Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Don DeLillo: The novelist as bad citizen

Today is Don DeLillo's birthday. Only Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon are his generation's equals in American literature. Sorry, Updike. If Harold Bloom's definition of a great work of literature--that it makes the familiar strange--is at all true, then White Noise certainly qualifies: try seeing your local grocery store in the same old way after you've read it.

When DeLillo's re-imagining of the Kennedy assassination, Libra, was published, George Will dismissed it as "sandbox existentialism" and, worse, an act of "bad citizenship." Here is DeLillo's response:

I don't take it seriously, but being called a 'bad citizen' is a compliment to a novelist, at least to my mind. That's exactly what we ought to do. We ought to be bad citizens. We ought to, in the sense that we're writing against what power represents, and often what government represents, and what the corporation dictates, and what consumer consciousness has come to mean. In that sense, if we're bad citizens, we're doing our job.


Camille said...

I read Body Artist ages ago (I checked it out of the Porter St Library in Soquel, CA-- the only independent library in that hood) on the recommendation of my then-boyfriend. Mostly I loved/hated it. Loved the details like the hair in between the typewriter keys, and staring at webcams of Finnish roads and hated the prickly and unsympathetic characters. Maybe we were supposed to hate them. (shrugs)

Winston said...

I am in no way qualified to comment on DeLillo's work. But his response to too-often-head-up-his-arse George Will is perfect. He expresses no bitterness, but shows a bold yet charming pride in having been so challenged and labeled. It seems that artists of all types, including those who paint with words, are the ones who frequently express the opposing or radical opinions that are reflections of mood in the populace.

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Camille, I've not read The Body Artist, so I can't speak to what you encountered in it. But I would say that it's been my experience in reading him that even his most "sympathetic" characters have flaws . . . and vice versa, of course.

Winston, like you I also think that the best art tends to stand not as an affirmation of some party line but as a resistance to or critique of it. Robert Frost's definition of poetry, "a momentary stay against confusion," would be another way of saying that, I think.