Friday, December 31, 2010

Bye, bye, literature

As the year coughs to a stop, I find myself thinking more and more about the disappearance of a literary culture in America where books are valued, if only by a minority, for their intrinsic qualities—their intelligence, their depth and breadth, the care they take with sentences. Even if it has begun to pick up speed recently, the decline has been going on for long decades. I realize that. “A literary craftsman in America,” Mencken said ninety some years ago, “is never judged by his work alone.” Now, however, he is rarely judged by his work at all.

“The universal reaction to book lists,” I wrote a few days ago, “is annoyance over what has been left out.” I should have added: followed immediately by an accusation of bias. If you don’t happen to think very highly of a writer—and if, because space limitations make explanation impossible, you are silent about the writer—you will be said to hold a grudge against the class to which the writer belongs. Worse yet, if you fail to mention a sufficient number of members of the writer’s class, although the required proportion remains vague and undefined, you will be dismissed as irredeemably intolerant if not bigoted toward the entire class.

I don’t know why it took so long for me to figure out what was going on. The accusation of bias has been leveled against me so often that I no longer take it seriously. Only recently, though, did it strike me that the accusation is more than simply a moral fashion. It is a learned response, an intellectual commonplace, picked up in school and college like mono or herpes. It is the voice of the academic literary guild, stripped of any theoretical sophistication, coming from the mouths of latter-day undergraduates who still hope for their professors’ approval.

Race, class, and gender (and their substitutes and equivalents, adopted by outsiders eager to get in on the game) have finally completed the tendency that Mencken observed so long ago. Their invocation no longer makes it hard to talk about a book’s intrinsic qualities. They have made it so that such talk, when it occasionally occurs, sounds like a dead language. Nobody understands what is being said, and assumes the worse. For any critical discussion that refuses to cloth itself in the vocabulary of race, class, and gender is nothing else—can be nothing else—than an expression of naked bias.

So much for literature.

19 comments:

A.J. said...

I, for one, care about intrinsic qualities of stories and books.

Larraine said...

Unfortunately you are correct. I blame, in part, the educational system which has systematically"dumbed down" education in this country. We seem to be afraid to challenge young people with difficult written concepts.

Lane Eliezer said...

Come on, D.G. My general impression of this post is that you're an old man complaining about what the young whippersnappers are doing to your gilded throne of literature; or like Harold Bloom telling kids to "get off my lawn!" Who gave you the right to define what literature means to different people? It's really as simple as that.

And what in the heck's wrong with discussing a work's extrinsic qualities? We are obliged to examine why certain works have held value over time, their canonicity, and why the majority of them are written by Dead White Guys.

Clearly post-colonialism hasn't affected you as much as other people, so why judge them for it? I feel like you're dismissing minority viewpoints, and it's really offensive.

Literature isn't dead; your washed up angle is, though. You could at least be forward about what it is you're actually lamenting, and how your way isn't the only way anymore.

D.N. Stuefloten said...

Books in general, and literature in articular, have little relevance today in our society. Movies are more important, television, internet videos and social networks--all of which require less thought, at least for the viewer. Those of us who write and read are Neaderthals, doomed to extinction....

D. G. Myers said...

Who gave you the right to define what literature means to different people?

I love protestations like this, as if all modes of human experience (this one excepted, of course, which seeks truth and light) are bids for power and domination.

Definitions are not a matter of right, but of logic. (Yet another quarter of the intellectual life that is in decline, because—you know—it was invented by Dead White Guys.)

We are obliged to examine why certain works have held value over time, their canonicity, and why the majority of them are written by Dead White Guys.

From what or where does this obligation arise? If you mean that “we” ([sic!] are obliged as a condition of academic advancement you are correct. There is no prima facie moral or intellectual obligation, though. Your assertion that there is merely proves my point about learned responses, intellectual commonplaces, and their academic origins.

Besides, canonicity is, as I argued some years ago, a bogey. It is the academic Leftist’s version of the Red Menace.

I feel like you're dismissing minority viewpoints, and it's really offensive.

“I feel like”—this is what now passes for intellectual argument. Don’t bother with quotation or analysis; simply level an accusation. You are wrong that I am “dismissing minority viewpoints,” but you are right that I am dismissing any viewpoint at all that belongs to a class or category and not to an individual mind. Group membership does not determine thought, except among non-thinkers.

