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Book Reviews, Criticism, Fiction, Reading, The Writer's Life

In Praise of Old Masters

A Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Earlier this year I read the collected stories of Saul Bellow. Currently I’m enjoying a collection by Jorge Luis Borges. I can’t go too many months without rereading a James Joyce or Willa Cather story.

Of course my Book Review Editor position at The Los Angeles Review requires me to read a shelf full of newly-released collections and novels, and lately I’ve been considering the differences between the new books and the old, particularly in light of that highly critical review/essay I’ve mentioned in recent weeks, which discusses what I believe are some shortcomings of certain styles of fiction, and which will be unleashed in December.

What’s the attraction of these ancient texts for me, apart that I too, am getting old?

There is a feeling I get when reading the old masters, which I might call a literary excitement, an intellectual surge that translates into a physical sensation—like an electroshock of rediscovery, sparked by unearthing something long buried. It’s a feeling I don’t get very often reading the stories in modern collections and journals, which sometimes seem filled with pieces featuring contrived, irreverent down-and-out characters looking for sex and/or personal validation in bars, on the road, or in dysfunctional family settings.

The old masters dared introduce subjects like—OMG—philosophy and history, the roles of religion and society in shaping a life. They wrote of racism, Nazism and a host of other political and social issues, through the eyes of well-educated everymen and women. In comparison, I see characters in many of today’s stories merely as reflections of our current cultural landscape—fringe people, far less educated, concerned primarily with their own needs and wants; disconnected (but not, like the old masters, disinterested) to the point of solipsism. These are, to me, surface stories that ignore the human capacity to think beyond oneself, to encompass sets of ideas about morality, science, and belief. Don’t tell me those things do not matter.

This is an old-fashioned view, I suppose. Admittedly, it also ignores the fact that there must have been just as many “other” stories circulating in those days—contemporary bits about contemporary life. But what survives from those days are works that transcend the concerns of the moment.

Who are the great philosophers of our day?[1] I can’t think of any either. The fact that we can’t name one off the top of our heads says a lot about how our culture has changed. Corporate interests do their best to reduce us to marketing statistics, simple-minded targets who can be manipulated with advertising and who don’t care about existential ideas. They like us that way—we buy more stuff.[2] And this popular culture has become the dominant culture. As a nation, we no longer look to the most intelligent among us to guide our decisions; in fact, many people distrust those with higher levels of education.

There are some contemporary writers whose work is much larger than what’s on the page. The ones who come closest for me are Rebecca Makkai and Kevin Brockmeier. But they are largely known only in literary circles. In their day, the public at least knew about Bellow and Borges, Joyce and Cather, even if they didn’t read them.

[1] That’s philosopher, not scientist, sociologist, politician or—gimme a break—celebrity.

[2] Think I’m kidding? The number of people cramming stores on Black Friday was estimated at 147 million—almost half the nation.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


36 thoughts on “In Praise of Old Masters

  1. Have you ever read the short story “A Jury of Her Peers”? It’s one of those stories which I think stands way apart from its fellows in most short story anthologies and qualifies as a work by an “old master.”

    Posted by shadowoperator | November 24, 2012, 2:21 PM
  2. Maybe it is because so much literature written today is self obsessive. I’m not sure some of the new self-importants are able to put things into a broader context. They may sing of the body electric, but the current switched somehow and shorted out. Or maybe as we age as readers we don’t like the self obsessive because it is a painful reminder of our own former youthful narcissism.

    Posted by ssternberg | November 24, 2012, 3:34 PM
    • I think you’re right on both counts, Stewart. Younger writers don’t usually have the experience of older folks to put things in perspective. And yes, I try not to think about my foolish youth.

      Posted by jpon | November 24, 2012, 6:58 PM
  3. Peter Singer is a utilitarian philosopher who’s made a great impact on today’s society. But I only know about him because my youngest son graduated with a masters in philosophy from the London School of Economics, and I’ve read many of his papers. But I do agree with the premise of your piece. The deep thinkers are out there, but you have to search for them.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | November 24, 2012, 4:08 PM
    • Yes, I’ve heard of Peter Singer and have read some of his work and been quite impressed. But he did not come immediately to mind. My wife came up with Francis Fukuyama, the neocon author, who is as close to a philosopher as we have. As you said, there are some, but you have to work hard to find them.

      Posted by jpon | November 24, 2012, 7:01 PM
  4. I hear you. I’m traveling to see family all week and all I’ve brought with me is Eudora Welty. Stories about something. Imagine!

