Every year at this time The American Spectator solemnizes the peculiar achievement of American publishing by conferring the J. Gordon Coogler Award for the worst book of the year. In Manhattan, where the book barons dwell, this is an event of the first water. This year's Coogler laureate for fiction is John Irving, author of "The Hotel New Hampshire." This year's laureate for nonfiction is Betty Friedan, who wrote "The Second Stage."
Both these writers draw their beliefs from the same high-toned conventicles where hermaphroditic men mince about with dyspeptic James, always to the applause of New Age Liberals, whose purchases make these books very profitable. In fiction, the males are wimps and the females godlike. In nonfiction, the hypotheses advanced are usually only the fanciful delusions of fanatics. Both in fiction and in nonfiction, the immensities pondered are almost always without sense. The enthusiasms thumped for have all been tried in recent years and unhorsed by the experience. Friedan seems dimly aware of some of this. She now agrees that careers--even on Wall Street, even on a garbage truck, even at Harvard--are more painful than her sisters had expected. Irving shows no hint of this new enlightenment.
Irving is the typical "serious" writer of the moment, a nice young man lost in reveries of the toilette and the lunatic asylum. Sometimes he is the Joyce of his day, impatient with injustice, cruelty and fuddy-duddies, tapping out bold roars oddly reminiscent of the bold roars sounded in "Peyton Place" so many years ago. Other times he is a Henry Miller or a Hemingway; yet all his brawls, his prostitutes, his incest, rape and infibulation are without a stench or bruise. He is the perfect alumnus of one of those ghastly writers' conferences where the vaguely creative go "to learn the writer's craft" and to acquire the false pieties of the time.
When Irving writes, he writes the rough stuff. "The Hotel New Hampshire's" obligatory godlike gal has just been gang-raped by villainous preppies (yes, preppies!) and rescued by the obligatory godlike blacks. One now administers the kind of pop psychotherapy that both Irving and Friedan find so plausible: "'Hey, listen,' said Junior Jones. 'You know what? When someone touches you and you don't want to be touched, that's not really being touched--you got to believe me. It's not you they touch when they touch you that way; they don't really get you, you understand. You've still got you inside you. Nobody's touched ...'" But enough: Irving is a jogger, a foe of injustice. Let him suffer no further. Let us turn to Friedan.
She is one of our foremost national pontificators, which is to exalt her above a multitude. Our best-seller list may not abound with learned minds, but it is full of fanatics vehemently pontificating quackery in the abstruse. In the early 1960s, Friedan's bugaboo was "the feminine mystique" with its idealization of the suburban concubine and the humming dishwasher. Now her bugaboo is the "feminist mystique," a "reactive mystique." It has played right into the hands of Ronald Reagan and "the far right." Her solution is a "second stage" that comes down smartly in favor of "the choice to have babies."
Since "The Feminine Mystique" appeared in 1963, Friedan has discerned "that core of women's personhood that is fulfilled through love, nurture, home." The family "is the nutrient matrix of our personhood." Hence, the second stage will be "generative" and even observant of "grounding . . . realities of daily life." The jargon crunches and groans on like this for hundreds of pages, but American pontificators have learned that to express oneself more lucidly is to jeopardize one's authority with the lightweights in the audience. Friedan might be a poet but she stifles it. She needs the lightweights around for her second stage wherein lives will be lead in the Beta mode, to wit: a mode rich with "synthesizing into intuitive, qualitative thinking." These are her findings.
Of course, those of her readers who since 1963 have been burning their bridges to the other half of the baby- making mystery might be a little impatient with this new departure. One's time for making a family comes and goes, and if a woman fouled things up properly during Friedan's first stage she might not be able to participate in this exciting second stage. Does this trouble Friedan? Asking people to throw their lives into the pursuit of an abstraction might be an act of boldness, but it might as easily be an act of irresponsibility or stupidity.
At any rate here are the worst books of 1981, and put aside your fears that American publishing might be brought to ruin if taken over by the giant corporations. I doubt that our popular books would be any worse if published by the McDonald's hamburger chain.