Assuming for the moment that something called literary culture exists in the United States, where, exactly, might it be found today? From sea to shining sea, I suppose the answer is, but before putting one’s hat over one’s heart and finishing the song perhaps one would do well to ponder the significance of having to ask the question in the first place. Thirty, fifty, a hundred, a hundred and twenty years ago the question of where literary culture could be found would not need to have been raised, for the answer, though it might differ from time to time, was always evident.
The whereabouts of literary culture in August 1860 was certainly not a serious question for William Dean Howells. Then still a young newspaperman from Columbus, Ohio, Howells checked in at the Tremont Hotel in Boston. Howells had had four poems published in The Atlantic Monthly, and now had set himself up to see literary culture firsthand. Literary culture in 1860 meant Boston, where, as Edward Weeks put it in his recent memoirs, “most of the best writers in America lived within thirty miles of the Massachusetts State House.”
In Literary Friends and Acquaintances, Howells recalled what the literary culture of Boston looked and felt like. His first call was on James Russell Lowell, then the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, who treated him with great kindness and gave him a note recommending him to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Lowell also set up a dinner for Howells at the Parker House, at which the young Middle-westerner met the publisher James T. Fields (of the firm of Ticknor & Fields) and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. At one point during the dinner Holmes, looking from Lowell to Howells, remarked, “Well, James, this is something like the apostolic succession; this is the laying on of hands.”
It was said that the center of literary culture in this country moved too, from Boston to New York, where it has since remained. But has it?
Later, using his letter from Lowell, Howells paid a call on Hawthorne, who treated him most agreeably, then passed him along to Emerson with a card on which he had scribbled, “I find this young man worthy.” Howells met Emerson, then Thoreau, then Longfellow, and eventually nearly every other figure of importance in the burgeoning American literary culture. In time, of course, Howells himself became the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, where, notable for the catholicity of his taste, he published and promoted the careers of Mark Twain and Henry James, respectively the ultimate Redskin and Paleface of American literature. When, in 1885, Howells left The Atlantic Monthly to become editor of Harper’s in New York, it was said that the center of literary culture in this country moved too, from Boston to New York, where it has since remained.
But has it? For a long stretch it seems to have done, with occasional lapses. Early in this century Chicago set out claims to be the literary capital of the United States—Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Carl Sandburg were working there at the time—and H. L. Mencken said that nearly everything of interest in American writing originated in Chicago. Mencken himself never lived in New York, but commuted from Baltimore while editing first The Smart Set, then The American Mercury. In the early 1920s American literary culture kept a home office in Greenwich Village and a flourishing European branch in Paris (send mail c/o Gertrude Stein, 27 rue de Fleurus). In some rough sense, New York remained the scene and center of literary life in this country through World War II and beyond. Sometimes this literary culture seemed rather thin, as in the instance of the characters who gathered round the Algonquin Hotel dining room and who were in any case not strictly literary but part of the New York worlds of theater and smart journalism. Later, in the persons of the Partisan Review crowd, literary life would become scruffier and more political and intellectual than strictly literary, but a magazine such as Partisan Review seems impossible outside New York.
Even at the best of its literary time, New York was never absolutely indispensable to the national literature in the way that London and Paris have been indispensable to the literature of England and France over the past two centuries. Still, New York until very recently exerted a powerful attraction upon provincial young Americans aflame with literary ambitions. In his essay “My Lost City,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, himself precisely such a provincial, recalled sighting from the back seat of his taxi the young Edmund Wilson, “nourished,” as Fitzgerald put it, by “the Metropolitan spirit.” Manhattan was the name of Fitzgerald’s desire, and even today its expense, cumbrousness, and sheer weight in aggravations do not deter a great many young literary men and women whose notions of a literary life are inseparable from life in New York.
