Stanley Elkin "At the Academy Awards" from Pieces of Soap: Essays

Stanley Elkin wrote a great essay, "At the Academy Awards," that was originally published in the Dec. 1989 issue of Harper's, and later collected in his sole essay collection, Pieces of Soap: Essays, that I serendipitously happened upon at a library book sale a few months ago.

I meant to post the following excerpts from Elkin's excellent essay on the eve of this year's Oscars (see below), but completely forgot to.  I figure if I don't post them now, I'll probably completely forget to post them again on the eve of next year's Oscars.  So I might as well post them now, whether it's relevant to do so or not, because Stanley Elkin, in whatever context, pop culturally or not, is worth mentioning.

Elkin is one of the funniest novelists I've ever read among those novelists that hardly anybody has ever read.  In LibraryThing, the majority of his books are owned by less than 100 users each -- he was, is, and probably will remain -- under a literary reader's radar indefinitely.  I'd recommend the interested reader begin with The Franchiser, a novel that makes me think of Death of a Salesman ... That is, Death of a Salesman had it been written as a comedy rather than tragedy.  I don't know why Elkin's books never sold well, or why so few I talk to have ever heard of him.  His contemporaries and critics typically lauded him.  Below are his major literary awards and nominations.

1995 - National Book Critics Circle Award for Mrs. Ted Bliss

1994 - PEN Faulkner Award finalist for Van Gogh's Room at Arles

1991 - National Book Award finalist for Fiction for The MacGuffin

1982 - National Book Critics Circle Award for George Mills

Perhaps I'll return and properly review some Stanley Elkin.  But for now, here's his bemused takes on attending the Academy Awards:  

"At the Academy Awards, the entrance to the Shrine Civic Auditorium is flanked by four giant Oscars quite, or so it seems to me, like sullen, art deco Nazis. Set maybe a hundred feet back from these, two temporary grandstands have been constructed for three thousand or so fans -- day-of-the-locust types, extras, all the tribal, representative legions who come to these things, drawn, it could almost be, by the limousines themselves, gleaming cream-colored packages of celebrity.

"Why I'm steamed, to the extent I am, is that I've watched these ceremonies ... for years. Always I'd come away ... with some prize-in-every-box sense of homogenized, evenly distributed fame. Now, in my immediate area, except for a few stars straggling into the hall and walking past our discrete little acreage -- there's Max von Sydow -- ... I recognize only myself and my wife.

Clearly, the star-spangled demographics are off this evening ... And suddenly I understand something, that all the splash and flourish of all those advertised lives I'd seen on all those Oscar shows had been nothing but camera angles, a sort of trick photography, doctored like Chinese news.

It's easy to knock these ceremonies because here at the Academy Awards, where glitz hands off to glitz and it's the Mardi Gras of diamonds larger than rhinestones, structure surrenders to motion, to din, to appearance as arbitrary and frantic as a chase scene. Ironically, at the Academy Awards, all sense of the theatrical gives way neither to wit nor spectacle but to stunt -- how many presenters, like so many clowns, can be crammed into the Volkswagen.

At the Academy Awards, it's a pointless, incomplete vaudeville. Bob Hope and Lucille Ball present nineteen 'Oscar Winners of Tomorrow' in an endless every-man-for-himself song and dance about ambition and narcissism philosophically distilled from A Chorus Line without the benefit of that show's melody, passion, talent, or wit ... it's a drawn-out, almost fastidious, customary kowtow. It's the obligatory standing ovation. You could put money down on who's going to get one ...

And these anger me too -- his {Bob Hope's} banter, these "jokes". From my resentment pool, deep as some sea trench, rises a personal bile ... It's stupidity that has me down, Bob Hope's simplistic, condescending view of history and of ourselves, me. Because I take it personally, the good-natured contempt, the artificial scorn, the false assumption like a wink up in your face like a slap, or the car salesman's nudge like an elbow to your rib that we're all pals here, that we're in it together. Well -- we ain't."


  1. Brent F.Y.I.,

    This small used book store is going out of business!!
    Everything is 2 for the price of 1.
    I just picked up ten books. I've been on a kind of existential Paris themed Literay tear for 3 week that I'll tell you about later.

    Nused Books
    4141 Norse Way,(near Carson St. and Lakewood Blvd.) #C, Long Beach, CA 90808

  2. Oh, yeah! I love it.

    And now Stanley Elkin's on my radar as a novelist, too. I've been aware of him, shelved his books, for a million years. But I'm one of the readers who's never actually picked one of the books up. Now I will-thanks!

  3. I posted my comment before I added the thought that I've always thought Death of a Salesman should be written as a comedy.

    Double OH YEAH!

  4. I've always wanted to read his books. Now, after reading his take on the Oscars, I most definitely will have to.

  5. Elkin's awesome, Bubba! There's a lot of his stuff I've never read so I'll be very curious to hear which one you eventually begin with.


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