Pursuit of Shelf Life: A Self Test
Warren Adler E-Sheet 31
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Shelf Life: Not a Trivial Pursuit
always been fascinated by the illusive nature
of celebrity and the transient nature of
contemporary fame. Andy Warhol's metaphor
calculated fame in minutes, fifteen to be
exact. What he meant, of course, was that
so-called "celebrity" has a very
short shelf life.
Time wields an unforgiving and indiscriminate
scythe. No one presently living has a clue as
to what will be the classic of tomorrow or who
will even be remembered—except perhaps in
future Trivia games, a dubious distinction.
When I was on the Warner lot, I used to visit
the main building of Warner Bros. where the
green-lighters hung out listening to
sweaty-palmed producers, writers and stars
pitch their movie ideas.
The reception room was filled with large
photos of the stars of yesteryear when the
star system was at its height. I would take
along my younger staff people, all movie
industry wannabees and prod them to identify
the names of those pictured. One would think
television might have familiarized them with
these people until I realized that the black
and white movies of the past had little
interest for them.
They could not, for example, identify Clark
Gable, once known as the King of
Gary Cooper. Or Myrna Loy. Or William
I could not fault them for their
non-recognition. These were not the stars of
their generation, nor could I and others of my
vintage recognize most of the names in the
current issue of People magazine. The creation
of "celebrities" is an end product
of media manipulation feeding an insatiable
appetite of a craven public searching
desperately for role models. The preceding
sentence sounds like psychobabble and probably
is, but I'm sure the reader gets my meaning.
Perhaps it has been always thus, but its
proliferation in our contemporary culture
distorts our perception today of what is worthy
of saving and what should be quickly
In terms of the writing game, I often wonder
which contemporary scribbler's works will be
relevant to future generations. In my own
lifetime I've seen the literary heroes of my
youth disappear into oblivion. Thomas Wolfe
and John O'Hara, where are you?
How many of yesterday's literary heroes will
weather the vicissitudes of time? Beyond mere
name recognition who will read their books?
After all, a book not read is a form of
I've devised a small series of literary tests
to illustrate the point. Of course, I've
stacked the deck for to make the point.
The answers are
Here's Test One:
What do the following have in common?
Simon, Elias Canetti, Nelly Sachs, Yasunari
Kawbata, Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, Roger Martin
DuGard, Jacinto Benavente, and Henrik Pontoppidan?
Here's Test Two:
What do the following have in common:
Poole, Julia Peterkin, Margaret Ayer Barnes,
T.S. Stribling, and Joseph Winslow Johnson.
Here's Test Three:
Who is Elfriede Jelinek?
Here's Test Four:
Who are Sara Shun-Lien
Bynum, Lily Tuck, Kate Walbert, Christine
Schutt and Joan Silber?
In our fast moving world, where critical
elitists bounce around praise, adoration, scorn
and derision like steel balls in a pinball
machine, I wonder how many of their
immortality candidates will ever make the cut
and, conversely, how may of their snobbish
dismissals will become part of the canon.
Here's one more test. Ask around and see how
many people have ever read Gone with the
Wind. I mean reading the book, not
seeing the movie. Note, I'm not talking War and
Peace, Crime and Punishment, Great
Expectations, Vanity Fair or Jane Eyre among other works that
have defied oblivion.
And another: Ask people under 40, or 50,
if they can identify the following: Eddie
Cantor, Rudolph Valentino, Alben Barkley,
Luther Burbank. And then ask: Who was Vice
President under Herbert Hoover? Ah well, you
get the point.
to Test One:
All were winners of the Nobel
Prize for Literature.
Answer to Test Two:
All were winners of the
Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
Answer to Test Three:
She won the 2004 Nobel
Prize for Literature, announced just a few
Answer to Test Four:
They are the nominees for
this year's National Book Award for Fiction.
As for who was Herbert Hoover's Vice
President: You mean you don't know? He was
Charles Curtis. (Thank you Google.)
Watch This (e)Space
When Critics Nauseate
Kakutani, who reviews books for the New York Times has grown increasingly crotchety and irksome. In a recent review of
Returns, a so-called sequel to the original by
Mario Puzo, she refers to Mario's novel as "a trashy potboiler, fast, punchy, sometimes lurid reading, devoid of gravitas and emotional undertow. . ." Good God!
The Godfather was a brilliant, authentic, beautifully rendered, absorbing, wonderfully creative novel, with rich characters and a fabulous plot that will last a lot longer than Kakutani's absurd pronouncements and certainties.
| On another sour note, Kakutani trashed
Tom Wolfe's new novel I Am Charlotte
Simmons. On the basis of this mean-minded diatribe, I rushed out to buy the book. I haven't read it yet, but I'm sure, if Kakutani is any guide, I'll love it.
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