Read the Book that You Are Reading
It takes a certain perverse talent for a writer to make their credibility completely self-destruct in ten words or less. Yet with enough hard work and stupidity, it can indeed be done. Witness what happened in December 1994, when dance critic Arlene Croce opened a New Yorker article about the AIDS-themed performance “Still/Here” with these words: “I have not seen Bill T. Jones’s ‘Still/Here’…”
Readers might imagine that this opening clause would have precluded Croce from penning a 3,000 word attack on the show. Readers would be wrong. And she didn’t need to see the actual performance, Croce wrote, because the hype behind it already told her everything she needed to know:
If I understand “Still/Here” correctly, and I think I do—the publicity has been deafening—it is a kind of messianic traveling medicine show [using AIDS patients]…. If we consider that the experience, open to the public, as it is, may also be intolerably voyeuristic, the remedy is also obvious: Don’t go.
Artists always suspected that critics don’t know what the hell they’re talking about; now they had Arlene Croce irrefutably proving the point. She could not know because she had not seen the art. But Croce wasn’t about to let the inconvenient complexities of engaging with art get in the way of her notions about an artist.
A predictable melee soon followed in the New Yorker letters section. Perhaps the only useful comment to emerge from the whole thing came later from critic Chris Dohse, who was reminded of a piece of advice that choreographer Robert Ellis Dunn once gave: “Watch the dance that you are watching.” In other words, don’t let what you think you know about a work prevent you from actually knowing it. Do not let every other work that you think it might resemble, or even the artist’s own previous work, make you miss it for what it is. You are watching, good or bad, a new work of art.
Of course, to watch it, first you must show up. And if she had, Croce may well have discovered that she was right about the Bill Jones show. An experienced critic glancing at publicity materials will find their expectations subsequently confirmed much of the time. And there is undeniably a cruel joy in a critic being able to tell readers that a work of art is just as bad as they imagined—or better still, that it is even worse than they imagined. But a critic’s usefulness relies upon their ability to perceive exceptions to their expectations, to be open to the surprise and discovery. And so Croce’s article amounted to a sort of suicide note: an admission that she had simply given up on breathing, on the most basic bodily function of a critic, which is observing the work. Ultimately, what Croce voiced was contempt for the possibility that the art and artist might be anything that she hadn’t already anticipated—saying, in effect, I know who you are, I know your career, I know what you’re about, and I don’t need to know anything more.
Stupidity generally consists of thinking that you do not need to scrutinize something.
I did not find The Encyclopedia of Stupidity: It found me. I received a letter from its publisher informing me that author Matthijs van Boxsel wanted me to have a copy. I will admit to being suspicious. I had never heard of the man before; what did he want with me? It was just past the June 2003 publication date, much too late for me to review for any newspaper, since they generally plan their reviews months in advance of a release. And yet the note gave no hint of the motive behind his mysterious request.
“Fine,” I shrugged. “Send me a copy—as long as I’m not in it.”
The Encyclopedia of Stupidity arrived a few days later, in an anonymous-looking envelope with no note or explanation. I hefted it, looked without much interest at its cover art of a man wearing a dunce cap, and I left it sitting on my dining room table the rest of the day before sitting down late at night and leafing through it. Just another ha-ha–funny compilation on stupid people doing stupid things, I figured. Many books, after all, have a self-evident purpose revealed in their titles: take, say, J.C. “Champ” Thomas guide How to Be an Ass-Whipping Boxer. Now, there is a book that you may expect will deliver on the promise of its title. But the curious thing about The Encyclopedia of Stupidity is that it is not really an encyclopedia at all, at least not in the modern reference-work sense of the word. I picked it up anticipating either a compilation—a sort of Encyclopedia Stupidica—or bathroom-reading entertainment like The Darwin Awards. It is that, but the Encyclopedia is also something much odder. You will not be reading it in a bathroom, either… unless that bathroom is Italo Calvino’s.
Perhaps the first sign that something is amiss is that van Boxsel’s book has the off-kilter, slightly refracted quality of Continental postmodernism in translation. Beginning with the observation that “any study of stupidity automatically assumes encyclopaedic dimensions,” his narrative almost immediately begins unraveling itself, by the author declaring that he himself is too stupid to even write it. It then debates its own existence at length, ending with this bizarre promise by the author: “The Encyclopedia of Stupidity is broad enough to make room for all writings on stupidity, including itself. Inspired by Elsevier’s Vogelgids (Bird Guide) of 1965, which is perversely covered in snakeskin, I have had several copies of the encyclopedia bound in ass’s hide, to emphasize the stupidity of the whole project.”
