Apr 102003

Michael at 2 Blowhards discusses how publishing fads — which he charitably refers to as “consensus” — come to be. His commentators offer various unsatisfactory explanations. Many are of the “workshop” variety: editors and publishers have to promote books, therefore they promote what they have, and what’s wrong with that? The economics of the publishing industry puts this out of court. Publishers, like movie studios, depend on blockbusters for their survival. These are lottery industries, and it matters far more if you can squeeze 100,000 extra copies out of the latest Clancy or King than if Morrison or Rushdie sells 25,000 or 30,000 copies.

Social theories are more to the point. Publishing people all go to the same parties, where they exchange opinions about books. Naturally they expected to do an ungodly amount of reading. Michael Kinsley wrote an amusing article a while back about being a book prize judge. He was theoretically required to read more than 400 books.

Nobody in book or magazine publishing reads even one-tenth of what he’s supposed to have an opinion on, and shortcuts become indispensable. This is why book critics are far more widely read than books. They save time. If you haven’t got round to Rushdie or Morrison or Jonathan Safran Foer or whoever happens to be the novelist du jour — and you probably haven’t — it’s safest to praise them, most likely in the terms of Michiko Kakutani, whom you have read. (I, too, have opinions on Morrison and Rushdie despite having read only brief excerpts of the latter, which struck me as show-offy and not half so clever as the author obviously thought them, and the former not at all. Morrison’s fatuous public utterance makes me doubt that she is intelligent enough to be a good novelist. This is slender evidence, and it may be the opposite of the publishing consensus, but then they don’t invite me to their parties.)

The Blowhard thread evinces a simultaneous distrust of publishing fashion and genuflection toward the Canon. This is very common, and very odd. Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors features an incredibly annoying TV writer, played by Alan Alda, who keeps repeating, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Well, the Canon is the fashion plus time. It’s subject to exactly the same vicissitudes. Shakespeare largely owes his reputation as the greatest English writer to two 19th century German critics, the Schlegel brothers. Nobody read John Donne 100 years ago. In 1921 Sir Herbert Grierson published an anthology, featuring Donne, of “metaphysical” poets, borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson, who used it disparagingly. T.S. Eliot picked up on Grierson, emphasizing Donne’s “difficulty” when difficulty was all the rage. An entire generation of academics, steeped in Eliot, began to teach Donne, things picked up steam, and now he is a “classic,” and the streets are littered with college graduates who know nothing of Donne except that he is “metaphysical.” Note that in this process one critic, maybe two, formed an independent opinion of Donne’s actual merits.

Time has its virtues. People have been reading Homer for three thousand years, and there’s probably a reason. But English poetry is only 500 years old, English prose even younger. Hapless undergraduates still battle the Red Crosse Knight mostly because C.S. Lewis thought Spenser was the exemplar of the “Golden Style.” Bulky self-regarding Wordsworth is too much with us, late and soon, because he happened to come along with the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, just as the heroic couplet was going out of style, and because he promoted himself tirelessly. The Canon is more reliable than the fashion, as some of the dust has settled, but it is a sort of fashion, just the same.

(Update: Brian Micklethwait comments.)

  30 Responses to “Canon Fodder”

  1. In the 2blowhards thread, I said that folks in the industry publically laud "literary" books that they privately dislike so that they will be taken seriously at cocktail parties. You’ve analyzed it a bit further, but you seem to have come to the same conclusion.

    But about your other point: "The Blowhard thread evinces a simultaneous distrust of publishing fashion and genuflection toward the Canon. This is very common, and very odd." You say this, as though it’s logically inconsistent to hold both views; it’s nothing of the kind. The differing time scale matters. Comedy might be tragedy with time…but without time, it’s still tragedy.

  2. Will: I should have credited you with a similar thesis; sorry. I suppose I can claim one small touch of originality in my suspicion that the opinion-mongers never read the books at all.

    Damning fashion and praising the canon is not, strictly speaking, illogical, but I never said it was. I was trying to point out that the literary canon particularly in English, with its relatively short history can be criticized on many of the same grounds as literary fashion, and that people might be more skeptical of it if they realized how much the two have in common.

