Emily Nussbaum’s “I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution”

Emily Nussbaum’s  witty new book, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, is great fun even if you don’t watch much TV.  Nussbaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for The New Yorker, turns her analysis of TV into a quirky, irreverent romp through pop culture.  

I always read The New Yorker back to front, so TV criticism comes well before the long, serious articles and profiles for which The New Yorker is famous.  Nussbaum has introduced me to many TV shows over the years.  I do not always agree with her opinion, of course. “How could she not like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?”I wondered.  She even hated Gilmore Girls.  Shocking. Does this make me think less of her essays?  No.

Nussbaum always enjoyed TV but never intended to write about it.  In 1997 she was a doctoral student in English at New York University, poring every day over a new 900-page Victorian novel.  One night she saw her first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it made her want to be a TV critic.  I do remember Buffy was the subject of academic and theological seminars. And Nussbaum found depths in this paranormal teen action show.

In the Buffy essay, Nussbaum brilliantly describes the experience of watching  TV-watching  in the 20th century.

Across the room was an old-fashioned console TV, a dinosaur even for the era, with a broken remote control, so in order to watch my first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I had to physically walk across the room, then click the circular dial over to Channel 11, The WB, a brand-new “netlet,” and then walk all the way back to the sofa. Walking across the room to change the channel was still a normal thing to do, in 1997. It had been nearly sixty years since the first television (spookily nicknamed the Phantom Teleceiver) launched at the 1939 World’s Fair, and yet the medium was—with a few advances, like the addition of color and the still-tentative expansion of cable—not that different from what it had been in the 1950s…

Perhaps the most compelling essay in this collection is “The Great Divide:  Norman Lear, Archie Bunker, and the Rise of the Bad Fan.”  Norman Lear, the creator of the hit comedy, All in the Family,  was one of TV’s icons in the ’70s. Nussbaum points out that All in the Family was “designed to explode the medium’s taboos, using an incendiary device named Archie Bunker.”  But apparently some liberals believed the show promoted racism, because the majority of fans identified with the character Archie Bunker, a right-wing, working-class  bigot. Nussbaum points out there are always bad fans, among them fans who watched Breaking Bad for the violenceIt would never have occurred to me as a fan of All in the Family that anyone could have identified with the verbally abusive Archie Bunker.

 Nussbaum regards Sex and the City as one of the most important HBO shows, right up there with The Sopranos.  She thinks the show is underrated because it’s about women. I, too, was a fan of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, though you would think the high heels and $1,000-handbags would have put me off.  It was one of the most charming, intelligent shows of the early 21st century.

Her  essay on the #MeToo movement reflects her ambivalence and anxiety about her complex relationship to the brilliant comedy of Woody Allen and Louis C. K..  Apparently Louis C. K. has been a huge influence on women’s comedy, but since I neither know his work nor that of the female comedians he influenced, this was lost on me.

I once would have thought TV criticism frivolous, but the medium does seem to have caught up with, or perhaps even surpassed, most movies.  It’s a fascinating book:  I’m saving some of the essays until I’ve seen the TV shows she’s criticized. 

Weekend Reading:  Two by Penelope Lively

This was the first hot weekend of the summer, so we got a lot of reading done.  Really, there’s little else to do in the heat: I optimistically set out on a brisk walk, but returned so sweaty that I couldn’t even peel my sopping shirt off to shower.

I’ve long been a fan of Penelope Lively, and this weekend I  galloped though two of her 1980s novels, According to Mark and Judgment Day.  Lively won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger in 1987, but I first heard of her at a rather tedious literary society meeting, where a smart, effervescent woman said that she had ordered all of Lively’s books, even the children’s books, from Blackwell’s in England.  (Blackwell’s?  England?  What?  This was before the internet.)

Lively’s According to Mark, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984, is a charming, witty novel about a biographer, Mark Lamming,  who is having midlife crisis.  Mark is writing a biography of an obscure literary figure, Gilbert Strong, whose appeal is partly that he “hasn’t been done” yet.  When Mark arrives at Strong’s house in Dorset, now a National Trust museum, to go through Strong’s letters and diaries, he is attracted to Strong’s granddaughter, Carrie, who runs a garden center on the premises.  And his infatuation seems more like a crush than love, because Carrie, though a sympathetic character, is not particularly pretty and is only semi-literate.  She has no interest in books or her grandfather.   Mark’s wife, Diana, who works in an art gallery, has an inkling  something is up, but she can’t monitor him all the time.  Mark thinks he loves Carrie, but Carrie knows it’s about his research on her grandfather.