Yet one is hard-pressed to think of the names of New York writers. After one has named Norman Mailer, added after thinking a bit about it Donald Barthelme, one descends to journalists and critics. Part of the reason is that New York is not always the best place for a writer to get work done. It remains a nice place for writers to visit their editors and publishers, in the hope of having their wallets fattened and vanities fed. But the great names in New York literary life today are those not of writers but of cultural middlemen—agents, publishers, editors, people with such names as Scott Meredith, Robert Gottlieb, Tom Congdon. Literarily, New York seems increasingly to belong to them.
Yet one is hard-pressed to think of the names of New York writers. After one has named Norman Mailer, added after thinking a bit about it Donald Barthelme, one descends to journalists and critics.
If I have dwelt so long on Boston and New York, it is only because when one thinks of literary culture, as of culture generally, one thinks (as anthropologists have taught us to think) of a network of institutions, roles, traditions, rituals, and not least of settings. But writers today, more so than ever before, do not live in a single setting or even in two or three primary settings. Major and minor, younger and older, American writers are strewn across the land. Publishing houses, most of them, are still in New York, with a few in Boston and a few others in Chicago and northern California. The majority of magazines that writers care most about appearing in are still in New York, and all the powerful literary agents are there. New York is where writing is most intensely talked about; it is where reputations are pumped up, also deflated. It is, beyond dispute, the mecca of literary publicity. Yet the attractions of New York to the young are no longer what they once were. Indeed, all that the very young may nowadays think of in connection with the literary life is that it has to do with being photographed for People and appearing at some point on the Today Show.
Economics has a great deal to do with the lessening attraction of New York, and with radical changes in literary culture generally. One of the great problems for a young writer is how he is to get from, say, age twenty-two to age thirty. Literary talent needs time to ripen. Although there are instances of writers doing splendid things in their early twenties—Turgenev wrote A Sportsman’s Notebook at twenty-three, Rimbaud was even more famously precocious, and, closer to our time, Delmore Schwartz turned out his best poetry before he was thirty—most writers do not burst so brilliantly out of the starting gate. The question then becomes what can they do until they are ready to do their best.
Living through this incubation period was once much easier than it is currently. The novelist Albert Halper, now in his seventies, has recently recounted his early days as a writer come from Chicago to New York. He more than once refers to how cheaply he lived. “My total weekly living expenses,” Halper recalls, “ran around eight dollars, including rent.” That was in the Thirties, of course. But even as late as the 1960s a young writer could make do on fairly little. I not long ago talked about this with Frank Conroy, in whose past I had noted an eight-year gap, a time during which he was evidently preparing to write his autobiography, Stop-Time. It turns out that Conroy had a small inheritance from his grandmother, of two hundred dollars a month: he was able to live in New York largely on that. Today in New York two hundred dollars might cover monthly cab and subway costs.
Without an inheritance, a working husband or wife, or the unusual good fortune of an early-blooming talent, getting from age twenty-two to age thirty has never been all that easy. But there were, formerly, more places to lay low while the years passed. Europe for one. Not only did living abroad offer a young writer the opportunity to widen his own culture, but he could until recently depend upon doing so on the cheap, thanks to the powerful position of the American dollar. And if Europe wasn’t one’s dish of tea, in more recent years there was always that four-to-six-year continuous summer camp known as graduate school. Graduate school was thought to be a good place to hide out for would-be writers with no place else to go. But no longer. The grant money is not there when one starts out, the jobs aren’t there when one finishes, and the idea was probably a bad one in the first place. Many writers who hang around universities too long learn one skill above all—self-loathing.
Whether a writer is young or old, it remains difficult to earn a living writing, or, at any rate, writing what one wishes to write. In the summer of 1981 a largely statistical report was put together by the Center for Social Sciences at Columbia University. The most notable finding was that, on the average, American writers earned less than $5,000 a year. In publishing circles, there was a small flap about this report; a small flap, in publishing circles, usually means a not very readable article in Publisher’s Weekly, which in this instance contested the accuracy of the Columbia study. I would contest it, too. I think the figure is too high. (The Publisher’s Weekly article thought it was too low.) Surely it is too high if one includes poets, for the only serious American poet in this century said to have been able to live off his poetry was Robert Frost. Even so famous a poet as W. H. Auden had to depend on journalism and poetry readings for his livelihood—not poetry. The great majority of poets of reputation today—Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, A. R. Ammons—have depended on regular teaching jobs for theirs.