You could at least be forward about . . . how your way isn't the only way anymore.

Nowhere have I said or even suggested that my “way” is “the only way.” (Another common criticism among those who can’t understand exactly that strong argument is not a will to power, but an invitation to counter-argument.)

But I would ask you this, Lane. What will become of intellectual honesty if you can never criticize (or even remain silent about) books by the members of certain groups without being accused of giving offense?

A.J. said...

"Who gave you the right to define what literature means to different people?"

Interesting point, Lane. But you probably sneer at my preference for, say, Dan Brown as literature, don't you? So what gives you the right to question Dead White Guys?

mel u said...

As I read your post I was trying to visualize Samuel Johnson working on his Lives of the Poets-he thinks to himself "Well I need so many women, so many POC, so many gays, so many writers under 25, so many of each major religion" or my work will be attacked by the media or people will point out the fact that I am older than they are-it does seem like is easier to talk about the extrinsic qualities of a literary work than its qualities as a work of art-surely it must be a more "teachable" approach to literature also-everyone has their own right to define what literature means to them but I agree with Larraine that the stressing of the background of a writer does seem to be part an parcel of the dumbing down process-

Fabio said...

Sir,

Your liver is eaten out daily and yet you whine about accusations of bias. Such frail words, such niceties. "Well," writes Lawrence, "Professor [put your name here], being a professor, has got to be nice to everybody about everybody. What else does a professor sit in a chair of English for, except to dole out sweets."

Hordes of barbarians, rampaging through the nation's English departments, are at this very moment force-feeding their already-bovine students with soma (another name for Frankfurtian filth). They will not stop until all superior life is annihilated, until all are whittled down to the Lawrentian ontological category of porcupine.

Leavis once said: "if one cannot read Shakespeare, one cannot think". He soon ignobly -- and uncharacteristically -- backed down and reformulated the felicitous phrase into pasteurized pastiche. He should instead have trebled the Chekhovian Bet: "if one cannot read Shakespeare, one cannot become human".

Your eyes are opened, Sir, but your senses shut, if all you can muster is this feeble counter-attack. The damned spot still sticks to you, to all of us, as we idly await the barbarians. And soon there shall be no mourning the death of literature, for we shall all have reached our wit's end.

D. G. Myers said...

“Feeble counter-attack,” eh? I am afraid you may be right.

PMH said...

This is an interesting conversation that would be good for the beginnng of a seminar in crit theory. Examine the warrants and you see why there is a debate: the warrants regarding literature, why its interesting, and how we talk about it are not shared, which is why the arguments always stall.

I would also add that this is an excellent place to bring up creative writing because in a creative writing class and workshop literary writing is pursued in ways closest to what Professor Myers describes. Happy New Year!

A.J. said...

Since everyone has the right to define literature, I define it to be that written by Dan Brown. Now, you all discriminate against me because you don't offer a seminar on Dan Brown in the English department. That you don't care what I think is only proof of the vile intellectual dishonesty that underlies your relativist argument. Under the pretense of caring about minority viewpoints you want to bring in a new politics, not a new reading of literature.

Lane Eliezer said...

"if one cannot read Shakespeare, one cannot become human".

Oh, thanks for telling me! I'm so relieved that a WASP from 16th/17th century England holds the key to my humanity, a Jew living in 21st century America.

And seeing as how Dan Brown is a computer program which writes the same story over and over...well, that certainly does bring up questions as to what defines literature.

I'm honestly not sure why I commented in the first place, or why DG's original post was written; it seems like people are just going to talk past each other. I do not understand, however, why you all get so offended for being told that YOUR background defines YOUR taste, and one's taste is indeed based on gender and race. Could it possibly be that (Gasp!) people like different things? And that there is no single absolute standard by which we can judge literature, because doing THAT is intellectually dishonest?

Lane Eliezer said...

Also, feel free to criticize me because I can't get into Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Pound, Roald Dahl and Conrad because they were raging racists.

Dan Green said...

I would be interested in Lane Eliezer' response to D.G.'s specific question, "From what or where does this obligation [to examine why certain works have held value over time] arise?" Such an examination might be fruitful for some books, especially bad ones that nevertheless seem to hang around, but sometimes good books retain their value because they're, well, good. Would you deny this possibility?

