The Unbelted Epstein


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 anti-Semites.

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 Cheers":

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 brings.

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, asked readers about their favorite work of Jewish fiction from the last 10 years. This was the result.

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 exit-poll analysis?

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.