The Boys in the Alley, the Disappearing Readers, and the Novel’s Ghostly Twin
“On or about December 1910,” Virginia Woolf wrote more than one hundred years ago, “human character changed.” The phrase has come down to us mockingly, notoriously, but also with the truth-like endurance of a maxim. By a change in human character, Woolf meant modernism, and by modernism she meant the kind of overt self-consciousness that identifies and interrogates its own motions and motives. Set forth in “Character in Fiction,” an essay arguing for innovation in the novel, it was an aesthetic rather than an essentialist proposition. The change—a new dispensation of premise and utterance—had been wickedly heralded two years before, on an August afternoon in 1908, when Lytton Strachey happened to notice a stain on Woolf’s sister’s skirt. “Semen?” Strachey inquired, as definitively as the final squeal of a hinge: a door flung shut for the last time. Behind that door lurked the muzzled premodern, and before it swarmed what modernism has long since made of us (and postmodernism even more so): harriers of the hour, soothsayers and pulse-takers, augurs and dowsers, examiners of entrails. Literary entrails especially: many are the stains subject to writerly divination.
And so it was that on or about April 1996, Jonathan Franzen published a manifesto on the situation of the contemporary novelist (with himself as chief specimen and proof text), and the character of bookish querulousness changed. What had been muttered mutely in cenacles and bars erupted uninhibitedly in print, as flagrante delicto as any old spot of early-twentieth-century semen. The Corrections, Franzen’s ambitious and celebrated literary bestseller, had not yet appeared; he was still a mostly obscure fiction writer whose two previous novels, though praised by reviewers, had slid into the usual quicksand of forgotten books. When a little-known writer undertakes a manifesto—a statement, after all, of sober purpose and principle—it is likely also to be a cri de coeur, and its reasoned argument will derive from the intimate wounds of autobiography. “I’d intended to provoke; what I got instead,” Franzen said of his first novel, “was sixty reviews in a vacuum.” Even sixty reviews, he made plain, was not sufficient: it was not equivalent to a public event, attention was not being paid, certainly not in the coin of genuine Fame, and the vacuum in question was the airlessness of writer’s depression.
It was a brave stand, then, to issue a manifesto in the form of a turbulent confluence of introspective memoir and cultural analysis; nor was it a career move, despite its publication in a major magazine. Literary essays are generally well beneath popular notice, and Franzen’s piece, though pumped up by anecdote (“When I got off the phone, I couldn’t stop laughing”) and political apocalypse (“the United States seemed to me … terminally out of touch with reality”), aroused its expected flurry among the literati, but was overlooked by Oprah. It took The Corrections to catch the eye, and then the ire, of television’s latter-day publishing goddess, and Franzen’s fame was confirmed. Retrospectively, if the success of The Corrections had not catapulted Franzen into precisely those precincts of the literary stratosphere he had so ringingly and publicly coveted, his declaration might have disintegrated, like all other articles of passing faith, into a half-remembered bleat.
This has not happened—partly because Franzen continues as a noted writerly presence, and partly because his observations of nearly twenty years ago have failed to escape the transience of mere personal complaint. There were many such ventings, embedded in irritating and by now obsolete trivia, to wit: “… even as I was sanctifying the reading of literature, I was becoming so depressed that I could do little after dinner but flop in front of the TV. Even without cable, I could always find something delicious: Phillies and Padres, Eagles and Bengals, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Homicide.” Still more grumbling followed, about the discouraging fate of a second novel: “But the result was the same: another report card with A’s and B’s from the reviewers who had replaced the teachers whose approval, when I was younger, I had both craved and taken no satisfaction from; decent sales; and the deafening silence of irrelevance”—all this as if private grievance could rise to societal position-taking. Yet the deafening silence of irrelevance was, finally, the undergirding of Franzen’s point: that the common culture has undermined the novelist’s traditional role as news-bringer. Novelists, he said, “do feel a responsibility to dramatize important issues of the day, and they now confront a culture in which almost all the issues are burned out almost all of the time.” They are burned out by the proliferating, instantaneous, and superior technological sources of what Franzen calls “social instruction.”
His subject, in short, was the decline of reading in an electronic age when scores of plots, shocks, titillations, and unfolding dramatic disclosures, shot out daily by the reality machines of radio, television, the Internet, endlessly evolving apps, and the journalist’s confiding up-to-the-nanosecond cell phone and Twitter appear to supply all the storytelling seductions anyone might thirst after. Franzen was hardly the first writer to notice this; he acknowledged that Philip Roth, three decades earlier, was already despairing of the novel’s viability in the face of mad actuality’s pervasive power. Franzen’s thesis was not fresh, but neither was it stale. What was new was his linking the question of public literacy with marketplace lust, with—in an idiom Norman Podhoretz made famous nearly forty years ago—Making It. Having confessed to a blatant desire for success (“the dirty little secret”), Podhoretz was roundly excoriated, so much so that if flogging had been legal, the reigning literary-intellectual tribe of that period would have come after him with a forest of cat-o’-nine-tails. It was a time, moreover, when the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event; only recall how The Naked and the Dead, or The Adventures of Augie March, was received. And it was a time, paradoxically, when serious writers looked down on the wider publishing marketplace and were sedulously detached from it: “popular” novelists were scorned. No one spoke of the decline of reading because it had not yet occurred.
