Thursday, May 14, 2015

As Martin Amis once put it, late Henry James "didn't give a shit about the reader," or, How The Golden Bowl killed the Wall Street Journal book club!

{Fair warning: I've been letting my imagination wander again, prompted by the announcement a while back that Colm Toibin had named The Golden Bowl the next selection of the Wall Street Journal book club.}

I can already picture it: When all the big newspapers are getting together at the holidays next year, the NYT, trying to come up with something to talk about other than the election, will be all like, "Hey, WSJ--didn't you like have book club or something that you did regularly? Like, you'd get people together and drink wine and talk about the book? Anyway, how's that going?"

"Oh, god. God. Hang on--I have to have a drink first."

The WSJ will down a double Scotch, look at the glass, then pour and down another.

"It was fine. It was totally fine--I mean, a lot of times people wouldn't read the book and we'd just end up talking about Mad Men, but whatever, you know? It was fun. It was a chance for everybody to get out of the house--do you know how hard it is for the Business & Tech. section to get a proper night out with its two bratty kids scaring off all the babysitters on the Upper West Side? I won't say we were doing groundbreaking lit crit or anything, but it was important to us, at least. It was fun. And then . . . Colm Fucking Toibin, man. And Henry Fucking James--though let's be honest: it's Toibin's fault, not James's. We could have handled James. If Toibin had picked What Maisie Knew, for example--I mean, that one might as well have a fucking Reading Group Guide bound in the back, it's got so many obvious bits you can talk about. Or even Portrait of a Lady, if he really felt like he had to push things. (Do you identify with Isabel Archer? Who should play her in a movie? Were you surprised when she chose Gilbert? Would you have done that?) But The Golden Fucking Bowl? What was he thinking? What did he expect to happen? I'll tell you what did happen. It was awful. We never heard from Careers again, not even once--just never showed, never e-mailed, was never again published. Sports at least tried to read it, but after 50 pages was so confused he gave it to his dog, A-Rod, to chew on. Even the Review section admitted that she while she'd struggled all the way through it, she wasn't quite sure what had happened to the characters. And News? News went on an absolute tirade of profanity--smashed a wine glass, tried to stab Op-Ed with an olive pick; we almost called the NYPD beat reporter on him. Colm Fucking Toibin broke our fucking book club. The Golden Fucking Bowl. Jesus."

At that point, the WSJ will look up and realize that all the other papers are huddled over in the corner by the Post, watching him get a new high score on Candy Crush. (Except the Observer, who is already passed out.)


  1. Anonymous6:03 AM

    Many years ago I went on road trip with two volumes to occupy my time: The Wings of the Dove, and The Crito, the latter in Greek, in a student's edition with vocabulary in the back. Despite the inadequacies of my Greek, I found The Crito much easier going--so much so that the bookmark in The Wings of the Dove never really advanced. To this day, late James defeats me, and I smirk at the quip John Lukacs has quoted: James I, James II, the Old Pretender

  2. I love this post! I only know of James as a highbrow and apparently incredibly talented writer. But I've never read any of his books, and I don't think that I will start with "The Golden Bowl". No way!

    I don't know Toibin either. I've read the first page of "The Master" and I already don't like it.

    A truly hysterical post! Please keep up the great work!

  3. You've both entertained me with your comments--thank you! And Tom, I should be clear: I do like James--even some late James. But the idea that a work as thick and inward-looking as The Golden Bowl could be a broadly shared taste these days is a tough one to sell me on.

    I also am a huge fan of The Master, though your mileage may vary. I came to it hopeful, because I find James the man absolutely fascinating, and I was impressed with how convincingly Toibin got into his head.