A crusty irascible cantankerous old person full of stubborn ideas.” is a rather pithy and accurate definition of the word “curmudgeon”, I dare say. That definition came out of the Wordnet project about five years ago. It’s an interesting word with a derogatory flavor to it, a word which is used by young people to describe old folks, and also by old people when referring to themselves in a humorous and self-deprecatory fashion; old people generally don’t mind using the word to describe themselves but might well take umbrage if you use it to describe them.

Many of the best essayists in the English language could be fairly described as curmudgeons. Complaints about the world are more interesting to read than passive expressions of smiling acceptance and complaisance, I’ve noticed.

H.L. Mencken, that journalist, pessimist, and general social gadfly, was a classic curmudgeon. Few escaped his scathing torrents of prose during the early years of the last century. Christopher Hitchens could be considered a modern example.

Some writers are part-time curmudgeons. George Orwell donned curmudgeonly robes when he wrote his classic essay “Politics And The English Language” — but some might call that particular piece shooting fish in a barrel.

Recently I was reading an essay by Roger Kimball called The Great American Novel. The essay is a lament, or perhaps a diatribe, concerning the sad state of affairs in English-language novel-writing these days. According to Kimball, very few novels of much value have been published during the past fifty years. Here’s a quote:

We get a lot of new novels at my office. I often pick up a couple and thumb through them just to keep up with what is on offer in the literary bourse. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat. I am not generally a fan of the Green party, but at those moments I feel a deep kinship with their cause: All those lovely trees, acres and acres of wood pulp darkened, and for what? No one, I submit, should pay good money for a college education and then be expected to ruminate over the fine points of what is proffered to us by the fiction industry today.

Doesn’t Kimball’s prose just drip with curmudgeonly condescension? It seems that the man has decided to dislike every new novel that comes down the pike, as if the generations younger than his favored one can’t possibly equal the legendary efforts of the Writers of the Golden Age, the god-like scribes of the halcyon years of Kimball’s youth.

I did agree with a few of Kimball’s points, even though he’s on the opposite side of the political spectrum from myself. I wondered about how old the man might be. To be such a bitter curmudgeon, wouldn’t he have to be in his seventies or eighties?

I looked Roger Kimball up at the Wikipedia site. I was a bit bemused to find that Kimball is just one year older than I am! He was born in 1953. Perhaps conservative writers attain curmudgeonhood sooner than the rest of us.




Filed under Essays and Articles, Words

3 responses to “Curmudgeonalia

  1. Joan

    This was a well written and enjoyable read, Larry. We all think we know what a curmudgeon is. The essay by this particular curmudgeon, Roger Kimball, however was more the status of H.L. Menkin, than the late, beloved Andy Rooney, or the old guy down the block yelling at the kids to get off of his lawn.

    I got a real kick out of your thinking the fellow had to be very very old to have achieved his curmudgeonly status, (or opinions) His ascerbic spoon full of salt probably would have probably been better received if he had. After, all we can forgive the aged if they are stuck in their ways and inclined to think the good old days were better.

    To be sure, Kimball is a bit of word snot. Why use “adumbrate” instead of “ foreshadow “ unless he’s trying to impress? I have to say that his opening sally including the phrase “I read as few contemporary novels as possible” hardly sets him up to be one’s first choice as a critic of them. Maybe he should take a tranquilizer and read all the way through some of his book submissions.

    Some Novel Ideas:

    Sadly, Roger Kimball is probably right. It does depend upon how narrowly defines ‘contempory’, however. There are currently not many “great” writers of novels, and coincidentally there are not as many novels being written from which to pluck the gems. Hard to tell how many bad ones from times past have thankfully disappeared. Kimball certainly has a point, but if he were not confined to talking about strictly American contemporary novels, he’d have less of a point. Canadians Margaret Atwood and Ann Marie Macdonald are two who immediately come to mind. Still, good novels are scarce. Perhaps the novel, in the visual age, has been replaced by the screenplay. (No, not Star Wars) More like some of the more intimate portraits from Cannes or Sundance Film festivals, or choice Woody Allen.

    The contemporary novel, American or otherwise, seems replete with niche categories. Why? Because they sell. I noticed my library has even affixed extra sticky labels to their spines. “ New” is soon replaced with ‘ Mystery’, and ‘Christian’ (the latter perhaps to save time for those who want their literature pre-scrubbed of offense.) It also saved me from reading them. I wonder how “The Poisonwood Bible” would be labeled.

