Thursday, February 12, 2009

Life Beyond the Literary Establishment

Noel Perrin, writes in A Reader's Delight in 1988, a personal and informal compendium of "Forgotten Books, Remembered Books, Honored Books, Orphaned Books":

The standing of an American book tends to derive in the short run from the judgments rendered by the New York Literary Establishment—which these days is only about four-fifths in New York. It now has branches in Washington and California. This loose congeries of critics, editors, writers, and probably even a few agents tends to be liberal in its political and social views (which I like it for), insular and cliquey (which I don't like it for), and deeply respectful of publicity (which I feel ambivalent about). Publicity conferred by itself it tends to regard as the ultimate accolade. . . .

In the long run, a book's standing is largely determined by professors. Professors not only write the learned books and encyclopedia entries that keep authors alive or kill them off, they pick the literature that gets taught in college. Any generation is apt to know two classes of books: the current ones favored by the Establishment and the classics selected by professors. . . .

Most American writers, from Cooper, Poe, and Hawthorne onward, have been [romantics], and nearly all the novels in our canon are romances. This has advantages for teachers and students both. It's handy for teachers, because there is usually more to say in class about something rich in symbols and hung with cloudy portent. It is wonderful for students, because practically everyone is—and should be—a romantic at eighteen or nineteen or twenty. Clear-eyed realism comes later. Except, of course, for the considerable number of people who go directly from romanticism to disillusionment, and who thus become cynics. To them it never comes at all.


A wiser and more clear-eyed assessment of the literary game I have rarely encountered.

Of course, I expected little less, having years ago devoured with pleasure Perrin's classic study of Medieval Japanese culture, Giving up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879. That was another clear-eyed book about a profound upheaval in cultural values and traditions. Japan had gunpowder for centuries, thanks to their close ties to China: and they gave it up, for several compelling reasons. Perrin's narrative of this historical period is still required reading for any student of Japanese culture, in my opinion. Highly recommended, as is A Reader's Delight, from which I quoted above.

Perrin's assessment of the Literary Establishment remains accurate today, in general and in specific. Perhaps more now than ever, making Perrin's voice a prophetic one. The Establishment is losing their control over the gatekeeping aspect of publishing now, however, as the internet begins to rival print, or surpass it, for literary publishing and criticism. A lot of the flailing that is going on these days circles around the Establishment losing its monolithic power, and its fear of that loss. A lot of arguments I've seen that project one Literary Canon or another over others are transparent power-plays. When the times get turbulent, power-projection is a reaction against uncertainty and chaos.

Power doesn't interest me. (Especially power-over, as opposed to power-with.) Good writing does. I appreciate the fact that the gatekeepers of taste no longer have the control they once did. I appreciate the open-frontier aspect of the internet. I appreciate that the technology now allows many dedicated and smart people access to publishing that they were denied before, for no other reason than that they didn't have an agent who could connect them to someone in the Literary Establishment. You can get around all that, now. There are perils to either path, of course.

One argument the Literary Establishment uses, especially in its critical apparatus, is that without critical assessments that sort through the chaff to find the whole grains, no one can make any lasting judgments of quality. Simply put, there's ever more crap out there, and they claim to be the ones able to help you sort through it. There is some truth to this argument; but it's a limited truth. It is certainly true that, with easy access to publishing, a lot more crap is out there, which one must wade through. More bad poetry is published now than ever before. It is certainly true that it takes more effort to find the good stuff among the bad.

Where this argument fails is that it doesn't trust the average reader to make up his or her own mind, or be savvy enough to make their own critical assessments. Sure, sometimes the armchair critic will get it wrong. But the professional critics get it wrong so often, so glaringly, and they get it wrong so often for all the wrong reasons—as Perrin astutely observed—that the professional critics are often as taste-driven and wrong-headed as they claim the amateurs to be. They're wrong far more then they think they are, and far more often than they claim to be. It is shocking how many bad books get praised by Literary Establishment critics nowadays.

But that's always been the case. The gatekeepers' argument also fails because it ignores history. More bad poetry may get published now than ever before, but that's because more poetry, period, gets published now than ever before. The proportion of good to bad probably remains about the same.

Any quick analysis of the history of the arts shows that, far more often than not, many bad books get praised to the skies in the short run, by the Establishment, while good and enduring books often percolate up later. The flip side of the coin to this truth, as humorously detailed in books such as Nicholas Slonimsky's classic A Lexicon of Musical Invective, is how often critics have vilified and condemned artistic works that time has proven to be masterpieces. Beethoven often got very bad reviews; so did Mozart. Bach was unpopular in his lifetime. So was Melville.

