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Keeping Literary Company: Working with Writers since the Sixties.

Jerome Klinkowitz. Keeping Literary Company: Working with Writers since the Sixties. State Univ. of New York Press, 1998. 226 pp. $24.50.

To set the record straight: Jerome Klinkowitz, when he was a young professor at Northern Illinois University and I was an even younger graduate student, did a few very nice things for me that I have never forgotten and for which I have kept silent over the years about his critical writings because I would not have had anything positive to say about them. Over the last ten years, as the publisher of Dalkey Archive, I have rejected two books by him, one of them, being the above, which I rejected as far back as 1992; looking at the few chapters that were sent me by his agent (but not the one in which I was a partial subject), I could quickly see that he was doing more of what he had been doing for years: slick, sloppy writing that seems to serve no other purpose than to promote himself, usually at the expense of the poor writers who are his subjects. To call his criticism superficial would be to compliment it. Some years ago, he seemed to get it in his head that criticism should consist of anecdotes and read like a story in People magazine. The self-proclaimed champion of "innovative" fiction, along the way he lost all sense of aesthetics and critical standards; any and every writer somehow seemed to fit under his ever-expanding umbrella of what constitutes innovation, resulting in one of his more embarrassing critical inventions called "superrealism," a term that allowed him to claim that even the most realistic of writers are also (strike up the band!) innovative.

The problems (to use a gracious term) with this book range from A to Z (why, at times like these, do we have such few letters in our alphabet?). It is self-indulgent, self-congratulatory (its basic thesis is that, without Professor Klinkowitz, none of the writers would have "made it," carrying them on his back but rarely given credit by them for what he had accomplished on their behalf), and self-serving. For the writers who somehow could endure his self-promotionalism, he remains kind and has fond memories; for those who finally told him to take a hike, he remembers hurts and assaults, though never attributing their desire for him to stay away as a sign that his criticism was in fact a disservice, something amounting to having a used-car salesman promote their work.

Over the past several years, I have had friends call me to ask if I had heard about this manuscript, saying that what was said about me bordered on the libelous (as I said above, when the manuscript was sent to me to consider for publication, the chapter on Gilbert Sorrentino and Clarence Major, in which my name comes up a number of times, was not included). But how can anyone be offended by nastiness from this critic when the alternative fate is to be foolishly praised and made to be part of his mythology that you "made it" only because of his efforts? In any event, it has taken several years for this manuscript to find a publisher, and finally a university press went for it and found outside readers who apparently were ill-informed enough to swallow its inaccuracies.

For example, I was there the night Professor Klinkowitz met Gilbert Sorrentino, and in fact am the one responsible (God help me) for introducing them. Half of what the Professor records about the event is made up out of whole cloth. The scowling Sorrentino that the Professor portrays didn't exist that night, though in retrospect I can imagine that such was imagined as the Professor made his usually stupid argument that if you could get kids hooked on Vonnegut, one day they would step up to more serious writers. Later in the chapter the Professor imagines that a character in Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew is based upon him, as though Sorrentino hadn't met enough hick professors in his time to have to rely on this one as a model. And still later the Professor claims credit for getting Sorrentino his job at Stanford University, making him, by my count, the nineteenth person to make this claim. But to return to the evening when Sorrentino and the Professor met. The line that the Professor uses to describe Sorrentino's appearance at the door is lifted word for word (without any attribution) from an essay I wrote about Sorrentino years ago: need anything else be said for the level of scholarship in this book?

As to the Professor's claim that he was able to escape the domineering influence of Sorrentino while I was not (e.g., under Sorrentino's influence I became "stern" and "abrupt"), all that I can say is that the Professor is being kind here. The fact is that I have always been an opinionated asshole who has no time for fools. The Professor credits Sorrentino for these qualities in me. As to Sorrentino's influence on my sensibilities, that's a matter of record. But as both Pound and Shklovsky argued many years ago, one chooses those influences, and indeed I did. And that influence, which I have talked about extensively in interviews over the years, was and is at work in both the Review of Contemporary Fiction and Dalkey Archive Press. This should be news to no one, and in fact some other professor years ago wrote a long article complaining about the same thing, that Sorrentino greatly influenced the Review and that the Review is not "objective [whatever this might mean] scholarship." Indeed, nor was it ever intended to be. It has always represented a cause that says this writing is good and that writing is bad. If there is problem with the Review along these lines, it is that the Review does not draw these distinctions often enough.

But more curious than what the Professor has to say about Sorrentino is what he does with Clarence Major, a writer who has nothing whatsoever to do with Sorrentino's aesthetics but gets wrapped into the same chapter; the only thing that seems to unite them here is that they both grew rather unfond of the Professor: Major is another example of a writer not being properly appreciative of what the Professor did for him. The Professor brings me into the fray and is indignant on my behalf that Clarence Major was somehow ungrateful both to him and me. In 1971-72, I interviewed Clarence Major for a book called Interviews with Black Writers; I believe that I reviewed one of his novels at about the same time for the Chicago Sun-Times; and I invited him to give a reading at the college where I was teaching in 1973-74. The Professor's indignation is that Clarence Major abandoned both him and me, choosing to have the likes of Toni Morrison blurb his books rather than us. After that one review, I am sure that there is nothing that could have been used as a blurb from me, but even if there were, who in the hell would want my blurb when he could get Toni Morrison's? And one certainly need not ask the same question in regard to the Professor. But once again, this all seems to settle with the Professor as a slight after all he had done for Major's career.

