Roger Sale

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968

"The End of Intelligent Writing" isn't about that, and isn't itself as intelligently written as it could and should have been. Many will say the title should have been "Richard Kostelenetz, His Enemies and Friends," and while they would be wrong, Kostelanetz has let himself in for it. He spends the first half of the book on his enemies—he takes Jason Epstein and The New York Review of Books to be the centers of power in literary-political America, and he works from there, identifying establishments here and in-groups there. He offers his list of those who count, one that is accurate enough, one supposes, but boringly rude, and not as much news as Kostelanetz himself thinks. The second half is about his friends, the young writers who have been excluded, and he offers a list of these too, to which he attaches this caveat: "Any 'critic of contemporary writing' who cannot identify works by fifteen per cent of these should, perforce, retire into the Academy to lecture on people and periods already past."

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Conveniently, my name is not on the first list, and, while I spotted more than a quarter of the young writers in two of Kostelanetz's categories, my total number of recognitions qualifies me only for the job I already have, lecturer on people and periods already past. Inconveniently, almost anything I can say about this book will be taken simply as symptomatic of my illness. Late in the proceedings we are told: "The time for cordial chatter is past. If you're not contributing to the solution, you must be part of the problem." Yes, oh dear me yes, I must be, but I'm thankful, too, that I don't think that way. (p. 12)

Kostelanetz's recital of the sins of his powerful elders, which is probably what this book will become noted for, just isn't news. His own epigraphs show similar conditions operating in earlier days. As people get older, in my experience, they grow more capable of personal sympathy and generosity, but they become less willing to grub about in unlikely places for whatever is brand new and less responsive to the programs of the young. It may be that past a certain age the process is reversed; I don't know. But these truths are close enough to being universal. Thus someone like Kostelanetz, who is interested in supporting what he takes to be radically new writing, should not be surprised when those within some establishment are less eager than he to become radicals.

The second half of "The End of Intelligent Writing" is much less feisty, and I found it much better. It is a rough road map of young writers, especially those Kostelanetz admires, and I'm glad he wrote it. He likes the poetry of Clark Coolidge, who seeks to have a reader's "mind turned back towards the unitary experience of words as structure,"—a clause both Kostelanetz and I can rejoice in, but one that I find incomprehensible. Twice he refers to Eugene Wildman's 1969 collection, "Experiments in Prose," as "path-breaking," though for me it opened a path not taken. He likes visual poetry, and gives examples I find mostly inconsequential. But Kostelanetz does not stop here. He recognizes that not all work of the kind he admires is equally good and offers tips as to the best. Since I more than once have found myself rejecting something because it was new, only later to find that familiarity bred appreciation, I'm glad to have his recommendations. He also is interested in all young writers, however "conventional" or "esthetically conservative," to use his most contemptuous phrases, and he writes with intelligent care about those whose persuasions are different from his own. There is, in other words, a mine of information in the second half of this book, and once one gets clear those whom Kostelanetz will speak of with highest praise, and why, one can learn a lot from it.

But "esthetically conservative" is a term Kostelanetz would eschew if he did not need it so much. It makes politics out of art, judgments based on kinds rather than individual cases. Worse, it hides a truth at least as deep as those Kostelanetz knows—that, among the hundreds of "esthetically conservative" works published every year, there are some, perhaps many, that never receive the attention they deserve. There are many reasons for this, but it is sad nonetheless, and one must therefore constantly be speaking up for those books one admires. I am entirely with Kostelanetz in believing that Philip Roth and John Updike and Norman Mailer are not now writing the best novels being written by Americans. I also know that in many American universities certain books, like Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," James Dickey's "Deliverance," are constantly assigned on the ground that the kids like such books, and that is a practice, and a choice of books, which gains no support from the New York establishment, or Kostelanetz, or me.

In the last six months I've read new novels, by Frederick Buechner, Thomas Savage, James Welch, and Maureen Howard, all of which are "conventional," and better than those mentioned above and those of Kostelanetz's list of "masterpieces" that I've seen. All will gain some praise and fame, none enough, either in the classroom or among Kostelanetz's young. I wish it were otherwise, but none of us made the world, especially a world as hugely and as often mindlessly productive as ours. All the more reason to be intelligent and careful and sensible, in ways Richard Kostelanetz has not yet been. (p. 16)

Roger Sale, in a review of "The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 29, 1974, pp. 12, 16.

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