Betrayed by our paladins, or, why there is (nearly) nothing worth reading these days

Here is a fragment taken from an introduction to Joseph Roth's Radetzky March penned (maybe) by Nadine Gordimer, a South African writer, political activist and -- get this -- Nobel laureate:

Roth's petite phrase in the single great work into which all this transforms is not a Strauss waltz but the elder Strauss's Radetzky March, in honor of the Austrian field marshal who was victorious against Sardinia. Its tempo beats from the tavern through Vienna and all the villages and cities of Franz Joseph's empire, to Berlin in those novels where the other imperial eagle has only one head. For Roth's is the frontier of history. It is not recreated from accounts of the past, as War and Peace was, but recounted contemporaneously by one who lived there, in every sense, himself. This is not an impudent literary value judgment; it is, again, the work that provides a reading of the author's life. Here was a writer obsessed with and possessed by his own time. From within it he could hear the drum rolls of the past resounding to the future.

Pretty impressive, huh? Nadine can keep this going, too: this goobledy-gook is sustained for full thirteen pages plus footnotes.

What does it mean? Not much: as far as I can figure it out, the editor should probably have suggested to replace the above with something like:

Throughout Roth's work, the motif of the Radetzky March repeats; it must be important, I guess.

Now, such resolute editing would have cut the introduction's thirteen pages to less than one, but what remained would still not have been worth saying -- or writing, or reading. Certainly not worth paying for: really, the publisher's online division should sell the book with Gordimer's introduction as an optional add-on. ("Would you like Nadine Gordimer's introduction to the book for an additional $1.59?" Check: "No.")


How does a person like Gordimer come to write this sort of trash? The genesis of the paper is easy enough to unravel, if you know how publishing works:

1. The publisher thought Roth was a long shot and decided to invest a little money in a credibility-building introduction by Someone Famous.

2. An agent-friend happened to know that Nadine was a bit short of cash (the Nobel prize's 1.3 million bucks being such a small sum, poor us) and suggested to the publisher that a Nobel Laureate would do nicely as an intro -- not for the sales of Roth, certainly- Roth is dead in the water anyway -- but for the publisher's profile, at least. ("Think, you'd be a Nobelist's publisher!")

3. Nadine, seeing the publisher's low standing on the industry's totem-pole (who the heck is Overlook Press? Nice logo, though), demanded a far stiffer fee than either the publisher or the agent had reckoned with.

4. As she figured, they gasped and -- accepted (in the, oh, so predictable hope of further "cooperation" between the Illustrious Laureate and the humble publisher thus honored by her).

5. But, having stiffed them for the fee, the Laureate ended up be feeling a little bad, and turned in a few extra pages of copy to mollify them -- and avoid any rows. She didn't exactly feel obliged to do any real work, though: a sufficient quantity of words alone would suffice, she felt. (Has not Gordimer's favorite philosopher said that quantity eventually passes into quality?)

So you see how the essay came about -- in the form in which it did.

Now, for the other question: how about authorship? Did Nadine really write those pages herself? Or did she, Dali-like, subcontract the introduction to her driver (or was it her masseur)?1

The question is not outrageous: the introduction makes it plain that Nadine is not above a spot of misrepresentation: she has most certainly not read any of those Roth books she claims therein she has.


This truly is a shameful thing. It is a shame, of course, if Nadine thinks her essay is good (she can't possibly, but if she does, then she obviously does not deserve her literary awards); but it is a double shame if she does not because that means that she is prepared to produce dreck and put her name to it; I say a double shame because by doing so she shames old Alfred N. After all, the Nobel Prize's whole point was to make it unnecessary for the elect to do such blameworthy hack work.

And yet, here is a Nobel Prize Laureate, vandalizing literature, offending us with substandard production. This introduction is somewhat as if, if walking into Versailles ca. 1750, a grand duke, or a peer of the realm, let out a loud fart.

Nadine, Nadine, does not Noblesse oblige anymore?


So, dear reader, if you are looking for the causes of our cultural decline, look no further. Our cultural Paladins have betrayed our cause. Our Nobelists and Manbookers and Pulitzers are selling it down the river for a fee. Blase, they pollute our books and journals with trash, feed us substitute food -- cornflakes made out of recycled cardboard and polyurethane packing -- saying to us haughtily: "I wrote it, eat it", and do not even feel ashamed by their own betrayal.

And we do not protest?

1 It is widely suspected in the art world that many of Dali's lithographies were made, with his full knowledge, by his secretary but then signed by him. The medieval masters often used their students to fill in the less important bits of their works, of course, but -- note -- they did not sign their paintings.


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