‘Railing at Greatness’: Why Critics, Educators, and Readers Have Been So Touchy Lately
A “classic,” as Mark Twain famously remarked, “is a book that everybody praises but nobody reads.” Over the past couple of decades, his observation is no longer true: not only has there been less reading, alas, but even less praise – at least for those artists and works who most deserve it. To make matters even more distressing, critics and their devotees haven't merely stopped reading and praising the classics: where they haven't successfully banned them altogether, they want to change them, update them, “dumb them down,” – doing everything necessary to make them palatable for 21st century readers, except letting them be what they are.
Very recently there has been a mini-controversy involving an well-meaning English professor whose good intentions led him down the consequently hellish path of exorcizing a word from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and substituting with another word, apparently one less-offensive, albeit less acutely descriptive and with fewer nuances, thus undermining the author’s use of the original word. Here on the LitNet blogs a lively discussionhas sprung up concerning alleged racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a charge first raised in a 1977, subsequently revised as an essay ten years later and since updated by the esteemed Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. (It might come as a surprise to many of us that both issues have already been covered–perhaps even settled -- fourteen years ago this month, more of which be explained in the second and third parts of this essay.)
In the past two or three decades we have seen highly respected professionals accepting or rejecting a work according to how much or how little it reflects the social and political temper of the time--not so much the time in which it was first created, but in the time in which it is interpreted. This subjective--rather than objective-- type of assessment is a relatively new development in the world of literary criticism. For much of the twentieth century, literary thought was dominated by the New Critics (such as Brooks, Leavis, Tate, and Robert Penn Warren et al) who urged close structural analysis of the individual work without very much emphasis on whatever outside forces may have influenced its construction. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T. S. Eliot, who is often included among the ranks of this literary movement, maintained that the quality of a specific work must also be assessed against the whole canon of literary works which preceded it. Most importantly, Eliot argued for minimizing an poet's personal background, in order to shift the focus away from the author toward the poem itself. (That is an crucially important point which will return in a later part of this essay.)
In 1957, the Canadian scholar, Northrop Frye, published The Anatomy of Criticism, which many consider the greatest volume of literary criticism of the twentieth century. Frye helped send criticism down a bold new path in that he viewed the role of the critic not as an ancillary sidekick or adversary to creative works but as a creative endeavor requiring just as much of the imagination as producing the work of art itself. Still, the methods which Frye recommended seemed closer to science than to art. He called the process "inductive" -- looking at the work itself and then systematically analyzing it according to certain sets of criteria, including and especially mythological "archetypes." Despite the fact that primary focus began with the original work, by admitting an external framework into the mix, Northrop Frye unwittingly became a bridge between the New Critics and the more recent crop of literary critics: which more and more seem to resemble a precinct full of book cops as well as cultural watchdogs, ideological spokespersons, and word warriors in the cause of social justice.
The popular trend on university campuses of Derrida-style “deconstruction” notwithstanding, today's literary critics seem less interested in taking a difficult, comprehensive approach. Our fast-paced civilization has lost its appetite for the painstakingly-written, in-depth review, marginalized with the label “think piece.” The in-depth analysis has been evicted by the capsule review, a more superficial one designed to cater to “the consumer,” providing him with the option of accepting or dismissing a work in a matter of seconds with two-sentence book reviews or downsized movie blurbs. For all the sophisticated complexity of our technological gadgets, it is a misnomer to call ours “The Information Age,” when the basic morpheme is called a “bite.”
Somewhere along the line we stopped trying to discover what literature is; instead we somehow feel compelled to ask what literature is for: for self-improvement, for contribution to our culture, for airing grievances, and for righting wrongs, as if fiction and poetry were super heroes, dressed in colorful tights and capes-- though, in a way,
some of them do wear a kind of "mask."
One reason for this is that although literature once was autonomous, aloof, and isolated from the assault of transient trends and cultural vagaries, it has since been yanked down from its loft and forced to work for a living. Rather than considering art and literature for their own respective sakes, educators on every tier of the system, from elementary through post-secondary schools, have conscripted them as possible “educational tools,” and thus are fully prepared to reject them for failure to embody prescribed criteria. If a specific work of literature makes the grade, it may be subjected to specious interpretations in order to make it “relevant” or “interesting” to an audience held captive by ennui. A blatant example of this tendency was described in John Kilgore's essay deploring the way poetry is introduced to high school students, such as reading Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” as an exhortation to avoid peer pressure.
