Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Yes Men

The problem with the established literary world is that it’s filled with yes men.

I thought this in the aftermath of the NFL draft. The local team, the Detroit Lions, made a senseless first pick IMHO. Too many local commentators afterward took the management view, instead of calling the team out for what seems yet another blunder.

The Detroit Lions have won exactly one playoff game in fifty (50) years. The burden of proof is on the team. They have no track record of success. They deserve no benefit of doubt.


Can the same be said of American literature and those who run it?

For fifty years the cultural trendline has been down. There’ve been no innovations, no growth spurts, no large personalities who’ve grabbed the attention and imagination of America. Only a continuation of the mediocre.

There are small successes, sure—enough to give encouragement to the status quo; preserving the illusion that all is well. Donna Tartt has written, apparently, a fairly good novel. Lorrie Moore has written another mildly witty book. Etc. Outside the literary realm, these successes grab the attention of no one.


This is what American writing has lost during the past fifty years. The ability to turn the readership—ultimately the culture—upside down. To reorient the literary universe—and American culture itself.

How does one go about that?

One way not to do it is through the “everybody get along” philosophy of our friends on the west coast. If new writing isn’t upsetting the mandarins, it’s not doing its job. New art needs to be artistically provocative; provocative with its ideas as well. It needs to hold a mirror up to society, including to the intellectual class, and not simply to that smug class’s favorite targets.

Bold style and unflinching substance. New writing must be radical in both departments. At the same time it needs the ability to be read, otherwise it’ll not engage the populace.


This is one of a scattering of blogs devoted to literature that’s not run by yes men.

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