Letters - Winter 2008

Response to Our Autumn Issue

By Our Readers | December 1, 2007

Wonder Bread

I assume that the writers condescended to by Melvin Jules Bukiet in “Wonder Bread” (Autumn 2007) are capable of defending themselves and their “Brooklyn Books of Wonder,” though I would be willing to argue his point that “the only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.” Quite a few authors who have never lived in Fort Greene—oh, let’s say Tolstoy—have written some pretty good books showing that “history and tragedy foster personal growth.” Bukiet’s deliberately brain-dead phrasing mocks a time-honored, perfectly valid attitude toward literature.

My complaint, as a lifelong resident, is: Why drag poor old Brooklyn into it? Cranks and misfits have been crossing the East River for cheap rents at least since Walt Whitman ran the Brooklyn Eagle. That guy with the goatee and his girlfriend with the ponytail on the F train could perfectly well be visiting her parents in Park Slope, who are just as likely to be former members of SDS as “yuppies who couldn’t afford Soho.” As for Bukiet’s crack about Brooklyn having “always been the overlooked sibling among the boroughs,” I remind him that we were an independent city until the 1898 Mistake yoked us to the other boroughs, and that Brooklyn is still the fourth largest city in America. Like most big American cities, more than half of Brooklyn’s residents are black or Hispanic, including a fair number of writers. (Paule Marshall grew up here, Colson Whitehead crossed over from Manhattan, etc.) Not that you’d know it from reading about Bukiet’s Brooklyn, which is as bland and white-bread as he alleges those BBoWs are.

Writers like Jonathan Lethem and Emily Barton, of whom Bukiet approves, are just as typical of Brooklyn as his long list of BBoW authors—many of whom don’t live in Brooklyn. That obnoxious catch phrase strikes me as a lazy way of yoking together a lot of writers Bukiet doesn’t like in a borough he doesn’t like either, though it’s hard to tell why since he knows so little about it. By the way, those neighborhoods within walking distance of Prospect Park are so 10 minutes ago; anyone who lives here could tell you that the real hipsters live in Williamsburg.

Wendy Smith
Brooklyn, New York

Taking a prolonged look at the new Brooklyn school of writing, as Melvin Jules Bukiet does in “Wonder Bread,” is certainly worthwhile, but why this long diatribe against nostalgia, magic realism, faith, and whatever else Bukiet feels makes up “wonder”? Has he no use for any school other than his brand of realism, where “trauma’s never overcome” and anything that suggests otherwise “is a violation of human experience”? That leaves out a great deal of literature besides the so-called Brooklyn Books of Wonder. As Bukiet admits far too late in his essay, some of the authors he’s lambasting “are stunning prose stylists . . . who clearly have literary talent to spare.” As a far greater critic, Oscar Wilde, once commented, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.”

David Galef
University, Mississippi

Melvin Bukiet’s piece is remarkably perceptive and against the grain of most inane criticism that seems to have as its motto: Thou Shall Uplift. Is it possible that we are being indundated by “wonder” because we are in the midst of a war? That these kitschy books are like the wartime movies with Van Johnson and June Allyson I watched so avidly as a child? I’m not sure, but I do know that Bukiet’s piece is long overdue and echoes my sentiments exactly. I, too, have been discouraged to see such talented writers indulging themselves instead of working hard to find their own voices.

Roberta Silman
Ardsley, New York

The Bukiet piece on Brooklyn lit missed an opportunity, not because it wasn’t well done (it was, very), but because it wasn’t headlined “A Twee Grows in Brooklyn.”

Joe Keohane
Boston, Massachusetts

I agree wholeheartedly with Melvin Jules Bukiet that suffering is not redemptive. Some of us have lost too much and too many to be sanguine about suffering. But one must ask why people read fiction—and I mean ordinarily intelligent people, not cunningly clever readers like Bukiet. Most of us read for story, for a good, well-written yarn with intriguing characters that removes us briefly from our humdrum or difficult lives while providing us with new takes on old situations and giving us something to think about.