Elementary and secondary curricula are developed by experts who assiduously monitor texts for material that may be inappropriate; they are specifically on the lookout for ethnic and religious bias either in the work as a whole or isolated passage. Given the youth of the students, the process is, at least in theory, the correct one on the elementary and high school level. There is, however, a danger that quality material commandeered for the benefit of students may be rejected for questionable reasons, for example a word with multiple meanings, one of which may be offensive. This is the reason The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appears on so many lists of “banned books” despite the fact that no non-minority author in American literature ever made a stronger attack on slavery and racism. The well-intentioned monitoring of offensive material continues on the college and university level, where it is both refined and intensified. One of Philip Roth's novels sends up the zeal of the self-appointed protectors of oppressed groups. In The Human Stain some undergraduates, with their antennae up and their sensitivity meters ramped up to eleven, misinterpret a highly-respected professor’s off-hand remark in the classroom as a racial slur. Rather than defend a distinguished member of their faculty, administrative officials cower under the students’ charges, and Coleman Silk’s life is forever changed. The integral irony is that Silk himself straddles the racial divide in American society, and through this dilemma Roth examines cultural issues of race, class, education, and ultimately, on the broader scale, the human condition.
Additionally, this habit of seeking and inevitably finding offensive aspects in the classics may have another cause: factions of both academia and the literati seem beset with a condition of partial amnesia in which current readers and critics use present-day cultural, social, and political standards, historically hard-won by heroic sacrifice, to judge works created in an earlier, admittedly less socially conscious age. Unquestionably, denouncing bigotry in all of its forms is certainly the correct moral stance to maintain; still, insisting that artists who once inhabited a bygone era and a world which had not yet evolved into a position akin to modern enlightenment should be likewise righteous is not only preposterous but patently unfair.
There is yet another reason for making literature fit into a Procrustes bed (which in modern times would be undoubtedly be a therapeutically designed futon) is the contemporary tendency toward literalism, straight-forward candor earnestly delivered with a straight face. Tangentially, readers occasionally succumb to an unconscious tendency to equate the opinions and behavior of characters with that of their author, with the intractable assumption that everything he produces is “autobiographical,” or the notion that the “I”of the poem or its speaker is always the poet himself.
Despite the resurgence of what is called “satire” (but is more likely parody) in popular entertainment, and a general wave of healthy skepticism toward both governments and corporations, in many ways the children of the millennium are allergic to irony. One has only to recall their parents’ generation, in which television viewers were savvy enough to recognize the particular ax a situation comedy like All in the Family was attempting to grind. This wasn't the 1950s and early sixties typical sitcom in which the main comic foil -–usually the bumbling father-figure in the family --evoked empathetic laughter at his foibles, with the confusion predictably cleared up before the last commercial break. In Norman Lear’s “ground-breaking” series, however, the central character was meant to be laughed at, not “with.” Racism, sexism, homophobia and especially invincible ignorance were the direct targets of ridicule, through the loud blustering of a character who personified bigotry and wrong-headedness, the deflation and destruction of which was written right into his name, Archie Bunker.
In the four decades since that show’s premiere, we've had the rise of cable television accompanied by looser standards of programming regarding uncensored expression of language and themes. It could be argued that but for all of the apparent sophistication of these times, one can only imagine the impassioned outrage a network show such as All in the Family might evoke today. Somehow readers and audiences do not have the ability – or at least the inclination–to dig more deeply than what appears on the surface. The current collective unconscious somehow has lost that particular type of critical thinking, and in the process seems to have developed a wafer-thin skin.
Ostensibly, the barriers of “censorship” seem to have crumbled, yet there is an apparent paradox in the fact that clouds of a form of prior restraint are rolling into the creative atmosphere. Some writers and artists have of late may be thinking that they are pushed into a position of near skittishness, in that they must –to use a phrase by a former White House Press Secretary– “watch what they say,” else they inadvertently enrage certain factions of their audience who will take a passage or a phrase out of context and proclaim it as an affront to civilization.
Part of this hypersensitivity can be attributed to the to the subjective character of our self-absorbed era, a predilection for solipsism stemming from an artificially inflated sense of self-esteem. Despite --or more likely because of -- its appearing on so many local lists of “banned books,” The Catcher in the Rye has attracted legions of devoted young readers from its initial publication in 1949 through the present day. That its author provides such a resonant voice for its adolescent protagonist/narrator attests to Salinger’s skill, but at the same time opens up a window in which his audience, flattered if not thrilled to the core, recognizes itself in Holden. The window, perhaps, is open a bit too wide, for such strong reader identification brings the unfortunate side effect of diminishing the art of this novel. While teen readers cheer at Holden’s railings against “phoniness” and worship his insistence on seemingly noble integrity, they take every single word out of Holden’s mouth as gospel and thus tend to miss some of Salinger’s comic observations and sly satire, i.e. “I don't know what I mean but I mean it.” Young readers may not have as yet reached the level of sophistication to recognize that the authenticity which they admire so much has been craftily calculated to appear genuine. It never crosses their minds that other narrators might be unreliable or that modern authors–including Salinger!– did not and do not live in an unambiguous, literal universe.
