Eustace Chisholm and the Works, a novel by Purdy published in 1967, is, according to Franzen, “so good that almost any novel you read immediately after it will seem at least a little posturing, or dishonest, or self-admiring, in comparison.” Franzen goes on to say that Eustace Chisholm is better than the sentimental and rhetorically manipulative Catcher in the Rye, superior to the works of Richard Yates, which are haunted by self-pity, and more legit than Saul Bellow, who seems “wordy and academic and show-offy if you read him directly after Eustace Chisholm.” While dissing Purdy’s contemporaries might be fun, it doesn’t tell us much about Eustace Chisholm, nor does it let the novel succeed on its own merits.
A book isn’t good because other books are bad. A book is good in and of itself. Franzen’s claim that the novel you read after Eustace Chisholm will seem “dishonest, or self-admiring, in comparison” is silly. What if, after reading Eustace Chisholm, you read Mary Gaitskill or Modern Baptists? Novels don’t become worse when compared to other novels. Knocking Salinger, Yates, and Bellow is a bully’s way of building up Purdy. This approach of praise-by-attack turns literature into a game of one-up-manship, of petty competition between authors, as though art could be organized using a college basketball bracket system:
Who’s top dog—
Emma Bovary vs. Anna Karenina?
Alice Munro vs. Thomas Pynchon?
James Purdy vs. Paula Fox?
Complimenting one author by criticizing others reduces intelligent discussion about books to a juvenile competition where everybody roots for their favorites and dismisses the other guys as a matter of course, leading to statements like: Raymond Carver is fine, but with her collections from the ’90s Alice Munro really slamdunked in his face!
Franzen’s praise-by-attack approach is seen in his introduction to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, which “operates at a pitch of psychological violence that makes Revolutionary Road look like Everybody Loves Raymond,” and in his laudation of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, which struck Franzen as “plainly superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth, or Saul Bellow.” Here the comparison to other writers is even less helpful than in Franzen’s assessment of Eustace Chisholm. All we get is the fact that Desperate Characters is better than the works of these other novelists. Franzen doesn’t bother explaining why.
While it can be helpful to compare writers’ various approaches to style, sentence structure, and subject matter, it’s immature to play such favorites. Most of us aren’t like Franzen or like Nabokov, who could so easily qualify his tastes, ranking the classic Russian writers with a letter grading system. There’s no need for such rankings. Literature isn’t like biology where a classification system is required for understanding. This approach of extreme categorization, of better-than’s and put-downs allows for showboating and snarky entertainment, which is an okay time—that stinger about Everybody Loves Raymond is hilarious!—but it doesn’t provide much insight or tell us what makes an author unique.
What we like in one author is not what we like in another. If, for instance, your favorite writers are Hemingway, Henry James, and Michel Houellebecq, you’re going to love these writers each for different reasons. This is true regardless of whom your favorite writers are. Perhaps you fancy the postwar realists like Bellow, Yates, Salinger, and Updike. Maybe you prefer the strange, subtle stories of Lydia Davis or Deborah Eisenberg. Maybe you like Alice Munro and Thomas Pynchon. Whoever you like, it’s because that writer communicates something to you no one else can. A critic should try to discuss this.
Sure of course you can set authors up against each other, saying, “Well in a one-versus-one showdown Saul Bellow has written better books, but Philip Roth is the greater novelist.” Except it’s foolish. There’s no benefit to this kind of squabbling. If you think John Updike is bad, it’s not because John Updike is worse than James Purdy. It’s because you think John Updike is just bad.
Franzen’s approach, with its cutting remarks and immediate dismissals, feels like criticism. It isn’t. It just forces the reader to make a non-existent choice: Who’s better at examining life, James Purdy or Saul Bellow, Paula Fox or Philip Roth? You don’t have to choose. There’s no need to think of books in this way.
The greater challenge is explaining what makes a work of art original. It’s difficult to put into words. Still, we should try to take each book as it comes, judge it by its own merits or faults, avoid proclivities toward grand claims or silly rankings, and not rely, at least not too much, on petty jabs and snide asides. Conveying the majesty of great books is a challenge, one that can’t be shrugged off.
Alex Kalamaroff is 25 years old. He lives in Cambridge and works for Boston Public Schools.