Thursday, July 9, 2009

Camille Paglia, wind-up firebrand

Camille Paglia has been taking some heat lately for writing the dullest column the internet has ever witnessed; some have called for a boycott.I will maintain that her book "Sexual Personae" is a first rate piece of critical thinking, but then again it's an academic work, where one's wildest declarations have to be defended with a close study of the materials. Being a columnists requires a lighter scrutiny on the subject matter, since it's opinion, not thesis writing, but Paglia's chief sin is that she's very predictable in her remarks. All columnists are predictable, you may argue, once you get accustomed to their prejudices and their riffs, but Paglia's failings have little to do with her positions than her tone-deaf prose. George Will's conservatism is an enervated husk, but he's worth my while to read if only for the elegance of his prose.

 Maureen Dowd,though her turns and nuances are familiar to millions, remains a master of varying her targets and polishing the quotable, the snappy line. William Buckley, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, gadflies all, knew how to make the repetition of their essays tolerable with a shrewd instinct for entertainment value; it's just the thing to get a reader who thinks you're a louse to read every word you've typed out. There is an art to column writing, even political column writing,but Paglia hasn't the ear nor the verbal grace to keep us intrigued by her topics. That is, her topics are fine, but her opinions are derailed by an ungainly presentation of self. It was suggested to me that I write as I spoke , as a way of getting out the ideas on paper, and then work to remove glitches, awkwardness, tired similes. It was bad advice in my time, and I had to strive to write better than I was capable of speaking.(This isn't to say that I've shown the discipline to revise as much as I should. Yes, I need to heed my own advice). Paglia, however, writes precisely as she talks, a self-declaring, stammering, redundant bag of rocks tossed right into your face--the sort of talk you hear around the dinner table of large, talkative families. 

But would work in real life annoys on the page; even a first year writing major would have advised her to ease up on the persona pronouns. The same student would would also have suggested that she'd consider honing a sleeker, more flowing prose style. The reader ought not feel as though they're walking through dark room with a floor full of toys to trip over. She is a blowhard, and seemingly cannot give an intelligent reply without talking about herself in the main, evinced especially in her habit of telling you, redundantly, when she first wrote about a subject and how time has proven her right yet again. Under it all is chattering nervousness that just gets on my nerves. I imagine she is a good teacher who can can keep and inspire her student's interests, and, if she ever gets back to publishing serious books again, a first rate intellectual. To describe what she's been doing in the mean time as "coasting" would be dressing up the truth; Paglia is more in line with the class of professional celebrity those of us of a certain age remember, the former columnist, actor, book publisher, actor who took to being permanent celebrity panelists on TV game shows, offering America bite-sized versions of their former selves. But as columnist she is a washout. Bite sized Paglia is not appealing in any respect; it would a fine thing if she had a song to play with that horn she keeps squalling on. Joan Walsh and company should have realized this some years ago and realized her name brand is aged badly.


  1. "You can't say that in profanity class," the instructor told me. "Where the heck do you think you are?"

  2. I've always loved her literal reading of Emily Dickinson, but otherwise, egad!

  3. Egad indeed. I did like her book Break Blow Burn on what she considered the essential poems one should read; each poem was like a splendid college lecture where she parsed a poem's content in a multi-platform manner, demonstrating that when she's within her academic discipline her manner and style are riveting. If she kept literature rather than current events as her mainstay, she might have been the most interesting literary critic since Terry Eagleton (who remains my favorite); beyond that, she hasn't the wit to be a public intellectual, and that's a shame. Somewhere she assumed that an overwhelming confidence in yourself is enough for you efforts to be original and high quality. That, in itself, hardly suffices--the abilty to assess one's strengths honestly and dispatch them in their best expression also goes a long way.

  4. I absolutely agree. When she's good, she's very good: when she's bad, she's AWFUL. I've written about her myself in various places.

    I very much enjoyed reading this! I look forward to exploring more of your blog.

  5. Anonymous2:44 PM PDT

    Your blog is interesting and this is an interesting entry.
    It was good.
    Thank you.


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