Saturday, December 01, 2007

Big Literature

The obituaries cited renal failure, but I think it was the news of Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize that killed Norman Mailer. The honor he had pursued for so long went to a woman and a feminist -- and even a writer of science fiction, sort of (Canopus In Argos). I was pretty sure the Swedes would never make room for Mailer, for they shy away from writers whose work is eclipsed by colorful personal lives. They don't mind if you throw an occasional punch at Gore Vidal, but they draw the line at stabbing a wife. Running for mayor of New York on a secession platform might also be taken as a sign of frivolity, and if there's one thing the Academicians hate, it's funny writers. With the possible exception of Shaw, they have never recognized anyone who set out to make people laugh and then succeeded. Nobody has ever cracked a smile as a result of cracking a Lessing book.

It has been a satisfying year for science fiction readers who long for respectability, and there must be a few. Philip K. Dick has received the acid-free-paper-and-ribbon-bookmark treatment from the prestigious Library of America. Well, it was time. They've already published a cookbook, several volumes of sportswriting and movie criticism, and a couple of pulp mystery writers. (The LOA was the baby of Edmund Wilson, author of the anti-mystery screed "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" I wonder what he would say to the inclusion of Hammett and Chandler.) But Dick was the founder of a cult second only to L. Ron Hubbard's, and there was little chance his books would drift out of print and be forgotten. When can we expect permanent editions of early Delany, Sturgeon and Asimov? Some of us think the most important thing the LOA's most important function is identifying forgotten writers like Charles Chesnutt and finding them a new readership. All these Dick books are already in good paperback editions.

I would like to see more attention paid to humor. They publish James Thurber and Dawn Powell, and the plays of George S. Kaufman and his many collaborators; Mark Twain is a given. But where are George Ade, Finley Peter Dunne, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Ring Lardner, even H.L. Mencken? Humor dates, of course, but what doesn't? Have you tried reading Dreiser lately? And where is the next generation? Writing sitcoms, drawing graphic novels, even blogging. These days the funniest writer in The New Yorker is Anthony Lane, the movie critic, and he has to be inspired by rotten movies.

Who is the least honored, most read writer in the world? I mean, of those deserving honor. It would have to be Terry Pratchett, whose compound crime is to write funny science fiction (all right, funny fantasy). All he does is create a believable world, flatten it like a hubcap, mount it on the back of a giant turtle and use it to shoot poison darts at our sorry old planet and the patricians, assassins and wizards who run it, while making you laugh until soup comes out your nose. No Nobel in his future, no editions bound like Bibles, just millions of contented readers. Start with Going Postal, which I just finished, rationing myself so I wouldn't run out too soon. The Discworld books can be read in any order, and the more sober critics have begun comparing this guy with Chaucer. But really, did "The Nun's Priest's Tale" make you wet yourself?

I may have said too much.


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