Saturday, December 27, 2008


When one confronts the System of literature directly one feels emanating from it the massive inertia which is every part of its being.

"DARE YOU QUESTION?" a voice demands. To question it becomes suddenly unthinkable. "See the world as we see it. Think as we think. Speak as we speak."

To protect itself against rebellion the System will construct a counter-narrative, then push this at its own writers to keep them in line, and project the counter-narrative even within the rebel camp. You read the missive from on high around the campfire. "It says here that we're wrong and they're right." You glance at the distant monolith, the walled city which up close is full of rot and is crumbling but through the mists appears yet sturdy. The message conveyed: "Go home. Let things be. Allow our walls to remain."

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Great Reaction


The reaction instituted in American letters beginning in 1953 through Paris Review, other publications, critics, and writing programs was the choosing of self over society, craft over content, style above substance, and the elimination of the direct expression of ideas.

In the 90's I was told by more than one respected editor and writer that one absolutely cannot impose ideas on the narrative!-- or use characters as mouthpieces for ideas. Which wiped out in one stroke an entire stream of American writing-- the naturalism of Frank Norris, Jack London, and others-- and also went against the practice of history's greatest novelists: Tolstoy, Hugo, Dickens, Dumas, Dostoevsky. It was an attack on classic literature-- on literature itself.

Not solely writers on the Left were hurt by this shift. Despite her immense popularity, Ayn Rand had difficulty getting every one of her novels published. (Which shows that the imposed standards had nothing to do with the market.) Feared by America's intellectual establishment were ideas themselves. Ideas were deemed too dangerous. (Given the history of the 20th century, the rise of anti-liberal regimes spawned by populist ideas, this reactionary attitude was understandable.)

The kind of writing being excluded wasn't realism so much as a stylized kind of realism, full of broad paint strokes on a wide canvas, with fiery rhetoric, big speeches and dramatic happenings. The works were often clunky and almost always artistically and intellectually exciting.

The decline of American poetry during this period has been, if anything, greater than the decline of fiction. Academic poets were encouraged to throw out that which made poetry poetry. It lost its music and its magic. While prose became more poetic, to its harm, establishment poetry became prose, to its destruction. From the 1950's high point of Dylan Thomas, Eliot, Berryman (not to mention the brief rise of the Beats) we've seen with the onset of New Yorker-style fakirs a one-way decline. What excitement remains for poetry comes from outside the approved bastions.

Fluff is exactly what the literary establishment wanted-- and got. Fiction and poetry both were narrowed to virtually nothing. As their aesthetic scope dwindled, so did their popular appeal. The chief ideologues of today's literary system-- Francine Prose, for instance-- still fight this battle in their essays, with NO opposition to them except on my blogs.

One can understand that something was happening by tracing the way neo-liberal and neo-con foreign policy types became interested in literature. To give one example: What did Jeanne Kirkpatrick care about literature? Yet even she and her OSS-background husband got involved, taking over a critical literary journal named Critique (the American version) via an entity called the Heldref Foundation as the Cold War was ending.

I'd been dogging George Plimpton's trail in my newsletter since 1993. Attempts by he and James Linville to co-opt me failed. (A free ad for New Philistine in an issue of Paris Review; my inclusion in a published discussion about fiction in another issue.) Plimpton and I eventually met at the 2001 CBGB's debate.

The thrilling clash of ideas had ended. Plimpton and myself, leaders of the two gangs, sat together in the aftermath over beers at a small table. Given this opportunity to speak to me in person, what was the ONE point Plimpton emphasized?

"There is no place in literature for polemics," he told me. "There cannot be."

The message didn't get through-- at least, not the message George wanted to get through.