Monday, April 09, 2007

Literary Feud!

While spelunking around the web today, I came across a would-be literary feud from a year ago that never took off. Novelist and journalist, Kevin Baker erupted in spittle-flecked rage at the Powell's blog over a review of his novel, Strivers Row that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

The reviewer, Baker declaimed, is a "literal neo-fascist" who "felt obliged to mention both his own ethnicity and my skin color" and who complained that Baker was "too nice to the black characters" in his novel.

The reviewer sounds like a monster, I wouldn't give a second thought to the matter except that the "literal neo-fascist" Baker denounced is none other than our own Bill Kauffman, who has done a bang-up job of covering up his facsist tendencies by being something of a decentralist/quasi-agrarian/distributist/borderline pacifist opponent of war and empire.

It gets better. Baker took umbrage at Kauffman for comparing Strivers Row unfavorably to the historical novels of Gore Vidal. The review wasn't available on the web, but I found the text via library database and Kauffman indeed mentioned Vidal:

Contrast Mr. Baker with Gore Vidal, one of our best historical novelists. Mr. Vidal the political essayist may harshly criticize Abraham Lincoln, but Mr. Vidal the novelist renders Lincoln with the most acute and understanding sympathy. He does not create fictive strawmen. Mr. Baker, for all his talent at establishing a milieu, not only builds strawmen but sets them ablaze. He kindles a light that does not illuminate.

This led Baker to do a little investigating. It turns out that Baker wrote a negative review a few years back of Vidal's novel, The Golden Age, and Baker discovered that Vidal wrote the foreword to Kauffman's America First!: Its History, Culture, and Politics, released in 1995. Conspiracy!
I can't pretend that I wasn't unruffled by all this. Goaded into a murderous rage would be more like it, particularly since Mr. Kauffman also grossly mischaracterized most of my work. But I just put it down to the fact that Mr. Kauffman must be a devoted Vidal fan. Maybe he had been upset by the nastiest review I have ever written myself, one ripping Vidal's novel The Golden Age in the pages of the Los Angeles Times a few years ago.

Of course, that explains it. Bill Kauffman's plan is to write hit reviews of books by Vidal's negative reviewers as payback for Vidal's foreword from a decade ago. Or perhaps its just that Kauffman actually believes what he wrote in the first paragraph of his review, that Baker's book is like "watching a Ken Burns adaptation of an Arthur Schlesinger history volume: The production is diligently researched and the era is captured through evocative and stylized touches, but it's hard to stifle a yawn over the conventionality of the whole project." Just not his idea of good historical fiction.

But this whole neo-facsist thing has got me worried. I gave Bill a ride to dinner one night at the ISI conference we both attended last month. We were seen in public drinking beer--perhaps even in a beer hall. Is that going to come back to haunt me at some future date, at a Baker-led Thoughtcrime tribunal perhaps?

The funny thing is that while Kauffman's review is mostly negative, being a generally nice guy, he found a couple of things to praise in the novel; and his tone is mild in the extreme when compared to Baker's bilious and hysterical frothing. And while it is true Kauffman notes his own ethnicity ("as a part-Paddy libertarian advocate of free and free-swinging speech") and Baker's skin color (". . . Mr. Baker, who is white . . ." Horrors!) in his review--Things Not Allowed--neither instance makes Kauffman out to be the obsessive racialist that Baker would have you believe.

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