Jonathan Yardley has a superfine nose for hypocrisy, absurdity, self-delusion, and self-indulgence. That he takes delight in exposing these vices, especially when secreted away in artifacts of our so-called literary culture, is well known to followers of his work as a book critic and, since 1981, as a Monday-morning columnist for The Washington Post. Out of Step is Yardley’s choice of the best of his column, a thousand-word feature that, by his own account, has “evolved into a place for commentary on issues not often addressed in newspaper opinion sections,” including “education both higher and lower, the press and the media, [and] the ebb and flow of American social life.” The column’s primary focus, however, has been on those “literary and book-industry matters that transcend a book reviewer’s business,” especially fakes and faddists and over-sized egos—i.e, matters involving personalities. If it’s the critic’s duty to appraise the pots, it’s the columnist’s pleasure to take pot shots at the potters, and when Yardley is at the top of his form, his aim is deadly.
Those who despise Yardley complain that his aim pulls to the left, and it’s true, hilariously true. Yardley is a reader of the old-fashioned sort who believes, in the words of old-fashioned writer Robert Ward, that “the novelist’s real job [is] creating a fictional world that reflects true, lived experience.” This immediately puts Yardley “out of step” with the current critical consensus, which holds that the novelist’s job is to effect social change. Among the best of the columns collected here are those devoted to certain mouthpieces for the consensus—Norman Mailer, William Styron, Toni Morrison, and Mary McCarthy. Yardley quotes McCarthy as having lately said, in regard to the political novel, “Americans, I think, tend to get their political education through fiction—occasionally through poetry, though this is becoming rarer.” Yardley is quick to point out that McCarthy wasn't really talking about the American electorate in general, but that tiny elite, comprising far less than 1 percent of the population, that reads trendy political fiction. “But then,” continues Yardley,
McCarthy was never really talking about the real world Out There. She was talking about the little world of the literati, in which if you close your eyes, take a deep breath and make a wish you can actually convince yourself that E. L. Doctorow and loseph Heller are political figures of stature and influence. From there it is just a short distance—why, no more than a baby step—to persuading yourself that Doctorow and Heller, not to mention Arthur Miller and Philip Roth and all the other guardians of the literary conscience, are the real shapers of American political thought. And from there, who knows where you can go? So long as you keep your eyes closed, you can go anywhere at all.
And go they do, the literati—and go they always will, hand in hand with red-hot New York book editors, publicity-bought reviewers, MLA conventioneers, and all the other targets of these columns. Nothing Yardley writes could ever get them to open their eyes, but perhaps that isn't the point. He opens the eyes of the rest of us and makes us laugh, and the laughter is especially tonic for the many old-fashioned readers still Out There.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 8, on page 72
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