Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1118
What a sour book [The End of Intelligent Writing] is—no allowance made for its "heroic" attack on entrenched elites, or its wide-eyed support of the new and the young, or its implacable earnestness will alter this central fact, and the reader will leave it frazzled and stale…. Granted that paranoia and apocalypse currently serve to authenticate artistic believeability, Kostelanetz' network of sinister, aging moguls … are hard to recognize in their desperate power game, hell bent on conspiratorily censoring Jonathan Cott, Madeline Gins, and Clark Coolidge, thereby assuring that "serious new and young writers are publicly dead." There are, to be sure, more villains in the cast than this, and more putative heroes as well, but the outlines of the struggle are cast in such melodramatic cliches that many will find it hard to take the argument seriously. Some of the book—the chapter on the fortunes of once-quality publishers, their conglomerate godfathers, and the decline in serious fiction, for example—make tough sense and important journalism, but the bulk of its polemic sinks into whining puerility and banal repetition. (p. 107)
[The book's] fundamental errors are several, but chief among them are three: [Kostelanetz'] misunderstanding of audience, his lack of a broad historical sense, and his economic naivete. First, if Kostelanetz taught for a year in a typical American college and saw a cross-section of students struggling to comprehend even the New York Times, his sanguine appraisal of this nation's literacy might well be challenged. (I assume it is safe to say the literacy of the entire population falls somewhat below that of college students.) Most publishers, despite their boundless cynicism, are right in supposing that the audience for quality literature is small and virtually confined to practitioners and near-practitioners of the arts themselves. If the typical college graduate resists buying Gravity's Rainbow in favor of Airport, how can we suppose he or she will soon appreciate Clark Coolidge's concrete poems if only the New York Times would review them? Literature simply doesn't stand out as a "growth industry," especially in the more refined forms of concrete poems, though kitsch best sellers keep the bubble afloat. Literary texts of any degree of complexity daunt the vast majority of people in this country; the reasons for this are many and depressingly deep-rooted, and it won't do to pretend the situation is other than it is or easily altered.
Secondly, Kostelanetz' book is itself an example of the appalling tunnel-vision of the American literary scene. Any brief examination of the current state of affairs in other countries, or the history of bookselling in, say, seventeenth or eighteenth century London will show the conditions he describes are hardly endemic to America or solely the result of a network of New York literary "mobsters." No cultural establishment has ever been willing to spend but a minimal fraction of its resources on ensuring the promotion of new talent…. Publishing is not, and never has been, a democratic enterprise (one is reduced to truisms in responding to an argument as wrong-headed as Kostelanetz'), and only in America could someone feel outraged at the supposed injustice and patent inequality that results when people seek to make a profit or advance their views over others, as if equality were something you should be able to buy in the supermarket. No state, not even America, actively supports a pluralistic society; they merely tolerate it.
Which brings us to the third of Kostelanetz' weaknesses: his sense that somehow "alternative" publishing could be made profitable and hence conducive to intelligent writing…. Publishing in America mimics the structure and mores of advanced capitalism…. Kostelanetz, though sporadically aware of much of this, dreamily persists in seeing it primarily as the result of "bad will," as if editors and agents could escape the debilitating tentacles of the profit system but choose not to, just to taunt the young, talented writer. He envisions a "stronger, more populist distributional network," with writers publishing their own work and that of their friends, buying from each other and returning all profits to new enterprises and promising talent…. In other words, Kostelanetz wants the already existing alternative forms of little magazines, small presses, and "underground" and specialty bookstores to seize control of the larger system. I have often heard myself described as a fuzzy-headed utopian socialist, but even I blushed to read these final chapters. (pp. 110-12)
Kostelanetz' view of literature is essentially one of liberal, reformist capitalism. This view insists new markets can "rejuvenate" a dying system; distribution and packaging are key elements, it claims, not epiphenomena, and their renewal can alter the course of development. At one point, Kostelanetz glibly dismisses Herbert Marcuse as a second-class thinker, but he would do well to re-examine the notion of repressive tolerance, despite his passing rejection of it as "demonstrably untrue." For what we end with in Kostelanetz is the falsest of challenges to a system all too unignorably true. People of talent are stunted or exploited, while people of ambition inflate their own and the egos and reputations of others, and a confused "public" is badgered by a thousand spokesmen and faddists and practitioners of universal brotherhood all trying to shape taste and influence history. This unfortunately remains true in the "fields" of academic learning, pop music, pharmaceutical sales, high fashion designing, and women's liberation, as well, all fields that reflect in exaggerated and distorted ways the structure and mores of monopoly capitalism. And truly fundamental changes in each of these fields are possible only if the basic social relations are altered, and such alterations are seldom, if ever, merely the result of good faith and an idealistic vision. The faults are not simply in ourselves, or our stars, and certainly not in Jason Epstein alone or in concert with other self-serving "hatchet men." And the answer to literature's malaise won't be found in concrete poetry or a universally acclaimed avant-garde. (pp. 112-13)
Intelligent writing takes as many forms in America as does justice, and the forms are equally partial, ephemeral, doggedly fought for, and constantly threatened. The publicity surrounding this writing, however, resembles the American forms of freedom, since it is often more talk than performance, more a matter of confused and self-defeating wills than supportive actions. Intelligence, contrary to Kostelanetz' sense of "literary politics," finally isn't determined by manipulable procedures. Its fate, and that of the writing that fosters and embodies it, is both grimmer and grander than that, more solidly tied to the larger fortunes of the species, and more subject to the ubiquitous deceptions of ego than we dare admit. (p. 113)
Charles Molesworth, "Literary Politics in America," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1975 by Skidmore College, reprinted by permission of the publisher), No. 30, Summer, 1975, pp. 107-13.