Bukiet persuades me that his kind of “close reading”—so much a part of literary analysis in college English departments—can make the ordinary reader feel gauche and stupid for finding the “Brooklyn Books of Wonder” by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Michael Chabon, and the rest, in any way enjoyable.

In making his case, though, Bukiet attacks a straw man. He seems to indicate that the BBoWs—as he stereotypes them—are not great literature. But whoever said they were? They are popular literature, appealing to large numbers of avid readers—hence finding places on best-sellers lists for weeks and months at a time.

What would Bukiet have us do? Are we to read only novels that meet his standards of reality? The shelves would be sparsely stocked—and readers would be few.

Monica B. Morris
Los Angeles, California

Thanks for a very insightful (and very witty) critique of the Dave Eggers-McSweeney’s-Brooklyn wunderkind school of novel writing. It put into words precisely what I’ve felt for some time is the problem with most of these works. They are as bland, shallow, and self-satisfied about their place in, and perceptions of, the universe as the child protagonists they enshrine. Melvin Jules Bukiet’s take on these works could not have been more deftly on target.

Elaine Wood
Richmond, Virginia


I was stunned to find this in the Brooklyn writers piece: “disdain lays beneath the surface.” It doesn’t lay, it lies.

Kelly Cherry
Halifax, Virginia

Unto Caesar

I enjoyed Ethan Fishman’s article in the Autumn 2007 issue. But he is wrong to blame only the Bush administration for policies that favor churches. The Democrats are also responsible. In 2006 Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) sponsored a law amending the Bankruptcy Code to allow tithing by debtors during Chapter 13 bankruptcy. The law was enacted to overrule a New York bankruptcy court decision correctly ruling that the landmark 2005 bankruptcy legislation prevents Chapter 13 debtors from tithing during bankruptcy. The court decision made sense. The 2005 bankruptcy overhaul was enacted to prevent “abuse” by debtors and to favor creditors over debtors. The New York court strictly adhered to the 2005 law. Payment of tithes reduces what creditors receive. Democrats and Republicans both voted to overrule the decision.

Tithes are discretionary gifts to churches, not legal debts, and bankruptcy law concerns debt repayment. The 2006 law gets things backwards by giving a preference to churches over creditors. Tithes are paid out of the debtor’s gross income. But creditors are paid only from “disposable” (net) income, which is whatever remains after tithes are deducted and other subtractions are made for the debtor’s living expenses for food, housing, etc. The 2006 law allowed Old Testament tithing rules to be enshrined in the Bankruptcy Code contrary to the First Amendment. But Congress did not stop there. It “improved” upon the Bible (and undermined the meaning of tithing) by allowing a tithe equal to 15 percent of gross income during bankruptcy.

The 2006 law ignores the Biblical Commandment to honor thy parents. It “establishes” those sects of Christianity that require tithes, while placing at a disadvantage other religions that do not encourage tithing but do require members to support needy parents (payments to parents are not allowed by the law). Honoring (supporting) destitute parents is far more important than tithing. See Matthew 15:4–6. Congress has departed from both the Old and New Testaments, basic bankruptcy law principles, and the First Amendment.

Michael L. Gompertz
Fairfax Station, Virginia

The Trojan War

William Nichols in his essay “The Trojan War” does an excellent job of articulating the kind of irrational myopic thinking that may some day doom our planet. Nichols fails to consider the alternative to nuclear energy, which is to burn coal. Whereas nuclear energy presents risks, producing energy from burning coal presents the certainty of death and destruction of our environment through coal mining, black lung disease, global warming from carbon dioxide emissions, and countless other issues associated with extracting, transporting, and burning an inherently dirty substance.