What? I turned to the dust jacket to look for the author bio. There is no photo of the man, and just this rather mysterious note: “Matthijs van Boxsel is a man of letters who has been researching, writing, and lecturing on stupidity for over 20 years. He lives in Amsterdam.” He also notes inside the book that he first tested out his theories on the subject by lecturing to “gynecologists, crisis managers, and patent attorneys.” It was at this point that a realization began to creep over me. The entire book is a put-on. But it is a put-on of the highest order—an entirely serious one, born out of a sustained interest in the stupidity of readers and writers alike. Noting that “encyclopedias have fallen victim to the flood of knowledge they themselves have unleashed,” van Boxsel concludes his book by claiming that every modern encyclopedia is, so to speak, an encyclopedia of stupidity:
The sole remaining purpose of encyclopedias is vulgarization. The times when someone could change his view of the world by reading an encyclopedia are long past. As an encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of Stupidity concerns the failure of all our attempts to render existence intelligible, [and therefore]… The Encyclopedia of Stupidity enjoys a coherence that its “positive” sisters can only dream of attaining. To stay alive, encyclopedias must no longer concentrate on the accumulation of knowledge but on the development of an essayistic method by which we can come to terms with the world. The essayist practices vivisection on existence; he analyzes reality in order to trip up certainties on one hand and to try out experiments on the other.
I have found this book filed in reference sections and next to Dave Barry compilations; it rightly belongs in the philosophy section. But I think that van Boxsel knew that this would happen, and he wanted it that way. It is his best argument, really. The Encyclopedia is crafted so that, when not looked at carefully, it will elicit reactions that tell you nothing about the book and everything about the sort of people who, shall we say, do not show up for dance performances.
The Encyclopedia of Stupidity is in fact an anti-encyclopedia; its appearance and title are utterly deceptive, and you have to read it to know what is inside. You would think that this is true of any book. But arriving in bookstores at the same time as The Encyclopedia of Stupidity was a novel that used no cover art at all: just thick, blank, white paper with black text on it, like a generic Book off the set of Repo Man. There was no way to guess much about the book’s value without reading it… unless you were columnist John J. Miller of The National Review. After receiving an advance copy of this unadorned book, he posted a column without even having read it:
My first instinct—forgive me, gentle reader—was to burn it. I’ve never felt that way about a book before. I once leafed through a copy of Mein Kampf—at the gift shop in the U.S. Holocaust Museum, no less—and didn’t feel the urge.
My goodness. A book more revolting to behold than Mein Kampf? What on earth could it be? And how would he know just how bad it was without even cracking it open to the first page? What had John J. Miller in this lather was not the contents of the book. He was prepared to burn an utterly blank-faced book because of two words on its front cover: Stephen Glass.
Ah, the modern Judas of journalism: that troll under our big shiny bridge.
A writer of my acquaintance half-jokingly refers to certain lines in his own books as “reviewer bait.” Set out as the screamingly obvious and provoking quotes for reviewers to use, they anticipate a critic’s easiest conclusions. Stephen Glass’s faked stories for The New Republic and other magazines were what one might call editor bait, similarly feeding the preconceived notions and convenient narrative arcs that his bosses craved to have sated. With The Fabulist, though, Glass has fashioned a gigantic piece of reviewer bait—a bucket of chum bound in hardcover.
If there was ever a book that begged critics to slap it around, that ached to provoke reviewers into losing their cool, that book is The Fabulist. It features, after all, a narrator named Stephen Glass who mightily resembles the fraud that the real Glass was during his freelancing days. Surely, though, nobody would rise to such obvious baiting without reading it first… well, except for John J. Miller. Then again, one does not expect much out of deadline writers. Many columnists are the intellectual equivalent of Pez dispensers: You snap their heads back on demand, and out pop cheap little pieces of candy.
But what of the professional critics? Chris Lehmann of the Washington Post at least read it first, panning Glass on stylistic grounds before theorizing that the book would “suggest an uglier (and ongoing) motivation behind Glass’s career than the simple compulsion to lie: a thoroughgoing, unearned contempt for the numberless people he plays for suckers.” One of the more interesting reviews, Emily Nussbaum’s in The Nation, even managed a sneaking if queasy justification for the author’s very existence—“Stephen Glass I’ve always found creepy in a meaningful way—the bogeyman in the journalist’s closet. There’s a Gothic quality to Glass’s transgressions: a primal violation of the writer/editor relationship.”
It appears impossible to engage with The Fabulist simply as a work of art. Without exception, reviews of The Fabulist spent most of their column space on the author and his presumed intentions rather than on the novel itself. I should say almost without exception. I found one review of The Fabulist as a work of fiction—just one. It appeared in the University of Arizona’s student newspaper, the Daily Wildcat, and in it Orli Ben-Dor urges readers: “Eat it up. It’s as juicy as The National Enquirer with the style, panache, and credibility of, well, The National Enquirer.” Although she briefly notes the author’s backstory in her review, she’s less concerned with the sincerity of Glass’s contrition than with whether the book has a compelling story. Perhaps Ben-Dor is a good reviewer: perhaps not. But isn’t it curious that the book’s only positive review came from the one reviewer who was, in all likelihood, cutting study hall when the Glass scandal broke—from someone with no ax to grind, and no personal memory of the author’s past misdeeds?
