The Unbelted Epstein
By KEN GORDON
What happens when you ask Joseph Epstein to
talk, via email, about literary ambition? You're soon inundated with witty,
erudite remarks that feel both off the cuff and carefully composed. Scroll
down, and watch as the author of In A Cardboard Belt!, a new collection of essays, lets loose some strong opinions on Philip
Roth, Saul Bellow, literary awards, and more.
You clearly have a thing for minor
artists, people who choose to, as Max Beerbohm put it, "juggle with golden
balls" rather than "lift heavy weights." Can you think of any
writers who might have benefited from eschewing big-time literary ambition to
write light, tight, and smart?
Saul Bellow, who had
a charming talent, especially for the description of human faces and bodies and
for cityscapes, might have been better had his ambition been less and had he
cut out all the vaporous soul talk in his fiction. He would done well, too, if
he hadn't made the heroes so obviously modeled on himself seem so large-hearted
and virtuous. Clearly, Bellow yearned to be a major writer, and the world
took him at his own valuation. I have my doubts about whether future
generations will be so kind.
In your Proust essay you
say that "One of the questions that one needs to ask when reading a great
writer—it is often a painful but finally pressing one—is, What would he or she
think of me?" When you read a great writer, do you ever imagine that one
of these serious scribblers would take a look at you, or your name, and make an
anti-Semitic crack? As you know, not a few great writers moonlighted as great
The only one I would worry a lot about would be Henry James, a very great
writer (and one of a small number of figures in my pantheon), but one who
sometimes suffered the social-class idiocies of his day. His anti-Semitism
wasn't virulent, but occasional, which is disappointing enough. In his story
"The Pupil," for example, he likens a social-climbing family's
approach to society to that of Jews before a used-clothing store. "Oh,
Henry," I would have said had he been in the room when I read this,
"don't be such a yutz."
You have great fun with the figures of
Harold Bloom and George Steiner. Are there any other critics you aim to take
down? And did you find writing the material in the "Attacks" section
more fun that the essays in, say, the "Literary" section?
Yes, I suppose writing these attacks was more fun. Puncturing pretension
always is amusing. I sometimes surprise myself at how strong I can be in that
line. But Steiner and Bloom give reading a bad name; here are two men who have
read everything in sight and yet you feel that each would need a lot of help to
find the men's room.
Criticism has come increasingly to seem to me an arid activity. Criticism as
elucidation has its value. But criticism as merely attempting to impose one's
opinions on other people—and most criticims are opinions, scarcely more, for
little in the realm of aesthetics lends itself to anything resembling proof.
All this strikes me as no way for an adult to spend all his days on earth.
Philip Roth just published his “final”
Zuckerman book, Exit Ghost. What’s your take on Roth's multivolume
Zuckermania? I know that you have a character in your story “Postcards” talk
about a Rothian novelist who, "starting out as a chronicler of the
miseries of contemporary Jewish life, had gone on to produce a pornographic
bestseller, much cut-rate Kafka, and considerable diddling with the melding of
autobiography and fiction” and who has “lately adopted the mode of high moral
dudgeon." Any thoughts here?
I find Philip Roth an immensely talented man with very little to say. I have
read the last two Roth novels, Everyman
and Exit Ghost, but without taking much pleasure or
intellectual profit from either; their message seems to be that their
characters rather resent that, having grown older, they are able to bonk less,
if at all; and, worse news yet, death is getting uncomfortably close. In one of
the essays Henry James wrote on Turgenev, he remarks that in the end we want to
know what a writer thinks about life. I'm not sure that Philip Roth thinks all
that highly of it. Near as I can make out, he thinks that nobody understands
the condition of the modern artist (that is to say, nobody understands him) and
that apart from ignorant pushy Jews just about everyone else on the street is
an anti-Semite. These are views that do not make for what we should nowadays
call a fun person.
I liked what you said about Isaac Bashevis Singer:
that his work might be read a century from now because it was the sort of thing
that could have been "easily read a hundred years before his birth."
Is there anything that contemporary scribblers might learn from the example of
I.B. Singer? What would you advise, say, Michael Chabon to
do, in order to improve the chances of his work’s longevity?
I've not read the last two Michael Chabon novels, so I think I had better
refrain from offering him, or for that matter any other writer, advice. I do
think, though, that it helps in serious writing not to let such questions as
why are we here?, how should a good man or woman live?, what's the meaning of
it all? slip too far out of sight.
You seem to respect I.B. Singer’s
difficulties with God—but how's your relationship with the Editor-in-Chief? I’m
not sure that reading In A Cardboard Belt! gives one a complete sense of
your theology, though you do write, in "Kid Turns Seventy, Nobody
I haven't even
settled the question of whether I believe in God. I try to act as if God
exists—that is, the prospect of guilt and shame and the moral endorphins that
good conduct bring still motivate me to act as decently as I'm able. I suffer,
then, some of the fear of religion without any of the enjoyment of the hope it
Would you elaborate on this a little? What's your religious life like? Do you
ever attend synagogue? Did you make it to High Holiday services this year?
The reason you find my sense of theology less than complete is that it is
all so vague as not yet to have taken the form even of mists. I do find myself
more and more impressed with the mysteries of life, and feel that cold atheism
is rather an easy way out of unanswerable questions; it is a form of saying,
when confronted by life's rich mysteries, I'd rather not talk about those.
