Friday, March 30, 2018

Richard Ford, Mediocrity

I don't like Richard Ford. Don't like the novels, and probably wouldn't like the guy. If I met him tomorrow I'd hock a loogie on his cheek and say, "Colson Whitehead says hello." (For those unacquainted with the feeble feuds of America's amazing shrinking literary culture (Where have they gone, the Mailers and Vidals of yesteryear?): Several years ago, Whitehead wrote a negative review of a Ford book, and when the two men met some time later, Ford displayed his usual level of maturity and savoir faire by literally spitting in Whitehead's face. Yep, the guy sounds like a total fucking asshole.)

To adapt the recently late, greatly lamented William H. Gass's line about the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Richard Ford is a novelist who sets his sights on mediocrity and always scores a bullseye. His prose is bland, dull and tin-eared, his imagination slim to nonexistent, his novels repetitive, monotonous and burdened by clichés. Contra the book-reviewing extablishment, he is not "one of the great American novelists of his generation" (Washington Post Book World, where they should know better); nor has he "forg[ed] a new way of writing fiction about, and out of, American life that is as revolutionary as Proust's..." (John Banville, who certainly knows better). Richard Ford is an average, conventional, grossly overrated writer whose rather dumb novels have been overpraised for decades and whose overinflated reputation, ballooned to Albuquerque Festival size by critical hot air, is ripe for criticism's corrective pen-prick. I ascribe his currently high literary reputation to a number of factors, among them critical inertia and MFA program canonization. Ford writes directly, even cravenly, to an audience of white, upper-middle-class academics, MFA students, and English majors past and present; and he gives this audience conventional novels to which they can painlessly apply the conventional critical clichés. As a dollop of whipped cream atop the smarmy sundae, he gives them characters with whom they can unproblematically identify. And as the maraschino on top, he gives them prose in which the few ambiguities result from authorial insecurity rather than intellectual complexity or aesthetic daring. Ford's novels challenge neither author nor readers. As a writer he plays basketball with a hoop the size of Taft's bathtub, and his readers enjoy a lukewarm bath in lives no better written or imagined than their own.

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