Robert Huebscher
Lexington, Massachusetts

Poetry Stand

Douglas Goetsch’s “Poetry Stand,” about precocious high school students writing poetry on demand for passersby, is one of the most charming pieces I’ve ever read in The American Scholar. Never mind that in my high school days more than a half a century ago I detested poetry. I’ve since “grown up”!

Gary Brumback
Palm Coast, Florida

Lady of the Lake

I was pleased to discover Alice Kaplan’s article on Brenda Ueland in your Autumn issue and would like to add a brief addendum to the story.

In 2002, when Brenda’s daughter, Gabby, was in her 80s, she was moved to a nursing home. The manuscript of O Clouds, Unfold! was discovered and given to Nodin Press in Minneapolis. The book, a memoir about Brenda’s mother, Clare, and a remarkable record of family life in the first quarter of the 20th century, came out in hardcover in 2004, beautifully edited by John Toren.

I cherish my copy of O Clouds, Unfold! and the significant contributions Clare Ueland made to the suffragist movement, social reforms, and the formation of the League of Women Voters. She was unflagging in her service to the political life of Minnesota. I also cherish the letters I received from Brenda shortly before she died. The last letter from her, dated Jan­uary 16, 1985, proposed we meet for tea. “But,” she said, “I am 1,000 + 2 years old and overdo, and get tired, and have a lot of hard work to finish, and don’t have 50 years to do it.” We never got to meet and have tea, but from her books and letters I feel fortunate to have discovered a fascinating woman and kindred spirit.

Susan Barrett Newhall
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Apologies All Around

Most issues of the Scholar have something of high interest for me, and every now and again, there’s something I have to copy and keep. Every few years there’s something so outstanding that I feel the need to write to you about it. So it is with Gorman Beauchamp’s “Apologies All Around,” which, with concise clarity of vision, weaves instruction about presentism together with much else, and yields at least three sentences or phrases for my personal collection of quotable bits:
• “We could save time, energy, and the risk of invidious specificity by just apologizing for history itself.”
• “. . . how relative our relativism really is.”
• “Let him who is without sins of his own offer the first apology for the sins of others.”

Henry Bauer
Blacksburg, Virginia

Death on the Installment Plan

A magazine that thinks of itself as intellectual devotes several thousand words to something as irrelevant as a group of pop musicians? The Rolling Stones won’t be cared about or remembered once the last baby boomer gasps his final breath.

Thomas Hine
Ukiah, California

Red-Pen Patriots

Larry J. Sabato’s call for a Constitutional Convention (“Works in Progress”) is fraught with danger. Once such a convention becomes a reality, it could put at risk the Constitution’s most treasured provisions. The freedoms provided by the Bill of Rights could be a major target of those who see a danger in the freedom of the press, or those who believe religious practice should be a cornerstone of our government, or even those who would eliminate those pesky words about militias in the Second Amendment. A “runaway” convention could do irreparable harm to our most precious document. Amendments to the Constitution can be achieved through the methods provided by the Constitution without any need for a convention.

Burton Kreindel
Newton, Massachusetts

Atonality and Beyond

Sudip Bose in his review of The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross contends that the history of Western music is a progression from tonality to atonality. There is no historical evidence for this. Western music was at its most atonal and dissonant, perhaps, during the 14th century. Many compositions that are now well-loved staples of the concert repertoire were at their premieres harshly criticized for their unbearable dissonance. Bach’s church compositions were notorious for this.

The reason why audiences have been averse to “modern music” has nothing to do with dissonance, but with incompre­hensibility. In situations where dissonance is appropriate and has a role to play, where it is part of the experience, as in songs or opera, it tends to be accepted by the public. After all, it has tremendous affective power. Where a piece of music contains dissonances from beginning to end, and where there is no context for it, it becomes incomprehensible, leaving audiences baffled and irritated.

There is nothing grating about atonality, but thinking makes it so. Any culture can easily assimilate atonality, but it may take time.

Stephen Silver
Santa Fe, New Mexico

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