Anyway, it’s a comedy of errors, with a road trip through France, Carrie’s discovery of the joys of reading Austen’s Emma (she loses two copies on the trip and has a hell of a time finding replacements in France), Mark’s attempted interview with Carrie’s horrible mother (an eternally bored English expatriate who wanders around Europe with various men ), and Diana’s arriving to sort everything out in the nick of time.

According to Mark is one of Lively’s best.

Lively’s Judgment Day (1980) is simultaneously lovely, entertaining, and sad, a simpler but more startling book than According to Mark.  It revolves mostly around Clare Paling, who moves with her husband, Peter, and their two children from London to the village of  Laddenham . Clare is an outsider who spends most of her time reading:  the social life in Laddenham revolves around the church, and she is an atheist.   But she admires the architecture and art, and becomes involved with researching the church history for a fete with a historical reenactment.

All the villagers have different relationships to the church:  there’s George the irritating vicar, who accidentally got into this line of work; Sydney Porter, a keen gardener with a tragic past who loves church because the words are always the same; and the horrible Bryans, who have such poor values that they desert their sad-sack son Martin so the mother can gallivant in London and the father can run off with a floozy.  Fortunately, both Sydney and Clare try to normalize the child’s  life.  And Clare’s attitude shifts to the church, if not religion.

Alas,  there is danger and violence even in an English village.  This did not end as I’d expected…. I guess I’d expected coziness!

Phyllis McGinley’s “Reflections at Dawn”

Phyllis McGinley

Phyllis McGinley won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1961, but does anyone remember?  She wrote “light verse,” the critics say.  Indeed!  Do we prefer “heavy verse”?    Her poems are are so buoyant and witty that she captures the mood and mode of suburban women’s lives.   I wish I had been of her generation so we could have shared  irreverent observations.

“Reflections at Dawn” by Phyllis McGinley

I wish I owned a Dior dress
Made to my order out of satin.
I wish I weighed a little less
And could read Latin.
Had perfect pitch or matching pearls,
A better head for street directions,
And seven daughters, all with curls
And fair complexions.
I wish I’d tan instead of burn.
But most, on all the stars that glisten,
I wish at parties I could learn
to sit and listen.

I wish I didn’t talk so much at parties.
It isn’t that I want to hear
My voice assaulting every ear,
Uprising loud and firm and clear
Above the cocktail clatter.
It’s simply, once a doorbells’ rung,
(I’ve been like this since I was young)
Some madness overtake my tongue
And I begin to chatter.

Buffet, ball, banquet, quilting bee,
Wherever conversation’s flowing,
Why must I feel it falls on me
To keep things going?
Though ladies cleverer than I
Can loll in silence, soft and idle,
Whatever topic gallops by,
I seize its bridle,
Hold forth on art, dissect the stage,
Or babble like a kindergart’ner
Of politics till I enrage
My dinner partner.

I wish I did’nt talk so much at parties.
When hotly boil the arguments,
Ah? would I had the common sense
To sit demurely on a fence
And let who will be vocal,
Instead of plunging in the fray
With my opinions on display
Till all the gentlemen edge away
To catch an early local

Oh! there is many a likely boon
That fate might flip me from her griddle.
I wish that I could sleep till noon
And play the fiddle,
Or dance a tour jete’ so light
It would not shake a single straw down.
But when I ponder how last night
I laid the law down.
More than to have the Midas touch
Or critics’ praise, however hearty,
I wish I didn’t talk so much,
I wish I didn’t talk so much,
I wish I didn’t talk so much,
When I am at a party. 

Going Too Far?

Up is down, left is right, north is south…  the world is a crazy place.

Librarians, once the keepers of the archives, are now reveling in the role of censor. Marion the librarian is back with a vengeance!

Last year the ALA (American Library Association) revoked Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from an award because literal-minded readers among them decided Pa in the Little House books was a racist.  This year they’ve revoked the name of one of their own from an award: the librarian Melvil Dewey (1851–1931), who invented the Dewey Decimal System.  The ALA has  denounced him for his “legacy of antisemitism, sexual harassment, and racism” (Book Riot).    

Here’s what I want to know:  are librarians also eradicating Dewey’s name from his own system?

