June 23rd, 2011 / 4:08 pm

Is it just me or is John Hawkes kind of actually overrated?


  1. MFBomb

      Hmmm, I’m very surprised you’d say this, Blake, considering your own aesthetic and your most recent novel. Have you read read “Death, Sleep, and The Traveler”? It’s a masterpiece of “experimental” literature, one that breaks all sorts of rules and conventions and luxuriates in words and sentences, like your own work often does.  I’d put Hawkes and Stanley Elkin neck-to-neck as two of America’s finest stylists.

      One more note: is he really “rated” enough to be considered “overrated”?

  2. Blake Butler

      i know he’s supposedly not rated that much but he does get mentioned in a lot of circles in the exact way you’re talking about, of breaking forms and such, though each time i try to dig into him it just seems really standard, semi-unusual but not that out of the box fare, and actually boring in how it operates. I’ve read the Blood Oranges, the Lime Twig, and Whistlejacket and just had a hard time finding anything to get that excited about. I’d be willing to read some more I imagine, but I’ve kinda started to think ehh.

  3. MFBomb

      Touche on the rating issue.

      I think you should read Death, Sleep, and The Traveler though–it’s probably his best book.

  4. Blake Butler

      cool, i will try that one. thanks

  5. lorian long

      the only hawkes i’ve read is the beetle leg, and it’s pretty fucking great. up there with some of mccarthy’s heaviest (maybe even better?).

  6. Slowstudies

      Try THE BEETLE LEG and the short fiction collected in LUNAR LANDSCAPES (particularly “The Owl” and “The Goose On The Grave”).  The more self-consciously “erotic”, later novels hold less interest for this reader.

  7. stephen

      i read “second skin” and liked it. i remember there being some memorable sequences, and i didn’t follow how they connected (didn’t mind either). i remember there was like a drag race on the beach at the end? am i making that up.

      i started another one, i’m not sure which–“the beetle leg” i think–and put it down after a few chapters. i don’t remember why. i thought it was “well-written” but didn’t care about it.

      seems like there are certain names–like gass, elkin, hawkes, gaddis–that get tossed out a lot by lovers of dalkey archive books/postmodernism, and i have yet to like full-on get into any of them, although i haven’t given any of them a full shake.

  8. Jonathan

      The Magus! Oh wait I thought it was John FOWLES.

  9. Brooks Sterritt

      I haven’t read enough Hawkes, but his notoriety does seem to come from being mentioned in the same breath as the other pomo people (some his friends and colleagues) from the 60’s/70’s onward. How about that wet newspaper scene in The Lime Twig though? And his Gentle Warning to horse lovers at the beginning of Sweet William? Actually that book wasn’t that sweet…

  10. MFBomb

      An intoxication with language

      by Rick Moody

      Rick Moody

      Jack Hawkes’s principal jeremiads in classroom setting (at least when I was in
      his undergraduate workshop, 1982-83) concerned language and imagination.
      Befitting his constitution, Jack was for more of each: more and better usage,
      an astonishment with language, an intoxication with language, a transformation
      and renovation and revolution with words and syntax and metaphor, and then also
      more imagination too, go further, down and in, don’t settle for the muted
      palette of contemporary fiction, find what unsettles, what disturbs, what is
      uncertain, what is paradoxical, what is uncanny, and therefore what articulates
      character by articulating the limits of character. He also liked comedy a lot,
      but only if it were genuine and organic. Superficial jokes and manipulations
      appalled him, and I know this well, as I was the object of some criticism along
      these lines. He liked anything about desire, anything about Eros as long as it
      were fearless. His touchstones, in terms-models, were Nabokov, Faulkner,
      Melville, Nathaniel West, Flannery O’Connor.

      As an instructor, he embodied all his perceptions, which is to say, he was
      generous, cruel, warm, curmudgeonly, he seemed to have total recall, he was not
      above favoritism, he was passionate, and passionately articulate, he was
      exasperating, he was incredibly loving, he was disconcertingly normal in some
      ways (in his appearance, in his moods, at least in class), and in other ways so
      singular, so much the aesthete, the pleasure-seeker, the huckster, the
      tactician; I despair of encountering such an intelligence again, even anything
      close. As others have also said, it has taken me years, in some cases, to parse
      his aphoristic messages (“No surface comedy!” for example, “Avoid whimsy!”),
      and that is good, as his memory is still much upon me. I expect it will always
      be. Fiction seemed to go from the warmth of analogue to the chill lifelessness
      of digital the moment his lamp was extinguished.

      From: http://www.providencephoenix.com/archive/books/99/04/08/HAWKES.html

  11. leapsloth14

      I thought he was OK in Deadwood

  12. M. Kitchell

      it is ok stephen, those names you have named are like the “heavy white males” of “experimental lit” (+barthelme) that i think we’re finally escaping from the iron-clad rule of.  

  13. Matthew Simmons

       Beat me by two minutes.