  3. With all due respect, I would suggest that if you start slinging the phrase "fatuous public utterance" then you might expect such acrimony turned toward your own observations. Sadly, I am compelled to express my own distaste for thiswhat shall we call it?opinion that you so jauntily toss of:

    Nobody in book or magazine publishing reads even one-tenth of what he’s supposed to have an opinion on, and shortcuts become indispensable. This is why book critics are far more widely read than books.

    Of course, I would be interested in the research you have on this matter. Michael Blowhard suggests 15 years of anecdotal experience to reify his claims about what publishing industry types do. What would be the basis of yours?

    Looking back on the 2 blowhards thread I regret losing sight of my initial and (I think) simple concern: That the authors are not normally the people to be held responsible for marketing initiatives on their behalf or for the significance quotient that is seemingly mysteriously assigned to them. And that the kind questions that M Blowhard regularly presents wearing out the names of a few pet literary scapegoats seems to me to be a sneak attack on those certain authors that really begs literary questions.

    And frankly, its a tactic that makes me very uneasy. Here’s how it goes: My friends in the business "confess" that they don’t like such and such. How did such and such get to be big and important? Something’s wrong here. Some bogus social dynamic which such and such is somehow responsible for and other specious mysterious forces have created a naked emperor.

    And so such and such (like Morrison and Rushdie) are tarnished.

  4. Aaron,
    I dont see any inconsistency in logic to be skeptical of the established canon and still be suspiscious of current literary fashion. Harriet Beecher Stowe was wildly popular in her day. So was Dickens. Dickens is currently on the list; Stowe is not. Sarah Orne Jewett, one of my favorite authors, was never once mentioned in my 4 years as an undergraduate lit major 20 years ago and has only recently come back as a subject of critical analysis. She too was a popular regional author in her day and a critical influence on Willa Cather. It seems the canon itself is subject to change, which, I think, is just your point.

    However, I am a little puzzled by your example of Shakespeare’s reputation depending on a couple of 19th c German romantics–I read the link you gave and it cites his contemporary critics as well as Dryden and Johnson. Would you explain that point a little further, please?


  5. Robert: Morrison and Rushdie could scarcely be tarnished by my own admittedly jejune opinions of them. That Morrison has said remarkably stupid things in public is beyond dispute — the "first black president" remark is notorious, and her Nobel lecture has some choice items. Many people have, however, including some great writers.

    There’s no “bogus social dynamic” at work here, no mysterious process. I theorize simply that they are well-reviewed, and it’s easier to follow the reviews than to form one’s own opinion.

    I find the demand for "research" disingenuous. How would you propose to research such a topic? As Mickey Kaus recommends, I generalize shamelessly from my own experience, which in the area of having opinions on books I haven’t read is considerable.

    Deb: It’s not just that the canon changes; it’s that, very often, the reasons it changes are largely accidental and arbitrary — much like the reasons fashion changes. As for logical inconsistency, there isn’t any. I refer you to what I said to Will above.

    There is no Web page I could find that adequately describes the contribution of the Schlegels — especially August, who translated him — to Shakespeare’s reputation. I will note that their lives coincided with the beginning of his revival, and that Coleridge, Shakespeare’s chief advocate of the period in English, plagiarized them liberally.

  6. The party continues! Hey, Aaron, nice one. The need to fake your way by certainly does help explain the existence of conventional wisdoms. What else would one rely on? The need arises and the need is serviced.

    Hey Robert, Sorry I wasn’t picking up your point earlier. Now I do. But I’m afraid I still think your concern is overdone. For one thing, it’d never occur to me to think of blaming an author for what the publishing business chooses to make of her. For another, all I’ve ever said about these two authors is that I don’t enjoy their work. Surely that’s allowed? Though it’s almost certainly a fair criticism that I’ve overused them as examples. Point taken.

    Hey, if anyone’s in the mood for an anecdote about how canons happen and evolve and change, etc., here’s an old posting of mine at 2Blowhards about Piero della Francesca, with helpful comments by Friedrich and Felix.

  7. Have I fallen down the rabbit hole? MIckey Kaus, a noted logician/philosopher recommends (shamelessly?) generalizing so we now move from dissing writers to slandering people in the publishing industry. The claim that "nobody in the publishing industry reads 1/10 of they are supposed to have opinions on" is beyond shameless generalization.

