COASTAL FEUDS JULY 18, 2013
You don’t name your publication the Los Angeles Review of Books unless you are trying to make a statement. Most obviously an allusion to the august, 50-year-old New York Review of Books, the website is more broadly a flag-planting atop an American literary scene that, despite the vastness of the continent, has for at least a century been overwhelmingly weighted on a small, dinky island in the far northeast. Editor Tom Lutz, a professor at UC-Riverside, said as much to the Los Angeles Times when the LARB launched a little over a year ago: “We are not under the shadow of the New York publishing industry and the kind of conventional wisdom of that industry.”
Still, that would suggest mere apathy toward “The City.” A couple days ago, the LARB attacked the NYRB in a way that suggests Lutz would rather be the one casting the shadow.
The NYRB had published a review, by the esteemed poet Frederick Seidel, of Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers. It was not especially kind, though it was far from a pan. “There’s a tremendous comic energy in the characters in the book, a downtown outlandishness, comic but usually not funny, brilliant fiery invention, but somehow lacking in feeling,” Seidel declaimed. “The book has heat but lacks warmth.” Then the LARB published a response to Seidel’s “gallingly condescending, often inadequate review” by Nicholas Miriello, Huffington Post’s managing blog editor, who accused Seidel of showboating and failing to evaluate Kushner’s novel on its own terms. At roughly 2,650 words, Miriello's screed ran about 400 words longer than Seidel’s review itself. It concluded, “What is this review interested in? Frederick Seidel.”
But the offense may have been less literary than coastal. Seidel, who lives in New York, wrote that “the novel too often sounds like the stylized voice-over narration of film noir, sardonic, self-conscious, very American, the sound of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity”—California references, all. There is nothing quite so explicitly regional in Miriello’s rebuttal, but consider that he’s responding in the Los Angeles Review of Books to a New York-based poet writing in the New York Review of Books about an L.A.-based novelist's latest book, which, though for large stretches based in New York, undeniably crackles—particularly in scenes based in the Nevada desert—with the western flair of an Ed Ruscha work. (Both Kushner and NYRB editor Bob Silvers are traveling and couldn’t comment.)
“Rachel has always been into car/bike culture,” Lutz, the LARB editor, told me earlier this week in a phone interview. “That’s a West Coast thing. I think she identifies with it as an L.A. writer.” (Raised in the Pacific Northwest, she received her MFA at Columbia and lived many years in New York. She currently lives in L.A. I sense that she wouldn’t consider herself an “L.A. writer,” but I do think the novel possesses a Western sensibility.) Lutz continued: “I had not thought of it until you did mention it—that it was some version of a Tupac and Biggie moment—but it makes a certain amount of sense, in that we do aspire to the kind of general excellence of the NYRB, but we do have all sorts of different kinds of cultural commitments. And this may represent one of them, which is, there’s something a bit fuddy-duddy about the Seidel distaste for what Kushner’s done.”
“The only difference between California and yogurt,” Woody Allen once quipped, “is yogurt has active culture.”
Los Angeles in particular has long labored under some cross between an anxiety of influence and an inferiority complex when it comes to literature. The city where geniuses like Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, and Nathanael West created and set their masterworks (not to mention Billy Wilder, Larry Gelbart, and the Marx Brothers) is routinely and rightly offended when New Yorkers slag its intellectual scene, even if it is also aware that it is less known for those great works of art than it is for Jerry Bruckheimer movies.
The Flamethrowers was the spring’s big literary novel—reviewed favorably in all the right places (perhaps most notable was the James Wood rave in The New Yorker)—and Seidel’s review, written in a talkative and almost whimsical style, may have been gratuitously dismissive. At the same time, Miriello’s response unmistakably had an air of protesting too much. “I think there’s a bit of, probably, just rhetorical excess on both parties,” Lutz said.
Purely as a reader, I am with Seidel and the NYRB—I stopped reading The Flamethrowers a third of the way through, because I felt that its high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters. But it is difficult not to side with Miriello and the LARB in their broader project, which is to call attention to the New York centered-ness of the American literary scene—especially because this project is typically executed subtly, and so rarely involves something as programmatic as attacking a quintessentially New York review. (And even so, I should note that—unlike, say, Tupac’s classic “Hit ‘Em Up”—Miriello’s response was not a deliberate dis track.)
“We have a sense of a bigger tent, in terms of the kinds of voices,” Lutz said, musing, “I think there’s a reason the NYRB has the worst Vida count”—a tally of women’s bylines—“of any of the major book reviews. That’s related.” (He added, “I probably shouldn’t have just said that.”)
Lutz rejected the notion that the LARB operates under a strenuous anxiety of influence vis-à-vis New York. Of its name, he joked (but not?), “We thought of it as steampunk homage.” Steampunk? “It hearkens back to a time when people thought maybe there was something very local about what they were doing,” he explained, “but I don't think there ever really was.”
In his other life, as a scholar, Lutz writes about American regionalism, arguing that it is illusory—that even those authors whose locales seem most vital to their work (Willa Cather, William Faulkner) were actually writing for national and international audiences. “It’s true that Cather published with New York publishers,” he argued. “The editors of the regionalist journalists—The Sewanee Review, etc.—all published in New York if they could. The industry was there. But it didn’t mean the literary consciousness was there entirely.”
In 1894, he noted, Hamlin Garland published an important essay collection called Crumbling Idols that called for a more cosmopolitan American literary culture—one that, Garland felt, up to that point had only very slowly moved westward from the East Coast. “At this point,” Lutz said (speaking of the present), “we’re in a new publishing world, where publishing is happening in everybody’s study and bedroom. It’s a wide-open world in all sorts of ways, and what had been midlist has been ceded to small presses across the country. The literary center is maybe finally doing what Garland thought it was going to do.”