Something Said (Magill's Literary Annual 1986)
Gilbert Sorrentino is best known as a novelist whose darkly comic writing draws its inspiration from the extravagant Irish genius of James Joyce and Flann O’Brien. Among his many novels are Mulligan Stew (1979), Aberration of Starlight (1980), Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971), Crystal Vision (1981), and Blue Pastoral (1983). In addition, he has published several books of poetry. As a poet he works consciously in the tradition of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and the so-called Black Mountain School that Olson inaugurated in recent American verse. Olson’s pupils have included Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Jonathan Williams, and Ed Dorn, all accorded honorific treatment by Sorrentino. Currently, Sorrentino is a professor of English at Stanford University.
This collection demonstrates Sorrentino’s talents as a critic and literary essayist. Whenever “real writers” turn their attention to criticism, one is interested in learning more of their preferences and in following the profession of their aesthetic creed, but critical essays rarely do more than gloss aspects of a writer’s “real” works—that is, his novels, stories, poems, and plays. Or perhaps one might consult such a writer’s critical essays for suggestions on other writers to read (or not to read). Sorrentino, because of the range and diversity of his literary preoccupations, manages to transcend these horizons to comment forcefully on the arbitrariness of the academic literary canon that selects a few writers as masters while consigning so many deserving writers to oblivion. Sorrentino even avoids, at least most of the time, the annoying tendency in books such as his to indulge in narcissistic self-congratulation and knowing gossip about “those of us who are writers.”
The arrangement of the book itself is unusual. It appears at first glance that the essays follow a sequence like the traditional one of the Koran, in descending order of chapter length. What Sorrentino has in fact done is to string together, in chronological order, all the pieces that he has produced over the years concerning a given writer or theme. To call attention to some of his deepest commitments, for example, to Williams, Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Jack Spicer, and Paul Blackburn, he has placed several longer essays among the first of the forty-seven “chapters” of Something Said. The reader gradually becomes accustomed to the steady accretions, working somewhat like time-lapse photographs, which make up these essays. The effect, indeed their effectiveness, is cumulative, Three brief selections near the end of the volume deal with the visual arts. They seem oddly out of place, dwarfed as they are by the amount of space devoted to literary considerations, but they breed curiosity about Sorrentino’s potential as an art critic.
The source of the book’s title can be found in the writing of Maurice Blanchot, whose texts are noteworthy for blurring the distinction between “criticism” and “writing.” The quelque chose dit of Blanchot is what one writes in order to resist finality, and Sorrentino must be understood as struggling against academic shibboleths and received opinions concerning writers and texts. In effect, he turns this maneuver on himself by contrasting later and earlier pieces, showing graphically how something more always remains “to be said.”
In the case of a writer he admires as passionately as he does William Carlos Williams, that something more takes the form of a deepening appreciation and an ever more anguished cry of protest that literary academe has at best embraced only grudgingly this great poet. This theme echoes throughout the essays on Olson, Zukofsky, Spicer, Kenneth Rexroth, and Lorine Niedecker. Sorrentino not only complains about these exclusions but also questions the prominent position given such moderns as Robert Frost, suggesting that Frost is much overestimated. Though the poetic canon is his chief preoccupation, he also expresses considerable dismay over the novelists typically selected for front-page reviews in The New York Times Book Review. One of the most thoroughly lionized novelists of the 1970’s, the late John Gardner, is one of Sorrentino’s least favorite writers. He resents Gardner’s posturings—his willingness to designate himself in an interview as “one of the best” living writers—and perhaps even more Sorrentino dislikes Gardner’s naturalist aesthetic, Gardner being conventionally regarded as one whose books encourage readers to “recognize” themselves and their society in all its oppressive contemporaneity. Although Sorrentino does not mention it, Gardner’s ill-humored “plague on all their houses” tract, On Moral Fiction (1978), must also be a source of irritation.
Against Gardner, Sorrentino would oppose an enigmatic writer such as Italo Calvino, who eschewed the omniscient “I” of traditional...
(The entire section is 2083 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1986)
Booklist. LXXXI, January 15, 1985, p. 680.
Kirkus Reviews. LII, October 15, 1984, p. 1001.
Library Journal. CIX, December, 1984, p. 2280.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 3, 1985, p. 7.
The New York Times Book Review. XC, March 3, 1985, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, October 12, 1984, p. 48.
Washington Post Book World. XV, February 10, 1985, p. 3.