Thomas Mallon in The Atlantic

Speaking of the 1920’s (see Gatsby below), Thomas Mallon, author of Henry and Clara and Two Moons, has a new book out called Bandbox – described as “an exhilarating ride through the antic twenties and a comic tour-de-force.” Mallon discusses his new book, among other things, in an interesting interview over at Atlantic Unbound.

There are a number of interesting issues tackled in the interview, but let me just wet your appetite with a couple. One idea I found interesting was his comparison of the 1920’s with the 1990’s:

One of the things I discovered in the course of writing the book was how many parallels there were between the twenties and the nineties. The two decades had so much in common: that fast stock-market prosperity, which ultimately proved quite ephemeral; the worship of celebrity, which was a very twenties phenomenon, the twenties being the era of the ticker-tape parade, and the nineties being the era of the mad proliferation of gossip even in serious papers. The twenties were preoccupied with travel speed—everybody was always setting new records for air travel and things like that. The nineties were preoccupied with communication speed—the era of instant messaging. There was a wonderful sense of revival in New York in the nineties, that it was coming back in all kinds of ways.

I am not sure here in the mid-west we felt this quite so much but it makes sense the way he puts it. Perhaps it seems different from my historical perspective because I connect the twenties to the horrible decades that followed, the depression and war followed by the Cold War. Whereas with the 1990’s my personal life didn’t have that kind of swing of emotions, although certainly those caught up in the boom and bust certainly did.

The interview also has some fascinating discussions about how Mallon approaches writing. I found his discussion of critics wanting to be writers of particular interest. I have so far avoided the temptation to think I could write a novel but Mallon explores the temptation well:

One thing that is really odd about literary criticism in general and maybe academic literary criticism in particular is that you’re always writing about a medium in essentially the same medium—you’re writing about words with words. It’s a very different situation from, say, an art historian, who is writing about painting in words. For an art historian, I don’t think the tendency to want to take up painting is there as strongly, and I don’t think it frustrates art historians in the same way it often frustrates literary critics. As a literary critic, there’s a sense that you’re always just one tantalizing step away from actually doing what you’re writing about. And I think the desire to crash through that last screen and do it eats away at critics, particularly academic ones. It makes for a certain unhappiness. It’s an opportunity, in a way, but it’s also a burden.

I wonder if Bloggers don’t suffer from a similar temptation in many areas. Journalism for example. People who are well educated and interested in writing must soon find themselves thinking they can “do” journalism. They become frustrated with what they read and think they can do better. Certainly this is part of the attraction of Blogging, right? The same temptation to move from being and avid reader to be a literary critic underlies this humble site, I will admit. It was a challenge to me to see if I could write intelligently and in an interesting way about the books I read. Blogs and web pages provide a way to write without quiting one’s job and risking it all. The entry costs are quite low. Obviously many bloggers dream of moving from blogging to paid writing in much the same way academics and literary critics dream of moving up. If I start talking about writing a novel then you will know that I have given in to the temptation.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

View all posts