Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The American Novel...

Been looking at a review (by Joseph Epstein) of a new book on American fiction. The Cambridge History of the American Novel.   I found myself agreeing with many of the points the reviewer makes early on. Such as:

These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it, at least not quite. A novelist, we are told, "tasks himself" with this or that; things tend to get "problematized"; the adjectives "global" and "post"-this-or-that receive a good workout; "alterity" and "intertexuality" pop up their homely heads; the "poetics of ineffability" come into play; and "agency" is used in ways one hadn't hitherto noticed, so that "readers in groups demonstrate agency." About the term "non-heteronormativity" let us not speak.
For a start, global, may be the most currently overused word in the English language. (With perhaps Going Forward, being the most overused phrase.) However the further I read the more the reviewer sounded like a literary reactionary. Consider:

The Cambridge History of the American Novel" could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.


Multiculturalism, which assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures, irrespective of the quality of those works, finished off the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction whose linchpin was seriousness.

There is an equivalence of value in the works of all cultures, as cultural artifacts, as statements that such cultures do or did exist. That in itself is not a statement about quality but about identity and longevity and continuity. Quality is a separate and subjective issue. It's difficult not to pick up on a dog whistle about cultural primacy in such a statement.

But for all that, my favourite quote is:

(...) ... the deleterious effect that creative-writing programs have had on the writing of fiction.

Oh brother. Somehow I knew that was coming.

Any book on literature surely has a right to exist within its own framework, its own scope and opinions. Even if those opinions are ideologically driven. A smart reader is free to see the agenda behind the work and the opinions expressed as just that - opinions. I'll check out this history when it heads this way, with an open mind. If it is full of lit/crit jargon and ever decreasing circles then, well ... then it is, and the reader is free to put it down without injury. 

I don't believe readers need to be protected from the barbarians at the gate, and anyway, who gets to define the barbarians as barbarians?  

Here's a link to the full review.

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