Just a few more observations about the Professor's book. First, the bibliography is one of the shoddiest imaginable, overlooking many essential pieces written about these writers and their aesthetics, but including almost everything the Professor has written in book form, even his (this is not a joke) baseball fiction. Second observation: the Professor writes about Sorrentino's later work: "Lacking the motivation that anger and crankiness provide, novels such as Crystal Vision and Blue Pastoral ... take the lyricisms of Steelwork and its actual subjects as well and amplify them to the point of self-exaggeration." Well, in fact, Crystal Vision uses the materials from Steelwork, but Blue Pastoral uses the materials from The Sky Changes, retracing the characters' journey from New York to San Francisco. This is a rather basic error to make about a writer's work, especially when the point of the paragraph suggests that this fiction represents a decline in Sorrentino's work. But who's to notice, who's to care? It sounds fine, sounds right, just as long as the reader doesn't know anything, or apparently the editor of this book. One final observation. In his chapter on Ronald Sukenick (that is, "Ron": the Professor obnoxiously keeps using the first names for these writers to assure us what good buddies he was or is with them all), he recalls a kind of falling-out he had with Sukenick (the poor Professor once again being slighted), but that several years later he hooked up with Sukenick in Paris. Leaving aside the content of this meeting, I want to point out that the Professor says that they "walked across part of town to Ron's neighborhood" and that, along the way, they "paused" "for some fresh country wine." Well, let's see here. Paris is not a city that is referred to as "town"; Cedar Falls and Milwaukee are such cities. And, though I do not drink very much wine and know next to nothing about it, I can't imagine what "fresh country wine" might be: grape juice? Perhaps it is such things as these that caused, according to the Professor's lights, Gilbert Sorrentino to think of the Professor as a hick.

This book might have been interesting (a la People) if the Professor would have been forthright enough to entitle it thus: "How I Made Careers for So Many Writers and How I Imagine They Have Scorned Me," and then proceed to give up the veneer of providing even a glimmer of critical writing. It would have also been interesting (again a la People) had he told a number of anecdotes he could have, like the time that ... but I will leave that to what will no doubt be another volume of his memoirs; after all, the guy is only in his early fifties. As it stands, the book is an incredible embarrassment.

Which editor at State University of New York accepted the above title? I don't know, but it might be the same one who accepted Richard Elman's appropriately titled Namedropping (which would also have been a good title for the Professor's book). It has the same self-serving, ax-grinding quality that the Professor's book does, and (what are the chances?) one of the chapters is about Gilbert Sorrentino. Before taking a look at the Sorrentino chapter, I want to point out a very peculiar omission: nowhere does the book mention--not on the copyright page, the jacket copy, or on the acknowledgements page that provides a chronology of where the writer was/is when he wrote these things, ending with a list of places where ("to the present") he has been a visiting professor--that Richard Elman died about a year ago. A useful, or at least interesting, piece of information, especially for a book of this kind? Is anyone awake in the editorial department at SUNY?

At any rate, we have a three-page assessment of the personality and writing career of Gilbert Sorrentino, and once again we get the picture of the wounded, "difficult," reclusive personality ("the Prince of Aquitaine in his ruined tower"). Let's check the chapter for accuracy. Among the first items, we find out that Sorrentino was hurt and wounded when his old friend LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) went radical and abandoned his white friends: "Sorrentino seemed to regard his act as a special hurt. He would not say anything at all about Baraka." I am not sure how Elman knows the first part of this if the second part is true, but this is probably beside the point. I knew Gilbert Sorrentino very well in those years and frequently heard stories about and critical assessments of Jones; they were all warm personal anecdotes or very positive views of his work, from the plays to the poetry to the fiction. Just prior to this statement about Sorrentino and Jones, Elman says how uncomfortable he felt around Sorrentino: "It was hard to relax in his company. He always seemed to be scrutinizing you for errors or illiteracies.... "If Sorrentino was refusing to comment on Jones, my guess is that the conversation had already hit the point where Sorrentino knew to whom he was talking, and perhaps had stumbled across enough "illiteracies" for the day. Two paragraphs before, Elman says that Sorrentino "had a hard time bringing out his novels with trade publishers." Since Elman does not provide any dates for anything, one has to guess as to what period this statement might apply; given the few facts he does make available, the period would seem to be the early to mid-1970s. By that time, Sorrentino's fiction had been published, in this order, by the following publishers: Hill & Wang, Pantheon, Pantheon, and New Directions; if we move up the timetable a bit, the next two novels came out from Grove and then Random House. Are these or are they not trade houses? Are they or are they not what one would consider, especially in the 1970s, among the most; distinguished trade houses in New York? Either Elman didn't know who had published Sorrentino's work, or more likely, he did, and yet these facts would not fit his argument about the embittered novelist who couldn't get published by a serious trade house. Strangely, or not so, the piece rhetorically unfolds in a way similar to how the Professor's does: praise amid the covert attacks, so that someone who really doesn't know the facts, will take the assessment as a fair, perhaps even more than fair. The chapter ends with Elman making reference to the only time he "ever saw Gil smile easily and happily." This may be true, but then we have to see this in the context of Richard Elman having been there.

The misfortune of both of these books, but especially the first, is that they are so badly done and represent fragile egos at work. While many of the writers that Klinkowitz covers still remain unrecognized in contemporary American literature, and since yet another university is willing to give him space in its catalog, the book could have been an opportunity to provide much-needed discussion; instead, it becomes an occasion for the author's self-imposed illusion that he made them well known.

One final note: Gilbert Sorrentino is the most important American novelist since the late 1960s. This fact is always worth keeping in mind.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:O'Brien, John
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
Previous Article:Wormholes Essays and Occasional Writings.
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