Sunday, March 23, 2014

Wilfrid Sheed: "censors don't feel they are getting anywhere unless they are up and doing"

"Suicide is the sincerest form of criticism life gets."
(Wilfrid Sheed, The Good Word, 1978)

It's funny how the words of some writers just stay locked inside your head. Much of that may have something to do with wit or style or language. I have a friend who can recite the first three pages of A Clockwork Orange; another parts of Major Major's ramblings from Catch-22, and a third who knows a pretty hefty chunk of Slaughterhouse Five. All three writers were masters of the shadow-play between word and meaning.

But reviewers and critics? Their words seldom reach that same level. This seems only fair since most reviewers are interested in telling readers in their estimation why the book is worth reading, and quit at that as deadline approaches. Wilfrid Sheed, who died in 2011 at the age of 80, was one of a handful of critics who have actually picked up the quill and tried the high-wire act of fiction-writing. Among his works are the heady and unpredictable Pennsylvania Gothic, The Blacking Factory, and the politically-unhinged People Will Always Be Kind (1973). It may be for this reason that his reviews, written on deadline, had a unique prose style that was a delight to read and why their broader observations are worth recalling.

Henry James created more convincing women than Iris Murdoch put together: this Sheed remark, which has stayed with me for decades,steered me down memory lane today. As a weekly reviewer Sheed also wrote much other, more topical material of America in the 1970s. 

I picked up a copy of his book of essays, The Good Wordas an aspiring writer in 1978, and read in awe Sheed's ability to broaden his critical writing from literary review to observation. Some of his thoughts make remarkably fresh reading. Here, in no special order, a sampling.

"Censors will try to censor a little bit more each year (because, like editors and other officious people, censors don't feel they are getting anywhere unless they are up and doing)."

"Hardly a day passes that I don't read another attack on the "typical liberal" — as if it might be announcing a pest of dinosaurs or a plague of unicorns."

"Chicago 1968 taught one how close any civilized country is to berserkness at all times; also how terrorism, even silly terrorism, strengthens the cops more than anyone. Yet already this European-style history lesson has been watered down by consensus into something crazy we did in the sixties, just as we "did" McCarthyism in the fifties. As if a nation changes its nature completely every ten years; as if social forces were as evanescent as hula hoops or skateboards, instead of as remorseless as glaciers."

"Unlike most wars, which make rotten fiction in themselves — all plot and no characters, or made-up characters — Vietnam seems to be the perfect mix: the characters make the war, and the war unmakes the characters. The gods, fates, furies had a relatively small hand in it. The mess was man-made, a synthetic, by think tank out of briefing session."

"Today's novelist is not only limited by the thin subject matter of personal experience, but by the pinched clinical conventions of the Health generation. Faced with Othello, say, he would have to divide the man into departments, like a liberal arts course. Race relations — that's still a subject, although of course whites can't write about blacks and vice versa; sexual politics (somehow); Othello's ultimate therapy and decision to endure. Since jealousy is now curable, like TB, we can't have people dying of it anymore. A few rap sessions, some fearless touching, and a new sense of self-worth would have Othello and Iago and Hamlet and Juliet back on their feet in no time; and Fiction struggling."

"Once E.M. Forster was identified as a homosexual, a universal writer was diminished to the status of a propaganda counter in a winless war. 'We've got Whitman, and I'm pretty sure we've got Byron, and we're still working on the big case, Shakespeare,' say the Gays. And the Straights reply by hanging on to Shakespeare's Dark Lady for dear life and giving up Whitman altogether. But who can read any of them intelligently with all this gabble going on? In the big game of is he or isn't he, the author is the one sure loser."   
Sheed died too early to see the current political see-saw over the Affordable Care Act, played out for ratings in many conservative media outlets. But he would likely see the 24-hour attack of pundits and politicians as another example of the cyclical "berserkness" that is an unacknowledged part of the American grain.

(1970 photo of Wilfrid Sheed in his apartment by Leonard Mccombe, from Life magazine)

No comments: