Heading to the publishing world's biggest gathering, Scott McLemee reviews a hard-hitting analysis of American literary culture, academic and otherwise.

May 30, 2007

Inspired in part by a recent Intellectual Affairs item, there will be a panel on the cultural importance of reviewing on Thursday afternoon during the opening of Book Expo America -- the annual trade show for the publishing industry, a behemoth gathering, held this year in New York City. (See IHE's report on the offerings by academic presses announced at last year's Book Expo.)

Thursday's session, "The Intellectual History and Culture of the Book Review," is being organized by the National Book Critics Circle. Among the panelists are James Shapiro, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and Lindsay Waters, the executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press.

Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is scheduled to appear. So is Joyce Carol Oates, the author of one hundred novels. That figure may be wrong, but it seems best to err on the low side. The host for the panel is Eric Banks, the editor of Bookforum – which, as someone at a major university press recently commented, has become as important a venue for making scholarly books known to a nonspecialist audience as The New York Review of Books. (I write for Bookforum on occasion, so am almost desperately eager to believe this is true.)

An announcement says the discussion will run from 4:30 to 5:30. That is, of course, a case of scheduling as the triumph of optimism over common sense. It's bound to take longer than one hour, even if one of the panelists fails to appear.

For the location -- as well as information about other events that may be of interest to academic bookpeople -- have a look here. The organizers have requested confirmation from anyone who plans to attend the panel on Thursday. There is now room for about 50 more people in the audience. RSVP at

While packing my bags for the festivities in New York, I’ve been thinking about a remarkable essay that seems very timely. It offers a trenchant commentary on the relationship between academic literary criticism, general-interest reviewing, and the attention to books by the American public. The text in question isn’t available online, so I’ll quote a fair bit, then give the citation later.

The essay is by a literary journalist who, it seems, found himself in the classroom again, facing undergraduates who had picked up all the fashionable critical buzzwords. The culture clash did not take long.

He was particularly incensed by a paper on Germinal, Zola's great novel about striking coal miners in France. But the student in question “was not even thinking of the novel he was reading,” complains the journalist, “so busy was he plastering [jargon] over Zola’s astonished face.”

A familiar story, in some ways. Literature as such counts for nothing. It serves merely as a pretext for showing the command of theory.

“With the very text of Germinal before him,” as the journalist puts it, the student "was so concerned with showing that he knew how to read his book with a modish approach that he simply could not recognize the most obvious quality of Zola’s great novel -- which was its force. He felt no necessary connection between his experience and that described in the novel, but he had brought in wholly arbitrary connections, couched in a critical vocabulary that he had learned by rote, whose historical applications and limitations he did not understand. He was like a tourist in a foreign country; he could imitate the language but not understand it.”

But we can’t really blame this on literature professors; not entirely. Their culpability is limited. The problem runs much deeper. The essayist, a commentator on a wide range of contemporary literature and cultural debate, suggests that “some basic element [is] missing in the relationship of the audience to the critic in America today.”

He finds symptoms of this crisis “in the professional journals for which you don’t have to take the trouble to write well and in the Sunday supplements that exist only to sell books; in the lack of general magazines publishing serious criticism and in the very absence of any responsible and authoritative evaluation of contemporary literature.”

Both scholars and writers for the general public are hurt by “the absence of echo to our work, the uncertainty of response, the confusion of basic terms in which we deal,” he writes. “It’s not that we lack an audience; it’s that the audience doesn’t know what it wants, is not quite sure of what it thinks, is fundamentally uneasy about literature, even afraid of it, and wants to control the beast rather than live with it.”

An insightful and well-turned analysis, then, of the situation facing both literary scholars and public critics. And one that seems unusually farsighted. It appeared as the final, summarizing essay in Alfred Kazin’s collection Contemporaries, published by Little, Brown, and Company in 1962.

Back then, the jargon was New Critical rather than post-whatever-ist. (The student who annoyed Kazin devoted his term paper to Zola’s use of “paradox,” “tension,” and “ambiguity”: terms arguably more suited for analyzing metaphysical poetry than social realism.)

But the complaints are familiar. It is hard to imagine the situation ever changing -- at least not for the better. ‘Twas ever thus. We all muddle along, somehow, even so.


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