Friday, June 27, 2014

A few thoughts about a writer named Macdonald

What might a reader of crime fiction find interesting in Dwight Macdonald's 1960 essay Masscult and Midcult and the essays collected with it in this 2011 New York Review of Books edition?

For one, while he appears to have considered "the detective story" Masscult, Macdonald discriminated between good and bad and made clear the basis of his judgment:
"The difference appears if we compare two famous writers of detective stories, Mr. Erle Stanley Gardner and Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. It is impossible to find any personal note in Mr. Gardner’s enormous output ... His prose style varies between the incompetent and the nonexistent; for the most part, there is just no style, either good or bad.   Like Mr. Gardner, Mr. Poe was a money-writer. (That he didn’t make any is irrelevant.) The difference, aside from the fact that he was a good writer, is that, even when he was turning out hack work, he had an extraordinary ability to use the journalistic forms of his day to express his own peculiar personality, and indeed, as Marie Bonaparte has shown in her fascinating study, to relieve his neurotic anxieties. (It is simply impossible to imagine Mr. Gardner afflicted with anything as individual as a neurosis."
He's willing, that is, to accord respect to "detective stories." (That's what he calls them. The term crime fiction was not in wide use in 1960, which leads to the question of then and why it became popular. Did crime writers begin writing stories about characters other than detectives? Did crime fiction sound more respectable than detective stories to the producers and marketers of the stuff? ) Anyhow, here's Macdonald, from a harsh assessment of Ernest Hemingway that, nonetheless, acknowledges his stylistic influence:
"The list of Hemingwayesque writers includes James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell, John O’Hara, and a school of detective fiction headed by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It also includes Hemingway."
That last sentence is just one example of the wit that makes Macdonald so much fun to read.

He was also a cultural prophet in some ways, alert to current trends and able to make intelligent guesses based on them.  He notes, for example
 "the recent discovery —since 1945 —that there is not One Big Audience but rather a number of smaller, more specialized audiences that may still be commercially profitable. (I take it for granted that the less differentiated the audience, the less chance there is of something original and lively creeping in, since the principle of the lowest common denominator applies.) ... The mass audience is divisible, we have discovered— and the more it is divided, the better. Even television, the most senseless and routinized expression of Masscult (except for the movie newsreels), might be improved by this approach. One possibility is pay-TV, whose modest concept is that only those who subscribe could get the program, like a magazine; but, also like a magazine, the editors would decide what goes in, not the advertisers."
Had he lived on into the age of cable television, Macdonald would not likely have lamented, as some did, the decline of the television networks as unifying forces in American life. Since the book's subtitled is "Essays Against the American Grain," though, I suspect he'd have been skeptical of the frequent claims in recent years that this is a golden age of television. But what would he have thought of the incredible stylistic fragmentation of rock and roll music, a form for which he had nothing but disdain?

As for the Internet, I suspect he'd lament the unprecedented speed with which it can turn folk art forms, for which he has kind words, into Midcult and even Masscult, of which his opinion is less kind.

Finally, a remark that put me in mind of sportscasters' increasing tendency in recent years, a tendency that has begun to seep into newspapers, to call millionaire athletes by their first names:
 "Since in a mass society people are related not to each other but to some abstract organizing principle, they are often in a state of exhaustion, for this lack of contact is unnatural. ... But people feel a need to be related to other people. The simplest way of bridging this distance, or rather of pretending to bridge it, is by emphasizing the personality of the artist."
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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9 Comments:

Blogger RT said...

This one sounds fascinating. As an American LIT teacher, I must find and devour the book. I especially like the cynical wit in the excerpts.

June 27, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Had you come across Macdonald as a student or in your career as teacher? I don't know how widely read he is these days, but he was much read and alluded to in the not so remote past. Woody Allen even mentions him in one of his early essays.

He was a great cynical wit, something near-impossible to imagine from a serious critic these days. Of course, a serious critic is pretty hard to imagine these days, too, at least one that people to read. The first part of his demolition of Hemingway as a novelist, a personality, and a celebrity is written in Hemingway style. Macdonald was quite the parodist.

June 28, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I've been whittling away at the NYRB reprints over the last few years, thanks to being in an online book group devoted to them. I may remotely know MacDonald as a name, but that's about it. But I assume that between your rec and the NYRB imprimatur that he is someone worth looking into.

June 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect you'd find Macdonald congenial. Culturally, he seems like a conservative--except that he complains that the burgeoning numbers of symphony orchestras after World War II in America were playing old music and not Elliott Carter, for example. And he opposed the Vietnam War. And ... well, he seems to have led a life almost inconceivable in today's constricted intellectual world.

June 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you'd find him of great interest, I think. Besides enjoying his prose, read the title essay in the collection and, just for fun, ask yourself if he was a liberal or a conservative. I suspect you will grin sheepishly and acknowledge that the very exercise points up the constricting inadequacy of those terms.

June 28, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

How did you get on to him, Peter?

June 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may have heard about him first in the Woody Allen piece "The Whore of Mensa." A bookstore here had a nice rack of NRRB books, which is what first got me interested in reading him.

June 28, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Peter, the MacDonald is now in my Kindle. Now I shall enjoy a healthy dose of cynicism from someone who seems to be a kindred spirit. I shall see.

June 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You'll like it, I expect. Macdonald wrote well, and he insisted on constant renewal of High Culture while fretting over symphony orchestras, theaters, and art museums that exhibit old, established high art. He defies easy categorization as liberal or conservative on a cultural sense. I suspect, too, you may like why he has to say about support for the arts.

June 28, 2014  

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