All that is nowadays extinct. Ambition, even of the kind termed naked, no longer invites elitist denunciation. Writers who define themselves by the loftiest standards of literary art are happy to be counted as popular; the lucky ones gratefully, not to say covetously, accept the high advances that signify the hope for a six-digit readership. But fifty years ago, Lionel Trilling, the paramount critic of the American midcentury, inveighed against the democratic wider audience, and the “big advertising appropriation” that accompanied it, as corrupting forces—even as he worshiped Hemingway, who had the largest readership of any serious novelist then writing. In an essay titled “The Function of the Little Magazine” (referring to the literary quarterlies that once occupied the pinnacle of intellectual prestige), Trilling recommended, and extolled, the most ideal readership of all, no matter how closed or small or invisible or abstract or imaginary. “The writer must define his audience by its abilities, by its perfections,” he insisted. “He does well, if he cannot see his right audience within immediate reach of his voice, to direct his words to his spiritual ancestors, or to posterity, or even, if need be, to a coterie.”
A coterie! Spiritual ancestors! Posterity! Such martyred satisfactions are a long way from Franzen’s appetite, or the appetite of his contemporaries. Trilling demanded a self-denying purity; purity for the sake of a higher purity. Franzen, more pragmatic and businesslike, talks numbers. “The educated single New Yorker who in 1945 read twenty-five serious novels in a year today has time for maybe five,” he writes. “That hard core is a very small prize to be divided among a very large number of working novelists,” and he tots up the few who, back in 1996, “actually hit the charts”: “Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News has sold nearly a million copies in the last two years; the hardcover literary best-seller The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy, came in on the Publishers Weekly annual best-seller list.” (Up there in Paradise, among his spiritual ancestors, one can hear Trilling’s fastidious sighs.) By now, Franzen has caught up with, or perhaps surpassed, those impressive sales figures of twenty years ago. And if Trilling cannot be Franzen’s spiritual ancestor (he once tried out the purity path, he tells us), it is because our world has left reticence behind: a reticence that, for Franzen, has come to resemble “an estrangement from humanity.” He calls it that; but what he means is being “known,” and escape from the confinements of a small readership, and finally that desirable state, or trait, that goes by the name of “accessibility.” All the same, the terminology of publishing success has grown softer with the years. Instead of the brash Making It, there is the melancholy worry over the silence of irrelevance. Almost no one, least of all Franzen, is asking for invisible, unheard coteries.
Yet in October of 2005 Trilling (or his proselytizing shade) made an unexpected comeback, in the form of an answering manifesto that challenged Franzen’s. Under a gaudy banner—“Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It,” slyly subtitled “A Correction”—Ben Marcus, Franzen’s dedicated antagonist, undertook, Trilling-like, to prescribe the nature of his ideal reader. Marcus’s reader was not Franzen’s. Franzen had identified the born reader as a “social isolate” in childhood, an insight supplied to him by a practicing sociologist. Marcus’s own definition was derived from the fairy realm of elixirs and transmutations. “A writer might be forgiven,” he said, “for wishing to slip readers enhancements to their Wernicke’s areas [the segment of the human brain responsible for language], doses of a potion that might turn them into fierce little reading machines, devourers of new syntax, fluent interpreters of the most lyrical complex grammar, so that the more difficult kind of sense writing might strive to make could find its appropriate Turing machine, and would be revealed to the reader with the delicacy the writer intended… . But these enhancements to Wernicke’s areas in fact already exist, and they’re called books.”
As this wishful casting of spells may intimate, the books Marcus speaks of are not the kinds of books Franzen might champion: conventional social narratives promising pleasure sans difficulty. Ultimately Franzen’s credo, as he expressed it nine years before Marcus threw down the gauntlet, is the need to attract and please readers. A declared enemy of “audience-friendly writing,” Marcus is fearlessly on the side of difficulty: “entirely new syntactical byways,” “a poetic aim that believes in the possibility of language to create ghostly frames of sense.” Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, and William Gaddis are among his older models, and these he opposes to a “narrative realist mode, which generally builds linearly on what has gone before, subscribes to cinematic verisimilitude, and, when it’s not narrating, slaps mortar into an already stable fictional world.” Accordingly, he bludgeons Franzen relentlessly: “Language is a poor medium for the kinds of mass entertainment that Franzen seems interested in.” And: “He wants literary language to function as modestly as spoken language.” And: “He seems desperately frustrated by writers who don’t actively court their audiences, who do not strive for his specific kind of clarity, and who take a little too much pleasure in language.”
So it is a fight rather than an argument, really—a fight over complexity versus ease, a fight that mostly mimics gang war, which is not so much a vigorous instance of manly bloodletting (though it is that too) as a dustup over prestige: who has the prior right to swagger in public. It cannot be an argument these two are having—meaning a debate between fundamentally differing positions—because both Franzen and Marcus are in stringent agreement. What they are in agreement about is the necessity of having a readership. Franzen’s is large, Marcus’s is decidedly smaller—a coterie perhaps, drawn to entirely new syntactical byways and similar hurdles. Each scorns the other’s audience; each is content with his own. And both are preoccupied with the recitation of numbers—Franzen earnestly, with those bestseller millions, Marcus derisively, with something called “the Fog Index point spread.” The Fog Index, he explains, provides statistical proof that Franzen’s vocabulary beats Gaddis’s by several school grades: Franzen’s fog is even thicker than Gaddis’s! Then there is the “Lexile Framework for Reading,” according to which, Marcus points out, Gaddis’s prose in A Frolic of His Own is “just slightly more readable than the Harry Potter series,” while Franzen’s far higher readability score is on a par with the abstrusely specialized vocabulary of a manual on how to lay brick. All this recondite mathematical taunting appears in an ample footnote designed to mock Franzen’s commitment to popularity and his flaunted disdain for difficulty. Still, it is Gaddis, Marcus gloats, who, for all his simpler words and shorter sentences, remains the more complex writer. So: a punch in the eye for Franzen! The Cripps and the Bloods would feel right at home in this alley.
