Friday, August 12, 2016

The Malcontent Disagrees with Jeffrey Toobin in the NYTBR

Nonfiction Writer Jeffrey Toobin 

Hates A Genre He’s Never Read

Christopher Cokinos writing as THE MALCONTENT


“I am confident,” Jeffrey Toobin, CNN commentator and nonfiction author, recently told the New York Times, “that my streak of never having read a work of science fiction will remain intact.” He loves to read contemporary literary journalists, though.
     Well. Good for him?
     There are three problems here. First, Toobin is disrespecting a genre that many, myself included, would defend as the most crucial literature of our time—science fiction—without having read any of it; he’s doing so as a writer in a genre that itself still has its share of detractors—nonfiction; and in his recent interview he’s pretty clear that he reads mostly contemporary nonfiction—which I think is increasingly a bad idea, especially for younger writers.
     Fourth problem: He likes books on golf. I’ll let that pass.
     Bragging that you’ve never read a single work in a capacious genre (and I suspect he has read some science fiction but just didn’t think of it as such) is like bragging that you’ve never eaten nor will you ever eat, oh, “European food” or “Asian food” or “food with red colors in it” as though that were admirable, which it isn’t, and somehow discerning, which it isn’t, given that within those vast culinary categories there are cuisines that differ sometimes radically. Perhaps sampling some would lead you to care for one or the other, as well as help deconstruct the broad category you invoked to guide your dinners. Critics Sherryl Vint and Mark Bould argue that “there is no such thing as science fiction,” that genre is a process not a fixed entity. There are some difficulties with this argument but it does go some way in making clear that assumptions about what constitutes a genre can be problematic. Toobin doesn’t make his assumptions clear. He just drops his look-at-me bomb.
     Were Toobin to read Alan Dean Foster’s novelizations of the animated Star Trek (vastly under-rated show, by the way) and then read (as he might have?) Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, he would begin to taste the difference. Maybe? Ice cream vs. tofu lasagna?
     While I’m mentioning Atwood, she famously derided the genre she works in as “talking squids in outer space.” Funny. Partly true, if one were reading the worst of the pulp era (1930s to 1950s), with work like A.E. van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer,” which, if you want a sample of what pulp SF was all about, is a pretty good one. I think there can be pleasure in reading work that is “bad” by “literary” standards, and read historically it teaches you a few things about the era in which it was written. So there’s that. And there’s Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” As true of science fiction as it is of television punditry. (Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction writer, tired of defending the genre against people who only cited the worst work they could find.) Here’s where I’m not galled by Atwood. She writes the stuff. She knows it. Ditto, Sturgeon.
     Curiously, Toobin admits that he likes some writers in some genres—John le Carré (spies) and Scott Turow (lawyers). Which is fine, if not terribly surprising. What’s surprising is that he can admit, if not embrace, some genre writing but then brag about at once ignoring and judging another one entirely. So Toobin is only partly being a snob. True snobbery would be having read, oh, two novels in the 90-percent-is-crap category and dismissing a genre that includes Doris Lessing. Toobin’s just being a jerk.
     I could mount an argument here that science fiction is the most crucial literature of our time, that since the Industrial Revolution, no other genre has grappled more consistently or imaginatively than SF with the species-wide questions that confront us in the Anthropocene, questions of climate engineering, human enhancement, artificial intelligence, exploration, othering—much more, all with, in the past few decades, an increased and necessary attention to questions of race, gender and social justice. Pick up any random mainstream realist novel and you probably wouldn’t know that the Earth is increasingly hot and depauperate. I’ll spare you the long version.
     The other genre that grapples most readily with these questions, though I think now less successfully than SF, is a subset of nonfiction clunkily called “nature writing.” It, like the larger creative nonfiction genre of which is a part, continues to be a stepchild in the literary world. I have had poets and fiction writers stop talking to me when I said I wrote nonfiction. One of them said, “You mean journalism, right?” Oh dear. Sometimes, yes. And good journalism can be good literature. Toobin has written some himself. But my point is this: Toobin’s dismissal of science fiction is, ironically, the same kind of gesture that many nonfiction writers suffer at the hands of our sisters and brothers in the higher arts who don’t actually read us. “Oh, nonfiction, like uh, memoir?” Right.
     Then there’s the question of reading mostly within the genre you yourself work in—and confining that to contemporary work. Borges (he wrote science fiction too) once said something like “read what you like,” which I do, and which has been a freeing bit of advice to stop feeling overwhelmed with guilt about not reading enough. I can save my guilt for more important things, like life, like things I can learn from. You can’t learn much from feeling like you haven’t read enough. So if Toobin mostly wants to read fellow literary journalists, a few novels here and there and books on golf, I really don’t give a fuck.
     Here’s the thing—and it’s really important for younger writers to know this—it’s hard to write fresh if you haven’t read old. Borges was right, but I’m grateful I was forced to read widely in college, and I don’t mean only in literature courses. Histories of the Holocaust. Marxist economics. Combat reporting. Film criticism. Literary theory. In English classes, I rode the current of survey courses—alas, chronological lit surveys are increasingly unfashionable—and am forever grateful to have read Homer, Euripides, Robert Francis, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gwendolyn Brooks. What contemporary writers I read were confined to shelf-reading journals in the library and reading submissions as an intern at Indiana Review; there I discovered poets: Robert Bly, William Stafford, James Wright. Adrienne Rich, Michael Harper, Jane Miller.
     The poet Robinson Jeffers wrote that he read the modernists when he was trying to find his voice. He decided to not be modernist. From then on, he read old and mostly ignored literary fashion. It’s important for writers, especially those trying to find their voice, to read voraciously. Not one book of poetry over winter break, grasshopper, but 10. To not only know the contemporary figures of the genre they are working in—and the genres around them—but, mostly, and most importantly, to know those who came before. While everyone is reading Claudia Rankine, does anyone remember Claude McKay? They’ve read the Latest Associational Work of Genre-Bending but would die of boredom reading the English essayists of the 18th century.
     So if Jeffrey Toobin mostly reads his fellow contemporary literary journalists, whatever. I certainly would recommend that nonfiction writers entranced with lyric modes learn how to write a story sometime, so reading Toobin or Susan Orlean would be, you know, a good idea. But don’t let that become the only way you read: who is in the New York Times Book Review, who is in McSweeney’s...that should not be the bulk of your reading. I recommend reading a bunch of anthologies, Homer, The Epic of Gilgamesh, some histories of the Industrial Revolution (everything since is just an iteration of that), a history or two of philosophy and, along with some of the great writers of the literary mainstream—from H.D. to Toni Morrison, from Thoreau to Robert Hayden—and, you know what, why not read some goddamned science fiction, which has been written by Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jack London, Italo Calvino, E.M. Forster, Alice Sheldon, William Burroughs, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, Haruki Murakami, Pamela Zoline, Joan Vinge, Carol Emshwiller, Ted Chiang, Paolo Bacigalupi, Rachel Carson—yay, that Rachel Carson. She begins Silent Spring with a science-fiction story.
     In the meantime, Jeffrey Toobin: Just please stop pretending that you can write off other writers in a genre you don’t read, like that’s some thing, like that makes you the shit in your pithy interview: two-fingered eyeball gesture between me and a photo of Jeffrey Toobin.


Christopher Cokinos is co-editor, with Eric Magrane, of the recently released anthology The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, and has work recent or forthcoming in the Los Angeles Times, december, and Sierra Nevada Review. Next year he'll be a Public Outreach Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center at Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich.


The Malcontent is a cranky, pseudonymous (unless the writer chooses to disclose her name) black hat column of Essay Daily.

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