    Posted by Teri | November 24, 2012, 5:14 PM
  5. Existentialism is about choices. Consumption is the most basic choice. Existentialism’s influence came with a concurrent (perhaps resultant) decentralization or individualization of identity, which is manifest in the self-important yet self-doubting solipsism you write about. [That’s how I see it, anyway. Such attitudes do seem less prevalent in the old stuff.]

    Posted by J. Y. Hopkins | November 24, 2012, 5:15 PM
    • Existentialism is about choices, huh? I guess it’s just that choices don’t matter.

      Posted by Jon Zech | November 24, 2012, 5:47 PM
      • They don’t matter when the choice is only this purchase or that one.

        Posted by jpon | November 24, 2012, 7:11 PM
      • @Jon Z — I’m not sure what you mean: do choices not matter to you, or to all of existentialism?

        @JPon — As an aside: one couldn’t be fair and say Borges was never self-involved (mirrors, personhood, the other Borges, etc.) but he did also address some of the Big Ideas.

        Posted by JYH | November 24, 2012, 8:21 PM
      • A trade off I can live with.

        Posted by jpon | November 24, 2012, 8:29 PM
    • An excellent point, J.Y. Our realization about the choices of belief available to us, and without a framework of responsibility to society within which to evaluate them, does indeed lead to self-importance. I think that attitude has been exploited by the marketing industry, and has perhaps been reflected in what’s being written today.

      Posted by jpon | November 24, 2012, 7:09 PM
  6. My current “car book” is a collection of well known short stories, from Hawthorne to the 1980s. Some seven hundred pages of stories that I’ve already read over the years. After rereading something like The Snows of Kilamanjaro i just smile. It, like so many stories, is deft and deep and sweet to read. Big stories told small. That’s what I want to read…and what I try to write.

    Posted by Jon Zech | November 24, 2012, 5:54 PM
    • Sounds like the Norton Anthology of Short Stories, on which I raised. Big stories told small. You do indeed write those, Jon. But I see a lot of small stories told big out there.

      Posted by jpon | November 24, 2012, 7:12 PM
  7. The old masters aren’t fashionable right now, which means that not as many people are reading them (giving them less influence on current writers) and not as many editors are buying work along those lines, if any (giving writers incentive to write in the current style). It could be that some are self-publishing more philosophical works, but you’d have to go looking for them.

    On the other hand, you could start a press to encourage a return to this type of writing….

    Posted by Stefon Mears | November 24, 2012, 6:39 PM
    • That’s an interesting thought, Stefon. I have enough of those unpublished stories to turn out the first collection from the Philosophical Press.

      Posted by jpon | November 24, 2012, 7:13 PM
      • I bet that if you put some preparation into it, by AWP you could have something worth telling people about, and a receptive audience…

        (Not that I’m encouraging you or anything.)

        Posted by Stefon Mears | November 25, 2012, 4:40 AM
  8. I’m still waiting for someone to raise the “old white guy banner” to describe the “old masters.” Anybody? Anybody?

    Posted by ssternberg | November 24, 2012, 6:43 PM
    • Maybe. But then, Bellow: Jewish; Borges, Argentinian; Cather, woman and lesbian; Joyce, Irish. Not a WASP in the bunch–although many minorities never had the chance to exhibit their talent.

      I ask only two things for everyone: a level educational playing field, and opportunities for each person to prove him/herself. Reality, though, is far less egalitarian.

      Posted by jpon | November 24, 2012, 7:19 PM
  9. I’m enjoying George Saunders and Roy Kesey. I keep rereading Kesey’s Wait to learn something new. Both these artists have current settings but touch on deep and universal themes.

    Posted by girl in the hat | November 24, 2012, 7:35 PM
    • I’ve been thinking of other writers who do the same ever since I posted. It is tougher to write about such themes these days, and those who can do it are in the minority.

      Posted by jpon | November 24, 2012, 9:39 PM
  10. Well, fair enough. But the problem with comparing classic works with modern is that you’re looking at the best writers over many generations, and holding that work up against that of today’s students and other writers who are still rising to their own best efforts. Writers are as good now as they ever were, it’s only that you’re comparing filtered and unfiltered work.

    Posted by Averil Dean | November 24, 2012, 10:36 PM
    • I didn’t necessarily intend to compare the old writers with the new, but rather to note that the old ones are still worth reading. But I do tend to blast a lot of current writing because I am exposed to so much of it, and having to wade through the poor stuff makes me curmudgeonly. I’m sure there was plenty of bad writing in the old masters’ days too.

      But a friend has advised me to point out some of today’s writers who may someday become old masters, and next week, I’ll do it. Although I’ve noticed I get a lot more hits and more comments when I’m mean.