The center of literary life today is the university. Which university? No one university, or even no five or six universities, but merely “the university.”
Among serious writers generally—“I am speaking here of writers who treat of great subjects,” Schopenhauer remarks in his essay On Authorship, “not of writers on the art of making brandy”—I would guess that there are not many more than two hundred who are able to make their living primarily from their writing. This is not to say that there are not many more men and women justified in calling themselves writers; but these men and women will, I suspect, be found to be drawing the bulk of their incomes from activities auxiliary to literature: from teaching, from lecturing and reading, from editorial work of one kind or another. Despite news of great financial scores for writers—seven-figure paperback sales, movie deals, etc.—contemporary literature in the United States has an economic profile rather like that of a typical Latin American country: a few very rich people at the top, scarcely any middle class, and a vast peasantry.
That not many writers can make their living through writing alone is important, even crucial, because the economy of literature has sent many writers into university jobs—at least those writers who are fortunate enough to land such jobs. This, concomitantly, has thinned out New York as the literary capital of the United States. The center of literary life today is the university. Which university? No one university, or even no five or six universities, but merely “the university.” Which is a roundabout way of saying that the center of literary life today does not exist except in an attenuated and abstract form. It is a center without a center.
Over roughly the past thirty years the greatest single change in literary life in this country has been the gradual usurpation of literature by the university. Not only are the majority of writers—novelists, poets, critics—today at work in universities, but contemporary writing is increasingly becoming part of the regular university literary curriculum. The consequences of this are mixed. On the one hand, the university has run a very effective employment service—a WPA program that goes by the name of creative-writing classes—for writers who might otherwise have had to go into the mail-order business. This much—and it is no small thing—the university has done for writers. Whether this has been good for writing is another question altogether.
Universities seem tolerable enough places for poets, so many of whom live, literarily, in their imaginations. Much less do universities seem so for novelists, who need to live more in the world if their work is to deal with anything beyond fornication and fashionable ideas, which seem to be the chief forms of experience and knowledge available at contemporary universities. But a great many contemporary novels do not deal with anything beyond fornication and fashionable ideas, of course; and one of the new phenomena in the literary culture of our day is what I think of as the English Department Novel. Written by such writers as Jonathan Baumbach and Ronald Sukenik, and at its higher reaches by John Barth, this is the kind of novel that no one outside an English department would for a moment consider reading.
Critics may at first glimpse seem more naturally a part of the university, yet it was not always so. As recently as the 1920s, critics—certainly critics of contemporary literature—were less than fully welcome in universities, whose members still thought of universities as communities of scholars. Van Wyck Brooks was never permanently attached to a university; nor was Edmund Wilson. Today one is hard pressed to think of an important literary critic who works outside the university. (On the other hand, one is hard pressed to think of an important literary critic.) Yet the university may not be a much better place for criticism than it is for the novel. In a university setting a critic may lose sight of what literature is supposed to be about—itself nowadays a great intramural literary-critical question—and confuse what is most teachable in literature with what is most important. Having critics resident in universities has also legitimized criticism itself as a scholarly function, which has had the effect of vastly increasing the glut of trashy criticism that is part of the current scene: hopeless journals such as Diacritics and Wisconsin Fiction Studies and useless series of books such as the Twayne series on contemporary authors and the University of Southern Illinois’s Cross Current series. But these, as everyone in the racket knows, aren’t actually to be read; they are only part of the apparatus of university publication which makes promotion possible.
Hopeless journals such as Diacritics and Wisconsin Fiction Studies. . . . these, as everyone in the racket knows, aren’t actually to be read; they are only part of the apparatus of university publication which makes promotion possible.