Another byproduct of such intense reader identification is that young people expect the same instant recognition and flattery everywhere else. They want the similar experience no matter what they read; no matter the character, these readers want to “feel” the same way Holden Caulfield does as when cares about the ducks in Central Park. Taking everything personally could be part of the answer as to why so many contemporary readers are quick to bristle and find offense even where it doesn't necessarily exist. Adolescents and hypersensitive adult readers as well–might benefit of a reminder that -- even though the themes of all good books concerns themselves with the human condition, with all of the virtues and flaws we hold in common as well as the onslaught of slings and arrows that accompany the whole of mankind--not everything you read is about you.
The experience of literature is not limited to validation and praise; more likely it tends to challenge and chastise. This is not to say that reading literature of high-quality is not enjoyable, yet reading, as Mortimer Adler so eloquently told us, is not a passive activity. It’s hard work, but like everything of any value in life, “you get what you pay for” in terms of time and effort.
This might be the reason young readers shun vigorous modern American authors such as Bellow or Roth. Their narrators are nothing like Holden: instead of aspiring to “save” the innocent, to catch children from falling over the cliff of worldly knowledge (and thus maturity), the anti-heroes in the novels of Bellow and company are non-apologetically cynical, unsentimental thinkers. Characters such as Charlie Citrine and his mentor Humboldt (whose model was the real poet, Delmore Schwartz), as well as the academic administrator Albert Corde are not conventional saints but insatiable scholars of both book-learning and human nature. Their observations and musings are embedded with multiple layers of meaning descending more deeply than an off-shore oil rig. Every bit as introspective as Holden, but less romantically so, they are primarily men of thought rather than exclusively men of feeling. Their sense of moral outrage is as intense as that of Salinger’s noble youth, but with the mature recognition of life as it really is rather than what a less-seasoned, would-be hero such as Holden Caulfield would prefer it to be. If the reader is looking for a straight answer, a comprehensive explanation of life in terms of black and white, he'll seldom if ever find it in contemporary literature --or in all of modern art, for that matter,–because human existence seems to be at the mercy of relentless chance, a fundamental absurdity for which the only response-- if there can be any–-is ambiguity. The world observed through filters devoid of rose-tinted lenses cannot be completely explained in simple declarative sentences, and seldom offers a scenic view that is conventional, straightforward, or socially acceptable. This world is not “nice,” and neither are its artists.
What these contemporary protagonists and their creators are, most of all, is articulate, indeed exquisitely so, almost to the point of intimidation. So-called “serious” literature --or, as it is pigeon-holed into its artificially-imposed genre, the redundant term “literary novel” -may have, among its loftier goals, an attempt to stretch language to its outer limits and/or reduce it to its irreducible core. Whereas this kind of work is a novel in its conventional sense of its being “about” plot, character, setting, and theme, it is “about” itself as well, with as much, if not more, emphasis placed on the “how” as on the “what.” Thus, the contemporary or “post-modern” novel often features references, allusions, even parodies of –to use the favorite word of insurance corporations --“pre-existing” material, transformed into “black humor,” “gallows humor,” “tragicomedy,” “dramedy,” but always offering “jokes”–highly sophisticated bits that go over some readers’ heads, like an stand-up comic whose dry material is “too hip for the room.” That the reader is unfamiliar with the references or is unable to “get” the joke does not mean the work is flawed; an artist can never be held responsible for the gaps in a reader’s education.
Added to this challenging mix, as complex as a multi-step recipe full of obscure gourmet ingredients, is the possibility that the narrator and/or his author may be unreliable, either or both may be deliberately lying, intentionally throwing the unsuspecting reader off the scent, with an artistic approach which Stravinsky praised as being “sincerely insincere.” Again, many contemporary readers, especially the Americans, may lack the irony gene.
It is not easy to read and understand ultimately literature that pushes us out of the safe comfort of the “quick read,” a book that flatters us by catering to our tastes and is as easily “digestible” as an bowl of false alarm chili. When literature demands time-consuming mental effort and reflection, it may evoke a sense of frustration in readers accustomed to less demanding fare. When readers mistake challenges as confrontational condescension, they shift the source of irritation away from themselves to that of the author. This is the theory examined by the critic Vince Passaro who published “A Flapping of Scolds,” a literary review published in Harper’s Magazine way back in January 1997. We'll take a look at Passaro’s views on how such reader resentment takes shape in the second part of this essay which follows below.
Please stay tuned for Part II, which continues below in reply #2----