Saturday, March 08, 2008

Scott Simon and NPR hate poetry

On NPR's Weekend Edition this morning, Scott Simon delivers a commentary about the recent exposure of gang-banger "memoir" Love and Consequences by Margaret Jones (actually Margaret Seltzer). Simon observes that "the book is a fraud, but Ms. Seltzer came within hours of of being on NPR." Wrong. In fact, Jones/Seltzer did make it onto NPR's syndicated show "On Point," and the show followed with an hour-long, hand-wringing examination of how they got punked in the first place.

But that minor error is nothing compared to what happens next. Simon quotes Seltzer making up some bullshit about her life and observes (my transcript of the online audio):
Now if some Brooklyn or London novelist had written a story set among drug gangs and uttered those words, people might have dismissed them as pretentious nonsense. Put those sentences into a so-called memoir, people call it "gritty and real," or "raw, tender, and tough-minded," like the New York Times did. The list of fake memoirs is getting long enough to need their own shelves.
Simon then starts to fill the shelves with his own short list. After Love and Consequences, he mentions the recently exposed Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, drops the inevitable reference to James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and interestingly skirts around the "troubling questions [that] have been raised about" A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.

This is an odd list. In the first place, there are radical differences among all these books. Are Frey's embellishments really in the same category as Jones/Selzer's wholesale fraud? Misha is an out-and-out fraud, but to understand it well we'd have to figure out how a story so implausible -- raised by wolves? really? -- was received with apparent enthusiasm. To really understand this fraud, in other words, would require diving into the complex literature about the Nazi holocaust and memory. With regard to Beah, Simon is clearly uncomfortable saying much at all.

But the list is not finished. Finally -- though without mentioning the book or its author -- Simon mentions something completely different, and here he goes off the rails. Again, my transcript:
Ten years ago, prestigious journals published poems by a man billed as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, who turned out to be a community college professor in Freeport, Illinois.
I'm guessing most NPR listeners don't know what the hell Simon is talking about. In fact, Simon is describing what is known as "the Yasusada affair," poems and prose published under the name of Araki Yasuasada, first in magazines and then in a book called Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. The professor in question is Kent Johnson, the chief suspect behind the Yasusada writings (which have grown to include Also, With my Throat I shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords, a collection of letters in English).

Here's what I want to say: Simon doesn't know what he's talking about. Not only that, but the Yasusada controversy supports him -- if he really believes what he says.

Before we get to that, let us pause to note Simon's contemptuous tone. Listen to the audio: catch that sense of gleeful letdown when he says the poet "turned out to be a community college professor in Freeport, Illinois." Simon, of course, is no mere "community college professor"; his NPR bio page notes that Simon "attended the University of Chicago and McGill University, and he has received a number of honorary degrees." But he loves referring to Johnson as a CC professor. Check the significant pause right here:
a community college professor in


Freeport, Illinois
It's not easy to achieve that kind of timing; you have to take special asshole classes in journalism school.

(Freeport, by the way, is just a hundred miles or so west of Simon's hometown of Chicago, though I realize Simon may imagine his audience more along U-Chicago/McGill lines than the Highland CC cafeteria.)

All in all, Simon's commentary is marked by his usual self-righteous attempt at total comprehensiveness. This is a guy who can't make sense of anything without carefully measuring it on his own moral scale. He's the Tom Friedman of Saturday public radio. To be fair, sometimes it works. Sometimes, however, as today, it implodes.

Today the counterweights are provided by literary fiction. Simon critiques the fetish for authenticity that drives the memoir craze. Of course he's right about that. But his way of righting the balance is appalling. Again, my transcript:
Now I don't decry decry phony memoirs as a journalist so much as someone who is also a novelist. So I cringe every time someone suggests these frauds should simply have been labeled novels. Novels just don't spill out of people like uncorked champagne. They take craft and discipline, not just empathy and imagination. Readers have a right to expect style and skill in a novel. The people who wrote these frauds knew that if they had presented their books as novels, they would have had to withstand a whole different kind of criticism. What critic will bash the literary style of a memoir by someone who was suckled by wolves, ran with gangs, or was dragooned into being a child soldier? Calling these books memoirs allows their flaws to masquerade as proof that they're raw and real.
How could a community college professor in Freeport, Illinois be expected to exhibit the craft demanded by Chicago-based Scott Simon of National Public Radio?

