Thursday, December 08, 2005

50. The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature

by Neal Pollack

What can I possibly say about Neal Pollack? Did I love The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature? Kind of. Did I get the joke immediately? Umm…not so much. You see, I’ve never read Neal Pollack before. I mean, I’ve only read three issues of McSweeney’s proper, so I haven’t had the chance to be inundated with his work as long-time readers of the quarterly may have been. While I knew the book was a tongue-in-cheek, self-aggrandizing collection of satirical writings, I hadn’t at all expected it to be the scathing criticism of Literature (capital “L”) that it was. Once I caught onto that, yeah, it was pretty fucking funny. I’m not sure if I entirely loved it, though.

Let me explain to you why I’m sort half-in, half-out about my feelings for Pollack. I’ll use Dave Eggers as an example because he’s the perfect one. Now, I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius years ago when it came out, under the instruction of a friend who touted it as “hilarious.” Which, parts of it were. What I didn’t like was Eggers’ penchant for over-explaining himself, for apologizing for making mistakes and not being a better writer. (As far as I’m concerned, if you tell me that you suck, why should I stick around to read your book to find out? I’m going to take your word for it.) See, at the University of Chicago you get a lot of people who are unbelievably insecure about their intelligence and their person as a whole, so this sort of practice of apologizing for one’s existence is annoyingly pervasive. Maybe it’s new and charming for other readers, but I’m filled to the brim for life. While I have the utmost respect for Eggers, that’s why I don’t particularly want to read anything he’s written. By sardonically inserting himself into the pantheon of Great American Writers, Pollack is kind of doing the same thing.

However, I tried to keep that from clouding my reading of the book. I wanted to give it a fair chance since I’ve heard a good amount of praise thrown in its direction. I did, for the most part, really enjoy it. “Teenagers: The Enemy Within,” was great, as Pollack writes that teenagers are the least covered topic in the media, their world shrouded in mystery to the remainder of society. The fact that this is far from the truth makes Pollack’s undercover stint as a teenager absolutely hilarious. In “The Coitus Chronicles,” Pollack is beaten by a group of single, city-dwelling women who proclaim, “We are definitely going to hurt you. We are single women, and we hurt people.” And in “The Burden of Internet Celebrity,” Pollack has to contend with the incomprehensible fame and rabid fans he’s gained by posting his thoughts online. Would that we all had that problem, right?

My favorite piece was at the very end: “Coda: A Review of My Contemporaries,” in which Pollack gathers together a slew of prized American writers and dukes it out with them for the title of the Greatest. For some reason, the idea of Norman Mailer lacing up gloves and battling John Irving and Philip Roth is just hilarious to me. I guess the idea that someone would wonder what would happen if all these acclaimed authors got together in one room is what amuses me most. A sort of Authorial Death Match, if you will. I’ll give you one guess as to who won. (Hint: It wasn’t Mr. Mailer.)

The importance that we place on Literature, versus really good writing, is what Pollack attacks here and in that vein he’s right in doing so. All this attention paid to “major American magazines” can get ridiculous when the stories published in them are of the self-congratulatory sort. Pollack’s Anthology is a call to end praise heaped upon writers because of who they are or what they’ve written in the past and a plea to give due attention to what’s good now. It’s a worthy plea. But in doing this, Pollack is also complaining about his own lack of place in that world and at times he comes across as articulate as a whiny little boy. Mr. Pollack, I’ll read you if you’ve got something important to say, but count me out if you can’t say it without moping about those who aren’t listening. I’ve had enough of that in four long years of my life.

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