear to my heart, wallet, and ego.)

avatar D.W. Sabin April 16, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Dalton, you give the N.Y. Times too much credit. Their world weary view doesn’t extend to the Hudson, it clamps shut in an ironclad bubble that floats from one cocktail party of swells to another. Actually, the Think tanks of Washington DC would appear to be more on their horizon than even Greenwich Village…such as it is…. now. Granted, the west has always been someplace that only has meaning if someone at a Gotham soiree “discovered” it .

The Times and many of it’s fellow newspapers used to have the good sense and courage to hire journalists rather than commentators. These journalists could bang a type writer and did not have the glib ability to Google things…they actually had to go out and hit the pavement to research a story and more often than not, they assembled at smoky bars at 3 in the afternoon and compared notes across paper lines. The best ones possessed a narrative quality that was rich in novelistic flourishes. They might have had “confidential sources” but they didn’t grant these sources final word. They were beholden to the big boys in their upper floor offices but they were not cowed by them. The editors nd publishers respected them more for it. They made a career out of puncturing conventional wisdom rather than pumping it up to a planetary size.

Newspapers are fast becoming simply a slightly more comprehensive television . The best thing to do after wading through all the expanded “lifestyle” coverage and actually garnering a bit of real news is to read a few papers, conjure the opposite of what they say and average it all out to a kind of tentative reality, confirmed only when the paper says it isn’t true.

I stubbornly pay a few drachmas to read the Times near every day but it can generally be chalked up to an unseemly desire to be pissed off about something. I think the clinical term for it is paranoid schizophrenia.

avatar Katherine Dalton April 16, 2009 at 5:41 pm

I don’t know if I would even call it hypocrisy, Mr. Cheeks. I think Mr. Chappell has described it well (and thank you); the language is not the same, and the subject matter has no resonance. One of the strange things about living in New York was coming to understand that I never fully understood the subtext of all that was said. I don’t mean anything knowing or unpleasant, but just the underlying assumptions of certain phrases and tones that differ enough between New York and Kentucky to make me realize, finally, I was a stranger in a foreign land. People visiting England will feel it right away: same words, different language.

On the other hand Mr. Berry’s characters’ language sounds just like my grandparents, and there’s no question that’s one reason I love his books. Still, they also have a richness and complexity I’d like to think would interest plenty of city people, and they do some, only not many at certain outlets. His books are never optimistic, but they are full of hope–he has imagined a community of people who live in awareness of their ties, claims and need for one another. I think that notion is more out of fashion than plowing with mules. And newspapers are all about the new.

The other troubling thing is the day may come very soon when all of us, even Mr. Sabin, will be nostalgic for the Times (or the Boston Globe). We seem to be going the way of the Huffington Post.

I agree with Mr. Chappell about the importance of university presses, and of other small presses, all of which I expect are going to have a tough few years. Good luck to yours.

avatar Bob Cheeks April 18, 2009 at 4:56 pm

You are correct about Berry capturing the idea of “a community of people who live in awareness of their lives…”
That’s the magic, a recognition not only of our unique place in the drama of humanity (that transcends this world), but also the certitude that within that drama lies the act and potency of God.
I think D.W. is by nature a very nostalgic person..he’s the philosopher seeking, questing,….
Write some more, Ms. Dalton, I do enjoy it!

avatar Katherine Dalton April 19, 2009 at 3:01 pm

No criticism of Mr. Sabin intended, whose comments I always appreciate. My point is just the answer to the problems of the Times’ narrowness is more newspapers with more perspectives–but we are going to get fewer instead.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 20, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Insult at will. I thrive on insult, it’s why I read the N.Y. Times and reflexively follow politics .

While Cheeks is correct that I have nostalgic impulses, I also am crazy enough to think the species is capable of a more comprehensive “modernism” that elevates the primitive to an equal level with the technological in a way that eliminates the cockeyed notion of “external costs” and does not sacrifice the local and beneficially traditional at the altar of “Progress”. We need both an historical reference and a fundamental urge to better our futures.

avatar Bob Cheeks April 20, 2009 at 3:31 pm

D.W. great comments, but we’ll be hiding out in the foothills long after “Progress” ceases to require its usual offerings. See Ms. Dalton this is why we love D.W. and ask you to write stuff.
D.W. check out my blog over at Postmodern Conservative (First Things)titled: Gimme that olde-time religion…it goes to the heart, though I think I may have annoyed a few!

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