The Most-Overrated-Book-of-the-Year Award, and Other Literary Prizes

Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast . . . —Scott Joplin (as quoted by E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime)

Well, I did what the man said. I read RAGTIME (Random House, $8.95) slowly. I was slow even to begin reading it, embarrassingly slow about turning to a novel that appears to be the most important book of 1975. Ragtime has combined critical and popular success in a spectacular way. You might have to go back to The Naked and the Dead for an adequate comparison; at any rate, only the smallest handful of books in the past twenty-five years have won such esteem, such a following, as Ragtime has. About a quarter-million hardcover copies are now in print, and the paperback rights were sold for $1.85 million, and Robert Altman will film the story. Ragtime has been praised not simply for traditional virtue but for experimental daring. That a book so bold should find so wide an audience seems to be one of those warming events that prove yes, you can go broke underestimating the taste of American people.

So it seems, or seemed. But then I read Ragtime slowly. I hadn’t got very far before beginning to feel that E. L. Doctorow and his friendly critics have done a number on us. It is fun. But even its cleverness wears thin. I found it simultaneously diverting and annoying, a flirt of a book.

Ragtime’s charm proceeds, of course, from its inventive mixture of history and fancy. Public lives in private places and imaginary lives entangled with real events. Freud appears in New York, unable to find a place to pee. We meet Harry K. Thaw, husband of Evelyn Nesbit. Having shot Evelyn’s lover, Stanford White, Harry is in prison. There he meets Harry Houdini, who is performing one of his stunts. Harry K. Thaw exposes himself, “Houdini was to tell no one of this strange confrontation.” Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan meet for lunch and discuss reincarnation. Emma Goldman gives Evelyn Nesbit a message. In an interview Doctorow explained his technique and accounted for its effect: “The reader of a novel usually thinks, well, these things really happened to the author, but for legal or other reasons he’s changed everybody’s name. In ‘Ragtime’ I’ve just twisted that around and written about imaginary events in the lives of undisguised people.”

The imaginary people in the novel are less entrancing figures than Doctorow’s resurrected celebrities. The ordinary characters are unabashedly allegorical American types: Mameh and Tateh and their Little Girl: immigrant Jews. Coalhouse Walker and his fiancée, Sarah: blacks. And Mother and Father and Younger Brother: uppermiddle-class whites. They enact various quick tableaux vivants on the delusions of American life. And the trouble starts.

The politics of Ragtime are boringly tractlike, a caricature of the past as the liberal imagination conceives it. You may agree with Doctorow’s outline of history-you can hardly disagree—and yet resist its simplicity, and bridle at the pleasure the author seems to take in introducing to us the iniquity of capitalism, the suffering of the oppressed, and the fatuity of the middle class.

Here is Doctorow on the exploitation of child labor:

Children suffered no discriminatory treatment. They were valued everywhere they were employed. They did not complain as adults tended to do. Employers liked to think of them as happy elves. If there was a problem about employing children it had to do only with their endurance. They were more agile than adults but they tended in the latter hours of the day to lose a degree of efficiency. In the canneries and mills these were the hours they were most likely to lose their fingers or have their hands mangled or their legs crushed; they had to be counseled to stay alert.

Some have thought this strong stuff, but I find it maddeningly easy and smug.

Ragtime’s cultural perceptions don’t go much deeper than its political ones. You are invited to learn that women were believed not to enjoy sex. That Americans had a zany fascination with technology. That reproducible experience-movies, the Model T (soon McDonald’s)—was the coming thing.

To Doctorow’s credit, you have to look twice to see the banality of these ideas. A lot glides by on the now famous style of this novel. “Plink-a-plink, a-plink-plink,” as the New York Times’s reviewer said, it’s syncopated, like ragtime. Short sentences, continual ironic juxtapositions.

One of the essential qualities of Doctorow’s style is its crisp, quick, cinematic succession of visual images. Play it slow, however, and you notice something odd: the prose is studded with false precision. Trivial example: “In winter their horse Bessie was hitched to the sleigh and bells were tied to her collar and they skimmed over the thick wet Ohio snowfalls.” Maybe thick wet snowfalls were different then, in Ohio, but sleighs don’t usually skim over them, do they?

I know—it’s small-minded even to notice such things. Better writers make worse mistakes. But in this case style matters inordinately. I can’t think of another novel about which it is so nearly fair to say that it is “all style.” When there is only surface, surface blemishes go deep. Moreover, even the book’s most vivid moments are stylized, often lapsing into cartoon imagery: “ . . by the end of the month a serious heat wave had begun to kill infants all over the slums. The tenements glowed like furnaces. . . .” This is, of course, a deeply anti-nostalgic novel; it seeks to deromanticize the past. But in doing so it participates in all the simplifying gestures of nostalgia.