One of the results of legitimizing criticism in the university has been to professionalize it. Much literary criticism today is written for colleagues, not for people interested in books. But then whole books are no longer written for people who are interested in books. There is, for example, much current debate in literary theory about the way people read texts and about the meaning of language, much demonstration of techniques for proving that reality doesn’t exist. It is all very ingenious, this work of structuralists, semiologists, Foucaultists; it is also all very boring. Yet it dominates the current literary-critical scene in a way it could never do if literary criticism were not so securely centered in the university, where people seem to have endless time for such nonsense and where to oppose it—as such critics as Gerald Graff and Frederick Crews have done—is to condemn oneself to spending a good part of one’s days rushing about screaming, “The world is round! The world is round!”
The larger point is that the usurpation of contemporary literature by the university continues to grow, so that today it sometimes seems as if there are two literary cultures: academic literary culture and non-academic literary culture. To be sure, there is some crossover. Saul Bellow teaches literature at the University of Chicago, and yet he does not seem a university writer. Thomas Pynchon, so far as anyone knows, does not teach in a university, and yet it is difficult to imagine many people outside universities reading his novels. Many writers seem to drop in on universities from time to time, spending a quarter or an academic year teaching. Some are happy to have the work, some curse the society that will not reward them sufficiently to allow them to work at their writing without interruption.
With its creative-writing courses (sometimes entire “programs”), its conferences and symposia on literary subjects, its poetry readings, the university might appear to be, from the outside at least, a true termite mound of literary activity. From the inside, though, it tends to look rather different. Take, for example, poetry readings. Sometimes it seems that the skies must be dark with poets aloft, flying to their various campus readings, so many have been the poetry readings on American campuses. I myself was not long ago at a university in Ohio, a small liberal-arts school, where conversation revealed that an almost endless chain of poets had read there: Ignatow, Levertov, Wakoski, et al. Do many people show up for these poetry readings? I asked. Usually eight or ten kids, I was told, or as many students as the teacher of the modern poetry course could roust out.
One poet who apparently draws unfailingly large crowds at universities is the feminist Adrienne Rich. I have never seen Miss Rich in performance. Doubtless hers is a fine enough show. Yet it does say something about the present state of literature that the only poet who can consistently draw large crowds at a university is a thoroughly politicized one. Universities have political agendas; they seem to want to do what they construe to be the right thing by all groups within the university community. Thus universities are quick—or at least they were quick, when the money was at hand—to set up black studies programs, women’s studies programs, you name it. Because universities are disposed to this general view, literature under their auspices has come to look a little like the Democratic Party under George McGovern.
Years before the intervention of contemporary writing in the university—or has it been the other way round: the intervention of the university in contemporary writing?— nothing was conceded to a writer because she was a woman or he was a Jew or she was a black or he was a homosexual. There was something called the Republic of Letters, and this republic took no census. It included only people who were serious about writing. There was also a fairly simple division of writers, or at any rate only one division that mattered: good writers and bad. How different this is from today, when a great writer like Willa Cather is excluded from the academic canon of American literature for having written stories and novels with insufficiently feminist views. The problem, clearly, is that what is judged the best in literature by the university is not always what people who passionately care about literature know to be the best. If what the university judges to be the best in writing—based on the books used in classrooms or the research done on particular authors—were indeed the best, then Virginia Woolf would be a greater writer than Tolstoy, which, as Virginia Woolf herself would have told you, is scarcely so.
No one knows how many writers work in universities and how many work outside them. There are, along with those writers permanently attached to universities, writers who have never been connected with universities: William Styron, John Updike, and Norman Mailer, to name three novelists. Among writers in the baggy category known as non-fiction, Tom Wolfe, Edward Hoagland, and Gay Talese have steered clear of the university. The novelist Robert Stone and the critic Susan Sontag seem to duck in and out. Joan Didion is not a university writer, though she seems to fill her purse fairly regularly by writing screenplays. These are writers of established reputation. Well below them is a group of writers, literary gypsies as I think of them, who swing about the country, arranging a few months or weeks at one or another of the writers colonies (Yaddo, McDowell, Breadloaf in the summer), teaching a stint where they can find it, doing a writing “workshop” one week, waiting for a check for a book review the next, living pretty much from hand to mouth. Sometimes impressive in what they have sacrificed for their writing, sometimes comically fraudulent in their pretensions, they are the Coxey’s Army of contemporary American literature.