Does this "obligation" to interrogate "value" come from anything other than, as D.G. points out, the need to engage in a certain kind of academic discourse?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I do not understand, however, why you all get so offended for being told that YOUR background defines YOUR taste, and one's taste is indeed based on gender and race.

So, Lane, you equate "literature" with writings that satisfy your "taste"? That's very interesting. I don't, and I know that a number of others (including our calm and well-mannered host D.G. Myers) don't either. Good writing needn't satisfy one's taste, as though reading were a beauty pageant of sorts. There's something not a little selfish about determining literature as only that which satisfies....

Lane Eliezer said...

Dan: "good" is an incredibly subjective value judgment, so I'm calling BS on anyone who proclaims a work somehow relevant to all peoples for all time. It seems the birth of the reader only comes at the expense of the death of authority.

And I'm not necessarily critiquing the process of analysis; however, if it results in a high percentage of writers of a single race and gender, then yes, I would question someone's methodology. If you can't see how over time we've come to venerate DWGs because, for one, pedagogy is essentially racist (contrary to DG's conservative opinion), well...I recommend you read more feminist theory, or even Stanley Fish and his thoughts on interpretive communities.

Kevin, you're reading me too literally. I meant taste as equal to what determines DG's or anyone's list of works. Certainly taste and enjoyment has something to do with that. I did not posit a definition for what literature is--don't know where you got that.

D. G. Myers said...

Lane,

These claims have been refuted so many times that one suspects your entire way of thinking about literature is a balled-up ignoratio elenchi.

First of all, I have never claimed that good writing is good “to all peoples for all time.” (See here, for example.) Trying to put straw men on your antagonist’s side is not particularly persuasive. All you end up doing is making your own counter-argument look weak.

True, the race-class-gender advocacy crowd tends to advance the same straw-man argument, but your repetition of it merely demonstrates that you aren’t familiar with the other sides to the dispute. Ignoratio elenchi again, I’m afraid—literally so, I mean.

Now to the second point. Since you are quick to claim (without evidence or argument) that “pedagogy is essentially racist,” I would suggest that you turn the claim around on yourself. You say that “someone’s methodology” is questionable (without saying who) “if it results in a high percentage of writers of a single race and gender. . . .” I should like to suggest that your use of the phrase single race is broken-backed.

As I have said elsewhere, talking about race only leads to incoherence. But among literary critics, it leads to something even worse. Namely: the erasure of more substantive and significant difference.

When I myself am called white, for example, the tradition that shapes and informs everything I write—the tradition of Orthodox Judaism—is obliterated. And not only me. To say that Mark Twain and Boris Pasternak have very much in common because both are “dead white guys,” or even Twain and his contemporary Edward Payson Roe, for that matter, is to do something not far different from what genuine racists do. It is to treat vastly different men as if they were essentially the same.

Last point. You never answered my question, as Dan Green asked. You never identified the source of the “obligation” to interrogate the deadness, whiteness, and guyness of great literature. Could it be that “obligation” (a conservative word, after all) is merely an attempt to appeal to prejudice?

Dan Green said...

Lane,

I've read just about everything Stanley Fish has written, and I don't recall him claiming that "pedagogy is essentially racist." I've also probably read the same feminist theory you have, and I don't recall race being the burden of its analysis. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding your statement. Do you mean a certain kind of pedagogy is racist? How much of that sort of pedagogy is still around?

If someone were to apply as "methodology" the criteria D.G. identified in his post--intelligence, depth and breadth, and care with sentences--and found that only books by Caucasian males measured up, then I would say that the specific application of the criteria is misbegotten, probably overcome by prejudice. But this wouldn't invalidate the criteria themselves. Plenty of books by non-dead white men (as well as by dead women or non-Caucasians)could still pass the test. Do you think these criteria are invalid?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Lane, you wrote this: I do not understand, however, why you all get so offended for being told that YOUR background defines YOUR taste, and one's taste is indeed based on gender and race. Could it possibly be that (Gasp!) people like different things? And that there is no single absolute standard by which we can judge literature, because doing THAT is intellectually dishonest?

Clarity of expression is part of good writing. If you don't intend what you write, how is anyone else to know what you're saying? What you write above is extraordinary: that literary taste is biologically determined by the two factors of race and gender! I'm sure there's a Nobel Prize in such a finding....