      Posted by jpon | November 24, 2012, 11:46 PM
    • Great point, Averil! I must suppose that 22nd century anthologies will include work from our era and readers then will have no idea of the junk that fell by the wayside.

      Posted by Jon Zech | November 25, 2012, 6:08 PM
  11. You have to go to Europe to find philosophers, methinks. Try Rene Girard. He started with literary theory and went deep into anthropology and religion. Came up with perhaps the most convoluted (yet compelling) explanation of the Christian myth that I’ve encountered. A good deal of his work centers on rivalry between persons and groups that grows out of how similar they are to each other (mimetic rivalry).

    As for JYH’s comment about consumerism being an outgrowth of existentialism, I’d have to say it would probably be seen as a bastardization of said philosophy by any of its major proponents. Consumerism is an expression of conformity, not individuation. (Better yet, it’s conformity by half-hearted attempts at individuation. I buy, therefore I am. I buy what the flashing screen tells me, therefore I belong. I don’t understand existentialism well enough, so I promote my individuality by following the herd.)

    Posted by akhoffman | November 25, 2012, 11:54 PM
    • Excellent points on both counts! I will have to check out Girard. The concept of mimetic rivalry makes sense both in a real world and a fictional world context (I am always telling my students that conflict is strongest when characters want the same thing, not different things.)

      And your point about individuation through conformity is perfect. I happened to catch an ad for Dr. Pepper last night (sometimes my wife forces me to watch TV), that featured hundreds of fans of the soft drink wearing matching red t-shirts, many of which said, “I’m one of a kind!” Apparently, oxymoronism sells.

      Posted by jpon | November 26, 2012, 1:01 AM
    • Consumerism is not a philosophy and I didn’t mean to suggest that it was. And I didn’t say that existentialism led to consumerism itself. Consumerism itself does not necessarily *promote* conformity, but allows and reveals it because it puts the burden of choice on the individual. When the majority tend to choose the same things, does that make them sheep, or does it show those choices to be the most “authentic” for those people at that time? (Certain advertising schemes *do* promote conformity, but these tactics are not unique to consumerism. Absolute monarchies and communists have promoted conformity as well.)

      Posted by JYH | November 26, 2012, 6:47 PM
  12. Take a look at or a read of EXAMINED LIFE — available for rent on netflix and purchasable as a book anywhere. Some great philosophical minds — some of the American — on screen and on the page. The book is better, imho, because it gives you a more in depth look at their ideas, but the film gives you their wonderful quirky bodies and voices. Super fabulous.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | November 26, 2012, 2:51 AM
  13. To an extent, I blame Mark Twain for popularizing the kind of fringe character you’re describing, as Huckleberry Finn serves as somewhat of a prototype for this character, at least superficially. I think the fact that his character is rendered so memorably and believably through Twain’s use of dialect makes Huck a touchstone for anyone studying character. The problem is that the superficial trappings that make Huck stand out even at first glance tend to overshadow his real power as a character — his ability to philosophize (in his own way) and thus to describe the evolution of his world view. I wonder if many writers today are attempting to imitate Twain (or to imitate imitations of Twain) and missing the mark because they fail to go deeper than producing a quirky voice or reproducing a regional(ish), outsider(y) dialect.

    PS: There’s an extended version of the Dr Pepper ad in which one of the participants jumps out a window (at 0:44). Weirdly, there’s also a guy with a Hitler mustache standing on the left side of the screen about five seconds into the commercial. Conformity and fascism… perfect together!

    Posted by Marc Schuster | November 26, 2012, 12:14 PM
    • However Huck Finn was portrayed, Twain’s world view had to come through–I think that’s a given no matter who the author is. Characters, by default, reflect an author’s experiences and beliefs, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, but I would argue it’s always there.

      Thanks for the vid. For a second I forgot my comment and thought WordPress had placed the Dr. Pepper ad here. For some strange reason, the commercial reminds me of when your students held a “Dress Like Dr. Schuster Day.” Everyone was one of a kind.

      Posted by jpon | November 26, 2012, 1:11 PM
  14. Another philosopher-type I remembered: Alain de Botton. He’s actually made a bit of a name for himself as a public intellectual in the UK.

    I have tried to incorporate chewy ethical and philosophical ruminations in my novel (despite its lack of literary merits), but I wonder if that’s likely to harm sales in the crime thriller genre.

    Posted by akhoffman | November 27, 2012, 10:13 PM
    • De Botton sounds interesting. Public intellectuals are pretty rare over here.

      Careful with those ruminations. I suspect if you go too far those might be the passages Elmore Leonard says he skips over.

      Posted by jpon | November 28, 2012, 1:07 AM

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