Richard (Cory) Kostelanetz Thomas Powers - Essay

Thomas Powers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After a solid week of reading Richard Kostelanetz's long book about literary politicking [The End of Intelligent Writing], I got a bright idea of how to proceed with this review: I would start by describing "the New York literary mob," the familiar oracles of Commentary and The New York Review of Books. I would list (per Kostelanetz) their alleged abuses of literary power—log-rolling, back-scratching, puffing, touting, "white-collar mugging." Then I would consider whether there really are interlocking literary establishments that control writers' grants, fellowships, academic appointments, concluding that the answer had to be yes and no—"yes," there are constellations of writers and critics with similar attitudes and interests who write for and about each other, but "no," this likemindedness is neither corrupt nor conspiratorial.

But in any case, I would ask, what is really at stake? Which writers does Kostelanetz think have been frozen out of the literary marketplace?

And then I would quote something like the following passage from Toby MacLennan's "I Walked out of 2 and Forgot it," which Kostelanetz cites for its originality:

He was bombarded by various memories. An A and an Of, the toe of a shoe, a half of an apple. That night as he sat down for dinner, a stone dropped out of his ear.

Or, perhaps, the following passage from Armand Schwerner's poem, "The Tablets," which Kostelanetz admires for its musical qulities:

min-na-ne-ne Dingir En-lil-ra
mun-na-nob-gi-gi
uzu-mu-a-ki dur-an-ki-ge
Dingir nagar Dingir nagar
im-man-tag-en-zen
mu-mud-e-ne nam-lu-galu
mu-mu-e-ed

And then I would express amazed disbelief: This is the new literature Kostelanetz is worried about? This is what the New York literary mob is suppressing? This is what "our children will study with respect"?

The trouble with this approach, so appealing for low reasons, is that it unfairly ignores Kostelanetz's fine passion for writing, the strength of his case for the existence of a cultural conservatism very like (if in the end not) a conspiracy and the problem of what to make of the work of Toby MacLennan and Armand Schwerner. His defense of their experimentalism is really the heart of his book; it's what makes the first 300 pages of sociopolitico-literary polemic worth paying attention to. What Kostelanetz likes and defends is elusive to say the least, but it ought not to be dismissed out of hand.

In one of his many illuminating asides, he points out the way established critics make fun of experimental writers as if they, the critics, were the neglected, mistreated minority, when of course it is quite the other way around. (p. 97)

Still, I can't help feeling grateful that Commentary and The New York Review are at the gates, defending future generations of college freshmen from one-hour essay questions on stone symbolism in "I Walked out of 2." Kostelanetz cites 836 poets, playwrights, essayists, and "fictioners," all born since 1937, whom he considers to be the embryonic giants of the age. This makes me feel, as it does the New York literary mob, that the dams are about to burst, that literature of the heart and mind is about to be drowned by a formalist, experimental, manufactured literature of the head. So Kostelanetz is right, and something of importance is at stake.

The New York literary mob's conspiracy to keep "the young and the new" unknown and neglected is described by Kostelanetz as being of the informal sort in which no one has to mention the rules to guarantee that no one breaks them. The mob members, despite the occasional family squabble, share a common ground in their interests and intellectual style. They are passionate about politics and are well-grounded in Marx and Freud. They hold important professorial posts in and around New York; frequently publish their books with Random House, Pantheon,...

(The entire section is 1737 words.)