Out of the alley and along the culture’s main concourse, both Franzen and Marcus have stumbled into the same deep public ditch—a nearly vacant trench in need of filler. Never mind that one believes in diversion and the other dreams of potions. If the two of them are equally touchy and contentious and competitive, what has made them so is the one great plaint they have in common: the readers are going away. Whether they are readers to be lured to Marcus’s putative avant-garde experiments, or to Franzen’s entertainments, it hardly matters. The readers are diminishing, they are going away.
Denis Donoghue, in an essay titled “The Defeat of Poetry,” tells where they are going. An eminent literary scholar, and for thirty years a university professor, Donoghue is here speaking of American undergraduates: the newest crop of potential readers that novelists will try to harvest. “When I started teaching, at University College, Dublin many years ago,” he reports,
I urged students to believe that the merit of reading a great poem, play, or novel consisted in the pleasure of gaining access to deeply imagined lives other than their own. Over the years, that opinion, still cogent to me, seems to have lost much of its persuasive force. Students seem to be convinced that their own lives are the primary and sufficient incentive. They report that reading literature is mainly a burden. Those students who think of themselves as writers and take classes in “creative writing” to define themselves as poets or fiction writers evidently write more than they read, and regard reading as a gross expenditure of time and energy. They are not open to the idea that one learns to write by reading good writers.
In class, many students are ready to talk, but they want to talk either about themselves or about large-scale public themes, independent of the books they are supposedly reading. They are happy to denounce imperialism and colonialism rather than read “Heart of Darkness,” Kim, and A Passage to India in which imperialism and colonialism are held up to complex judgment. They are voluble in giving you their opinions on race and its injustices, but they are tongue-tied when it is a question of submitting to the language of The Sound and the Fury, Things Fall Apart, and A Bend in the River. They find it arduous to engage with the styles of Hard Times and The Wings of the Dove, but easy to say what they think about industrialism, adultery, and greed.
So is that where the readers of the next generation are going: to the perdition of egotism and moralizing politicized self-righteousness? The case can be made—Franzen surmised this almost two decades ago—that these students will never evolve into discriminating readers; or, as Marcus would have it, their Wernicke’s areas have been rendered infertile. Then where are they going, if not to Faulkner and Achebe and Naipaul? The answer is almost too hackneyed. To the movies; to television (hours and hours); to Googling obsessively (hours and hours), to tweeting and blogging and friending and texting (hours and hours); and undoubtedly also, when at the dentist’s, to People magazine, where the celebrity photos outnumber the words. While concentrating on dispraising audience-friendliness, Marcus seems to have overlooked, or thinks it not worth mentioning (as Gertrude Stein, his predecessor in autonomous art, once put it): there is no there there. The audience, or most of it, has gone the way of the typewriter and the telephone booth and fedoras and stockings with seams.
Then what is to be done about the making, and the taking in, of literature—specifically, in our time, the serious literary novel? Is Franzen right to blame popular electronic seductions for the novelist’s problems? Is Marcus justified in rating the wizardry of language juxtaposition over the traditional novel’s long heritage of “deeply imagined lives”? Is the realist novel, as he claims, merely a degraded device whereby “language is meant to flow, predigested, like liquid down a feeding tube”? (Does this, by the way, characterize any novel by Nabokov or Bellow?) As it turns out, Marcus does not altogether denigrate realism—he pauses to laud its “deep engineering” as a “brilliant feat”—but he faults it, in furious italics, because “it has already been accomplished.” According to this thesis, nothing is worth doing unless it has never been done before. But we have heard, and from a master, that ripeness—not newness—is all. Besides, why should one literary form lust to dispossess another? Why must there be a hierarchy, Experimentalism (pushing the envelope) on top, Realism (old hat) below? Mozart and jazz, for instance, live honorably together on the same planet. Marcus describes the style of writing he admires as “free of coherence, so much more interested in forging complex bursts of meaning that are expressive rather than figurative, enigmatic rather than earthly, evasive rather than embracing.” He concludes: “I find it difficult to discover literary tradition so warmly embraced and coddled, as if artists existed merely to have flagrant intercourse with the past, guaranteed to draw a crowd, but also to cover that crowd in an old, heavy breading.” Ah, now we are back at the old gang rumble. At Marcus’s end of the alley, though, something smells stale, like old heavy breading. “Expressive rather than figurative,” “enigmatic rather than earthly,” “free of coherence,” and all the rest: it has already been accomplished. The avant-garde’s overused envelope was pushed long ago, and nothing is more exhaustedly old hat than the so-called experimental. Hoary superannuated abstract painting, consisting chiefly of colors and planes, practiced by Mondrian, born 1872; by Kandinsky, also born 1872; by Delaunay, born 1885. Experimental music, micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structure à la John Cage, born 1912. Experimental writing, as in Dadaism, a movement begun in 1916. And here comes Ben Marcus, self-styled enigmatic experimentalist innovator, born 1967.
All the foregoing may be mesmerizing for those in the book business who are drawn to the spectacle of writerly acrobatics—to the shifting highs and lows of publicity—but it is beside the point and misleading. Except for the few preeminent novelists who have earned, via stature and money, the power to stand aloof, serious fiction writers are pressed by elements external to the imagination’s privacies, and external also to the secrets of language (including the clarinet that attends the semicolon). But in searching for the key to the Problem of the Contemporary Novel (or Novelist), there are cupboards where it is useless to look. And there are reasons that do not apply: writers vying for the highest rung of literary prestige; potential readers distracted by the multiplicity of storytelling machines. Feuds and jealousies are hardly pertinent, and the notorious decline of reading, while incontrovertible, may have less to do with the admittedly shaky situation of literary fiction than many believe.
The real trouble lies not in what is happening, but in what is not happening.
What is not happening is literary criticism.