While, as you note my saying above, I try to live my life as if God, the tough,
rather unforgiving Old Testament fellow, does exist and is keeping an eye on
me, especially for my manifold weaknesses and heavy failures. Yet I acknowledge
this God chiefly in my mind and not in synagogues. Synagogues are among the few
places where for me, God disappears. The only times I step into synagogues
these days are for the bar and bat mitzvahs of the children and grandchildren
of friends and for memorial services. My Jewish education, let me quickly say,
ain't much. I neither read nor speak Hebrew—though I went to Hebrew school as a
boy and was bar mitzvahed—and my reading in serious Jewish subjects is meagre,
if that. Yet, as a language snob, I find myself very hard on contemporary
rabbis, so many of whom currently talk pure psychobabble and other tosh. Many
of them think they are being virtuous when they are merely being political. I
have been to reform synagogues where the feeling in the air was not much
different from that which nominated the Democratic party convention that
nominated George McGovern as its presidential candidate. Not a good thing,
either for Judaism or the Democratic Party. If you need a label for my kind of
Judaism, I would prefer Non-observant orthodox. I have told this story before,
but the spirit of my Jewishness was nicely caught by the teenage son of a dear
friend who, arguing with his father about his having to go to synagogue for
High Holiday services, said, "Uncle Joe [that would be me] doesn't go to
services, and no one is more Jewish than Uncle Joe."
The piece about the cult of celebrity
stood out, chiefly because you focus on people who are of fleeting interest
(actors, It Girls, etc.). Do you consciously avoid writing about material that
will one day require a comical series of footnotes? Do you worry that attending
to pop culture ephemera will doom your writing—anyone’s writing—to obscurity?
These are not questions I think much about. In a recent short story of mine, a
character drives a Lexus, and in fact compares himself to a Lexus: expensive,
reliable, and dull. If, hope against hope, anyone were to read this story 50 or
more years from now, such a reference might well be entirely obscure to him. But
I find I rather have a character describe himself as a Lexus today than worry
about what posterity will think of the reference tomorrow. As the man said,
what the hell did posterity ever do for us, anyhow?
The title of your book was amusing, as
was the bit about the very young editor who asked to see a sample of your
writing—to which you responded: "More than forty years in the business…
and I'm still wearing the celebrity equivalent of a cardboard belt." (This
recalls the scene in History of the World, Part I, in which Mel Brooks,
as Comicus, has his flimsy cardboard shield sliced by an armed Roman solider
and responds: "I’m fighting with cardboard here!") Is it too late for
serious essayists to wield any real cultural power? Do you ever wish you were
living in a less celebrity-drive time? Or is your cardboard belt a cardboard
belt for the ages?
Every title has its own pitfalls. My last book of stories, Fabulous Small Jews, has, among other things, been called "Fabulous Small Jewels." I haven't
yet hit those implicit in In A Cardboard
Belt! No doubt before long someone will describe the book as "A Cardboard Belch!"
Perhaps the only critic in America who ever wielded any power, or had any fame
outside the university or in intellectual circles, was H. L. Mencken. His fame
was owing to his glittering style and showmanship and astonishing intellectual
energy. I'm not sure, though, that even Mencken could be said to have effected
much: he made it fashionable to knock the American middle-classes (his
"booboisie") and to mock the backwardness of the South ("The
Sahara of the Bozart"), he promoted the writings of Theodore Dreiser and
Joseph Conrad; he made life seem a wonderfully rich and endlessly amusing
endeavor, and I honor him above all for that. He also practiced an agnosticism
that, somehow, never denied the mysteries of life. Mencken has been accused of anti-Semitism,
as you know. He made a number of snide remarks about Jews, even though a number
of Jews really were among his best friends, but then he found all ethnic groups
essentially comical, which, you may have noticed, we all are. Mencken, too,
went down with his cardboard belt flying, as I hope to do.
Last year, the Koret Awards, in conjunction
with JBooks.com, asked readers about their favorite work of Jewish fiction from
the last 10 years. This was the
I know, from reading "Is Reading Really at Risk?" that you can be
skeptical, and funny, about literacy surveys. So I'm quite curious: What do you
make of the voting results above? Would you provide a little ex post facto
If you think I'm sceptical about literary surveys, on the subject of literary
prizes my scepticism turns to comic hysteria. Plain fact is that just now there
are more literary prizes than there is literary merit. Arthur Miller, a clumsy
writer and deeply muddled thinker, a positive guru of virtue who just the other
day was revealed to have locked away a
Down Syndrome son at birth and never visited him once, this same Arthur Miller
used to win an award roughly every 35 minutes, and probably died resenting that
he never won the Nobel Prize. Poets get together and give themselves Pulitzer
and other prizes even more frequently than that. It's like Progressive
pre-school, where prizes are given to children who soil themselves in the most
pleasing patterns. It's all sad, it's all a joke, it's all mishigas... it's all too much. But I see that all this candor and
rancor have caused me to grow tired—if not completely tiresome—and so I think I
had best lie down. Please don't wake me unless someone is calling to award me a
prize of my own—and not just any prize, mind you, but only one with some fairly
heavy bread attached to it.