    From trying to figure out why (besides electronic media) the novel is slipping in the ratings, I started thinking about why in my ratings, it has not. I read history to find out about the past. I might read a self-help book to figure out why I’m not happy or going loopy and how to get better. I read biographies to find out about other people who have “made it” and hopefully avoided going loopy.

    I should read novels, (good ones) to find out about what makes humans tick. But let’s face it, I also read to distract myself from the pain or mundaneness of everyday reality. Someone else’s weekend getaway weekend is my novel. Thus, Henry James’s definition of the novel as great ‘anodyne’ ( painkiller) is always a component. Too much wine could leave one with no fond memories or no memory at all. Novel reading is both fun, and safe, (if one does not smoke and fall asleep.) I am fond of ‘escapist’ literature, which is just that. Once read, and problem solved the mystery/detective novel can be discarded. Once the hero gets the girl, the contemporary romance novel is ready for the shredder.

    But what makes me want to own a novel and not return it to the library or flip it into the wastebin? It’s the ability of the novel to make me think, reflect on the human condition and relate to someone, in an ‘ah ha! Moment’. It is one which makes me feel not just sympathy, but empathy for the characters. I have found myself reading novels with deliberate slowness because I don’t want the story to end and be forced to leave the beloved characters behind.

    In a very good novel, you can’t help but relate to both sympathetic and non-sympathetic characters. The power (to me) in “Crime and Punishment” is that it shows, painfully slowly, how an ordinary man gets pulled into the maw. Conversely, one can read of ordinary people with tremendous hang-ups, or fragile people, who have had nothing but bad breaks. These people in a novel can transcend their ordinariness and overcome their horrible beginnings at the will of the writer. History and Biography can’t do that. Lastly there is such a thing as the beauty of the written word; the poetry of prose; the startling use of simile and metaphor to set the mood and describe the scene. You don’t get that in a bad novel. In a good novel, there are often so many memorable quotes marked with my colored sticky labels that my book looks like a piñata. I love when that happens. The best novels have both the ability to distract the reader from mundane problems, to lift him into the world and inner thoughts of other people, to entertain, and at the same time to re-introduce him to what it means to be human.

    In the beginning of his essay, Kimball quotes various writers (and characters) about what constitutes a novel. Henry James called it ‘the great anodyne’. Kimball quotes Hamlet: “We want it, as Hamlet said, ‘to hold the mirror up to nature’, at least to our nature, and we value it not simply as a source of distraction but also as a source of revelation. “ He states that Trilling thought, “The signal achievement of the novel, was ‘involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination’.’’ Can’t get any better descriptions than these.

  2. Interesting response, Joan! I admit to being a bit of a “word snot” myself; sure, “adumbrate” was unnecessary in Kimball’s piece, but the word should be used more often, if only due to the lovely Latin word “umbra”‘s presence, neatly nestled in the center of the word as it is.

    I’ve had similar thoughts to yours concerning the seeming replacement of novels by movies and TV shows as a source of stories. If I meet someone new it is much more likely that we will find common ground discussing movies we both like rather than novels.

    I’m a big fan of modern genre fiction. Writers like Ian Rankin and Elmore Leonard have elevated such novels to a modern literary art form. There is a reason that so many of Leonard’s movies have been adapted for movies!

    I’ve never read a romance novel, but here’s an article by a literate fan of the genre which made me reconsider my disdain:

    The Last Great Bastion of Underground Writing


  3. Joan

    Well, I have not read any romance novels either, Larry, unless it was when I was about 12. Still I thought it should be included since apparently it’s a popular niche. The women-centered genre has bled into the mystery/detective genre, evidently. There are more and more female detectives appearing who have husbands and kids to juggle along with hunting down the occasional serial rapist. As for my own reading taste, I consider Wuthering Heights, pretty much the penultimate romance novel, (much darker than the movies) and I have read that. Also Jane Eyre and the Jane Austen novels. The article you linked looks interesting, but the length of it rivals some books I have read. Sooo I’m going read the rest later cause right now I have a really good novel I need to get back to. (grin)

    P.S. Is there such a thing as a female curmudgeon? I doubt it. People don’t consider grumpy old women to be lovable. Once again, the boys have it over us.

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