But wait. Why should the novel care about that? Novels will be written, whatever the conditions that roil around them. The novel is an independent art, secretive in its gestation, a living organism subject to a hundred protean characterizations. Of all its touted representations, the most irritable is Henry James’s “loose baggy monster,” while the most insistently self-proclaiming is Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” The scholar-critic Robert Alter, if less succinct, is more suggestive: “In the novel,” he writes, “the possibility always exists, and is often exploited, to zigzag rapidly between different narrative stances, voices, styles, to improvise and jiggle with new options of narration, to flaunt the mechanisms of narration as they are deployed and invented.” He goes on to cite “the elaborately decorous omniscient narrator of Tom Jones … the nested first-person narrations of Wuthering Heights, the purportedly impassive narratorial manipulator of style indirect libre in Madame Bovary, the shifting verbal vaudeville of Ulysses.” (A definition as capacious as this one should go far to reconcile the boys in the alley.)
The novel, then, in all its forms and freedoms, is not in danger; nor is the born novelist—dwindling audiences and the intrusions of pixels notwithstanding. The next Saul Bellow may at this moment be playing patty-cake in his crib—or we may have to wait another two hundred years or so for a writer equal in intellect and vivacity and breadth to turn up. It hardly matters. The “fate of the novel,” that overmasticated, flavorless wad of old chewing gum, is not in question. Novels, however they may manifest themselves, will never be lacking. What is missing is a powerfully persuasive, and pervasive, intuition for how they are connected, what they portend in the aggregate, how they comprise and color an era. A novel, it goes without saying, is an idiosyncrasy: it stands alone, it intends originality—and if it is commandeered by genius, it will shout originality. Yet the novels that crop up in any given period are like the individual nerves that make up a distinct but variegated sensation, or act in chorus to catch a face or a tone. What is missing is an undercurrent, or call it, rather (because so much rests on it), an infrastructure, of serious criticism.
This does not mean reviews. A reviewer is not the same as a critic; a case can be made (I will try to make it) that a reviewer is, in effect, the opposite of a critic, in the way that an architect is different, not in degree but in kind, from a mason, or in the way that a string theorist is different, though both employ mathematics, from a bookkeeper. Neither masons nor bookkeepers are likely to feel disparaged by this observation. Reviewers may be stung. Reviews, after all, are the sustenance of publishing. Reviews are indispensable: a book that goes unreviewed is a dud to its publisher, and a grief to its author. Besides, reviews through their ubiquity simulate the skin of a genuine literary culture—rather like those plastic faux-alligator bags sold everywhere, which can almost pass for the real thing. In newspapers and magazines, both print and electronic, in book clubs and blogs, in television interviews and in radio format, reviews proliferate more freely than ever before. And they have the advantage of accelerating and multiplying through undreamed-of new venues open to nonprofessionals. The book clubs, for instance. Book club reviewers are characterized, by and large, by earnestness and eagerness, and by a sort of virtuous communal glow: they are “amateur” in its root meaning—they are lovers, lovers of books. Some, or perhaps many, may also be amateur in the sense of being unskilled; but they practice reviewing privately, in the secluded warmth of a living room, within a circle of friends, hence innocently. That these clubs are too often caught in a kind of Möbius spiral, or chicken-and-egg conundrum, is an ongoing curiosity: because they choose to read mainly bestsellers (e.g., The Hunger Games, or Fifty Shades of Grey, or whatever currently tops the list), they appear simultaneously to create these bestsellers.
Less innocent is the rise of the nonprofessional reviewer on Amazon—though “rise” suggests an ascent, whereas this computerized exploitation, through commerce and cynicism, of typically unlettered exhibitionists signals a new low in public responsibility. Unlike the valued book club reviewer, who may be cozily challenged by companionable discourse, Amazon’s “customer reviewer” goes uncontested and unedited: the customer is always right. And the customer, the star of this shoddy procedure, controls the number of stars that reward or denigrate writers. Amazon’s unspoken credo is that anyone, or everyone, is well suited to make literary judgments—so that a reader of chick lit (the term defines the reader), perhaps misled by ad hype (the term defines book marketing), will howl with impatience at any serious literary fiction she may have blundered into. Here is “Peggy of Sacramento (see my other reviews)” grudgingly granting one ill-intentioned star to a demanding contemporary novel: “boring slowness, hard going, characters not even a mother could love.” Or Tim: “A thoroughly depressing book. The home life was not a pleasant atmosphere in which to raise children.” Most customer reviewers, though clearly tough customers when it comes to awarding stars, are not tough enough—or well-read enough—for tragic realism or psychological complexity. Amazon encourages naïve and unqualified readers who look for easy prose and uplifting endings to expose their insipidities to a mass audience. It is true that one can, on occasion, find on Amazon a literate, lively, penetratingly intelligent response: an artful golden minnow in a fetid sea, where both praise and blame are leveled by tsunamis of incapacity.
(Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multisyllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since unlike the hardier customer reviewers, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.)
And what of the professional reviewers? They count as writers, certainly; but few writers of fiction can be found among them. It may be that novelists wish to stick to writing novels, uninterrupted; or that competitiveness toward other people’s books engenders a sour reluctance to celebrate a rival; or simply that reviewing is a skill antithetical to the fictive talent; or, less simply, that the reviewer’s more modest stitches will not satisfy the wider ambition of the tapestry weaver who hopes to cover a wall. For all these reasons, and possibly more, most novelists, especially as they mature, tend to eschew reviewing. A good thing, too. The literary judgments even of novelists of consequence can be capricious—Virginia Woolf dismissing James Joyce, for example, or, more recently, V. S. Naipaul dissing Henry James:
The worst writer in the world actually [Naipaul told an interviewer in Britain’s Literary Review]. He never went out into the world… . He never risked anything… . He never thought he should mingle in the crowd and find out what they were there for, or how they behaved. He did it all from the top of a carriage or the top of a coach. A lot of his writing is like that. And he exalts his material because he thinks this subject matter he alighted on—the grandeur of Europe and the grandeur of new American money—is unbeatable.
