Michael Dirda is a critic for Washington Post Bookworld.
I am fond of Dirda for a number of reasons. First, he is a middlebrow in an age which largely disdains efforts at public education. Second, he is from a working-class background and is neither afraid to talk about it or using it as a touchstone in everything he writes. Third, he has championed genre writing—the science fiction of Philip Dick, for instance—as serious reading (rather than as fun slumming or mere cultural artifact).
I suppose I can see a lot of myself in Dirda, and I see a lot of what I aspire to in what he has already accomplished. He’s a Northern, working-class kid, a scholarship boy in the Hoggartian sense, and a man who has developed a level of comfort with both the old traditions of “high culture” and a way of communicating that comfort to a relatively broad audience through the newspaper and the Internet. And also through books.
Dirda’s second collection of essays and reviews has recently come out. For fans of his first collection, Readings, this second collection may come as a bit of a disappointment. Readings was a slim volume of pieces cherry-picked from Dirda’s journalism to best reflect that which was most characteristically Dirdian. There was very little of the sort of workaday reviewing that necessarily makes up most of his work for the Post. Bound to Please is a different matter. It is a much bigger book than Readings, and it can print only that which came after or was passed over for the earlier book.
So, the reader oughtn’t come to Bound to Please with the expectation of the intimate experience we got in Readings. But, as a collection of reiews, this isn’t bad. Dirda always writes clearly, and there’s usually some insight or aside that makes each short review more than worthwhile.
This is an excellent book for idle perusing. But one really longs for Dirda to be given a better platform than the Post’s Bookworld pages. Many of these essays seem like they were quite a bit longer in an earlier draft. and most of those can use the extra length.
I’d be interested to see Dirda taking up a post like Christopher Hitchens’s gig at the Atlantic. In fact, as Hitchens has become more and more self-indulgent and positive pontifical in his Atlantic criticism, it owuld seem to me to be trading up at this point to replace Hitchens with Dirda. Dirda’s erudition is rather more pedestrian that Hitchens’s maybe, but Hitchens’s bailiwick is seeming very narrow lately—how much more are we expected to read about the death throws of the British Empire and the literature that coincided with it? At this point in history, not only is the British Empire dead, but the death of the British empire is dead.
And I think we ought not be shy of declaring the death of a certain strain the post-imperialist British writing, either. Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens—the spawn of Nabokov and Naipul—are over. (They all might want to deny the Naipaul legacy, but it’s become pretty apparent of late.)
Martin Amis once wrote that “The novelist has a very firm conception of the Ideal Reader. It is himself . . .” I’m not sure he’s right about “the” novelist, but it certainly seems to me that he’s right about himself and his close friends Hitchens and Rushdie. They write for well-heeled, Oxbridge educated males. And those who desperately want to attain to that condition.
Once, perhaps, I may have been someone who wanted to gain access to this metropolitan elite, but anymore I find them to be privileged dinosaurs, living out an anachronistic afterlife courtesy of Anglophone sentimentality. These are all talented men, no doubt, but to me it seems they are attempting to pass elaborate erudition and natural superiority when these things have simply lost their currency. They may soldier on in the same manner in a sort of Sinatra-esque endless farewell tour (Hitchens definitely looks to be the Dean Martin type), or they may well transform themselves into something more meaningful. But time has come that we put these folks aside as our literary ideals.
Appropriately enough, Dirda would not represent an absolute break from the Nabakov line. He, too, is a great admirer of the Swiss master, and he has been generally respectful to the post-imperialists, as well. But his predilections are for the middle brow and his admiration of the really quite different Pynchon-esque American stream modern fiction.