You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to smell some degree of collusion in the fine art world when it comes to prices. I sometimes wonder when watching Antiques Roadshow if something similar (less pernicious, though broader in scope and perhaps more complex) goes on in the world of antiques and collectibles, not like a bunch of cigar-smoking guys in a backroom, but like an ever-evolving consensus among dealers in a perpetual professional conversation concerning the market values of a whole roster of objects and names. It’s hard to believe that the whole game depends solely on the prices people are willing to bid at auction. Creating tastes and setting values is, after all, the way of American capitalism.
Within the past couple of weeks I’ve had a similar suspicion about the world of professional book reviewers, both academics and freelancers. I’m a complete outsider, but if it’s true that lists of classics are fairly uniform, then might there be blacklists as well, even if they are unspoken? These are the writers who don’t deserve to be included in the canon. And these are the writers we hate, that we are vocal about in our hatred, that we love to hate.
And is James Purdy such a writer?
Oh, not everybody hates him, and I admit that I learned about him years ago from a book by Charles Newman, who was the editor of TriQuarterly. Some of Purdy’s stories were published in the top venues, and he could count a few American publishers as supporters. That’s far more than many a so-called outsider can claim. But his supporters seem to have been mostly other writers, and he seems to have had more than his fair share of naysayers and haters amongst professional critics and reviewers.
My joy in discovering the publication of James Purdy’s Complete Short Stories has been dampened somewhat by the discovery that he was widely reviled by said establishment. I had realized that his star has waned over the years, having noticed a lack of discussion of his work and more significantly the less than easy availability of his books. Visits to the “P” section of bookstores—both new and used—have never panned out for me, and a lot of his books have fallen out of print. But I did not know until a few weeks ago that he was unable to publish some of his books in America, and that throughout his entire career European publishers and readers were the first to welcome his writings. Listen to him and you get the impression that he was hated by the American literary establishment. I’m not sure why it should matter, but these thoughts have been crowding in on my enjoyment of the Complete Short Stories.
It’s not just dead critics that hated him. And even a supporter such as John Waters, who wrote the introduction to the Complete Short Stories, gives a massive nod to the haters. His characterization of the collection as an enormous box of “poison chocolates” isn’t terribly off the mark, but his list of Purdy’s weaknesses—which includes misogyny—is. Misogyny is a very strong word, and I have not found any trace of it in Purdy. Waters’ justifications for this charge reveal a gross misreading.
Women are often evil gossips, some even emit fetor…. A man brutally beats his wife after she endlessly nags she will leave him just because she suddenly finds her married last name ridiculous. Yet when a woman in her sixties shows up completely naked at a male neighbor’s front door in another story, Purdy writes about this man’s understanding and kindly reaction.
Waters is picking and choosing his poisons. What of the little boy in Why Can’t They Tell You Why? who hisses like a snake and spews something black and stringy? What of all of the grotesque descriptions of both men and women? The beating the husband gives in Don’t Call Me By My Right Name is just as brutally surprising as his wife’s abrupt declaration at a party that she will not be called Mrs. Klein. Waters’ “just because” is disingenuous. Mrs. Klein’s absurd refusal pulls the rug out from under Mr. Klein completely. The end of that story has Mrs. Klein saying, “Call me a cab, you cheap son of a bitch. Can’t you see I’m bleeding?” Clearly man and woman both married into sickness. In the other story Waters mentions, Goodnight, Sweetheart, the man’s behavior is ambiguous. He understands nothing; indeed, the profound mystery of it fills him with fear. His ambivalent responses, ranging from extreme nervousness to serving the woman fresh baked pie, can be interpreted as weakness and insecurity as well as—and perhaps even more than—kindness. In reading the story I wasn’t taken by any kindness on the man’s part, but was struck by his perturbation at her incomprehensible presence at his door. In fact, his uneasiness is, for me, one of the most potent flavors of this story. Mere kindness, here, would be blandness itself. The story anticipates the David Lynch film Blue Velvet, in which the appearance of a naked woman is shocking. The significance of both story and film is in showing how mere nakedness, outside of any known context, can be a radically disruptive event. Furthermore, Waters’ argument ignores a story such as Night and Day, in which a young woman is surprised to find an inner strength when confronting behavior from her father-in-law that is very ugly indeed. It is a story about empowerment.
The charge of “evil” gossip deserves special mention, not simply because it ignores the male gossips in Purdy’s stories, but more importantly because it misses the importance of gossip as a theme, or even a kind of driving structural force, in Purdy’s stories. In many of his stories Purdy explores the importance—the prominence—in our society of what people say about one another. Gossip, secrets, different versions, backbiting (along with its corollary, politesse), reputations, lies, improper revelations—it is Purdy’s uniqueness and importance as a writer, I think, that such themes are so prominent in his work. Indeed, with his dismissive phrase “evil gossips” Waters shows himself to be a rather superficial reader. He seems to be enamored of the subversive appearances of Purdy’s flawed characters, when the true riches of his stories lie deep in the interiors of human beings—where, in fact, Purdy himself claimed to be toiling.
Are Purdy’s stories that difficult to appreciate? The tepid tone of the NY Times obituary might indicate that they are. His stories, it states, “either enchanted or baffled critics with their gothic treatment of small-town innocents adrift in a corrupt and meaningless world.” It seems to me Purdy had already addressed this criticism when he wrote that
Critics here are frightened to death of any writing like mine that begins deeply inside and comes from within. They only want the outside. They think that is reality.
The “outside” Purdy mentions we might compare with the notion of “meaning” with regard to the world as represented in fiction. For Purdy the deep interior, fantasy, the unconscious, the imagination—these are the truly real. People are real. He states elsewhere:
I’m basing these texts on real people and they [critics] want something thought out, you see. People don’t think out their lives, they are tossed as if on waves by every wind that comes, and man is not a rational creature. But the critics seem to think there is such a thing as rational behavior. They haven’t read history, I guess, which is a collection of lunacies. We contradict ourselves every day.
Not that Purdy’s method always works. Lily’s Party is too out there for me to relate to, and the extreme situation described in Sleep Tight strikes me as being too unlikely to consider. With these two stories the absence of any other context leaves them exposed in stark monstrosity.
a final quote:
Today everything has a subject but when you look at it there’s no content. It’s true of everything written today: it’s all subject, no content.
Content = real human beings. I take these statements (all from James Purdy: Memento Mori) to mean that readers have difficulty with Purdy when they want rational behavior and a world that is meaningful, or at least fiction that provides the illusion of such. But we’ve also seen that misreading Purdy can mean the kind of pathetic fallacy of shooting the messenger: accusing the author who writes about a wife beater as being a misogynist. Strange that this sort of art requires constant defense. In a world where abuse and all manner of crimes take place we should all be very thankful for artists who provide—if we will but listen—the means of having some understanding of these evils rather than explaining them away or painting them over.