Glass’s book, I am beginning to think, is a sort of mythical golden apple thrown amongst critics, with the ensuing scuffle revealing very little about the merit of the fruit, but a great deal about those grabbing at it. Stephen Glass is now an admitted writer of fiction, if by most lights a rather bad one. But The Fabulist was never reviewed as a novel, not really: It couldn’t be. Nobody considered it as a novel, they were never going to consider it as a novel, and they never will consider it as a novel until the author and all his contemporaries are dead. Less than a month after its release, The Fabulist was being sold for a while by Amazon at a 50 percent discount—virtually remaindered before the initial reviews had even finished coming in. But for all purposes, The Fabulist was already remaindered before it was released. And I doubt it could have ended any differently.
What if it had started differently? What if Ira Glass had written it? Or what, for that matter, if John Q. Glass had written it? Would the self-serving voice of the book have magically become a satirical one? Would it now be that of a roguishly unreliable narrator, a commentary on the cravenness of modern media? If The Fabulist had a different name attached to it, would it have been treated as what it claimed to be all along—a novel?
What if it had No Name attached to it?
I mean this quite literally. In 1876, the Boston publishing house of Roberts Brothers initiated what they dubbed the No Name Series. As the publisher explained in an ad in the Boston Daily Advertiser:
These novels are to be written by eminent authors, and in each case the authorship of the work is to remain an inviolable secret. “No Name” describes the series perfectly. No name will help the novel, or the story, to success. Its success will depend solely on the writer’s ability.… Several of the most distinguished writers of American fiction have agreed to contribute to the Series.
Roberts Brothers was known to have an impressive stable of authors; they had published Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, and Christina and Gabriel Rossetti, not to mention philosopher Bronson Alcott. Editor Thomas Niles had also famously discovered Alcott’s young daughter writing a book called The Pathetic Family; printed under the more marketable title Little Women, it became the firm’s bestselling book.
The debut No Name volume, Mercy Philbrick’s Choice, was released to intense interest in September 1876. It is one of the most unusual books in the history of American publishing, not least because it is a fictionalized account of the life of Emily Dickinson… published while Dickinson was still alive. Its author—later discovered to be Helen Hunt Jackson—had been pleading with Dickinson for years to publish her poetry. Since Dickinson wouldn’t, Jackson outed her friend by writing a novel about a poet who hides her genius in a New England home. Thousands of American readers unwittingly absorbed the idea of the reclusive poet of Amherst in fiction, years before they actually discovered her in fact. Rather than be offended by this, Dickinson entered into correspondence with editor Thomas Niles and joined the No Name Series. When the 1878 No Name volume A Masque of Poets was published—entirely composed of anonymous new works of poetry by eminent and unknown contributors alike—Dickinson’s entry (“Success is Counted Sweetest”) was mistaken by some reviewers as a poem by Emerson.
Despite this gratifying mistake, it was to be the only occasion when Dickinson ever published a poem in a book during her lifetime. Why, one might ask, did she choose this sole venue? I think the singular appeal of the series for Dickinson was understandable. For someone averse to publication as “the auction of the mind,” the No Name Series presented a unique opportunity to present her work without the tiresome attachment of her self to its sale. This sense of relief was felt even more by her published colleagues. Whether by one’s origins or one’s previous body of work, the dead hand of the past presses upon the reception of any art. Many writers in the No Name Series were well-established authors who now gleefully jumped genres in a way that they never could have in their ordinary professional lives. Louisa May Alcott authored a dark and phantasmal volume of short stories in the Hawthorne mode; the children’s author John Trowbridge wrote a sports novel; the firebrand preacher and political writer Reverend William Baker wrote a family epic.
All these books performed respectably, but the biggest and most unexpected hit of the No Name Series was its fourth entry, the 1877 romance Kismet. It commences with a charmingly nasty bit of ennui. Here is the 18-year-old protagonist Bell Hamlyn, on a long vacation, reading a letter from her fiancé:
It was an old letter, a little worn at the edges as if with frequent reading. It was a long letter, and closely written, as though the writer had taken a certain pleasure in lingering over his work. It was the letter of a man very much in earnest. It was the letter of a man very much in love. And yet in spite of all these things, Miss Hamlyn, turning over its pages with a listless air, was guiltily conscious of feeling decidedly, unmistakably bored.