For generations of readers of The Golden Bowl and The Princess Casamassima, that Jamesian subject has been unbeatable, and is as worldly as the range of an expansively inquisitive mind can be; so it is a relief to know that Sir Vidia is not an incessant reviewer of his lowly contemporaries. And a relief also to recognize that though reviewers are, in their fashion, writers, they are not often Nobel-winning novelists.
Frequently they are publishers. In fact, a book’s publisher is its first and perhaps most influential reviewer. How a book is “positioned”—i.e., described to the sales staff and in catalogues and flap copy—can nearly seal its fate, or at least condition its reception. In the case of a literary novel (the term intends a dangerous elitism), in-house positioning can snuff it with a word. That word is “midlist”; whoever coined it merits hanging. It emits defeatism. It promises failure. An emblem of noblesse oblige, it reminds publishers that they still owe a modicum of responsibility to the higher literary culture. But what executive editor or vice president will want to back, with dollars and fanfare, a novel tainted by the whisper of midlist? Even so, the writer privileged to be included in this doubtful category is a thousand times more fortunate than the serious literary novelist who is not likely to be published at all. A publishing house is not an eleemosynary organization: who today would publish Proust? (An inapt question, since no mainstream press was willing to publish Proust then: initially he paid out of his own pocket to get his work into print; and nowadays, with digital self-publishing readily available, it’s every writer his own Proust.) Besides, your typical publisher as first-stage reviewer is more prone to favor treacle—to treat an uplifting pedestrian fiction as a genuine literary novel—than to honor the real right thing. Or, on the other hand, to gussy up the real right thing with commerce-pleasing fakery: only imagine Pride and Prejudice hyped, in suitable shiny jacket, as a bodice ripper. Still, in crannies here and there (the golden minnow factor), and again in the larger houses, there remain editors possessed by the old calling—the bringing to light of darker worlds, heretical glimpses, adamantine art.
I stand accused, nevertheless, of misleading. Book club members, Amazon customers, postcolonialist English departments, canny publishing executives—are these what we mean when we speak of reviewers? Aren’t the real reviewers the people who do it for a living, the talented hired hands who write regularly for a single periodical, or the diligent scattershot freelancers? In brief, that body of readers-by-occupation whose expertise, we feel, ought to make up, collectively, a society’s cultural temperament. Were there space enough and time, it might be so—this notion of a powerful undercurrent of literary intelligences, streams crossing streams, all flowing out of one great governing critical headwater; but it is not so. The professional reviewer, given fifteen hundred words or less to consider a work of fiction, must jump in and jump out again: an introductory paragraph, sometimes thematic though often not, a smattering of plot, a lick at idea (if there is one), and then the verdict, the definitive cut—yes or no. A sonnet, with worse constraints, or a haiku’s even tinier confines, can conjure philosophies and worlds. A review, whose nature is prose, is not permitted such legerdemain. Nor is criticism. Yet what separates reviewing from criticism—pragmatically—are the reductive limits of space; the end is always near. What separates criticism from reviewing—intrinsically—is that the critic must summon what the reviewer cannot: horizonless freedoms, multiple histories, multiple libraries, multiple metaphysics and intuitions. Reviewers are not merely critics of lesser degree, on the farther end of a spectrum. Critics belong to a wholly distinct phylum.
This is a phylum that, at present, hardly exists. When, a few years ago, and in the mode of a social experiment, the New York Times Book Review asked a pool of writers to name the best novel of the past twenty-five years, the results were partly predictable and considerably muddled. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a tale of slavery and its aftermath, won the most votes. Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy were substantially represented. In an essay musing on the outcome of an exercise seemingly more quixotic than significant, A. O. Scott, a Times reviewer, noted that the choices gave “a rich, if partial and unscientific picture of American literature, a kind of composite self-portrait as interesting perhaps for its blind spots and distortions as for its details.” Or call it flotsam and jetsam. You could not tell, from the novels that floated to the top, and from those bubbling vigorously below, anything more than that they were all written in varieties of the American language. You could not tell what, taken all together, they intimated in the larger sense—the tone of their time. A quarter century encompasses a generation, and a generation does have a composite feel to it. But here nothing was composite, nothing joined these disparate writers to one another—only the catchall of the question itself, dipping like a fishing net into the sea of fiction and picking up what was closest to the surface, or had already prominently surfaced. All these novels had been abundantly reviewed—piecemeal. No reviewer had thought to set Beloved beside Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (both are political novels historically disguised) to catch the cross-reverberations. No reviewer had thought to investigate the possibly intermarried lineage of any of these works: what, for instance, has Nick in DeLillo’s Underworld absorbed from the Nick of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? The novels that rose up to meet the Book Review’s inquiry had never been suspected of being linked, whether horizontally or vertically. It was as if each one was a wolf-child reared beyond the commonality of a civilization; as if there was no recognizable thread of literary inheritance that could bind, say, Mark Helprin to Raymond Carver. Or if there was, no one cared to look for it. Nothing was indebted to nothing.
Many readers shrugged off this poll as entertaining trivia, or as run-of-the-mill editorial attention-seeking. Yet something culturally important came of it. It revealed, blazingly, what was missing, and has long been missing, in American letters: criticism that explains, both ancestrally and contemporaneously, not only how literature evolves, but how literature influences and alters the workings of human imagination. Here, to illustrate, is Harold Bloom, avatar and prescient forerunner, tracing—via Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself—just such a pattern of cross-generational transfusion:
Like its major descendants—T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Wallace Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Conrad Aiken’s The Kid, A. R. Ammons’s Sphere, John Ashbery’s A Wave—Song of Myself is an internalized quest-romance, whose antecedents include the long English Romantic tradition of falling in love with the poet’s failure. That tradition goes from Wordsworth’s The Excursion and Coleridge’s nightmare Rime of the Ancient Mariner on through Shelley’s Alastor and Keats’s Endymion to Browning’s ruined questers and the daemonic defeats of poets by their antithetical muse in Yeats.
