"The Literary Life" at 25

By Epstein, Joseph | New Criterion, September 2007 | Go to article overview
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"The Literary Life" at 25

Epstein, Joseph, New Criterion

Twenty-five years ago, for the inaugural issue of The New Criterion, I wrote an essay describing what I thought was the literary situation of that day. Here I am, twenty-five years later, writing an essay on the same subject, setting out to describe how things have changed between then and now. I believe I can promise that I shall not write a third essay on this subject for the fiftieth anniversary of The New Criterion.

My earlier essay, reread today, does not seem to me wrong so much as it seems a touch quaint. No mention is made in it, for example, of computers, let alone all they have brought forth in the way of benefits and distractions in connection with the literary life. Instead I wrote at some length about the university seeming to be taking over literature, offering jobs to writers who could not have survived on their writing alone, making so-called creative writing programs fashionable, valuing writers according to their multicultural credentials quite as much as their qualities as pure literary artists. This has all now become pretty much status quo. Norman Mailer is mentioned rather prominently in the essay. Who would have known that over the next twenty-five years he would stick by all his cliches, write a number of unreadable books (unread by me, certainly) of immodest length, and turn out in old age to look like no one so much as E.T.?

My essay of twenty-five years ago featured the attenuation, the thinning out, of literary culture. Criticism had become professionalized in the universities, with French theory beginning to make heavy incursions into the old common-sense American tradition, not at all to criticism's gain. Poets continued solemnly to scribble away under the ever-diminishing illusion that they had an audience. Through the agency of interviews and television appearances flogging their books, writers came to seem to be making larger contributions to the history of publicity than to that of literature. Politics in literature--which Stendhal likened to "a gunshot in the middle of a concert, something uncivilized to which, however, it is not possible to turn your back"--had begun to play a larger and more divisive role in literary culture. Europe, as a place American writers could look to in the hope of discovering models of literary courage and pertinence, was no longer supplying them in impressive numbers, if at all. Such, such, were among my grim findings of a quarter century ago.

Has much changed over the past twenty-five years? Many things have, and in ways whose consequences cannot be known. For example, theory in academic literary criticism seems to be playing itself out by the sheer force of its deep inner uselessness. Not a single significant book, nor any dazzling essays that I know of, have been produced in American literary criticism that are owing to their author's adaptation of one or another kind of critical theory, imported or domestic, from deconstruction to queer theory. Such stuff continues to be taught, as it was taught to the people now teaching it and who themselves consequently know little else to teach. But one senses that the day of the predominance of theory in English departments is coming to a close: the fever has abated, the flame is guttering. Derrida and Foucault are no longer fighting but yawn-inducing words.

No one today expects universities to contribute much in the way of importance to literary life. Most writers go to college; some hang around a bit longer by attending the writing programs at places such as Boston University, the University of Iowa, and Stanford University. But the result of the triumphs within the university of multiculturalism, literary theory, feminism, and political correctness has been to drain the humanities and social-sciences sides of university education of their seriousness. Literarily, universities are now chiefly useful as the subjects of comic novels, but for little else.

Literary politics have if anything grown more intense.

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