We’ve come a long, long, very long way since Hollywood spawned the #MeToo movement.

DO YOU THINK ANNE OF GREEN GABLES WAS GAY?  Having read all the Anne books, I am sure she was not.

But Cori McCarthy at Tor.com writes in her article,Fraught With Destiny: Queering L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley and Diana Barry”:

On the outside, Anne of Green Gables is an enchantingly talkative, acutely sensitive, feminist character for the ages. Anne is also a hero for those who have been maligned for being themselves. The attraction for the queer-at-heart audience only magnifies when you take a close look at one of the pivotal relationships in the story: Anne and Diana’s “friendship.” I use quotation marks here because their friendship is indeed crafted like a love story, with parallels to the inherent problems and joy within queer relationships.

Oh, dear.  I think this is a misreading of their friendship.  But perhaps one could make a case that Jo in Little Women is gay.

A Trollope Binge: The Small House at Allington

Bingeing on Anthony Trollope’s novels has its pros and cons. He was one of the most prolific Victorian writers, and he wrote some masterpieces and some duds.

Yet fans cannot get enough of him.  They are almost as keen on The Vicar of Bullhampton as The Way We Live Now.  “I love Mr. Trollope!!!” one enthusiastic fan posted.

And I tend to agree.

You won’t find a better Victorian novel than He Knew He was Right, but in my twenties, when I began to read Trollope,  only the Palliser series and the Barsetshire series were in print. I devoted a mellow summer to the six-book Barsetshire series, completely enthralled, completely uncritical; I walked around clutching  Framley Parsonage to my breastBut to mention Trollope in an English lit class would have been to invite darts and arrows.  I had been called “a naive reader” for bringing up Mrs. Oliphant. (What were they reading, Barthes?  I do not doubt it!)

Trollope’s brilliant Barsetshire series (The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset) was tremendously popular in the 19th century.  Earlier this month, I decided to go back to it.  I began in medias res, with Framley Parsonage, the fourth novel in the series (which can be read as a standalone, and is one of my favorites–I wrote about it here).  It was so much fun that I went right on to the fifth book, The Small House of Allington.

The Small House of Allington is a stunning novel, because Trollope really knew how to write by this point.  His interweaving of dramatic scenes within a tightly plotted book is expert. The novel  revolves around the marriage plot:  there are engagements, marrying for money, jilting, and separations without divorce.  When it was serialized in the Cornhill magazine (1862-64)  readers wrote letters begging Trollope to marry off the popular heroine Lily Dale to Johnny Eames, her lifelong swain. But it is difficult to imagine Lily marrying a man she calls a hobbledehoy, even though she has been jilted by her lover, Crosbie. 

Trollope was crazy about Lily–crazier than I am.  In Chapter 2, he praises his charming, saucy heroine and sketches her swains.

Lilian Dale, dear Lily Dale—for my reader must know that she is to be very dear, and that my story will be nothing to him if he do not love Lily Dale—Lilian Dale had discovered that Mr Crosbie was a swell. But I am bound to say that Mr Crosbie did not habitually proclaim the fact in any offensive manner; nor in becoming a swell had he become altogether a bad fellow. It was not to be expected that a man who was petted at Sebright’s should carry himself in the Allington drawing-room as would Johnny Eames, who had never been petted by any one but his mother. And this fraction of a hero of ours had other advantages to back him, over and beyond those which fashion had given him.

Such good writing! But Lily is not my favorite heroine.  I prefer Lucy Robarts in Framley Parsonage.

There are many, many characters in this novel.  I love Lily’s sister Bell, who refuses to marry her cousin Bernard because she doesn’t love him.  She is as honorable as Lily but more sensible.I fail to understand how Lily can continue to love the no-good Crosbie after he jilts her and marries someone else. And yet I am also fond of the woman he marries instead, the “horrible”  Lady Alexandrina de Courcy, who, at 30, is so desperate to marry that she gets engaged to Crosbie, even though he is jilting Lily.  Trollope caricatures Lady Alexandrina, and thinks she is an apt punishment for Crosbie, but I think her lot is much worse!

One important point:  Trollope introduces Plantagenet Palliser, who is one of the stars of the Palliser books.  “Planty Pal!” I said excitedly.

One of the best of the Barsetshire books.  And it can be read as a standalone.

What Genre Is This? Pop, Literary, & Neal Stephenson’s “Fall”

All right, I’ve done it.