While the academic segment of literary culture has become more specialized, more professionalized, more sepulchred within university walls, the non-academic segment has become more public, more gaudy, more vulgar—and in a big way. Judging by media time and space, there appears to be a nearly endless if altogether superficial interest in the lives of writers, novelists chief among them. Writers in this connection have come to seem an arm of the entertainment industry. The financial details of Saul Bellow’s difficult divorce were treated in the press as national news. Gore Vidal and Truman Capote are by now established television personalities. Norman Mailer is permanently hot copy, which his actions do nothing to discourage; indeed, he seems to live his life in order to be framed in news magazine prose. Everywhere writers are dropped onto talk-show couches, where they are questioned about their private lives. Those who tend to stay away from such Venus’s-flytraps of gossip, Philip Roth for instance, make up for this by revealing more than one wishes to know about them in their own fiction. And on the subject of gossip, why should I, who never met him, know that a dignified man such as the late John Cheever seems to have had a serious drinking problem? The reason is that John Cheever somehow felt he owed it to Dick Cavett to tell him so. We have among us today so many would-be Boswells, and no Dr. Johnsons whatsoever.
Neither inside nor outside the university has contemporary literature been able to produce a towering literary figure. A figure of the kind I have in mind is usually not strictly an artist, but also a man of letters. Voltaire was such a figure for the French Enlightenment. Dr. Johnson, holding entirely different views, fulfilled a similar function for his age in England. In the nineteenth century in Russia the key literary figure was Vassarion Gregorievich Belinsky (1811-1848), a critic who expressed the passion of his age—expressed it and embodied it. Of Belinsky, Isaiah Berlin has written:
For him the man and the artist and the citizen are one; and whether you write a novel, or a poem, or a work of history or philosophy, or an article in a newspaper, or compose a symphony or picture, you are, or should be, expressing the whole of your nature . . . and you are responsible as a man for what you do as an artist.
It is not clear whether America has ever had such a figure, though some might argue that Emerson came close in the middle nineteenth century, others that H. L. Mencken, roughly between World War I and the beginning of the Depression, achieved something like this literary authority. I suppose that there are those who might put forth Edmund Wilson for this special assignment, though I think that his rather commonplace political views disqualify him (and Wilson was a very political character). Be that as it may, there is no one even remotely in contention for the role today. And that there isn’t speaks to the thinness of current literary culture.
In its intellectual life, ours has been preponderantly a political age. By age I mean roughly the past twenty-five years or so; by political age I do not mean to imply that no interesting literary work has been done in that time, only that the chief issues, questions, and preoccupations have been political, not literary. Communism, the Cold War, the Third World, the kind of society America is or ought to be, these are among the subjects that have used up so much of the intellectual oxygen of the past quarter-century. Nothing in literature has been able to hold a candle to them. Experimentalism in literature, a towering question to the modernist writers, towers no longer; it is of interest only to its few practitioners and to those few academics caught up in the notion that there has to be a perpetual literary avant-garde, the equivalent in literature of Trotsky’s permanent revolution. Well, there will always be a literary avant-garde, as there will always be an England, but our avant-garde—producing concrete poetry, novels that come in boxes, books that can be shuffled like cards—is quite beside the point, not to say boring well past tedium.
Although I have never heard anyone speak of it, one of the reigning questions about the literature of our day is why so few American literary masterpieces have been produced in the past quarter-century. Cyril Connolly once said that “the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence.” I myself do not quite believe that, though I do wonder why contemporary American writing has produced so few books that seem indispensable. There is no point in stopping to name particular works here, but I suspect the titles in contention for the status of literary masterpiece can be counted up without the need for removing both hands from one’s pockets. During this period much graceful poetry has been produced, some extraordinary novels, and a number of interesting autobiographies, but few works about which one can confidently say, “If this had not been written, life would seem less rich,” which is one definition of a masterpiece.
