I’ve been rooting for Ben Fountain ever since Malcolm Gladwell profiled him in a 2008 New Yorker piece on late-blooming talent. That’s when I learned that Fountain was forty-eight when his first collection of short stories, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, appeared. Anyone who’s seriously tried (with minimal to middling success) to write, much less sell, a serious piece of fiction can’t help but like the story of a guy who never gave up, first while toiling at a job he loathed (lawyer) and then while rededicating himself for several humbling years to the hard work of craft. Brief Encounters arrived to great reviews and in 2007 won the PEN/Hemingway award for fiction.
I loved the stories in Brief Encounters. What I didn’t love so much was Fountain’s debut novel in 2012, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I even had a brief Verdicts piece about it ready to post last summer, but being then brand new to Commonweal felt a little nervous going negative so soon, and I buried it in my hard drive instead. Soon enough, Billy Lynn won the National Book Award. Now, it’s also won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award (announced last week). I heard somewhere else it’s also going to be a movie.
Good for Fountain! I mean that. Success is no reason to begrudge good fortune, no matter my (legitimate) gripes about the book. But success should have nothing to do with what someone says about a novel (or painting or song or TV show), especially when someone is paid for his considered opinion. Which leads me to Alexander Nazaryan’s confession in Salon this week:
I had started reviewing books, a dangerous occupation for an aspiring novelist, sort of like inviting an arsonist to join the fire department. As my own rejection letters piled up, it became unbearable to stomach the notion that others — many of whom seemed, from their biographies, to have sacrificed much less than I had — were being celebrated while I lurked in the byways of the literary world.
Consequently, the reviews I wrote came to bear a stench of bitterness, none more so than one I wrote for the Village Voice in 2008 in which I took on two debut novelists, Keith Gessen and Nathaniel Rich. After comparing them to James Joyce and Ralph Ellison, I proceed to snidely savage their work. It is true: I did not like their novels. But my dislike was set aflame by jealousy of young men whose profiles were similar to mine and who had managed to do what I had not. I remain more embarrassed by that piece than by any other. Keith, Nate: I am sorry.
Apologizing isn’t a bad move, and not just because it’ll help get your essay some attention. But Nazaryan might not have wished to seek the scrutiny of D.G. Myers. Paraphrasing won’t do Myers justice, so:
Don’t misunderstand me. I am as beset by small-mindedness as any other critic. But I have never written a review out of jealousy, and cannot really understand what it would mean to do so. I have abused my share of bad books … but never out of the fear that their authors’ success magnified my own failure. …
I am not bitter that some writers have succeeded where I have failed; I am angry that they have settled for such a measly simulacrum of success. Consider Nazaryan’s own literary ambitions: “Allow me to be immodest: I would like to write the best thing about Brooklyn since William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and a campus novel to rival Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.” William Styron and Donna Tartt? Really? That’s your idea of literary greatness, is it? Now imagine a young actor’s announcing his “immodest” ambition to do community theater.
Like Nazaryan, I too wanted to be a novelist once upon a time. (Till I admitted to myself that I lacked the talent.) My thwarted ambition to write fiction did not leave me jealous of published novelists, though. It gave me a specialized knowledge, an insider’s vantage—the same way an amateur tennis player can see things at the U.S. Open that escape those who have never tried to master the difficult game. But an amateur who is jealous of Roger Federer isn’t particularly interested in tennis; he is engaging in a narcissistic fantasy.
“Things that escape those who have never tried to master the difficult game.” That’s why I like Myers (not because his opinion of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk just happened to validate mine). But it’s also why I’ll probably always like Fountain—he tried, and tried, because he was interested in the writing.