Books January 1991
Who killed literature?
A review of The Death of Literature by Alvin Kernan.
What is now called “literature” was born in the eighteenth century. Before then there was writing, but no authors; printed texts, but no publishing. For literature is not a thing like a chair, the essence of which can be wrapped up for all time in a tidy formula—the imitation of human action, the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, the criticism of life—but is instead a social practice, undertaken at a distinct time and in a distinct place, requiring certain institutional arrangements for its support. And the institutions that sustain literature in our day have all arisen since the Enlightenment. The image of the artist as a special person, a creative individual devoted to a sacred calling, exempt from the cash nexus, whose one obligation is to realize his inner vision—this is merely the ideology of romanticism and modernism. It gives literature the appearance of belonging...
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