Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Stern Mandarins

Browsing through the current issue of Bookforum, I was struck by the imposing expressions of some of the contributors, particularly two of the youngest, Meghan O'Rourke and Rachel Cohen. They reminded me of old photos I'd seen of my grandfather from the old country, his wife and ten obedient children grouped around him. The man sat with a large moustache and granite expression: the classic patriarch.

It occurred to me that the two young women have turned themselves into literary patriarchs. There's no sense of joy in their faces-- nor indeed in their enclosed words, which are about some godawfully boring high-brow subjects scarcely anyone outside Ivy League grad school cares about; Stefan Zweig or such. Their essays are a duty; are written in that sense, and can only be read in that aspect. Seriousness! These are serious writers who write about serious Literature with a capital L and it's all very serious which is why no one ever reads it. These two young women are Important! IMPORTANT. Let no one ever think otherwise. Joyful? Get real. And so every sentence of theirs expresses not just the fact they're still writing dry papers for some off-stage professor, but that they've gone even further into another realm of the high-brow. They're certified, they've arrived, you'd better know it, and so the icy stiff way they glare at the camera. Connect with the public? They've gone beyond any public, have taken cold positions atop the skyscraper tower, wearing mandarin robes, nuns to the engines of the status quo, and let no thought of any crude barking populace again ever enter their heads.

Such is the condition of establishment literature.

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