This is Bloom’s familiar messianism at work: the dazing fulfillment of a desired critical project before it has properly begun. And here also is James Wood, elucidating the design of that desire, not in one of his grand critical essays but merely in a short public letter making the case for Flaubert as the founder of the modern novel:
Our indebtedness, whether we like it or not, extends to, among other things: the fetishizing of visual detail; the inverted relationship between background and foreground detail (or habitual and dynamic detail); the sacralization of art; the privileging of the music of style over the recalcitrance of “unmusical” subject matter (Flaubert’s famous desire to write a book about nothing); the agonizing over aesthetic labor—all this looks pretty new, and different in many ways from Balzac’s great achievements and solutions, not least because these new Flaubertian anxieties cannot be solutions. You might say that Flaubert founds realism and simultaneously destroys it, by making it so aesthetic: fiction is real and artificial at once. And I could have added two other elements of modernity: the refinement of “free indirect style”; and the relative plotlessness of Flaubert’s novels. All this is why different writers—realists, modernists and postmodernists—from Stephen Crane to Ian McEwan, from Kafka to Nabokov to Robbe-Grillet, all owe so much to Flaubert.
The key, then, is indebtedness. The key is connectedness. If Wood cannot read Flaubert without thinking of McEwan, neither can he read McEwan without thinking of Flaubert. In this single densely packed paragraph (though he is not usually so compact), Wood reflects on how scenes are constructed; how art imitates faith; how aesthetics can either combine with or annihilate what passes for the actual world. And also: the relation of story to the language that consumes it, and the descent of literature not only from one nation to another, but from one writer to another—all the while clinging to a unitary theme, the origin and nature of the modern. Such an imperial analysis has both a Darwinian and a biblical flavor: evolution mixed with Genesis.
Perhaps because Wood is partial to realism (though not to “magical” or—his term—“hysterical” realism), he is sometimes faulted for narrow sympathies, and for deprecating those styles and dispositions that escape the bounds of his particular credo. Yet a critic is nothing without an authoritative posture, or standard, or even prejudice, against which an opposing outlook or proposition can be tested. To keep to a point of view is itself a critical value. The grand historic example of critical authority is Samuel Johnson, whose unyielding mastery of a position was such that to affirm it wholly was never easy, while to dissent from it was still more difficult—but the assertion itself roused the mind. In just this sense of instigating counterbalance, Wood is a necessary contemporary goad.
For an extended period—an anomaly in a culture of kaleidoscopically rapid shifts—he stood alone, a promontory of notice and prestige. A stimulus and a goad, yes, but companionless. On the American scene, from the New England Transcendentalists to the Southern Agrarians to the New Critics to the New York Intellectuals, linkages and public movements have been more nearly the norm. At least part of the reason for isolated renown may be what has come to be called a “platform”—the critic’s identification with a single journal. George Steiner’s hierarchical elitism, for instance, once dominated the New Yorker, defining for its readers what criticism ought to do. Consistency of this order has its public benefit (steady access to a singular mind), but after a time an evolving disadvantage creeps in: the pace, the voice, the tone, the habits of phrasing, have grown too familiar. (And also the occasional verbal tic: older readers may recall Steiner’s evocation of lofty models, such as “an Aristotle,” “a Mozart,” as if there might be several of each to choose from.) Where dazzlement is routinely expected, it ceases to dazzle. A critic is fresher when less territorial, a restless pilgrim bird with multiple nests.
And the contrapuntal—contrapuntal, that is, to Wood’s prevailing clef—has begun to assert itself, as will happen when a notable critic commands an overriding baton. A case in point: as long ago as 1925, Edmund Wilson, in an essay on Henry James, took issue with Van Wyck Brooks, a leading critic of that burgeoning if quarrelsome era. Wilson’s subject, it turned out, was not so much James as it was Brooks’s influence on the critical idiom of the hour. Brooks had disparaged James as “an enchanted exile in a museum-world”—a fore-echo of Naipaul’s “from the top of a carriage or the top of a coach” (that oddly redundant vehicular sneer). “The truth is,” Wilson wrote, “Mr. Brooks cannot help expecting a really great writer to be a stimulating social prophet.” And again: “It is precisely because Mr. Brooks’s interest is all social and never moral that he has missed the point of James’s art.” In arguing that James eschewed overt societal indictment because he was “preoccupied simply with the predilection of moral character,” Wilson was intending to unseat Brooks’s position as arbiter of what a significant literature should properly pursue: Brooks, he insisted, was a “preacher.” Certainly Wilson was pushing against a view that in the following decade would support the rise of the blunt and blatant proletarian novel. And whether or not it was Wilson’s dissent, in combination with gathering mutations of taste, that finally deposed him, the fading of Brooks as a preeminent critic was such that today he is mainly forgotten. Not, however, that Brooks was deprived of an ironic victory. Wilson in all his expansiveness went on to become, among manifold other literary paths zealously trod, a conscious social critic. And as a multivalent pundit, he argued with Nabokov over the nuances of Russian translation, popularized the complex history of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and wrote reverberatingly about everything from burlesque shows to the stock market crash to what he termed “the special psychology of reviewers.”
