Daily Archives: September 1, 2010

Prof. Mondo: More Thoughts On “Overrated Writers” — What Lasts?

The Huffington Post published the article on America’s most overrated writers that inspired the National Post’s article previously discussed here at TEI. Having read both articles, I was reminded of a conversation I had with detective fiction grand master Lawrence Block this past Winter.

Block has spent his virtually his entire career (more than sixty books) writing genre fiction, from lesbian porn in his college days to his award-winning series featuring recovering alcoholic PI Matt Scudder. He was the visiting writer here at Mondoville, and as the fan/stalker who did the most to get him here, I escorted him around town, and among other things, we talked about fiction, mainstream and otherwise. He noted that with very few exceptions, almost no one reads the “serious [read mainstream or literary] novelists” of fifty or more years ago. On the other hand, people are still reading and rediscovering the writers of genre fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, and detective fiction (which was, after all, a favorite of Frye’s.) For that matter, people still read Verne and Doyle, long after such contemporary best sellers as E.D.E.N. Southworth have been consigned to the ash heap of doctoral dissertations.

Meanwhile, bestselling fantasist David Eddings observed that when a writer enters the area of the mythic (as distinct from the self-consciously mythologically allusive), he or she “may as well be peddling dope,” and he meant it as a good thing. These genre novels are highly conventionalized, of course; in the same conversation, Block mentioned that Robert B. Parker (who wrote a dissertation using Frye) described himself as  writing Westerns on a frontier that was paved over, and that the Western itself was a romance.

It’s worth noting that the writers both Posts beat up on are mainstream writers, the sort that Joan Hess described as “writing stuff where nothing much happens to people you didn’t like to begin with.” However, if Block’s observation holds up, it’s the Parkers and Blocks that will continue to engage readers decades from now, and perhaps even a century later, and it may well be because their works tapped into the archetypes and myths in a way that the “serious” writers (and the critics) found to be infra dignitatem. Frye would have understood.

National Post: “The Overrated”


Elaine in the episode of Seinfeld where she hates The English Patient but must see it multiple times.

In case you missed it, here’s the National Post’s ten most overrated Canadian authors (yes, Michael Ondaatje is in there).

For entertainment purposes only.

To be fair, Michael Ondaatje’s lovely poem, “The Cinnamon Peeler” (with video), after the jump.

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“We must love one another or die”


German newsreel footage of the invasion of Poland (with English subtitles).

On this date in 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War in Europe.

This is one of those rare occasions where a terrible historical event inspires a major literary work that is contemporaneous with it.  In this instance, a poem with the date of the event as its title and published just 48 days later.  That makes it is a good opportunity to consider the prophetic power of literature to confront history.

Here’s W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (after the jump a recitation of the poem with the stanzas displayed):

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

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