In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Bookends Section, the question asked is “What’s the Best ‘Bad’ Book You’ve Ever Read.” This area of the Book Review always asks the question to two individuals in the world of literature or journalism and often the answers constitute a rousing “he-said, she-said” of literary taste and opinion. Not always, however, and the response to the question this last weekend was varied but not especially combative.
For the record, James Parker dipped back into his love of popular genre fiction, selecting Earl Thompson’s 1974 novel Tattoo (I actually read this one) but quickly spreading out his opinion to cover what might be called a genre of bad fiction, from Science Fiction to Rockstar Autobiography. Parker did not convince me that I should read any of the works he reminisces about.
But Leslie Jamison focused on a specific book and then asked a very pointed question (but flunked the answer):
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We just read Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller and we certainly wouldn’t want to forget the anniversary of the novel that started it all, Tropic of Cancer. Here is the beginning of an insightful review from the NYT that might be of interest (go read the entire article if it is).
The Male Mystique of Henry Miller
By Jeanette Winterson (26 January 2012)
What happens when the unreliable narrator turns out to be the cultural critic?
Henry Miller and the Making of “Tropic of Cancer”
By Frederick Turner
244 pp. Yale University Press. $24.95.
What we write about fiction is never an objective response to a text; it is always part of a bigger mythmaking — the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves. That story changes. George Orwell, writing in 1940 about Henry Miller, has very different preoccupations from Kate Millet writing about Miller in 1970. Orwell doesn’t notice that Miller-women are semihuman sex objects. In fact, his long essay “Inside the Whale” barely mentions women at all. Millet does notice that half the world has been billeted to the whorehouse, and wonders what this tells us about both Henry Miller and the psyche and sexuality of the American male.
Norman Mailer needed Miller to be like Shakespeare (this is plain wrong, but the need is interesting); Erica Jong wanted to be Athena to Miller’s Zeus — born straight out of his head and saving him from the Feminist Furies in her book “The Devil at Large” (1993).
And now? It is some 50 years since “Tropic of Cancer” was published in the United States by Grove Press. First published in Paris in 1934 by Obelisk, a soft-porn imprint, it had been banned as obscene in America until a landmark legal victory overturned the ban, allowing Grove to print it legally in 1961. The book became an instant best seller, and Henry Miller stood as the priapic prophet of sexual freedom.
The entire article is at the NYT; it is both a good introduction to current views on Henry Miller but also into the back rooms of publishes that are more interested in getting new and possibly controversial literature out to readers everywhere than they might be in printing a best-selling and getting rich.
Norman Mailer once said that when Henry Miller gets rolling, there is nothing like his writing: “One has to take the language back to Marlowe and Shakespeare before encountering a wealth of imagery equal in intensity.” I agree but of course in today’s fast-paced quick-gratification world, it begs the question that a wealth of imagery is prized any longer. I have bummed around the many online reading groups for more than fifteen years and it is a common complaint that an author uses too many words. What is ironic is that similar passages in other books are deemed by the same people to be poetic and beautiful writing.
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