Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Defense of Literary Meanness

In the October 14 issue of TNR, Leon Wieseltier gives a curmudgeonly defense of publishing negative reviews, specifically of the negative review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom published in the same issue.

It’s bracing: “A shabby treatment of a consequential subject or a significant form is a corruption, and it is the mark of a reviewer’s depth of conviction, and of her knowledge, to treat it as such, to fight it. An opinion about a book is an opinion about the world. Anger at the false and the fake – as long as the labor of persuasion is done: a curse is not an act of criticism – is an admirable anger, because it is the heat of a cause, and our causes are the spurs of our culture. No culture, no literature, ever advanced by niceness.”

Literature is “a proposal, or an infinity of proposals, for an emendation, or a transformation, of consciousness. It commends ideals of thinking, and even ideals of living; and no such instructions should be exempt from strenuous and unsentimental judgment, from the foul tempers of thoughtful people, or else nothing will weigh anything and we will be only compilations of the trends of our times.”

He is not complimentary to contemporary literary culture:

Readers today receive guidance from “a literary and literary-critical world that is amiable, bland, clubby, pious, careerist, relentlessly cheerful, desperate for numbers, suavely relativizing, and awash in worthless praise. A universe of invitations and congratulations, of pals and candidate-pals appreciating and mythologizing each other. Books are generally assessed only internally, for what ‘works’ and what does not ‘work,’ with synopsis usurping analysis, politely against the background of the author’s literary or personal history, and almost never for the sake of a larger concept, a transcending idea, to which the review, if not the book, should owe its life. Reviews without inner necessity extol books without inner necessity. . . . It is not the responsibility of the critic to lift the spirits of the writer or publisher.”

Bracing as this is, I’m put in mind of Ken Myers’ recent review of Steven D. Smith’s work on law. Smith argues (as I have summarized in a recent post) that our bland public discourse is not accidental, but precisely what our Rawlsian liberal polity called for. Weightlessness is what we want, what our politics and culture are designed to produce. Wieseltier is right to be upset at the thinness of literature and criticism; he should examine what role the magazine that employs him has played in creating what he condemns.

Peter Leithart

All of this reminds me of The Underground Grammarian, who examined the ways in which language was used as a tool of anti-thought and political control. Secular liberal democracy....insofar as it is chaotic and useless, is doomed. Insofar as it "works", it tends to become Fascistic/Totalitarian. It is therefore something that is irrelevant to the informed citizen's future.

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