  14. gavin

      I like his first novel, The Cannibal, as much as I like anything, but I too couldn’t find the love for Lime Twig or Blood Oranges.  I suppose The Cannibal felt necessary, to him and therefore for us, whereas the other two seemed, perhaps, preoccupied with something less interesting. 

  15. leapsloth14

      I seriously believe most of plot and characterization and many other things can be inferred, can live OFF the page. Then again, I’m a flash writer, at times. My point is Hawkes explored many of these ideas in ways I respect.

  16. Troyweav

      The Beetle Leg was good. But I’m with Blake, too, a lot of Hawkes’ stuff (though the respect is there) just doesn’t do it for me. Especially the later stuff, where he actually explains the symbolism he’s employing. I’d read more, probably will, but it seems like for two- to three-hundred page books, it shouldn’t take so long to slog through them.

  17. Anonymous

      Damn. Bold statement. Why compare it to McCarthy? Similar?

  18. Jonathan

      Wait, where’d this other Jonathan come from?

  19. MFBomb

      I’m not surprised that a lot of today’s internet experimental writers, who seem to enjoy a stripped-down style that’s taken from things like gmail chat sessions and Facebook status updates, don’t like the old school, maximalist experimental writers

  20. MFBomb

      *and Twittering, too. 

  21. M. Kitchell

      bro if you think i “enjoy a stripped-down style that’s take from things like gmail chat sessions and Facebook status updates” then you probably haven’t read anything i’ve ever written.  i am one of a few htmlgiant contributors who doesn’t actually give a shit about tao lin or what he does, among other things.  i do like stephen though, because he is an awesome friendly guy who is fun to hang out with and who, aside from writing himself, is a major cheerleader for stuff that he believes in, which is awesome

  22. MFBomb

      That’s fine and I’m sorry you took offense to a comment that wasn’t directed at you or anyone in particular, more than an observation of what’s often labeled “experimental” online–writing that attempts to fuse pared-down “online” language into something literary, and that self-reflexively uses such a style to render commentary on the internet’s relationship to the human condition in contemporary society. Tao Lin and Mu. House aren’t the only ones doing this; you see it all over the place in flash that’s published online.

      Also, even experimental writing like the work of, say, Ben Marcus seems to favor shorter sentences and concepts, whereas writers like Elkin and Hawkes tend to get at concepts through sentences and an obsessive indulgence with language. I think this is one reason why I prefer Hawkes, Gass, and Elkin to writers like John Barth and even some of Barthelme.

  23. Neil Griffin

      What writers are breaking these iron-clad rules set up by your Barths and Hawkes and Barthelmes, etc? How are they different than these 70’s experimental writers? 

  24. MFBomb

      I think he was more-or-less talking about racial/gender representation.

      Much of the experimental writing of today is completely different from 70’s maximalism and almost seems more like minimialism than anything close to what Elkin and Hawkes were writing. What I’ve noticed in much of today’s experimental fiction is a focus on concepts, as opposed to style.

  25. M. Kitchell

      My specific interest lies mostly with French writers of the 70s & 80s, but my sentiment was more based on the idea that the most prominent/hegemonic representations of “experimentalism” or “post-modernism”–perhaps academically, at least in terms of, let’s say, visibility.  

  26. David Fishkind

      yeah probably, but here’s the real question: is guy fawkes?

  27. Don

      Do you mean the Australian tennis player?

  28. Don

      Joshua Cohen is one of the few contemporary novelists picking up that torch of maximalist experimental writing.

      Seems fairly common in small press short story type writing, but few can keep all the grenades in the air for a book-length work.

  29. Neil Griffin

      I still don’t completely understand. First, I don’t really know what rules the Barthelmes and co. set up that had to be demolished. I’m not arguing, just curious. They, themselves, were breaking rules of realism and narrative, so I’d be very interested if you could go in more depth about how new writers are reacting against this particular group of writers. It’s very possible I’m missing the point.

  30. MFBomb

      Cohen seems like a good example, based on what others have said about him (I haven’t read his work).

      I have to disagree with you though that language-driven style is in vogue in small press short story type writing; there are exceptions, but most of the small press short story writing I read still feels like it comes straight from workshop, where one of the things both camps (realists and non-realists) seem to agree upon these days is that shorter is better.

  31. Lukas Novak

      Read The Beetle Leg if you can find it. It will change your life.

  32. Lukas Novak

      Read The Beetle Leg if you can find it. It will change your life.

  33. Drew Lerman

      I tried Beetle Leg at the fervent recommendation of a professor who said
      I would love it, and I stopped a few chapters in.  I also tried The
      Cannibal and didn’t get far.  I should finish one and see what
      happens, but nothing was really pushing me forward.  They felt kind of
      similar to reading a technical manual about a really interesting piece
      of equipment, but still a technical manual.

      It seems that of Hawkes, Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Gaddis, Gass, and
      Pynchon, that Pynchon gets the most love today, in that he seems most
      widely read and enjoyed by young writers and bookish types, and
      Barthelme probably second.  I feel like the others may have been a bit
      more “academic,” i.e., intended to be dissected by critics, from what I have read of them.

