American Sucker By David Denby, Little Brown & Company, 320 pages, $24.95
"Dog Trouble" by Cathleen Schine, The New Yorker, January 5, 2004
"Webstalker" by Katha Pollitt, The New Yorker, January 19, 2004
"Envy" by Kathryn Chetkovich, Granta #82
It used to be so hard to be a writer! So many choices -- fiction, poetry, history, biography -- and so many hurdles. How to pay the bills while you made a name for yourself? Marry well, teach, write other stuff for money? If you did what I did and chose fiction writing, there were all those bothersome rules: disguise characters based on real people, make the father the alcoholic instead of the mother, set the story in Miami Beach instead of Wyoming, and be sure to lie when asked where you get your material.
Real men didn't write autobiographically. It made them look like frauds and whiners instead of artists -- unless their subject was war (cf. James Jones, Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien). But they didn't have to worry back then. People were too polite to ask Philip Roth if his mother was the model for Sophie Portnoy, even though they were absolutely certain she was. And didn't we all know that Roth himself was the model for Portnoy, the crazed teenage masturbator -- the liver, the cored apple, the whole hideous, mortifying mess?
Roth had, and still has, the screen of "fiction" to hide behind, even after his ex, Claire Bloom, wrote a tell-all memoir about their life together. Calling it fiction doesn't mean you made it up; it simply means you don't have to talk about it.
If this were a movie, the screen might go dark and then the year "2004" might beam onto the next image. Or we could denote the current moment by showing a woman in a dark room at her illuminated laptop computer screen. Perhaps a snippet of a reality TV show, with two strangers on a televised date. Or better yet, a TV commercial I saw recently, featuring a college lecture hall with a crusty old professor explaining to the students that not all of them would become published writers; a student disagrees and describes a computer product that blows all that elitist stuff about publishing right out of the water. Blogging, of course, already allows people, regardless of talent, to bare their soul to the world, and it may not be long before college students can major in the genre.
But until that cultural watershed takes place, we still have the intensely personal memoir to kick around. The trend began its modern life in the 1960s with the "new journalism," and specifically with a line of Joan Didion's from her first Life magazine column in 1969. She wrote that she and her husband had gone to Hawaii "in lieu of filing for divorce." In the 1990s, memoirs were so popular that fiction writers, myself included, were stunned and stumped by the "true stories" that were jamming the culture waves and making it difficult to sell novels. All publishers wanted, it seemed, were stories of hard luck, unhappy childhoods, incest, and drug addiction.
The latest spate of memoirs are dispatches not from our troubled pasts but from deep in the heart of the Way We Live Now, with our divorces, our same-sex lovers, and our personal computers. The once chaste New Yorker has been publishing such confessions in its "Personal History" column for the last few years. Daphne Merkin's piece about her appetite for being spanked set the stage in 1996. In January this year, both Katha Pollitt, poet and feminist commentator, and novelist Cathleen Schine got very personal, Pollitt with admissions of "Webstalking" her ex-lover, Schine with a story about a crazy dog that drove her and her new partner mad. She mentioned that she had recently split up with her husband, having "made one of those unforeseen middle-aged discoveries" that she prefers women to men.
Schine's coming out coincided with the publication of her ex-husband's memoir, American Sucker. Though David Denby is a New Yorker film critic and author of Great Books, here he tackles the collapse of his marriage and subsequent obsession with money and playing the NASDAQ, spurred by his desire to buy out Schine's share of their apartment.
Pollitt, Schine, and Denby are established writers who are too classy, we might think, to stoop to this genre. But there they are, getting naked in print for money. Some readers wonder what drove these high-minded folks to agree to public stripteases, to selling the true stories of their frailties and obsessions. Some are certain that the writers must feel ashamed and humiliated, as though an essay in The New Yorker were a confession on an afternoon TV show, a banner blaring across the screen: "TRIED INTERNET PORN. LOST BIG $$$ ON TECH STOCKS."
Although not as many people read Kathryn Chetkovich's essay "Envy" in a recent issue of Granta, its pained revelations raised a few literary eyebrows and got more media attention than her ignored collection of short stories. For 16 pages, she relates the paroxysms of envy she feels for her boyfriend, the novelist Jonathan Franzen, though she doesn't actually name him. Long before he is famous, she envies his discipline as a writer; once he is famous, she envies his phenomenal success.
In the 1960s, Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. But he couldn't have predicted the scope or intensity of our culture of confession, consumerism, and celebrity. Nor could Warhol have predicted that eventually, well-regarded critics and commentators would end up throwing in their lot with the confessional memoirists of the day, making this phenomenon span the classes, afflicting all: high-, low-, and middle-brow.
Yet the upwardly intellectual drift of the genre doesn't surprise or bother me. I'm delighted to read such smart, witty, observant writers reporting on what it means to be alive and fully human today. And what a relief, finally, that people can say what it really means, instead of having to put out an uptight, sanitized version -- the puritanical press release instead of the truth. None of this means that I dwell on whether I "like" the essays or "like" Pollitt from what I've read about her, but if she has the chutzpah and the skill to describe her Webstalking -- which has that name, we learn, because plenty of other people are doing it, too -- she's got my attention and my curiosity.
Is Pollitt writing in revenge at being left by her lover? I'll leave that to her. The piece doesn't read like a rant, in any case. And what of her ex's privacy? I imagine The New Yorker's lawyers had their say; perhaps she changed a few details. Otherwise, I turn to a crucial lesson from Joan Didion: "A writer is always selling somebody out."
American Sucker is smartly written, hugely engaging, full of self-mockery, good humor, and erudition. It's about far more than the end of Denby's marriage, which he treats with great discretion. It's a powerful cautionary tale about being swept up into market mania. Like the essays by Schine and Pollitt, it gets very personal very fast. But unlike them, it reaches far beyond the personal, and that may be something to strive for when writing a book-length memoir. Yes, the memoir is "all about you." But what distinguishes Denby from a one-book memoirist is that he can reach beyond himself and his own tsuris. In American Sucker, that reach pays off handsomely.
The other reason I am inclined to defend these writers against charges of literary exhibitionism has to do with a story that's not being told -- the story of how impossibly difficult it is to make a living as a writer, and I don't mean a writer with a university salary or a spouse with a decent income. Denby, Schine, and Pollitt may appear to be prosperous enough not to be influenced by literary trends -- Denby, with his New Yorker job, more so than the other two -- but writers have to follow the zeitgeist if we want to stay in the game of selling our work. We don't get paid for showing up. We still only get royalty statements twice a year; health insurance for the self-employed is a luxury item; and many writers end up with almost no Social Security because our incomes fluctuate and are mostly on the low end. The literary life was difficult when Dr. Johnson told us about the hack writers on London's Grub Street, and it will always be. It's graceless to complain; it's a privileged life in so many ways, except, of course, for the money.
Kathryn Chetkovich got a lot of attention for spilling her guts about her envy of Jonathan Franzen, but the truth is that every fiction writer in America envies him -- not for his talent, as he might like, but because he doesn't have to worry about money anymore. When you hit the jackpot, you can win very big these days, but when you don't -- or, say, you have kids in college or health insurance that's $5,000 a year -- you look around and see what's selling these days, in our culture of confession, consumerism, and celebrity, and you do what the pros always do: Get yourself an assignment and write the hell out of it.