Friday, October 8, 2010

Friday's "Forgotten" Books: Katha Pollitt: LEARNING TO DRIVE (2007); Erica Jong: SEDUCING THE DEMON (2006)





So...two memoirs by two of our poets...one better known for her political essays, the other for her sexually liberationist novels. One a collection of essays, the other a unitary memoir that began as a writing manual. Both, despite a bit of furor over the Pollitt and the supposed "bestselling" status of the Jong, are already out of print, at least by the measure of primary Amazon availability...

The hassle over the Pollitt came mostly from such quarters as the dancer and repressed-anger sexual submissive Toni Bentley (whose most famous recent work is a fussily-written account of a no-strings/fetishistically all-anal-sex affair and how that helped her find her spiritual self) who was shocked, shocked that Pollitt would be such a man-hater as to “cyberstalk” (actually, just engine-search and read about) her ex-boyfriend. Bentley was accorded considerable space in the New York Times Book Review to expound on this thesis and the other obvious sins of Pollitt, who seems an oddly unembitteredly heterosexual target for such a backhanded slap at feminism. Pollitt’s book is actually a rather cheerful, for the most part, collection of essays about her life at various times, including accounts of good and bad affairs, her early life and her parents’ marriage, her literary career and particularly her early gig as an editor for a soft-core porn novel publisher in the 1970s, a decent source of pay for a young poet and rather eye-opening in several ways. Also, she learns, rather late in life, how to drive a car…happily, this is not employed in any distended way as a metaphor. Those who have read Pollitt’s essays in The Nation and elsewhere can expect a rather similar mix of down to Earth sensibility and incisive observation. It’s typical of our most overrated paper, and certainly of its ridiculous literary desk, that they so eccentrically hoped to sink it…and perhaps they helped.

Jong’s book is less sharply-written than Pollitt’s, as is perhaps not too surprising…poets, and particularly poets who have found greater success with prose, often are relatively lax in the “looser” form, one which less obviously demands (though it still demands, for artistic success, for the craft) concision or at least a sense of when concision can be temporarily forgotten. Jong’s still has a bit of the writer’s guide about it, while mostly being a series of anecdotes about her affairs and passage through the literary world, writing erotica rather than editing it but otherwise not treading too terribly different a path in many ways than Pollitt…just, perhaps, a somewhat more public life, and certainly one which saw an early infusion of cash and attention. I couldn’t shake the sense that Jong is a bit less happy than Pollitt, who seems to have found a rather comfortable place for herself emotionally by her narratives’ end, but both books provide a useful and entertaining opportunity to know a bit of the lives of two of our more engaging feminist literary lions.

(Pollitt’s most recent Nation column on the stands deals with the debate over Jonathan Franzen and Gary Shteyngart’s publicists arranging for their work to suck up all the Literary Hype Opportunities of late; she’s kind enough to refer to Franzen as a good writer, though the current Atlantic features B. R. Myers's review of Franzen’s Freedom that rather forcefully states something akin to my own perception of the man’s work as second-rate, at best, ersatz Philip Roth with a few hints of Robert Coover tossed in.) Jong's book was rather negatively reviewed in the NYT as well, as she notes in this reflection on her life after its publication...

For more of today’s selection of “Forgotten” books, please see Patti Abbott’s blog.

October 1st's "Forgotten" Books:
Paul Bishop: This Girl For Hire by G.G. Fickling
Bill Crider: The Gone Man by Brad Solomon
Scott Cupp: Dread Island by Joe R. Lansdale
Ed Gorman: The Dead Beat by Robert Bloch
Randy Johnson: Enchanted Night by Steven Millhauser
George Kelley: Four Color Fear edited by Gregg Sadowski
Todd Mason: The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
Richard Robinson: 12 Worlds of Alan E. Nourse by Alan E. Nourse

14 comments:

George said...

Wow, two books I've actually read! I've been a fan of Katha Pollitt's snarky essays for years. LEARNING TO DRIVE is good, VIRGINITY OR DEATH! might be better. Erica Jong is always worth reading. SEDUCING THE DEMON might not make you a better writer, but it will enlighten you about the creative process.

BV Lawson said...

As someone who started her literary life out as a poet (of sorts), it's always interesting to read about how career poets/authors led such interesting lives in pursuit of their craft and life in general. Of course, I'm afraid my own memoir would have been pretty boring by comparison...

Todd Mason said...

I've been meaning to pick up VIRGINITY OR DEATH! for a while, now, though I've read some of its contents here and there, whereas (not having the book at hand) I think all of LEARNING TO DRIVE was original to the book's publication. I think "snarky" is a bit unfair...not a word you'd use for H. L. Mencken, is it?

BV, I suspect we've had our moments, but I've certain met, grown annoyed or continued to be delighted with, and slept with fewer famous people than Jong, too.

Todd Mason said...

Nope, I'm wrong...two of the essays in LEARNING TO DRIVE had been in THE NEW YORKER, which only infrequently read.

Richard R. said...

Just sort of checking in to say "howdy" since I have not read and - sadly - have no interest in these. I think I'm becoming overwhelmed by the move, and a strange ennui is setting in. I can't explain it, but you probably can, Todd.

Richard R. said...

Strange Ennui" might make a good book title.

Todd Mason said...

Overwhelming events, such as even a move to better digs, have a way of flattening the emotions...I suspect I've not done a sufficient job of explicating why these books, particularly the Pollitt, are interesting. Certainly her adventures with Bee-Line Books put her in touch with some fantastic-fiction and crime-fiction writers. "Strange Ennui" certainly sounds like an Ellington or Artie Shaw recording...

Evan Lewis said...

Sounds like Toni Bentley needs to get a life. Anyone's other than her own.

Todd Mason said...

Probably couldn't hurt, though I think she's pretty satisfied with her own literary career, at least (not altogether deservedly)--she has an essay in Christopher Hitchen's new volume of BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, after all. However, what excuses the NYTBR has are unlikely to be sufficient.

Todd Mason said...

Or even Hitchens's...

K. A. Laity said...

Katha Pollitt agreed to be our keynote speaker at the college's Women's Studies conference, then backed out to go to Italy with her husband (apparently the country would cease to exist or something if she didn't go right then), so she's always a fave of mine. I've never been much of a fan of Jong, though she certainly opened a lot of doors, so I appreciate that. I'm not sure I could work up the interest to read either book, although that likely speaks more to my hectic life than anything else.

Todd Mason said...

Or at least Jong came up with the term that obliterated a lot of zippers. I haven't read any of her novels yet...just her nonfiction of various sorts.

It might just be that Something Had To Be Done in Italy...maybe just something personal but crucial. But I'll believe it was an unfun experience organizationally on your end.

George said...

STRANGE ENNUI sounds like something H. P. Lovecraft would come up with. No, Mencken was not snarky. He came out snarling. But, Pollitt can be snarky especially if the target is impinging women's rights.

Todd Mason said...

"Snark" comes across with connotations of triviality, to me, though...she's not often trival.