After its ticker-tape welcome. Ragtime has received a taste of criticism. Hilton Kramer in Commentary has lamented the popularity of the book and pointed out that it is not really a novel at all but a “political romance.” The Village Voice published a favorable review of Ragtime by its regular critic, Eliot Fremont-Smith, but later ran a more thoughtful piece by a writer named Greil Marcus, whose usual subject is rock. Marcus compared the book to Nashville, arguing that both are formulaic, that both participate in modish despair about American life. Of Ragtime he said, “It is dead on the page; it implies nothing, suggests nothing, never makes you stop and think, never makes you puzzle out motives because there really are none.”

I think he’s right particularly about the book’s lack of “motives.” The essential lesson of Ragtime’s animated, jagged, syncopated prose is that nothing connects. The book revels in nonsequentiality. It mocks the idea that a human life can become a coherent narrative. People don’t cause things to happen to themselves and to others. There are Large Causes of course: we are all trapped in history, whose patterns are sad and nefarious—though they are also rather exhilarating and swell, since they exonerate us from small duties. This world view says implicitly that there is no need to worry about private responsibilities, about our ability to wound and to heal each other—which is, of course, always nice to hear.

But it’s not the stuff that good fiction is made of. Despite the mannered prose, the sensibility behind this book seems to me anti-literary, uninterested in subtle emotions and in life lived outside of categories. Ragtime gets my vote as The Most Overrated Book of the Year.

And while we’re at it, some further prizes . . .

Best Novel: Turn to HUMBOLDT’S GIFT (Viking, $10.00). and you realize what a grand old form the novel still is, and what extravagant talents Saul Bellow still has. This novel was praised here before, not adequately, but then again I don’t know of anyone who has yet taken its measure. That’s partly Saul Bellow’s fault: the book suffers from perplexing contrivances of plot, but it’s sustained by sheer high-spirited intelligence. It is a novel of ideas that has the grace to distrust ideas. Notions that would be passed off as profundities by many writers emerge here with a lovely self-parodic twist:

So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, “If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn’t get through this either. Look at these good and tender and soft men, the best of us. They succumbed, poor loonies.” So this, I was meditating, is how successful bitter hard-faced and cannibalistic people exult.

Best Letter Writers: John and Abigail Adams in THE BOOK OF ABIGAIL AND JOHN (Harvard, $15.00). Intelligent ardor fills this book. The Adamses more than endured the long separations that plagued their life; they used their correspondence to refine their affection. These letters demonstrate the uniqueness of a husband and wife, but they also exemplify a certain strain in the American character: patrician, publicspirited, generous, and at moments fiercely narrow.

Best Literary Biography: R. W. B. Lewis’ EDITH WHARTON (Harper & Row, $15.00). Although Lewis is discreet to a fault about judging his subject, this is a masterly portrait of a writer who is due for renewed attention.

Best Work of Nonfiction by a Novelist (and the Funniest Book of the Year): J. P. Donleavy’s THE UNEXPURGATED CODE (Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, $8.95). An indispensable guide for the socially ambitious person who needs to know what sort of behavior is “simply not on.”

Most Underrated Writer: This is sort of an Unknown Soldier award, necessarily symbolic. The most underrated writer is doubtless so underrated that he is known only to family and friends. But I have a candidate, a man who published a book this year to the merest flutter of applause, and deserved much more: Andre Dubus. He is the author of SEP-ARATE FLIGHTS (Godine, $8.95), a novella and seven short stories—that awkward but enjoyable form. Only one of the stories has appeared in a national magazine. Dubus writes in an almost painfully unmodish way. He lacks tricks of style. He does not have a head full of helpful sociological constructs about his world. He is not a particularly close observer of trends in manners or speech. But he knows things. These stories are mostly about spent and misspent love, and he knows how to dramatize love’s counterfeit emotions: loneliness, jealousy, and pity. He’s an imaginative writer, persuasive on the inner lives of women as well as of men. He can imagine his way, for instance, into the mind of a middle-aged woman so hungry to participate in her daughter’s life that she incurs only her scorn. Dubus is the sort of writer who instructs the heart, a phrase that ought to be redundant, but isn’t, He ought to be discovered by any number of readers, but probably won’t.

— Richard Todd