If it seems too hard on literature to ask it to produce masterpieces at regular intervals, consider yet another point: that ours has also been an age without great literary magazines. Sadly, no large circulation magazine can today sustain itself by publishing chiefly literary fare. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to have been possible for the past half century or so. But The Atlantic Monthly under Edward Weeks was noted for its sympathy for fiction. Even the old, square Saturday Evening Post was fiction-minded, publishing, along with many sappy stories, works by William Faulkner and John O’Hara. When Life obtained the rights to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, it advertised it as a great coup. One used to think of The New Yorker as a great magazine for short stories, the home of Cheever and Salinger and Updike and (later) L. B. Singer and Ann Beattie. Indeed, it remains hospitable to good fiction; but can anyone doubt that the heart of the magazine has changed from the literary to the political? Not only is this true of its Talk of the Town section but easily the most discussed pieces to run in The New Yorker in our day have been pieces of political consequence: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth.
In intellectual journalism surely the two most interesting American magazines of the past few decades have been The New York Review of Books and Commentary. Each, it needs to be emphasized, has derived its energy and élan from politics, although The New York Review has lost some of its luster since the Vietnam War. Partisan Review, the premier intellectual American magazine of the Forties and the better part of the Fifties, grew spavined trying to keep up with cultural trends in the 1960s: it ran essays on the Beatles, pornography, and other subjects unworthy of a magazine that had once published George Orwell, Albert Camus, Ignazio Silone, and André Malraux.
Mention of these four names—Orwell, Camus, Silone, and Malraux—is a sad reminder of two further changes in literary culture in our day. First, there are few figures in Europe today to compare with these men; with the possible exception of Günter Grass, I can think of none. Consequently, there no longer seems much reason to look to Europe for any sort of cultural guidance or literary example. Second, each of these men functioned, for the better part of his career, as an independent literary intellectual: in the United States today the independent literary intellectual, never a flourishing breed to begin with, is all but extinct.
Orwell, Camus, Silone, Malraux, each of them lived in a time of great political passion, each was himself political in the most serious way. But as literary intellectuals they wrote on political subjects with the authority of literature behind them. In the United States today things tend to run the other way round. Such novelists as Robert Coover, E. L. Doctorow, and Robert Stone create literature with the authority of politics behind them; for them the novel is politics by other means. Great writers have always had their politics. Think of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Or think of Joseph Conrad. Conrad obviously detested the revolutionary personality; and yet one doesn’t have to agree with Conrad’s political views in order to recognize that there is more at stake in, say, The Secret Agent than politics alone. Reading E. L. Doctorow, on the other hand, is a different experience entirely: if one disagrees with Doctorow’s politics, the pleasure is drained from his novels; if, in other words, you do not believe that the Rosenbergs were innocent or that Henry Ford was ridiculous, you are excluded.
Traditionally, it has been the job of the literary intellectual to blow the whistle when politics infringed upon literature or popular culture. Orwell is the example of the modern literary intellectual par excellence; like a finely tuned Geiger counter, he could tick off unfailingly the political content in works of high and low culture. He spoke for things above politics. One of the deplorable features of the current scene is that, just as the literary intellectual is disappearing, political purposes are increasingly infiltrating literature. Not that they haven’t done so fairly steadily since at least the 1930s. Nearly every one of the printed literary opinions of Malcolm Cowley and Dwight Macdonald, to cite two examples, needs to be fumigated for possible political motive. But so thoroughly politicized has contemporary literary life become that most people assume that it is the literary man’s duty to be on the side of revolution, to find the United States racist and the members of the middle class either desperate dogs or insensate swine. Whether such notions are by now more literarily uninteresting than untrue or more untrue than literarily uninteresting is difficult to say.
