Calling them “perhaps the most important institutions in American letters” (along with creative writing programs and their literary magazines), Michael Lukas praises writers’ conferences on the Virginia Quarterly Review blog. “Unlike the relatively tiny petri dish that is the MFA program,” he concludes, “writers’ conferences bring together writers of all stripes, ages, levels, and abilities, allowing them to interact and swap notes, to learn from the ‘masters,’ but also to learn from each other.”
To Lukas’s list, I would add the public reading. I am not sure when the reading began to emerge as an institution of American letters, but by the time I enrolled at Santa Cruz in the early ’seventies readings were “regular and well-attended events,” I wrote in a memoir—“Lawrence Ferlinghetti filled the Stevenson College dining hall, Robert Bly turned his back on the audience that had arrived early to get seats and invited everyone to reassemble at his feet on stage—and student readings, featuring five or six poets, were popular.” When I was appointed to the campus-wide committee that selected which poets were to read aloud from their work the next year, I congratulated myself on having arrived.
I hadn’t, of course. Readings belong to literature’s bureaucracy, and for me at least their effect is the opposite of what they are supposed to achieve. When I hear a hushed stagey voice on NPR, carefully enunciating each word and pausing pregnantly at each punctuation mark, I realize that I am listening to an author read from his work—and I dive for the radio knob to change the station as quickly as possible. I suspect I am not alone. The very phrases poetry reading, writers’ conference, creative writing, its snooty younger sister literary fiction, and literary magazine—even though I founded a literary magazine many years ago—make me want to turn on the television and watch a rerun of Die Hard. The most important institutions of American literary life do not serve the common good of literature, even if they advance the interests of writers of all stripes.
What few writers will acknowledge is that literature itself is an institution—a larger institution than creative writing and the literary magazines, which are merely local bureaus. Nor is literature an abstraction; it is a concrete activity, like marriage or a religious life, which demands commitment and entails obligation. An institution does not merely bring people together to interact and swap notes; it creates a sense of awe and humility in which novices learn how deeply they are beholden to earlier generations, now passed from the scene, who established the institution to which they are devoting their lives.
In his book On Thinking Institutionally, the political scientist Hugh Heclo argues that the best human institutions, which serve what “is good for us as human beings,” are characterized by long time horizons, self-sacrifice, affective stance, and respect in depth. The encouragement of respect, which is developed by thinking institutionally rather than thinking in terms of self-advancement, is especially significant. New York Times columnist David Brooks, in devoting a column to Heclo’s book, quoted second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who said upon being inducted to baseball’s Hall of Fame four years ago:
Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect.
But this would require the abandonment of literature as an outlet for self-expression and the recovery of the old, discredited view that literature is a way of saying something.
Update: Two other kinds of respect occur to me. A commitment to the institution of literature used to mean a readiness to engage in criticism. Criticism might even be understood as a communal activity—the activity of raking the heap and plucking out the best writing. But criticism is only an act of respect toward literature if it is prepared, as few critics are today, to catalogue some writing as bad.