Thomas Powers

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1737

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.

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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, or Alfred Knopf; can be fiercely polemical when they see Western civilization in the balance, which is often; fight dirty; defend each other against "outsiders"; distribute such patronage as they have to their "own"; admire Saul Bellow, Robert Lowell, and Philip Roth; think modernism shot its bolt by the second world war, and are getting old.

From their positions of power as professors, editors, publishers, and writers they exert a broad if informal influence over the life of literature in America, inflating the reputations of their friends and freezing out strangers. The result, Kostelanetz says, is that the "channels of communication" between writers and readers are "clogged" and "corrupted." Old writers are overpraised and new writers ignored. Tired styles and stale controversies linger on after their time. Second-raters get promoted by their patrons and intellectual lassitude settles over literature as the giants of one age mistake their own inevitable decay for a general decline.

There is much truth in this. It is too hard for young writers to get published, and the fate of their work is too arbitrary. Reviewing is brutal and capricious. Good books get lost and bad books get more notice than they deserve. Big names get too much attention and newcomers too little. The protégés of established writers, and especially of established writers who are members of established groups, coteries, and movements, get preferential treatment. (pp. 97-8)

Perhaps Kostelanetz is right and the young writers he admires don't get into anthologies, or get reviewed, or receive academic appointments, or win grants because of the New York lit mob's indifference or opposition. The mobsters are, after all, an influential group. Kostelanetz is right to call all that politicking, right to think it is unfair, but wrong to think it much matters. The only thing outside a writer's control that makes a real difference is primary publication; all the rest is hurt feelings.

To prove a conspiracy that matters Kostelanetz must demonstrate that the mob is denying young writers publication, and this he does not do.

What he does instead is to argue that "puffing," "touting," and politicking account for Saul Bellow's literary reputation. A certain shrillness enters his voice whenever he mentions Bellow, which is often…. "The process of inflating his [Bellow's] reputation, as we shall see, reflected not rare critical judgment but the more common techniques of American advertising and publicity." But we do not see; or at least I don't.

Kostelanetz cites all the favorable reviews of Bellow's early novels, the interest in his career taken by certain mob critics (e.g., Lionel Trilling), and his sudden promotion to Major American Novelist with the publication of The Adventures of Augie March…. He talks about everything, in fact, except Bellow as a writer. He searches for a hidden explanation of Bellow's success and ignores the one that is most obvious.

Why are some writers "puffed" and "touted"? Kostelanetz does not examine this question, which seems to me to be at the root of the interconnectedness that alarms him. Actually, it is the same as asking why Henry James admired (and "touted") Flaubert; or Fitzgerald, Hemingway; or Roth, Lelchuk. These affinities are at the heart of literature. Writers should not have to divest themselves of their intellectual and artistic allegiances, like a banker putting his stocks into a blind trust before accepting a public appointment. If people did not have common interests, were not concerned with common questions, did not pursue common inquiries, or experiment with common styles, there would be no point in writing, or reading. Why does the New York literary mob "tout" Saul Bellow? Because the mobsters think he's a good writer.

Kostelanetz apparently does not. What we have here is a difference of critical opinion, not a political struggle…. Bellow's world does not like Kostelanetz's post-modernist experimentalism for the best and most innocent of reasons: it is alien to their experience, their sensibility, their whole intellectual style. No conspiracy is necessary to unite them in opposition; they do it instinctively. It's clear that Bellow is not a pioneer like Proust or Joyce, but his virtues are still real, and they are his own. This sort of argument only makes Kostelanetz impatient. When literature begins to look like something he's already seen he wants to chuck it out and bring in the new champions, with their weird instruments and strange music. He wants a Joyce every decade, a Renaissance twice a century, "unending innovation," a constant literary ferment something like Trotsky's permanent revolution. In effect, he wants youth to last forever. He loves the new and the different for their own sakes and does not seem at all inclined to ask what it all adds up to. (pp. 98-100)

The experiments described by Kostelanetz are endless: "novels" printed on unnumbered and interchangeable pages, "stories" that are supposed to be cut out and pasted together, "poems" that consist of a single word endlessly repeated, or the names of national parks, or sentences in which verbs and nouns are interchanged. Kostelanetz's appetite for their inventiveness (which strikes me as nervous and distracted, the restlessness of minds out of touch with their own experience) is unlimited: he has read thousands of such works and seems to admire them all, which is nice, even generous to a fault, but not exactly what we expect from a critic. He has failed to explain to me what it is that these people are doing or why I ought to make it part of my life and care about it.

This all sounds more negative than I feel. Kostelanetz is a witty, committed, engaging writer. He is not meanspirited (except where Bellow is concerned). He is tireless, informed, and often perceptive. He wants to further the cause of literature and encourage all those young writers who live a long way from and don't know how to approach the centers of literary power. It seems to me that anyone interested in literature, or in the practical business of writing, or in the creative crisis of artists to whom nothing is forbidden, ought to read his book. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says he doesn't really like a book unless it makes him feel like calling up the author. That's the way I feel about Kostelanetz; I'd like to spend all night talking with him. If I were insistent enough perhaps then he would tell me what the experimenters are doing. But until he does I will think he has missed the heart of literature. (pp. 100-01)

Thomas Powers, "A Conspiracy of Good Taste," in Harper's (copyright © 1974 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved, reprinted from the November, 1974 issue by special permission), Vol. 249, No. 1494, November, 1974, pp. 97-101.

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