      I think when DeLillo started out, his early novels were sort of
      postmodern the way those guys’ were — parodic etc. — but when he
      started doing his really good work in the ’80s those guys’ time had
      sorta passed.  And I think it’s fair to say he’s more
      well-regarded than any of them at this moment.  Maybe because he’s part of the Gordon Lish camp so popular today, despite his pomo-Pynchon-big-picture ideas that seem to me less Lishy.

  34. MFBomb

      It’s interesting that you mention Pynchon, because his style is embarrassingly bad compared to the likes of Gass, Coover, and Hawkes.  I’ve never been able to put up with mangled, tin ear, clunky prose of “The Crying Lot of 49.”

  35. Drew Lerman

      I know exactly what you mean.  I think his prose is clunky compared to theirs.  And I think his prose is clunky compared to those I associate with Lish (DeLillo, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, etc.). 

      It seems to me that Pynchon’s project as a writer has little to do with lyricism, and I don’t necessarily mind that.  I think he’s very good at close third person, and I think that if you get really close to people’s thoughts, it’s often going to sound clunky.  I’m also basing this more on V. and Gravity’s Rainbow than on Crying of Lot 49.  You can certainly do close third and make everyone sound really beautiful, I just don’t think you have to.

      I have issues with all his books I’ve read (the three I mentioned), but those issues tend to be more about losing the thread of what’s going on due to boredom on my part/over-obscurity on his, for dozens of pages at a time — rather than the clunkiness of the prose.

  36. Wilbur

      Not surprised you’re not a fan of Hawkes.  He acts with personal integrity and honesty – human emotion.  He doesn’t cut corners or use gimmicks in his work. 

  37. TFD

      Blake, I recently started reading Hawkes from the beginning and then on, but mostly because I found a copy of Second Skin that had an introduction by Jeffrey Eugenides who, among many others, studied with him and which for some reason sparked me to commence. The Cannibal was decent, Blood Oranges better (many remarkable moments), Second Skin quite sultry, and Beetle Leg pretty damn solid. However, I will admit to many moment of “ehh” as I stopped and read other books just to get through these. There is a consistency I’m noticing in his works (at least that which I’ve read in the earlier stuff) of time being stalled with the characters minds and the aura is one of observational ecstasy and thus tends to be bracketed by the banality of peregrination and, though I hate to say it, too palpable amounts of admitted lust; characters cannot exist just on their lust. This is why I think it was easier to read him in chapter bursts, and from moments in which I didn’t mind sitting with the characters’ thoughts. Looking back, I did most of this reading on benches and may not have been able to read him elsewhere. He’s overrated from a tongue stance, in the referential way, though I’ve met few who’ve read the bulk of his work let alone those who champion him for reasons beyond his seemingly well-balanced academic meets writerly life (obviously this is to be debated).

      However, and not to pass off the very stylistic and noticeably by-Hawkes-only passages, Eugenides makes a good point in the intro to Second Skin about how you can open up to nearly any passage in his works and be floored. I’d say that I agree with this, for the most part, which troubles me that the whole does not stick; perhaps not enough variation. Yet he also said “Not only was Jack [what they called him] a wonderful writer; he was a first-rate hypochondriac. ‘Nobody has a cold, do they?’ was often the way he greeted our class.”

      I also like Hawkes’ sentiment that we create our own work out of the void.

  38. Tobias Carroll

      I’ve read four books by Hawkes now — SECOND SKIN, TRAVESTY, THE PASSION ARTIST, and an omnibus of THE OWL and THE GOOSE ON THE GRAVE. (I have WHISTLEJACKET and ADVENTURES IN THE ALASKAN SKIN TRADE on my to-read shelf at home.) 

      I find that my reaction to his books varies more disparately from work to work than for — for lack of a better phrase — other authors of a similar stature: I admired SECOND SKIN more than I enjoyed it, but the emotions/evocations summoned up by TRAVESTY are still rattling around my head almost a year after I read it. 

      Maybe this is just a function of reading the books I’ve read in the order that I’ve read them, but I get a sense of him essentially reinventing himself with each book. That’s part of what keeps me interested in revisiting him, even when the work itself might leave me (in places) cold…

  39. curt

      Does, by chance, anyone know more about the correspondences between Hawkes and Flannery O’Connor? Is that in O’Connor’s collection of letters?

      Silverblatt mentioned these while interviewing Joy Williams years back.

  40. M. Kitchell

      lol what

  41. Don

      Really?  The scenes in Malta from V. are some of the most beautiful ever composed in English.

  42. Don

      When I first read Crying of Lot 49, I felt like it was the book I’d waited my whole life to read, and the sewer scenes in V., especially the priest’s diary, are pretty much as good as it fucking gets.  I feel ridiculous getting mad at your comment, but Pynchon is pretty much the greatest writer since Shakespeare.

      Embarassingly bad?  No, no, not at all.  Gass is cool, but he is no Pynchon!