I’t’s only June, and I’ve met my summer goal.  I have finished three new or newish books:  Grant Ginder’s literary beach read, Honestly, We Meant Well (which I posted on here), Charles Fishman’s  One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (here), and Annie Ernaux’s The Years, a lyrical autobiography which was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (here). 

Now I am delving into summer bestseller land, the kind which is sanctioned by critics.  These days, literary culture and pop culture overlap;  book review editors give more space to reviews of genre fiction. Metaphorically, the editorial bow tie has been unknotted, the authorial hair has tumbled down from the bun, and the critical high heels have been replaced by sandals.  This summer, there has been a glut of reviews of Neal Stephenson’s new science fiction novel, Fall; or Dodge in Hell.  Because so many critics have acclaimed it, I picked up a copy, and it is a thrilling read. But after 200 pages, I wonder, What is this genre?  It’s part science fiction, part literary fiction, part philosophy… . I don’t know what it is.

In the opening chapter of Fall, we meet Richard  “Dodge” Forthrast, a gaming company mogul with a philosophical bent.  After a disturbing dream about coffee, he muses on the connection between the threads of consciousness and sleep, and then on the threads of the Three Fates (Moirai) of Greek myth, who spin, measure and then snip the threads of life.   

Subconsciously, Dodge seems to be intent on death.  Before a routine surgery, he forgets to fast.  And when he realizes he has eaten, he does not think it’s important.  And so he dies on the operating table.  (A kind of suicide?) And then his friend Corvallis, nicknamed  C+, discovers that Dodge arranged for  his  brain to be preserved by some quack company.  This causes moral and technical problems for Corvallis and Dodge’s family.

And so Stephenson, like the best of literary novelists, connects Dodge’s thoughts on sleep and death with his sleep and death.  It is carefully orchestrated. And then he switches to the (third person) point-of-view of Corvallis, who unravels a dangerous hoax on the internet and in the process falls in love with Maeve, a beautiful amputee who guides boating trips in Utah. And then we jump a few years into the future, and Dodge’s niece’s  is on a road trip to a territory inhabited by right-wing religious nuts. Where it’s going from here I don’t know.  As you can imagine, the first 200 (of 892) pages have been a wild ride.   

Annie Ernaux’s “The Years”

Annie Ernaux’s exquisite book, The Years, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, is a hybrid of memoir, autofiction, and history.  I learned about The Years when it was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.  There was a controversy about its eligibility:  it had been classified as a personal  narrative.  But Bettany Hughes, chairperson of the judges, told the Guardian it was a “much-needed riposte to the ever-narrowing trajectory of auto-fiction.”

Memoir or fiction, Ernaux’s book is breathtakingly elegiac. She begins with the sentence, “All the images will disappear,” followed by a list of abbreviated descriptions:   public lavatories built on a river, Scarlett O’Hara killing a soldier in Atlanta, photographs of people being deported to the camps, and “a house with an arbor of Virginia creeper, which was a hotel in the sixties, no. 90A, on the Zaterre in Venice.” But never fear, if lists are not your thing,  she soon segues into a chronological narrative, the  story of her life from 1940 to age 66.

This short personal narrative (240 pages) is intertwined with history, politics, and social history.  Much of the book is set at holiday dinners, as Annie navigates the years of childhood, adolescence, motherhood, middle age, and old age. At the dinners, the relatives look at photos and tell stories.  Ernaux describes the shortages  of commodities  after World War II, the national fascination with the  Tour de France and the race to the moon, the rise of Elvis Presley and rock and roll, the migrations of refugees from Algeria , and the materialism that coincides with the availability of appliances and other commodities.

We get to know Annie very well over the years.  She reads Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Gone with the Wind, hopes to become a writer, but becomes a teacher.  She sympathizes with student protests and takes to the streets with them when she is a teacher in the late ’60s. She is too busy with work and raising children to write her book, but she thinks about how she will write it.

This is a bookish book, bearing the influence of many books:   Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Gone with the Wind (Annie wants to be Scarlett O’Hara, as did my own mother), and probably many other French memoirs and novels.  I also thought of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, particularly the last book, The Four-Gated City, which follows Martha Quest from age 30 in post-war London, through the upheavals of the ’60s and on to a dystopian future.

The Years won the 2018 French-American Foundation Translation Prize and the 2016 Strega European Prize.  I do think it should have won the Booker.   I look forward to reading her other books–and if you have suggestions let me know.