(Text of letter sent May 21st, 2006 to the editors of literary journal n+1.)
To the Editors,
Keith Gessen in #4: "Practically no writer exists now who does not intersect at some point with the university system. . . ."
Nice to know I and my colleagues don't exist! He's dismissed an entire class of writers, and with them, the majority of his own society. Writing isn't something everyone in a democratic society should engage in, don't you know. It's reserved for a special class of citizens who know how to write (and read) properly-- in the prescribed way.
A few vague nods toward populism are scattered about the essays and letters. Otherwise the symposium and much of the issue is a long moan about the decline in "literary studies," in "reading comprehension" and reading. The contributors know they need to reach somebody other than themselves, "someone's well-educated mother" (emphasis on "well"), "a lawyer or a high school principal or a financial journalist"-- which broadens their target to 2% of the populace. The status of literature has declined in the culture-- all admit it-- yet to remedy the problem they take baby steps.
The title of the opening feature, "The Intellectual Situation," proclaims these people "intellectuals." They've paid big money to gain that word and won't give it up! They embrace that designation, that difference, and as long as they do they marginalize themselves. About the larger society and how to reach it they remain clueless.
An image pops into my head of one of those hybrid French museums in which the contemporary is planted hopefully amid the walls of classicism. A large plexiglass box hangs suspended from the ceiling of the old museum. Inside the box, holding wineglasses, stand today's literary caretakers. The conversation is filled with standard academic jargon: "derive" this and "derive' that; derived specificity derived from the arbitrariness derived from the inutility of "an inverted vitalist." (Throw in some "genetic mysticism" and a few "imprimaturs" while you're at it.)
The buzz among the people suspended in the box is at a polite murmur. Look! There's Vivian Gornick repeating outmoded terms like "middlebrow" whose purpose is to reaffirm the literary hierarchy writers like her dwell in, above, er, the floor. And in the corner! James Wood and Jonathan Franzen, our culture's (supposed) Best Critic and Best Novelist, "mutual almost-admirers," are locked in debate-- almost. Museum patrons struggle to listen, expecting to hear words of energy and wit, of sharp-edged conflict or sparkling wisdom, finding instead the dullest such exchange, from two big names, ever.
Stephen Burt discusses the most lackluster sliver of a vibrant poetry scene. Gornick dismisses the notion of class while the museum admission fee becomes prohibitively expensive and the box she's in rises higher. Caleb Crain next to her wonders why the audience is moving away from them. "Where are they going?" he asks as the box is hauled up a few more inches.
Gerald Howard at the center of the group bemoans the conglomerates (of which he's part). He's "gloomy-hopeful" someone will find a way out of their plexiglass trap. He never asks, "Does anyone have a hammer?"
He's too preoccupied with the chatter. Meanwhile, outside the museum runs a stream, fed by underground springs, representing the life force of authentic culture. Franzen for one would like to reach this water, this renewal, but no one among the powdered crowd knows the way out of their box.
Underground Literary Alliance