Wilson-versus-Brooks represents a purposeful clash of differing temperaments; but the contrapuntal critic can also turn up in the absence of deliberate opposition, out of the communal air, out of contrasting literary intuitions that begin now to be widely heard—and unlike Wilson, with no intent to diminish a lauded critic. The contrapuntals have, finally, appeared; they are here, and Wood is no longer lonely in his eminence. For Wood, the animating force, his engine of origins, is the crisis of belief and unbelief, of reality and sham: a metaphysical alertness. And something else, unspoken but speaking for itself: the conviction that criticism must be able to stand as literature in its own right.
The contrapuntals I have in mind (because they are visible everywhere, winging from nest to nest) are Adam Kirsch and Daniel Mendelsohn. Like Wood, each comes from—as in the ideologically minded exploratory phrase “Where are you coming from?”—a background of early, and deeply embedded, preoccupation. Mendelsohn is that uncommon contemporary presence, a master of the literature of ancient Greece. Kirsch is a poet, and more than that: he is in serious possession of the very thing that long ago alarmed John Blackwood, George Eliot’s publisher, when, on first reading Daniel Deronda, he unhappily discovered “the Jewish element.” (Kirsch is also in possession of what might be termed “the George Eliot element,” the capacity to embrace intellectually, and inhabit sympathetically, discrete yet crucially intertwined cultures.) Both Kirsch and Mendelsohn follow Wilson in breadth, ranging at will beyond the immediately literary, Mendelsohn more peripatetically than Kirsch. Kirsch is closer to Wood in scrupulous attention to language, as one would expect of a poet, particularly one of formal inclination. Mendelsohn’s paragraphs will freely employ relaxed popular speech, sometimes even tending toward the breezy, while at the same time tightly analytical. Having fully assimilated the postmodernist leveling of high and low, he approaches film and television with the same brio as he might bring to a play by Euripides; or he will mingle the current with the classical, pointing out parallels (viz., “As Seinfeld and Aristotle both knew …”). Neither Mendelsohn nor Kirsch is as fierce a close reader as Wood, or drills into the work under inspection with the same fanatical eye. Kirsch has undertaken to penetrate the oceanic pages of the Talmud (albeit in English translation), daf by patient daf. He has published a biography of Disraeli and a comprehensive study of Lionel Trilling: impossible to conceive of Wood’s being drawn to either figure. (Kirsch has, in fact, been described as Trilling’s heir.) And Mendelsohn is the author of The Lost, a moving, exhaustive, and revelatory history of his family’s Holocaust-devoured Polish branch that stands starkly apart from the critic’s role.
In an analogy that is certainly inexact as to particulars, but nevertheless interestingly suggestive of how oddly and unexpectedly forked a life can be, Mendelsohn brings to mind the career of A. E. Housman, who as a ferociously contentious dry-as-dust Latin scholar was devoted, among others, to Manilius, a minor and mostly overlooked Roman poet and astrologer. All that side of Housman is half obliterated; what lasts are the lyrically bucolic verses that erupted from an unsuspected and yearningly tender inwardness. And for Mendelsohn, a disciplined early immersion in the rigor of the classics has somehow drawn out an appetite for the most tumultuous, even circus-like, aspects of the present scene: from Sophocles and Aristophanes, say, to Mad Men and Downton Abbey. Yet while this exuberant transmutation from one species of perception to another can never be predictable or stodgy, it can sometimes come at the cost of depth. The commanding if graver Kirsch, meanwhile, has moved with conceptual agility from the innate structural enclosures of the poem to elasticity, history, connectedness; and to steadfast literary authority fed by a sympathetic intellect. His ability to enter into the political, the societal, the moral—to leap from Reinhold Niebuhr to Harper Lee—distances his reach from the narrower channels of most contemporary critics.
Wellsprings are not always signposts; sometimes they are mazes. A classicist becomes a ringmaster of all the arts. A poet—a man of subtle letters—becomes a cultural interpreter.
But where, in all this, is Susan Sontag, who before her death at seventy-one was for more than forty years an inescapable omnipresence, named by the New York Review of Books as “one of the most influential critics of her generation”? She took the compliment as too easily obvious, and also obtuse; she preferred to think of herself as primarily a novelist: “I’m a storyteller,” she proclaimed. Wood, skeptical of the historical novel as a form, lauded her final work of historical fiction, In America, as a successful exception. (His seemingly spirited endorsement, caught between a principle and its exemption, somehow ends feeling tacitly lukewarm.) Yet because Sontag was, incontrovertibly, that marmoreal edifice, a Public Intellectual, her self-recognition as such lofted her stature well above her plentiful essays, and surely beyond her four novels: it could not be said that she strove in the common critical stewpot. She knew herself to be royalty; she was no one’s counterpart, and no one, she made plain, was her peer: she countenanced neither her like nor her unlike. She organized her own exile by ordering her burial in the venerable Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where Balzac, Proust, Colette, Gertrude Stein, and countless legendary luminaries are interred. And having lived as an American lioness of unsparing ambition, she willed herself to end as a foreigner in a foreign land: a literary, perhaps also a political, declaration. To formulate—to contribute to—a viable critical infrastructure, one must first be willing to be a part of it.
If Sontag—neither critical competitor nor critical confrere—made certain to steer clear of the hope for such an infrastructure, Leon Wieseltier has been its tutelary spirit and facilitator. As literary editor of the New Republic for more than three decades (until its transmigration into a digital afterlife), he presided over the magazine’s matchless book section, inviting largeness and depth, imposing no constraints on space or theme. Himself a distinctive stylist and a revivifying cultural critic, he gave a moral shape to questions of aesthetics, and brought humanist perspectives to political thought. Under his influence, the critical essay flourished, whether touching on literature or philosophy or history or painting or music. It was under Wieseltier’s eye that Kirsch started out, and it was Wieseltier who recruited Wood—then chief critic for the London Guardian—and introduced him to American readers.