What isn’t difficult to say is that political argument has badly torn up what was left of New York literary life. So many people who otherwise have so much in common no longer speak to one another because of political differences. Not to live in New York, to put a bit of distance between oneself and such a scene, in these circumstances seems sensible. “As you grow older as a writer,” Saul Bellow recently told an interviewer in Esquire, “you become more and more accustomed to talking to yourself. In what the punks like to call the literary milieu you’d think you’d find some milieudniks to talk to. You’d think there were heaps of people to attach yourself to. But you have to pick yourself through heaps no goodness, casts of thousands in the literary world who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.”
Writers have always grumbled, of course. Some of the chapter titles from Isaac D’Israeli’s early nineteenth-century book Calamities of Authors name conditions that have not greatly changed in our own time: “The Sufferings of Authors,” “The Pains of Fastidious Egotism,” “The Despair of Young Poets,” “Literary Hatred,” and “Miseries of Successful Authors.” When writers complain about their work—when I complain about my own—it is useful to recall Mencken’s scoffing retort to authorly moaning: “If authors could work in large well-ventilated factories, like cigarmakers or garment workers, with plenty of their mates about and a flow of lively professional gossip to entertain them, their labor would be enormously lighter.”
And yet, normal grumbling aside, that there is so little in the way of solid literary culture in the United States at the present time has serious consequences. When literary culture, like culture generally, becomes too attenuated, something snaps, rituals lose their significance, traditions wear away, life changes—and not necessarily for the better. To mention but a single ritual, consider the bestowal of literary prizes in America. Pulitzers, Guggenheims, American Academy of Arts & Letters awards—every publisher’s or critics’ prize has been drained of its importance; any value it might have had has been dribbled away by its having been given too many times to second- and third-rate writers. To win certain literary prizes is nearly enough to encourage self-doubt. In a world of less than perfect justice rewards have often gone to the richly undeserving. Yet the fact is that twenty years ago if a novel won a National Book Award there was a good chance that it was a fairly impressive piece of literary work. One can’t, I think, say the same today; so dwindled in significance have such literary prizes become that scarcely anyone can remember who, over the past five years, has won them.
The only prize serious writers can now unequivocally esteem is good readers. Good readers are the unknown variable, the great mystery, in current American literary culture. Good readers are those readers who read not only intelligently—with mental acuity, an ardor for language, a sense of humor—but also in the hope of having their souls stirred by literature. How many such readers are there in the United States? Impossible to know, though it seems fairly safe to guess that their numbers are not legion. Apart from poets and people who aspire to write poetry, how many people read contemporary poetry? Again, impossible to know. Serious fiction sometimes sells in great numbers, but what do these numbers mean? Saul Bellow, some years ago, remarked that he thought himself a fortunate writer: “When I publish a novel,” he said, “roughly fifty thousand people buy it in its cloth edition, five thousand or so actually read it through—and five hundred care.” Those numbers sound fairly accurate to me. What’s more, having five hundred readers who really care sounds very impressive.
This is, I believe, the place to insert the standard paragraph on the baleful effects of television. The reason people aren’t reading good books, this paragraph usually runs, is that, slack-jawed, they are sitting in front of their television sets. Worse: their children sit there even longer, even slacker-jawed. No one reads anymore. Ours is becoming a visual culture . . . and so forth. The standard paragraph on the baleful effects of television tends to overlook the fact that before there was television there was bridge and bowling and the corner saloon—one’s taste in these matters depending on one’s social class. There was never a shortage of excuses for not spending time with books. Today, though, in the era of the crushing best-seller and what sometimes seems like nearly universal higher education, writers feel all too often that readers disappoint them. Even so, much as one wishes it were otherwise and no matter how many BAs, MAs, and PhDs roam the range, reading serious books has always been and will probably remain a minority taste. That serious books do break through from time to time—Santayana’s The Last Puritan, I always remind myself when sending a manuscript off to a publisher, was a Book of the Month Club Main Selection—is nice but never to be expected.
A book, the result usually of years of effort, will appear in bookstores for two or three months and then disappear without trace.
