Breaking from reading galleys of upcoming books -- implausible, illogical crime (Harlan Coben and Jonathan Rabb), goofy fiction passed off as Midwestern wisdom (Jane Hamilton) and a terrific history of the forgotten war between Italy and Central Powers in the Alps in World War I ("White Winter"), I sought to educate myself by reading two lengthy pieces in our finest of periodicals -- the New York Times and The New Yorker.
In a mammoth exercise in fawning obsequiousness Feb. 23, New Yorker scribe Daniel Zalewski slobbers over Ian McEwan, calling his best-selling works "almost scandalously popular." Danielle Steel's success is a scandal. McEwan's well deserved
Much of the article is worth skipping including Zalewski's wide-eyed description of McEwan's 60th birthday party with various Brit literati -- "Zadie Smith walked over, in a nubbly canary-yellow dress." McEwan's hospitality toward Zalewski was extremely generous and he repaid him by repeating generous appraisals of his novels, even though "All of McEwan's literary friends . . . have an odd tendency to dismember his books."
Why? Could it be they are not perfect? We'll never know. (Of course, they are not and his last two were, well, uninspiring.)
The value in the article is McEwan's observations and explanations of his craft. If you can wade through the sugar-donut prose, there are a few snatches of insight.
Across Times Square at the NYTimes, we find full-time lawyer and part-time poetry observer David Orr asking us to consider "greatness" in poetry -- "because for the first time since the 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness."
Orr is simply repeating the warnings that have surfaced for years since those great white male poets of the last 50 years started dying and the graduate schools of poetry writing flourished. Recently, one accomplished poet of that generation told me of his worries that the craft was devolving into self-indulgent, undisciplined mush.
Think of past poetry readings of younger poets. When did one of the readers read a poem that was not about him-or-herself?
In the end, greatness is defined by the generations and is not some universal standard.
If Orr has a point -- and it's not always clear that he does -- today's poets need to study the works of the "greats" and learn from their successes and failures.
Read it for yourself: