In the end Joe David Bellamy’s Literary Luxuries reads now more like an elegy for a now lost literary landscape…and a lost friend to literature….
This, the last in this series of essays on the state of literary fiction at the end of the last century, will be a final look back to that halcyon time when an author thought he knew what the literary landscape was and felt comfortable making projections about whose literary reputations might last. Joe David Bellamy’s Literary Luxuries seems almost quaint now in its belief that the literary horizon was visible and that which authors might have lasting reputations would be a predictable thing.
Ah, the quaint mid- nineties. You know, when we thought Yahoo would be the search engine of choice and that the Internet would be primarily a supplement to make library use easier.
This last essay will look at two sections of his book. The first is a “teaching writing” issue that Bellamy talks about in a section called “Literary Vices.” Here Bellamy is on pretty solid ground. He gives solid, if unexceptional advice (beware of being too autobiographical), though he still feels the need to defend the “super fictions” of such Postmodernists such as Barthelme and DeLillo against the criticism of John Gardner (a debate I discuss in this essay). He also revisits the struggles he participated in against the attacks on the NEA (disguised, as pretty much all the Right’s attacks on anything that shows interest in public support for anything but military adventuring and their attendant crony capitalism, as moral outrage) by the Right while he was there. This is pretty straightforward stuff and Bellamy’s positions are probably in sync with most serious literary (or arts) types.
The other section (actually sections) of the book is where Bellamy looks at literary reputations. This is always a delicate and difficult territory for any writer assessing contemporaries, especially a writer who is friends with other writers and may be swayed in his judgments by personal loyalties, antipathies, the usual stuff that flesh is heir to. In the first discussion, he focuses on satire, a genre well suited to Postmodern sensibilities. Here he discusses three significant figures: Kurt Vonnegut, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and Tom Wolfe. Of these three Bellamy does the best job discussing Boyle, a writer whose work is most congenial to his own literary interests. His views of Wolfe and Vonnegut are less insightful, in the former case because he finds Wolfe’s sweeping social vision merely a reflection of his journalist background – a view similar, it seems, to claiming that Hemingway’s minimalist style is merely a reflection of his journalism, and in the latter case because he, like so many of the university trained writers, finds Vonnegut’s success as both a literary and popular writer slightly baffling – after all, Vonnegut didn’t follow the system, wasn’t a “trained” writer, and wrote genre fiction – sci-fi to be explicit. How someone who was not of the “MFA Mafia,” as David Comfort smilingly refers to those trained as a writer by a university writing program (preferable, for Bellamy, Iowa’s program) could become the most renowned literary figure of the last half of the 20th century seems a genuine puzzle to him.
In another section called “Contemporaries” Bellamy assesses his own generation of literati. Here, as I mentioned above, he treads dangerous ground. Rather than attempting to judge his assessments, I offer for the reader the list of fellow writers he thought important enough to include in his list of significant contemporaries: Max Apple, Russell Banks, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, John Casey, Don DeLillo, Frederick Exley, John Gardner, Beverly Lowry, Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Dan Wakefield, Paul West, and Norman Mailer. Some of these writers are clearly bigger celebrities than others, some have been highly influential (for good or ill), some are likely not going to be remembered. Your guess about the latter group is as good as mine – or Bellamy’s.
The elephant in the room throughout this series of essays has been how the Internet has changed the literary landscape, both offering (or seeming to offer might be more accurate) opportunities for authors to reach readers. It has also given enormous power to Internet entities that may determine the nature of literature for the foreseeable future. Whether that will be a good or bad thing is uncertain. Other cultural forces are also at work, as this waggish apology shows. Still, it would be interesting to have Bellamy’s views on the last twenty years of American literary culture. His perspective, having moved from the traditional literary world to the brave new world (a better term might be free-for-all) of the contemporary literary scene would be enlightening, as would be his views on matters such as the elevation by younger generations of certain genre writers (we might call them the children of Vonnegut) to literary stature.
Alas, this is not to be. We end this series on a sad note: Joe David Bellamy died unexpectedly a couple of months ago. Our heartfelt sympathies to his family and friends. He was above all things a tireless champion – and lover – of all matters literary. Perhaps right now he is mediating an argument between Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver over what a good short story should be, or watching with a kind of amused wonder as Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway argue ( and occasionally shove each other) about who is manlier as Frederick Exley snickers in the background. Or maybe he and Vonnegut are simply looking on, chuckling because “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Or, as Kurt might say, to Bellamy’s delight, “So it goes.”
Hi Ho. Safe travels, sir….