What is not nice but now usually to be expected is that a book, the result usually of years of effort, will appear in bookstores for two or three months and then disappear without trace. Under current publishing arrangements, this happens fairly regularly, and to good books quite as frequently as to bad. In a strong literary culture if a book fails with the public a writer can at least hope for the appreciation of his literary peers. But now, unfortunately, it is not always there. Too often good books are stupidly read by their reviewers, half-heartedly supported by their publishers, ignored by the public, and too soon meet their pulper. When real talent goes unappreciated it is yet another sign of a weakened literary culture—and we live today in a greatly weakened literary culture, in which foolish books are frequently praised and subtle books are frequently dumped.
Over a local FM station not long ago I heard a jazz musician describe his musical education. “I don’t know, man,” he said, “I copied from cats like Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Art Tatum. I guess they copied from cats like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Earl Hines. I don’t know who those cats copied from, but I’m sure it was somebody.” Although he never mentioned the word, this particular cat was explaining the way tradition works in the arts—one generation borrowing from the one preceding it, each artist adding his own special touches, point of view, and vision to what has gone before. In literature, it is beginning to feel as if the tradition is breaking down. It could be that literary culture is merely going through a bad patch. But it feels as if more than a bad patch is involved: it feels as if circumstances are conspiring to make literature seem a second-rate activity.
Still, although a rich literary culture is a true boon to a writer, its absence can’t kill off serious writing altogether. If evidence for this is wanted, the dissident Russian writers of our day, who have worked in circumstances in which everything possible has been done to demolish literary culture, provide it in excelsis. It is difficult to say just how many of our potential writers will decide, for want of reinforcement in literary culture, that the writing life is not for them. Certainly more than a few. Others will persist, largely for the reasons that Edward Gibbon gave for his own literary persistence: “some fame, some profit, and the assurance of daily amusement.” Nevertheless, that something fundamental in the nature of the literary life has been altered, this cannot be doubted.
Imagine, in this connection, F. Scott Fitzgerald as a very young man today. Assume—what is today unlikely, since he was not a very good prep-school student—that he attends Princeton, and there takes creative-writing courses from such teachers on the staff as Joyce Carol Oates and Geoffrey Wolff. His teachers encourage the young Scott Fitzgerald, and so, before graduation, he applies to and is accepted by the University of Iowa Program in Creative Writing. At Iowa he is considered among the most promising of students, though during his first year there his teachers talk him out of writing a rather shapeless novel he plans to call This Side of Paradise. Concentrate, they tell him, on the short stories, for he shall need a full book of them to qualify for his doctorate in creative writing. (Around this time he meets and falls madly in love with a student in the English department, a southern girl named Zelda Sayre, but when her fellowship is not renewed she is forced to leave Iowa City, and eventually they fall out of touch.) Scott’s stories, meanwhile, are meeting with some success: one is published in Salmagundi, one in The Virginia Quarterly Review, and two are accepted by TriQuarterly. He is on his way, or so it seems. He is offered a job at the University of Michigan, teaching freshman composition and two courses in creative writing. It is a tenure-track job. At Michigan, between classes and grading papers and academic committee meetings, he begins a story about a young man who, through illicit means, has made a great deal of money, with which he sets out to recapture the past, chiefly symbolized by a beautiful woman, a lost love who has since married. The story works out wonderfully, splendid beyond his own expectations. But it is rather too long for a short story and too brief for a novel, or so a number of editors say. If he will agree to cut the story radically, one magazine editor tells him, he, the editor, will be glad to look at it again. A publisher’s editor has ideas for expanding the book: flesh out the character Wolfsheim a bit, give Daisy two daughters, etc. He tries cutting, he tries expanding, but either way it is no go. The story seems just right to him as it is. He decides to put it away for now. It is around this time that he begins to drink. At age forty-four, exactly ten years after he has been awarded tenure at the University of Michigan, his heart, weakened by a steady consumption of alcohol, gives out. But then, who ever said that the literary life was easy?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 1, on page 6
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