    But help me out here. What follows if that is true?

  8. Robert, really, the particular writers are beside the point. I picked Morrison and Rushdie only because they were the examples in the post I was discussing, and I took special pains to acknowledge that my opinions of their fiction are not worth a damn. They are fashionable. Other fashionable writers would have served as well. Being fashionable says very little about one’s merit, for good or ill.

    It is not a slander of publishing people to point out that they have an impossible amount of reading to do, and must perforce rely on others’ judgments. Do you suppose writers become fashionable because many discerning people read them and conclude independently that they’re good? That’s not a very parsimonious hypothesis.

  9. I am utterly fascinated by how many times the same thing has been said in this and Michael’s thread. Sheesh!


  10. An amusing story about Morrison. My wife and I went to a panel discussion at NYU Law School about the then current issue of the impeachment of Slick Willy. I had come to hear Ronald Dworkin’s view. When Morrison began to speak, the "ideas" she had were not only half-baked, they were also only half-expressed. She would speak in very long non-sentences — phrases lacking subjects or verbs.

    Having no real literary interest for a very long time, I did not know who she was.

    "Who is that idiot?" I asked my wife.

    "Only a nobel prize winner," she said.

    "In what?" I asked.


    "Can she write better than she speaks?" I asked.

    "I have only read one of her books," she said thinking, "and the answer is no."

  11. No doubt about it, everyone who loves to read faces the daunting truth that they will hardly dent the mountain of books that exists and grows. That has always been a hard one for me to process.

    Okay, here’s my concern. Where does this implied required reading list, ("one-tenth of what he’s supposed to have an opinion on") come from? And are you saying that it is common practice for publishing functionaries to rely on Michiko K and Jonathan Yardley and Michael Dirda and James Wood for their own opinions about books?

    I don’t know how writers become fashionable? Just as I don’t know how it has become fashionable to dump on writers like Franzen and Foer and Moody. I expect it has something to do with the insatiable appetite of our celebrity culture and a general nastiness that hangs like a cloud over the Northeast coast.

    Was it Gertrude Stein who said that writers should never be criticized?

  12. Perhaps either Mr Kaplan or someone can tell me what is amusing about his little "Toni Morrison is an idiot" anecdote?

  13. Oh I don’t know. If she really was blithering — and if the topic was Clinton she probably was — then it’s pretty funny. There’s a similar anecdote about Hegel. Some countess was sitting next to Felix Mendelssohn at a dinner party and says, behind her napkin, "Who is that remarkably stupid man sitting to my left?" "That remarkably stupid man," Mendelssohn replies, "is the philosopher Hegel." I think that’s funny. Then again I’m not in much sympathy with Hegel.

  14. Adam:

    Hegel has secured his place in history and I think it remains undisturbed either by his very human susceptibility to public displays of idiocy or the caddiness of some aristocrat. I guess that gives the Mendelsohn story some element of humor, at first blush.

    Ms Morrison is both an idiot and a bad writer because Mr. Kaplan’s spouse read one of seven of her novels and pronounced judgement.

    What I thought of, in pondering the above two instances, was the world premiere performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (no French necessary here) which was famously and raucously not well received by its audience. No doubt many spoke of Stravinsky in less glowing terms than "idiot."

    The countessa, The Kaplans, the 1929 Stravinsky audience are entitled to their opinions and the opportunities to air them. But I still do not think they are amusing. But nice try.

  15. It seems to me that the word "canon" is itself fairly pejorative, in that people opposed to it invoke it much more than those supposedly in support of it. The only area of relevance for the term I can think of is with university curricula, where tough decisions need to be made on what gets taught. In these cases, those who have problems with the "canon" inevitably want to include some piece from the last 30 years in order to promote minority representation. Morrison wins big since she represents a two-fer. Once the discussion reaches this point, it becomes clear that the merit of books has little to do with the matter.

    I believe that there is some value to having a core group of texts that serve as a common tongue for the literate. As with any language, there will be change, some of it rational and some of it not. Some, like Homer, Plato, the Bible, and Shakespeare, will likely be secure for quite some time. Hegel is actually not a good example of having a secure spot, since his stock seems to fluctuate quite a bit. (The prick Bertrand Russell even made a point of claiming Hegel’s irrelevance in his history of philosophy.)