A side note: in addition to insulting champagne makers and vinification generally, Scott Simon critiques the fetish for experiential authenticity by appealing to his own experience as a novelist. Anybody notice a potential problem here? OK, Scott Simon may have written a novel or two. Who the hell cares? This contributes nothing to his response except to justify his own stated devotion to the "craft" of fiction as compared to the apparent artlessness of the memoir.

But Doubled Flowering is not a simple hoax. It's crafted with great care and artfulness. Nor is it a memoir. It's a book of poetry and prose that would be impossible to do in a novel or a memoir. Further, as Marjorie Perloff has pointed out in detail, Doubled Flowering is a critique of the very cult of authenticity Scott Simon claims to disdain. If Simon knew the first thing about the Yasusada controversy, he'd know that transforming it into a novel would be impossible and would be a less literary and less artful maneuver than publishing it as poetry. He needs to understand Yasusada in other terms: Ern Malley, Armand Schwerner's Tablets, the Spectre writers.

But to do that would require a sympathy with real poetry that's well beyond NPR's feeble ken. They proved that, as well, on the very same morning. In fact, another story, which aired the previous hour, focused on the latest book by Li-Young Lee, whose entire overrated poetry career builds on the kind of authenticity the Yasusada writings undermine. Here's how the story is introduced by -- wait for it -- Scott Simon:
Poet Li-Young Lee has a new collection, his first in seven years. Mr. Lee is the acclaimed author of four books of poems and a memoir, The Winged Seed, which won an American Book Award. His new book of poems is called Behind My Eyes, and in it he reflects on his extraordinary family history in meditations on suffering, prayer, death, and love. From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.
Vitale then reverently walks us through a few poems in Lee's book, and Lee reads along in one of those super-serious poetry-reading voices sometimes used as therapy for insomniacs. "Li-Young Lee," Vitale notes, "was born into history and suffering." Of course, so were we all. But in Lee's case, the biography is everything, and so the suffering of Indonesia and Pennsylvania are all equivalent and terrifying -- yet all uniquely Lee's.

To authenticate Lee's verse, Vitale digs Robert Bly out of mothballs, who says:
You're aware that [Lee] is the son or grandson of someone who's had a tremendous connection with culture. And it's rare that you find that in American poetry.
Really? Lee doesn't seem that cultured to me. Certainly his range of reference is not particularly wide or challenging. But Robert Bly has spent a lifetime decrying intellectually demanding poetry, and now he says finding an American poet with a "tremendous connection with culture" is rare. Whatever. Anyway, Bly goes on:

In Li-Young you see a family that's lived with a very deep Chinese culture for years and years. And he has absorbed that into his body, so that he almost never says anything that's trivial or light. And yet, being very thoughtful, he doesn't make you feel a lot of grief for him. Rather, you have a sense of the grief of life itself.

What a load of crap. I suppose he means "generations" rather than "years," but it's still a load of crap. What Bly means by "culture" is the kind of meditative free-verse writing that reminds Bly of himself. When Bly says that Lee "almost never says anything that's trivial or light," he means that Lee is never funny and never without a prevailing self-importance.

So on a single morning, NPR managed to misunderstand and trivialize an important book of poetry and -- in hyping one of the most overrated "authentic" poets of our time -- demonstrate one of the very reasons the book was needed in the first place.

[Note: the first version of this post misidentified Highland Community College.]


Bob O'Hara said...

Certainly his range of reference is not particularly wide or challenging.
We get some NPR here, and the impression I get is that US middle-brow culture has a relatively narrow range of cultural reference, and it's awfully self-conscious about making sure everyone understand that this is what they're referring to (because they're cultured).

Don't get me started on Woody Allen's Match Point.

Ryan said...

Duh! Clearly Yasusada was created to make money. Because we all know that really good poetry outsells even food. Apparently, Simon has found this out through months of painstakingly investigation into all of literary history, as his voluminous knowledge of hoaxes might suggest. That's why they pay him. He's that good.

