Looking Backward

New Critical Essay Collections

Looking Backward

New Critical Essay Collections

Looking Backward
New books dissected over email.
May 3 1999 6:07 PM

New Critical Essay Collections

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Dear Sarah,

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Yes, I know, five books, and all of them of unimpeachable literary seriousness, good taste, and sound prose. I agree that they all have their usefulness and charm, that the authors in question are all talented, thoughtful people, and yet in the aggregate they annoyed the hell out of me. Will you indulge me for a moment as I try to figure out why?

Let me distinguish first between two very different approaches to essay writing, and to literature, that seem to be at work in these books. The essay, of course, is a loose and capacious genre, the very name of which connotes a provisional, tentative approach to the subject at hand--an attempt at something (essayer, the French word whence "essay" derives, means "to try"). In spite of its French origins (the form as we know it was pretty much invented by Montaigne), the essay has a proud history in English--Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, and, of course, the incomparable Emerson, Richard Poirier's hero and Joseph Epstein's bête noire. (I'd like to get back to Epstein's anti-Emersonianism at some point--he calls the sage of Concord, among other things, a "gasbag"--since I found myself quite provoked by it, being someone who reveres Emerson.) While it's an intrinsically democratic form, requiring no particular learning or credentials to practice, it's also, as things have worked out, the primary means of expression for a number of learned professions, including most humanistic academic disciplines. So, I guess I'd divide our authors into two groups: the amateurs (Lesser, Fadiman, and Epstein) and the professionals (Poirier and Wood).

Now, this is not a matter of what anyone does for a living: Epstein, like Poirier, has taught college for a long time. Epstein, Fadiman, Poirier, and Lesser are all editors of general-interest quasi-scholarly journals: Fadiman succeeded Epstein at the helm of The American Scholar; Poirier puts out Raritan; and Lesser runs The Threepenny Review. (Wood, who has, according to his Random House bio, been "a full-time literary critic since leaving Cambridge University, is a senior editor at The New Republic, but I don't know if that means he actually does any editing.) Poirier is the highest-powered academic, but he has done his share of book-reviewing over the years, and Trying It Out in America (like The Broken Estate) is a collection of book reviews dressed up with an overarching thesis sufficiently vague to make it look like a study of something. What distinguishes the professionals from the amateurs is their relationship to audience and subject matter.

The amateurs write about books because they love them (amateur, if you'll forgive another excursion into etymology, means "lover"), the professionals because it's their job. The amateurs give themselves away in their titles and subtitles: The Amateur (Lesser), "Familiar Essays" (Epstein), "Notes of a Common Reader" (Fadiman). What these titles say is: I'm an ordinary person, like you. And the writing is full of intimate detail about husbands and wives, friends and book collections, ailments and enthusiasms. The professionals, by contrast, are rigorously impersonal, and interested in making arguments rather than observations, in instructing rather than communing with their readers. They say to their readers, implicitly: Pay close attention. There will be a test, and if you disagree, you'd better have the footnotes to back it up.

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Now, here's an interesting paradox: The amateurs all seem, according to their different temperaments, to be big snobs. They're not like you and me at all--they're better: better read, more sensitive, more discerning. Amateurism, it seems, is the love that just can't shut up about itself, and is, at bottom, a form of self-love. Epstein, at least, is up front about this. Narcissus indeed! But the effect of reading Fadiman and Lesser back to back was rather like watching a PBS fund-raising drive from beginning to end. The interesting stuff is truncated, and sandwiched between talking-head appearances by the kind of people who say "pwettry" for "poetry," and "PO-EMM" where you or I might say "PO-umm" or even just "POME." And all they can talk about is how much better their programming is than anything else, how threatened it is in our vulgar culture, how only viewers like you can keep it alive. And I find myself thanking God for the Fox network, and wishing Newt Gingrich had stuck around. Sorry, I'm ranting.

What I mean to say is that there's an unexamined and pernicious assumption afoot in Lesser, Fadiman, and Epstein's writing (and differently afoot, I stress, the differences being ones we should parse in days to come), namely that the love of books, and of certain types of books, is a sign of cultural, and therefore of moral, superiority. I think (and this is an argument that I learned from reading Richard Poirier, though it has receded a bit in the current book) that this kind of preciosity actually trivializes books, and cuts them off from the interesting, chaotic stream of cultural life. The love of books can rob them of their vitality by assuming their value rather than testing it.

Professional literary criticism, whether the kind practiced so well by James Wood in the New Republic (and I share your high regard for his vigor, his rigor, and his wit) or by the classicists and English professors Richard Poirier publishes in Raritan, devotes itself (or at least should) precisely to such testing. It is skeptical where amateurism is pious, astringent where amateurism is moist. But I have to say, on the evidence of these two books, that the professionals are tired and saggy where the amateurs at least manage a bit of spunk and impertinence here and there. (Epstein, bless him, actually made me laugh out loud a few times, which none of the others, or for that matter Emerson, ever did.) Wood, for crying out loud, is not even 35. Literature and belief! This kind of stuff was boring everyone to death in the '50s, when the great William Empson used to go on about the baleful hegemony of "neo-Christian criticism." And as for Poirier, he has published this same good book, with these same elegant, reasonable arguments, at least half a dozen times since the 1960s. (The best version remains The Performing Self, one of the intellectual monuments of that decade).

I think you put your finger on it: All of these writers seem to think literature belongs to the past, and that the best thing we can do is appreciate its glories, and allow them to reflect their pale golden radiance on us. The really great books are the old books, and we cultivate what's best in ourselves by surrounding ourselves with them and with other people who appreciate them. These writers thus, and often against their own articulated inclinations (at least in the case of Lesser and Poirier), subscribe to a kind of cultural pessimism. The great scourge of such pessimism, and of the idolatrous valuation of the past, was of course Emerson. This may be why Epstein, the most floridly pessimistic of the lot (with, perhaps, the best reasons), hates him so much.

Sarah, our age is retrospective. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. But why should not we enjoy an original relation to the universe? These were my thoughts as I read these five books. Actually, they were Emerson's thoughts in 1836. But how about it, Sarah? Why shouldn't we enjoy an original relation to the universe?

Yours,
Tony

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A.O. Scott is Sunday book critic for Newsday and a regular contributor to Slate. Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate. This week they discuss a selection of new critical essay collections.