Tuesday, November 09, 2004

53 stupid reviews on the wall. take one down and pass it around. 52 stupid reviews on the wall.

In his 2002 New Yorker essay about Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult,” Jonathan Franzen notes:

"The Recognitions" was published by Harcourt, Brace in 1955, with a marketing strategy of "Everyone is talking about this controversial book!" It received fifty-five reviews, an impressive number by today's standards, and, as William Gass notes in his introduction to the Penguin edition, "Only fifty-three of these notices were stupid." The New Yorker gave the book a brief, smirking dismissal ("words, words, words"); Dawn Powell, in the Post, offered up an error-riddled sneer. Sales were about five thousand in hardcover, not bad for a challenging first novel by an unknown writer. But the only prize the book won was for its design, and it quickly disappeared from public sight.

Dawn Powell’s diaries make no mention of the review or of Gaddis, but in his fine biography of Powell, Tim Page writes:

Like many readers since, Powell was both fascinated and perplexed by The Recognitions, the gigantic, almost impossibly erudite first novel by William Gaddis. “Mr. Gaddis has wit and a vast fund of information, assets that tend to cancel each other out,” she wrote. “The reader scampering to catch the ever-defaulting hero in his many guises through bordellos and monasteries is exasperated by Author Gaddis as Ancient Mariner, waylaying him with lectures on the Church Fathers, the Antichrist Descartes or the Book of the Dead.

It is no surprising that the agnostic Powell, who gave hardly a thought to religion of any kind, should have become frustrated by Gaddis’s obsessive and often mocking allusions to saints, relics, and church history; his irreverence horrified believers and delighted “fallen” Catholics, but it had little relevance to Powell’s concerns. She must have been at least intrigued by the publication of another major book about artists making their living through forgery; the hustlers and poseurs in The Recognitions are not so dissimilar from those in The Wicked Pavilion. Reading both books back to back, one gets the distinct impression that Gaddis and Powell attended the same parties and merely reported them differently.

I would assay “perplexed” as perhaps a biographer’s gentling of his subject; it’s hard for me to imagine Powell as “perplexed” and I suspect Page of using a filter on that lens. Nevermind. It’s not surprising that Powell and Gaddis would report Manhattan differently. At the time Powell was 60ish and had weathered her own fair share of stinging reviews. Gaddis was in his young 30s, The Recognitions his first published novel.

For a more fiery take on Powell’s review, here’s an excerpt from Jack Green’s clearly-going-to-be-indispensable Fire The Bastards!(italics and some formatting supplied). Incidentally, I may be starting a rock band called Dirty Wisecracks at Random:

—a typical snotty ny post headline & typical of that liberal newspaper's smoldering hate for anyone who excels

Seven-fifty for a book without art, maps, recipes or even telephone numbers? Why? And how was a young, unarmed writer able to slug a publisher into even reading such a vast tome, let alone publishing it? To claim they give you 956 pages of novel in return for your money is like offering you a giant headache in return for
your aspirin.

And some place else someone asks, "What are you supposed to be, an honest man just because you don't have a necktie?"

* * *

Is "The Recognitions" supposed to be an honest novel because it has no quotation marks?

powells just having goodnatured innocent fun her last innuendo is false analogy: in the recognitions, the man in the green wool shirt (who the question is asked to) does think not having a necktie makes him honest powell anyway likes to throw in dirty wisecracks at random, just for the hell of it or because she cant think of anything else to say


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