Bell is floating up the Nile on a grand tour with her family, and you may rest assured that when they encounter another touring barge, it contains a broodingly handsome man—and, oh! He is a man with a past! With a secret!—who will thoroughly wreck her marriage plans.
If you can tolerate Victorian romances, then Kismet is a tolerably good one—particularly when you ignore the romantic bits. The author shines when portraying the languid philosophical conversations engaged in by overheated American and British travelers as they drift up the Nile on a pair of barges. When they dock at the riverside, the tourist-trap descriptions ring as true today as they did back then:
On this side begins the reign of sellers of antiquities picked up among the ruins, and a clamorous group of men and women were soon about them, having long strings of pale blue beads; rough blue images of misshapen gods in shiny porcelain; small alabaster cases of ointment, closed and sealed; or brown and wrinkled hands and feet, torn from the mummies and still wrapped in strips of linen, stiff and stained by the drugs with which they had been saturated. “Why not buy some, Campbell?” asked Meredith, holding up a long string of scarabaei…. “You won’t find one authentic one in five hundred. I only thought you might care to encourage your native British industry by buying a few. These are all Manchester manufacture, and very well done indeed.”
Since the two traveling parties are British and American, there is much opportunity for the author to engage in that favorite Victorian pastime of Spot the National Character. The Americans in the book are reckless and untutored, and briskly unconcerned with conventions of class and family; the British act superior while painfully pinned under the crushing weight of propriety.
It’s the sort of scenario that Henry James would have enjoyed. In fact, he did enjoy it: Reviewing Kismet in The Nation, he praised it as “decidedly superior to the ordinary specimens of American fiction… unusually clever and graceful.” Other reviewers concurred, with the New York Times weighing in that the title was “an assured success.” They were right, for Kismet soon became one of Roberts Brothers’ bestselling titles. But if there was ever a book that needed to be issued in the No Name Series, it was surely Kismet. Would, I wonder, the reviewers have paid as much attention to the book itself, or even reviewed it, had they known the book’s real authorship? Would Henry James have picked up this “decidedly superior” book at all?
Would he still have read it if he’d known that it was written by a teenager?
If Julia Constance Fletcher had a particularly keen understanding of Kismet’s 18-year old central character, perhaps it was because Fletcher herself was 18 when she wrote the book. Fletcher was in fact in the very same touring party that another Roberts Brothers author, the arts critic Thomas Gold Appleton, had based his book A Nile Journal on months earlier. Fletcher outdistanced her esteemed colleague’s work by many editions, and it was no fluke either: She proved to have an excellent eye indeed for dramatic potential. The next year her No Name romance Mirage fictionalized her travels through Italy with a friend who had deeply impressed her—a college student named Oscar Wilde.
Like Kismet, Mirage proved to be a great success in the review columns and bookstores. But for that crucial first effort, Fletcher was able to watch her book get reviewed with miraculous fairness, and without critics belaboring the role that her youth played. Would it have been otherwise possible for a single reviewer to engage Kismet as a mature work of art in its own right, without having to constantly refer to the youth of the author and its inevitable effect upon her writing: an effect which, curiously, no blindfolded review actually discerned? Could the reviews still have been about the work and not about her?
It would be pleasant to imagine that making critics engage directly with books could be achieved without tying one arm behind their backs, which is essentially what Roberts Brothers did. Yet what remains so tantalizing about their example is that it is impossible for most publishers to duplicate. Others tried: the success of No Name inspired Lockwood, Brooks & Company’s “Wayside Series” in 1877, and publisher J.R. Osgood’s “Round Robin Series” in 1881. But neither had the same impact or success, and the experiment does not appear to have been repeated since. The No Name Series carried a potent advantage, because Roberts Brothers was known to be so discerning in its taste that customers could assume, sight unseen, that a book published by them would be worth buying. Only a few publishers in any era enjoy such trust from their readers. Hogarth Press could have done it in the 1920s; New Directions or City Lights could have pulled it off two or three decades later. Who could today?
And yet to treat the No Name Series as just another curiosity of literature misses its artistic point. The problem is not that reviewers refer to genre or biography, but that they become unconsciously dependent on them. The No Name Series forced critics to critique books. They could not fall back on critiquing careers, or personalities, or literary movements—or, rather, what they thought someone’s career was, what they thought their personality was, and what they thought a literary movement was. For a critic to speak of someone’s career or personality implies a personal familiarity that they rarely actually have with a writer; to speak knowledgably about a current literary movement implies a knowledge that is frankly impossible, as most movements are only clearly defined in retrospect, after all the principals are dead and not around to contradict you.
All that is left at the bottom of Pandora’s box is the thing itself: the book.
Readers want to know—what is the book about? What they are not asking is: What is the author about? They are asking—what is it? What they are not asking is: What are the millions of things that it is not?