Smarties vs. Intellectuals: Jane Bowles and the New Nonfiction

Carrie at Waterstones

Carrie at Waterstones

Smarties are not always smart, and intellectuals are sometimes dumber.  Carrie Fisher:  smart.  Stephen Greenblatt:  intellectual.  Whom would you rather spend time with?   Carrie?  But  Greenblatt,  a brilliant,  accessible literary historian, is a close second (and he is alive).

In the rather withered, diminishing field of classics, you look for the smarties, not the intellectuals.  You don’t want to dine with anyone who quotes Cicero.  You will not be dazzled so much as discombobulated if you’re listening to Bruce Springsteen and eating pizza while trying to decipher a scholar’s Italianate pronunciation.  Why does he/she want to talk about Caelius and Cloidia? And can you have that last slice of pizza? If you are still coherent, which is doubtful, do defend the wicked Clodia:  it may rout another quotation, until  another intellectual shows up and quotes something.  They are so sweet together.

There are many smart bloggers, but few intellectuals.  (If you’re an intellectual, sorry!) The smarties write hilarious things at Goodreads, and the intellectuals trash Goodreads reviews in prim publications. I myself often fail to follow the example of Goodreads smarties, who read bits of everything, literary and pop. I’ve been reading the same  Maeve Binchy book since December, because I told my husband to check out all the books by Maeve Binchy and Rosamund Pilcher with “winter” in the title, and I lost my pop mojo.  Binchy’s  A Week in Winter is  sweet,and I do want to spend my next vacation in that fictitious  inn on the coast of Ireland, but I stopped reading on page 267, a week before Irene’s wedding…and that reminds me, I must take it back to the library.

maeve-binchy-51rv8a5t5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Smart bookishness often fails me. It’s not that I don’t understand what should be done. Smart  people buy books only at bricks-and-mortar stores, whereas I fail to do so. Smart people accept free review copies of  books and enjoy them, whereas I decline them because they are free and I prefer to buy my own books.  Smart people network, whereas I get notes from publicists wondering why I did not like my free books more. I vaguely wonder, Why don’t I use blandishments to smooth the way?


Jane Bowles

Smarties know the blandishments (even if we don’t always use them).  Oh, and we don’t blur the lines between reviews and marketing.  All right, perhaps we do blur them. Everybody gets co-opted, and the internet is like a giant Facebook page where everybody knows everybody. When Jenny Diski died, I deleted my criticism of her very bitter memoir of Doris Lessing because, after all, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum, and I simply am not vested in Diski’s work.  At online publications, I know it’s a serious review when I’m locked out along with the other non-subscribers.  I long to read a review at The Wall Street Journal with the title:

“Jane Bowles Was More Brilliant Than Her Husband “

But I don’t subscribe to the Wall Street Journal,  so I’ll never know why.  I do know exactly where my copy of Jane ‘s  Collected Stories is, so a headline persuades me finally to read her.

There are lots of smart publications, and I often enjoy them.  Well, even when the TLS dumbs down, it seems very smart to me. “Is non-fiction the new fiction?” reads headline on a free piece on the internet.  Oh, good,  I thought, they’re talking about Karl Ove! (Knausgaard:  I just think of him as Karl Ove.)

But the first paragraph informs me:

As ever with these things, there was some dumbing down for the sake of the tagline. Non-fiction is no more the new fiction than orange is the new black, Thursday the new Friday, or staying in the new going out; the “old” fiction, moreover, is in rude health – on cinema and television screens, and in genre publishing. But it is indeed the case that some of the most eye-catching literary fiction of recent years has eschewed the constraints of conventional storytelling, embracing subjectivity and fragmentation while also enlisting elements associated with Life-writing, philosophy and memoir. This ranges from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multi-volume epic My Struggle to critically acclaimed works by authors such as Rachel Cusk and Claire-Louise Bennett.  The technique is not new – it is at least as old as Proust – and yet the recent glut is sufficiently conspicuous to demand attention.

Well, I enjoyed the headline, and the article was smart enough.  It is about a seminar at City University, London, where four finalists for the Arts Foundation’s Creative Non-Fiction Award 2017 spoke about their work.

Catullus' Bedspread 61nE1tim0bLAny publication that writes about classics is intellectual, but it is smart?  Do you read The New Criterion?  Well, God knows I don’t, but I found a splendid review there of Daisy Dunn’s Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet.  Catullus is one of my favorite poets, and though I  don’t feel the need to read a new study of his  life, I am always happy to see a new book on him..   And the review by by Andrew Stuttaford, is very smart: it  incorporates personal writing with razor-sharp criticism, well, perhaps steak-knife sharp criticism,  And we do like our personal writing these days.

So I enjoy smart writing, intellectual writing, personal and pop, and it’s all online for us to read.  The internet may not be the best invention of the twentieth century, but we make the best of it.