Thursday, August 20, 2009

On literary institutions

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:

     I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases.
     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.
In literature, respect might mean a thorough knowledge of the tradition, a mania for exact phrasing (that is, an impatience with verbal approximation), a willingness to serve a larger purpose than making a name for oneself, and a decent abstention from exhibitionism (or what Philip Roth calls “reality taking a backseat to personality” or “look at me, I’m writing”).

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.


Anonymous said...

Hello there! In hand with your post today, here is a pretty neat article that I dug up today:


D. G. Myers said...

Here is a better link to the article mentioned above.

R/T said...

As for readings, include me among those who prefer reading to be what has been called the "solitary praxis" (Harold Bloom, if I recall, gets credit for the term). Let me cite the example of a certain university's English department (which shall remain nameless so as to avoid hurting anyone's feelings and to avoid my loss of employment); guest author reading programs and creative writers' reading programs always make me feel as though I am a participant in an absurdist theatrical event where everyone is actually quite uncomfortable in their enforced roles as willing and enthusiastic participants. As for me, after several years of that kind of angst, I've simply chosen to stay at home where I can engage in my "solitary praxis."

Anonymous said...

i'd agree with RT. Writing, and reading, are solitary. It is the naked confrontation - between the writer at his most concentrated & poised - and the reader, the reader most likely also in a state of unusual attentiveness.

If you have the writer physically present, with his ego & his less focussed, less poised humanity - i don't see that as being good for either writer or reader. It would encourage dissipation and contamination.

The only examples i know, of successful & non-solitary reading, are erotic - in my own life, and also consider the seduction of Paolo & Francesca, in Canto V of Dante. The erotic element suggests that the true energies of reading and writing are solitary - the erotic energy arises from the breaching of solitude, which can of course only be highly selective.

Neil Verma said...

"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."

Agreed. I might add that writers make the mistake of thinking that reading aloud is self-expression, but it's not, particularly not in a formal setting. Reading aloud is an act of interpretation, one that asks a speaker to respect a listener by figuring out how to do justice to an absent writer. It is impossible to interpret oneself just as it is ridiculous to try to do justice to oneself.

Isn't it interesting that several writers who moan and grunt their way through their own writing actually read the work of others with surprising talent? It is embarrassing to listen to a writer love their own words in public, but it is nourishing to hear them love the words of others.

That is, I hope, one circumstance in which the focus on "saying something" remains.