Vital Signs

The Year in the Novel, 1991

What we have here—not even the President has had the effrontery to deny it—is an intellectual recession. I cannot think of a year in which more; bad books received more serious attention. These weren't just lapses but a pattern, and one need not be paranoid to look for explanations. What people do is, mostly, what they want to do and intend to have done. And if the nonbook has been promoted to a new eminence, there must be some significant intention, however malign.

What we're talking about are the big books of the season—Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost (Random House), Harold Brodkey's The Runaway Soul (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and, in a slightly different and more traditional vein, Alexandra Ripley's Scarlett (Warner). I find myself in the bizarre position of having not only to admit but having to boast that I haven't read them. Anyone dopey enough to slog all the way through these novels isn't smart enough to write intelligently about them. I've dipped and skimmed, browsed and sniffed, and held my not-so-delicate nose (in my needier years, I committed some best-sellers myself in order to keep my children's rapacious bursars at bay). It was ridiculous, not just a matter of three random disasters but a conspiracy of discontented, misanthropic, dyspeptic crazies in New York who are trying to get back at literature itself for having betrayed them. These...

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