Contrarily, I am often amused to see so many critics praise "modern masters of the novel" that I find singularly unimpressive, when set up against past masters. One often feels that critics continue to praise certain current novelists only because other critics have already done so—by force of habit rather than out of essential merit. I often wonder if reviewers have actually read the book, because they certainly seem to have read a book very different than the one I read that bore the same title. As Perrin wrote, Publicity conferred by [the Literary Establishment on] itself it tends to regard as the ultimate accolade. This is as true of Literary Establishment criticism (i.e. back-scratching publicity) now as it was in 1988; perhaps more so.

Time will tell, as always. The verdict of time is the final arbiter. Even the professors get it wrong sometimes; perhaps especially when they teach courses in contemporary literature. I applaud professors who are willing to teach contemporary literature, when they include books they assess as lesser, and are honest about saying so. Far too many contemporary literature courses are, instead, attempts at canonization. In this, the professors are trying to be Establishment critics. Since the vast majority of famous living poets nowadays are or were professors, one must often wonder about conflict of interest. One certainly feels that books that should be ignored often get over-praised simply because they're produced by the critic's friends within the poet-professor world. "You scratch my back with a good review, and I'll scratch yours."

This mutual praising happens more often than they'll admit to, of that there is little doubt. The problem is that it has a corrosive effect on criticism in general. Who can the reader trust?

I don't mind if a critic openly declares he or she likes something for a personal reason; in fact, I wish more critics would be open about their personal tastes and biases. Where Establishment critics fail, spectacularly, is when they canonize their taste (over your taste) into a rule or guideline or sweeping assessment. Thus are born literary -isms, fashions, and trends, none of them durable or very deep. In the short run, it keeps your writer friends employed; in the long run, it erodes away any trust the average reader might have once developed in Literary Establishment criticism.

Perhaps there ought to be warning signs posted at the header of every literary criticism column: Caution: All Assessments Contained Herein Are Provisional. Perhaps every review ought to require full disclosure of the reviewer's personal connections to the reviewed, revealing both back-scratching and axes to grind. Of course, you already know the Literary Establishment would reject out of hand this fantasy of a suggestion, as would most outsider reviewers who yearn to join or at least be respected by the Establishment.

So what is an unknown writer to do if you want your writings to be read beyond your small circle of friends? One can beat against the Establishment wall, pleading to be let in—occasionally that even works. One can circumvent the Establishment entirely and self-publish—traditionally considered vanity press publishing, which the Establishment will ignore or even disparage, but at least you'll be in print. One can do a complete end run and start up one's own mini-Establishment elsewhere—which has been done numerous times to eventual success, creating a local literary "scene" that eventually gets noticed by the national press and the mainstream literary establishment. And one can choose to self-publish on the internet, more or less for free, more or less at risk of never being heard or discovered. I write things here that no one in the Literary Establishment will ever hear or care about; nor am I afraid to bite (kilobyte) that hand, should it ever reach my way. It doesn't matter. Fame and power are not my motivation.

It's unwise to infer too much authority from credentials. It takes work to get a Ph.D., indeed, and one can infer that one is an expert thereafter on the topic of one's dissertation, having had to research and write in depth on that often narrowly-focused topic. But Ph.D.s are nowadays called upon by the media to opine on topics far outside their realms of expert knowledge. It seems like everyone likes to kowtow to authority, given a chance. The Literary Establishment has long relied on people kowtowing to their authority, perceived or actual. What they're complaining about most, nowadays, is that their authority is less actual, and mostly perceived. I revel in the fact that I have easy access to lots of great writing that the Establishment usually ignores or despises. I revel in the ease with which one can now participate in samizdat publishing, in stealth publishing, in below-the-radar publishing that still manages to reach your one true audience, the people who were destined to be your audience, who had only to discover your writings to be brought to light and life. Even the most obscure artist has an audience; all the work of publishing has always been about trying to make that connection.

Sure, some writers are going to abuse that power, their new-found microphones and soapboxes. That too has always been the case. Sure, it's going to take more effort to find the flowers amongst the weeds. But it is worth it. It's worth it when you discover a writer previously unknown to you who sets your mind on fire, who breathes life into yours, who awakens feelings in your soma that remind you that we're all in this together, and no one here gets out alive.

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