On bullshit literary criticism, stupidity, and David Gates

When I think about just how much I enjoyed reading David Gates’ The Wonders of the Invisible World, I have to laugh. I got the book completely by mistake. I mooched it thinking it was a collection by David Schickler who wrote Kissing in Manhattan, another book I loved.

I find it difficult to write about books that I liked. It’s hard because I often come up, “I liked it because it was good” which is just about the lamest most unhelpful thing to say. It also doesn’t help that I recently read Salon’s bunch of bullshit about the death of literary criticism. I’ve never read or written serious literary criticism, so I can’t say if the death of it is a good or bad thing. What I can say is that article had the bullshitometer going crazy. I don’t know if I need a slew of cultural gatekeepers around to tell me what’s good, even if I would agree with them. I see the word “gatekeeper” and the freshman journalism student on me gets all huffy and puffy.

While I do agree that we’re in a weird ‘dumbing down’ of art/culture/society, a clique of ivory tower academics handing down edicts from on high about what’s good and bad literature isn’t going to help matters. Nothing’s going to help until a majority of Americans decide they’re done being willfully stupid and that it’s okay to like things that are smart and deep.

If you’re already one of those people, then you will totally dig on Gates’ The Wonders of the Invisible World. Gates is a smarty pants and he writes stories about smart people who do stupid things in spite of their own intelligence. The stories in this collection are filled with college deans, teachers, translators, and designers who have one thing in common, they don’t know what they want, though they are all pretty sure they don’t want what they have.

Brilliant, huh?

I always judge a book (or story) for that matter on the stuff that sticks. I read The Wonders of the Invisible World about two weeks ago, and still if I close my eyes and think about it I can see the young gay man who lives with a much older man viewing the older man’s documentary and being horrified by what he sees there. I can see the cheating wife fleeing to her lover and getting stuck at a roadside gas station while it snows. I see an old man who has suffered a stroke and his wife trying to get to Seattle only to get stuck in the mud next to the mailbox (this from one of my favorites in the collection, “The Mail Lady”). I see a man meeting his married-lover at a bar and tucking his trumpet under the table.

Oh and another one of my favorite stories is about a man and his ex-wife who rush to be by the side of their daughter who is critically injured in a car accident after leaving a hotel where she had met her lover. Talk about tension.

And really, the whole collection is like that. There’s not a clunker in the bunch, which is not something you can usually say about a short story collection. I’ve read six short story collections so far this year, and a few of them I really, really loved (Lorrie Moore, Neal Smith, Kevin Brockmeier) but I can say without any hesitation that this collection is my favorite so far.

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  1. Lori 26.May.08 at 10:37 am

    You have a freshman journalism student on you? What an awesome way to spend a long weekend!

  2. Jodi 26.May.08 at 10:38 am

    Damn, now you made the typo funny and I can’t correct it. Also, I WISH. I got cat hair and some dust on me, that’s about it.

  3. David 10.Aug.10 at 11:57 pm

    “What I can say is that article had the bullshitometer going crazy.” I read the exchange and found it interesting. Can you be more specific about your criticisms? Which of the claims is bullshit? Why?


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