No books for old men

From “Closing the Books” by Arthur Krystal, Harper’s Magazine (March 1996):

At fifteen or twenty, the books we read — or rather the minds behind them — are far more interesting than our own. But as we experience for ourselves the rites of passage that were previously only read about, and as we mature and reflect on what those experiences mean, novelists and poets begin to lose an important advantage — at some point we’ve all been down that road. And what may happen is this: we begin to find that most writers are less interesting than we think ourselves to be.

From Bookslut interview with David Markson (July 2005):

Where did I read that you no longer pay attention to more recent fiction?

It’s true. Any fiction, really. I hate to admit it, and I don’t really understand it, but it’s some years now — it just seems to have gone dead for me. Not just recent stuff, but even novels that I’ve deeply cared about — I try to reread and there’s none of the reaction I used to get, none of the aesthetic excitement or whatever one wants to call it, all a blank. With one exception of course — I can always reread Ulysses. In fact I went through it twice, consecutively, just a few years ago. But hell, that’s not like reading a novel, it’s more like reading the King James Bible. Or Shakespeare. You’re at it for the language. But even The Recognitions, which I think is categorically the best American novel of the twentieth century, just doesn’t do anything similar for me. It did, the first four times I read it — and four is not an exaggeration, by the way, in spite of its length — but the last time out it just went flat. It’s not the books, I’m sure, it’s me — I’m just not bringing the same receptiveness to them that I used to.

No other exceptions?

Oh, well, there are books by friends, that you do give yourself to. You approach them with a different psychological stance, somehow, wanting to enjoy. And doing so. As with the most recent Gil Sorrentino, for instance. Or Ann Beattie’s new collection of stories. But there’s simply no impulse toward anything else, and certainly not toward the latest generation. They all seem like they shouldn’t have driver’s licenses, even. You do become aware of the names, of course. Who are they, Lethem, Foer, Eggers? Are they mostly named Jonathan?

You know of them, but you’re not interested in reading them?

Seriously — to paraphrase Ezra Pound, there’s no record of a critic ever saying anything significant about a writer who came later than he did. You grow up getting interested in books, and the writers of your own generation or the generation or two before your own are the ones you pay most attention to. But listen, I’m scarcely as bad as some of the people I know. But good lord, some of the people I went to college or even graduate school with pretty much quit about nine days after they got their diplomas. And haven’t read a poet since Auden, or a novelist since Hemingway. There was one fat novel I did read. In 1996, in fact. I remember the date because my novel Reader’s Block had also just been published: Infinite Jest. Before I’d heard of David Foster Wallace, way back in 1990, he’d written a very perceptive long essay on Wittgenstein’s Mistress for a periodical. Even though I was never able to solve the structure of his novel, to understand why it ended where it did, I admired the hell out of it. Eight or nine years ago even, I wasn’t reading with the equipment I possessed when I was younger. But pat me on the head, I did manage to get through one novel that long in the past decade.

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