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Literary Malaise

By Arnon Grunberg

Recently I was having a conversation with a friend about literary malaise, or to be more precise, we were talking about malaise in general. We reached the conclusion that there are quite a few different types of malaise, and that a certain comfort can be found in malaise.

What would a politician running for office do without a sense of imminent malaise (which only he can prevent)? For many intellectuals, the world would be even emptier and more dreadful without malaise.

This friend and I managed to agree on one thing with respect to literary malaise: the I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine-culture in the literary world (and also elsewhere) is self-defeating.

Let there be no misunderstanding, though: to help a friend is noble.

This winter, a European author told me that when asked for a blurb he would always give a blurb without reading the book. He would come up with a superlative, without even opening the book. This gave him—I would say perverse—pleasure. Sometimes the superlative would almost be ironic, but nobody was going to notice, he claimed. Since the author did this not only for friends but for everybody, there is undeniably something philanthropic about his behavior.

Nevertheless, I doubt it if the authors in question would have been happy had they known that the positive blurb was given by somebody who had not opened their books. What looks like a judgment is in reality nothing but generosity.

Yes, it is worse to dismiss a novel without heaving read it than it is to praise it. But as old-fashioned as this may sound, I believe it is healthy that there is a relationship between the judgment and the object being judged.

Later this winter, I was having dinner with another author who liked to heap praise on all contemporary authors in his country. Probably he also did this for all of the deceased authors in his country, but there was no time to discuss the dead ones.

I found it hard to believe that you can genuinely heap praise on all your colleagues. To like everybody's work is, in the end, to like nobody's work.

Again, it is preferable to praise your colleagues rather than to slaughter them, but here the diplomacy should have its limits.

Authors reviewing each other will sooner or later lead to the pre-emptive compliment. You admire me now; I'll admire you later.

The last girlfriend of the German poet Heinrich Heine was almost analphabetic.

This seems to me a good basis for a beautiful and lasting friendship.

Published Feb 17, 2008   Copyright 2008 Arnon Grunberg

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