Geoff Dyer Responds To The New Yorker's Art Critic Peter Schjeldahl

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A word of explanation. The New Yorker chose my novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi as the May choice for its online Book Club. Offered the chance to respond to a posting about the Venice part of the book by the New Yorker‘s art critic Peter Schjeldahl (to read his comments click here), I duly came up with the following. The very nice, courteous and clever person running the site said that they were unable to use my reply, even if I deleted the Larkin quote and spelt Schjeldahl’s name correctly throughout (I didn’t expect to get away with that and actually offered to change that when I sent my response in). Not only that, she felt (or was told to say) that the whole thing was her fault, that she should have picked up on Schjeldahl’s errors before they were posted. This seemed to me outrageous; even if the New Yorker has a policy of protecting its writers they – the writers – should be prepared to take the flak for getting things wrong, rather than assuming that editors will clear up after them. So here, Larkin quote and all, is my response:

I abide by the etiquette that no matter how idiotic or misguided any review of your book you keep quiet and suck it up. But since I was asked by the New Yorker to join in the online discussion of my new book, I thought I’d take the opportunity to respond to the remarkable “reading” of the Venice part by Peter Schjeldahl “or [to quote Philip Larkin on Hugh MacDiarmid] however the cunt spells his name.”

He starts: “I didn’t attend the legendarily heat-waved opening days of the Venice Biennale in 2005, the obvious though unspecified occasion of Geoff Dyer’s….”

Here is the first line of the book:

“On an afternoon in June 2003, when, for a brief moment, it looked as if the invasion of Iraq might turn into less of a disaster than originally feared, Jeffrey Atman…”

A few pages later we hear that the next day Jeff is due to fly to Venice to cover the Biennale so unless some extreme form of narrative time dilation is at work it is safe to assume that the 2003 Biennale has been specified as precisely as possible – both in terms of Jeff’s life and the larger context of what was going on in the world – in the first line. As everyone who was there will know – and as I point out in the notes at the end of the book – “2003 was the scorcher.” 2005 was actually quite mild; it even rained a bit.

Now, obviously, what’s at stake at this point is not Schjeldahl’s opinion of the book but something far more elementary: his fitness to proceed, his mental health. If he can’t get a simple thing like that right how can we have confidence in anything else he says? Or to put it more simply, just how stupid can a fellow be?

The finer points of his discussion are almost irrelevant in the face of this question so I’ll mention just one other thing. PS admits to taking what Jeff does (or doesn’t do) incredibly “personally”, almost as if he resents the fact that a fictional character – i.e. someone who does not actually exist – can have the temerity to go Venice and not write it up as though he’s covering it for The New Yorker. He’s apparently “depressed” that Jeff (who, it seems necessary to repeat, is a character in a novel) did not look hard enough at the Ed Ruscha paintings (oh diddums) and did not seek out the masterpieces on permanent display in the city – except for Giorgione’s ‘The Tempest’, “that funny little picture that so reliably jazzes literary minds”. (Another telling dig that; roughly translated it means, “those inferior beings labouring under the gross misfortune of not being distinguished art critics!”) It’s true that Jeff stumbles on Tintoretto’s paintings in the Scuola Grandi di San Rocco by accident but – and here I’m going to let Sherdal in on one of the best-kept secrets of fiction – the fact that a character does something accidentally does not mean that this came about accidentally. Yes, it’s by design that the Venice part of the book comes to a climax with the Tintorettos. And no, the account of those paintings is not “pretty good” because the character’s response to it is “enhanced by cocaine”, for the simple reason that this account was not written by the coke-snorting character but by the author sitting soberly at his desk. I mean, honestly, this is the kind of distinction you make clear to thirteen-year-olds.

It’s in the last few lines that Shedrahl really falls flat on his arse. Apparently Jeff and Laura remind him of something that someone at the Biennale is always asking: “Who are these people?” This overheard someone is clearly the affronted critic’s own representative or spokesman and the implied disdainful answer is that they are outcastes, i.e. people who are not the art critic of The New Yorker. Well, here’s the truth about one of these people (me): this book was not a coded job application. I’m sure it’s a terrible failure of ambition on my part but for some reason I’m happier with the lesser calling of being a creative artist rather than an art critic. The final delicious irony, of course, is that Shedall has far more in common with the despised Jeff Atman than he could ever dare admit – the difference is that Jeff does not take himself so seriously!

JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI
by Geoff Dyer
Canongate, £12.99
Winner of the 2009 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction

2 Comments

  1. Peter Schjeldahl says:

    The New Yorker Book Club asked me to respond, as an art critic, to the account in “Jeff in Venice” of the Venice Biennale.

    I wasn’t reviewing the book. I was having fun with it.

    I regret misreporting the year.

    I admit to a lot in common with Dyer’s Jeff. That’s why he depresses me. By the way, I believe he does take himself very, very seriously, reminding of a joke: “I may not be much, but I’m all I think about.”

    Caring seriously for art, say, doesn’t make me or anyone else special. But people I like tend to care seriously for something.

    I should add that I find the book well and artfully written. So I just did, motherfucker.

    Reply
  2. Marian Zelman says:

    and what would they look like wrestling naked in front of a fire?

    Reply

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