Kent Johnson said...


Could you drop me an email, please? I don't have your current address.



Hermagoras said...

Ryan, Of course! I didn't even touch the money issue. Did you know the money from eponymous poetry supports terrorism?

Henry Gould said...

Is it possible you're reading too much into the "community college" bit? I know professors generally are hypersensitive to pecking orders, etc. But when I hear "community college professor in Freeport Illinois", in this context, I don't hear a put-down, but rather a reference to FAMILIARITY. It's your everyday next-door-neighbor, who's assumed an exotic disguise. He might just as well have said "grocer", "veterinarian", "law professor". Which accentuates the shock of the hoax.

David-Baptiste Chirot said...

Many thanks for this! Many great laughs and insights and I really enjoyed the Tom "Flat Earth" Friedman analogy! Every book--no matter from what viewpoint-- I have read in the last couple years re foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East, cites him as the gold standard by which purveyors of government and socially approved pseudo ideas & BS in all fields are to be measured.
Thank you also for the clear distinctions made between the Yasusada writings and the stream of frauds that "careless" editors and greedy publishers continue to let loose on the world rabid with the lust for "reality." The NY Times last week ran a whole slew of stories re the "gangsta" tale, as the week previous they had given the author an immense spread, complete with fotos of her and her daughter and "friend from LA" in her home in Oregon. The editor who worked with the author is the daughter of a former editor of the NY Times Book Review. The Times itself has in recent years been producing its own string of fraudulent "reporters," and now appears to be trying for all it is worth to dig its way out of the mess. The intersection of the pathologies of the authors with those of the publishing world's own, spiced with the incredible visions of immensely lauded and bestselling generators of El Dorados, is a ready-made recipe for disaster. And as soon as the "fakes" are exposed,it turns into the "damage control" and pop psychology analysis and literary and cultural "criticism" of the never ending generations of America's "moralists of the media." Which in turn generates another huge conflagration of crazed rantings, ratings wars and ego magnification, all churning with some good old American "judgements" and the daily Orwellian "Two Minutes of Hate." It's like watching a collassal Amusement park which has gone out of control and can't stop taking the "customers" for ever wilder rides.

Anonymous said...

"Ten years ago, prestigious journals published poems by a man billed as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, who turned out to be a community college professor in Freeport, Illinois."

one might add that there is no particular reason why a Hiroshima survivor could not IN FACT turn out to have become a community college professor in Freeport, Illinois--no reason, that is, except the invulnerable snobbery and exoticism that seems to separate these two predicates in the mind of Simon....

nick l

peN said...

I enjoyed reading this article and, generally agree with the tone. Having worked at an NPR station for 7 years (as Jazz DJ) and having been an NPR listener for over 25 years, I can say that part of the issue is the culture of NPR. It is Modernist in the sense that Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson construed Modernist in their work. The other main subcultures they identified were described as Traditional and Cultural Creatives.

What it comes down to is world-view and NPR's is still about competition/domination and hierarchy. I went into it a little more a couple of years ago in an essay entitled Changing a Culture.

Paul Nelson

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to thank you for echoing my sentiments regarding Scott Simon, since I've felt psychologically harassed by him via the radio for years, and have endlessly complained about him to the point of shtick to my friends and associates only to be met by bemused grins and a general lack of commiseration. It's nice to know that I'm not the only person who notices what a self-righteous and condescending prick he can be.

Anonymous said...

How dare you, Li-Young Lee is the best poet of our time.

Asashouryuu said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I found this post by way of a goggle search for "Scott Simon is a pompous ass." His self-righteous, Supercilious, moralizing commentaries make me want to vomit. He even turns local-color, man-on-the street pieces into ambush interviews with the apparent goal only of demonstrating his superiority to the unlucky farmer/trucker/small-town mayor that he targets. What a prick!

Asashouryuu said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I found this post by way of a goggle search for "Scott Simon is a pompous ass." His self-righteous, Supercilious, moralizing commentaries make me want to vomit. He even turns local-color, man-on-the street pieces into ambush interviews with the apparent goal only of demonstrating his superiority to the unlucky farmer/trucker/small-town mayor that he targets. What a prick!