As more and more review journals give up the ghost or, like the New Republic, turn cybernetically anti-literary, the shallower digital venues proliferate. There, where the long essay makes for uneasy reading, and reviews are mostly random and trivial and shrunk to fit the hither-and-yon notice of cafeteria-style readers, what chance is there for the notion of a serious and sustained critical surround? Yet large projects do not relate to chance, nor are they prone to be stymied by prevailing circumstances. Instead, they germinate out of necessity and will.
Begin with necessity. What is essential is a critical mass of critics pursuing the kind of criticism that can define, or prompt, or inspire, or at least intuit, what is happening in a culture in a given time frame. What is needed are critics who can tease out hidden imperatives and assumptions held in common, and who will create the fertilizing conditions that underlie and stimulate a living literary consciousness. In this there is something almost ceremonial, or ceremoniously slow: unhurried thinking, the ripened long (or sidewise) view, the gradualism of deliberate shading. And here the critic comes closest to the historian by preparing the historian’s path. When we speak of an era, an age, a period, a “climate of opinion” (as, in relatively recent times, the Georgian, the Edwardian, the Twenties, the Thirties, and so on), what is meant is a distillation of the insights, arguments, intimations, and even ideas of taste that the critics, in unintended concert, have amassed.
As for will—that conjoined sibling of necessity—much depends on the individual critic’s perception of his task and its motives. In an essay reflecting on his own credo, Kirsch writes: “The critic participates in the world of literature not as a lawgiver or a team captain for this or that school of writing, but as a writer, a colleague of the poet and the novelist. Novelists interpret experience through the medium of plot and character, poets through the medium of rhythm and metaphor, and critics through the medium of other texts. This,” he adds, “is my definition of ’serious criticism,’ and I think it’s essentially the same today as it was fifty years ago: a serious critic is one who says something true about life and the world.” For Kirsch, lambent poet and discerning modulator, it is hardly a misstep to allow literary criticism to stand as an equal beside the novel and the poem, those deeply susceptible manifestations of the free imagination—since, after all, criticism too can be the source of the visual, the tactile, the emotive; but as a principle it may turn perilous. When the critic ventures too near the mode of the novel, aspiring to fathom the psyche of the author under review, or when he verges still more dangerously on the poet’s power of metaphor, criticism then becomes akin to usurpation: to soul-snatching. Serious criticism is surely a form of literature, but the critic is not an artist with the artist’s freedom of play. A critic is, at bottom, a judge, and judgment ought not to be tentative, or it is flat and useless. Neither ought it to be definitive in the way of drawing out a rounded, completed character that does not exist. And metaphor, when applied as personification, can be either revelation—or lie.
So, in asking for a broad infrastructure of critics and criticism to support and confirm a maturing literary organism, there will be caveats and skepticism. Still, should such an authentically engaged infrastructure ever come into being—or, rather, return, since (at least in our backward-looking trustfulness) it once prospered in large enough numbers to make a recognizable literary force—what would change? Professional reviewers, those hemmed-in heralds of the new, would trudge on as before, useful as always. Prudent publishers would go about their business of expediently touting the sentimental or the shocking while marginally tolerating the serious. Readers would continue to drift away, seduced and socialized by the ever-breeding pixels. The boys in the alley—sophisticated armies on a darkling plain—would continue to clash over accessibility and iconoclasm. But for unfulfilled readers and writers who fret over the neglect of the literary novel, something instinctually different might begin to hover: a hint of innate kinship, a backdrop, the white noise of the era that claims us all. In times that are made conscious of the air they breathe—a consciousness that only a critical infrastructure can supply—the varieties of literary experience become less antagonistic than inquisitively receptive. In the age we have learned to call Victorian, Disraeli and Oscar Wilde, novelists (and spirits) as unlike as can be imagined, evince a certain virtuoso interplay: we know this because criticism has taught us how to see it.
When Lionel Trilling reigned at Columbia, Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe, and Alfred Kazin enlivened the magazines, decade upon decade. Today there are inklings of who might constitute a potential critical aggregate, beginning with the legacy of John Updike, pressing on with essay after essay for forty years: self-evidently, the prophetic Harold Bloom, the scholar-poet Geoffrey Hartman, the formidably rounded and witty Joseph Epstein, the exquisitely indispensable Helen Vendler, the philosopher of literature Bernard Harrison; also Dana Gioia, Edward Mendelson, Richard Howard, Robert Alter, Morris Dickstein, Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Miller, Edward Alexander, Sven Birkerts, Martin Rubin, Michael Dirda, Linda Hall, Christopher Beha, William Giraldi, William Deriesewicz, Thomas Mallon, Wyatt Mason, Ruth Franklin, Louis Menand, Jed Perl, Phillip Lopate, Camille Paglia, Michael Gorra, Arthur Krystal—a range of status, age, consistency of publication, breadth of attentiveness, depth of desire, level of pugnacity. These, and others I have failed to mention, some perhaps in embryo, a few busy elsewhere as poets or novelists—not even these are enough. Passions and principles are copious beyond the anxie-ties of Franzen and Marcus, whose chief urgencies appear to be who will read. The better question is not who will read, or how they will read, but why.
And why really? To catch hold of the tincture and pitch of the hour, the why of the moment, the why of what led to the moment, the why of what may come of the moment, the frights and the fads, the hue and the cry, the why of what is honorable and what is not, the why of what is true and what is lie. It is the why that implicates and judges readers, and reviewers, and publishers, and bestseller lists; and novelists. No novel is an island, entire of itself. And it is again the why that tells us how superior criticism—the novel’s ghostly twin—not only unifies and interprets a literary culture, but has the power to imagine it into being.