    Thus, I would agree that the canon has its own fashion, but I don’t think an inference should be made that this undermines how it functions. (Not that I think you are making that inference, Aaron, but some would like to.)

  16. Eddie, you fly to Hegel references like a moth to a flame. I believe in the value of a set of core texts, and used the term "canon" as a convenience, not a pejorative. But I think there is value in recognizing how much accident there is in the process of making classics classic. Many English classics have become so through the tireless efforts of one or two highly influential people, and great works have almost certainly been lost, just as bad ones have been preserved.

  17. What is funny about the Toni Morrison anecdote is that she is, in fact, recognized for her ability to communicate, yet she seems quite incapable in any medium. Her prize was solely for communicating.

    Niels Bohr, who possessed a true and rare genius was known for fractured syntax that would make W. blush. Once he proclaimed that, "A man should not speak more clearly than he thinks," after a Roosevelt administration official said he did not understand one thing Bohr said. Had I asked "Who is that idiot?" about Bohr the joke would have been on me.

  18. Mr. Kaplan:

    You have not read Toni Morrison’s work and, if I read you correctly, have seen her speak only once. But you can merrily anounce, "yet she seems quite incapable in any medium."

    I do think the joke is on you.

    Allow me to quote a small portion of Toni Morison’s Nobel lecture:

    The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.

    You do understand what she is saying here, don’t you?

  19. Mr. Birnbaum:

    I may just be stupid, but I am not being purposefully obtuse, when I say that I do not have a clue what she is saying.

    Who is doing the looting? What are "mid-wifery properties"? Oppressive language IS violence? To whom and for what? Why does this "oppressive language" limit knowledge? Science has "calcified language"? You mean terms like "squarks" and
    "Calabi-Yau space"? Scientific language seems to me to be the most subtle in describing new hypotheses of nature. What is "malign language of law without ethics"? Is she referring to civil procedure, or more likely criminal procedure, or some substantive law which is unstated and not capable of being understood by ANY reader of this self-important claptrap?

    Let me ask you, is she suggesting that certain language has an oppressive nature because it includes unstated premises that should be exposed before being discussed? If so, agreed. Of course which language that would be is open to dispute.

    I suggest you read a short essay by Bertrand Russell, I believe another Nobel laureate, whose ideas I dislike but who I understand. It is entitled "How I Write". I hope he shows you that clarity is not the enemy of free minds.

  20. Mr. Kaplan

    I wish I could help you understand Toni Morrison. I have a feeling my limited pedagogical skills would not be up to the task.

    What disturbs me is your insistence that this small sampling of Morrison that you say you have no clue about (though you understand sufficiently to have five or six questions about) is "self important claptrap". Not to put you in the same category as the mullahs, but I do recall Rushdie was subjected to a fatwa for writing a book many of his persecutors never read. Condemning something you do not understand is claptrap of a different sort.

    Though it’s been years since I have had the need or occasion to read Russell, I do not believe I need a refresher course to affirm the value of clarity. But I must say I am glad to see that you champion something.

  21. My two cents: Toni Morrison, like her contemporary Alice Walker, is notoriously leftist, which accounts for the sentiments expressed in her Nobel Lecture (see Wolfe’s "Third Great Awakening" essay, which put this sort of thinking in its place long before Morrison even wrote it). Unlike Alice Walker, though, Morrison really can write; see her earliest novels, "Sula" and "Song of Solomon," in particular.

    I was driven to respond, though, primarily to mention that I’ve always thought her comment about Clinton — "He’s America’s first black president" — was quite clever and insightful. I don’t think it’s too hard to understand, Aaron — he was our first Baby Boomer, pot-smoking, sax-blowing, draft-card-burnin’, hipster president. Specifically, he was the first president who came of age in a time when it was a mark of Cool for white intellectuals to make a big show of how much they enjoyed hanging with the Brothers, and his behavior has always reflected that. Morrison’s appreciative and memorable comment was right on target.

  22. It occurs to me that Aaron’s original point is actually one about which, for once, as a longtime publishing industry drone, I know a considerable amount. Aaron, your "one-tenth" remark has a grain of truth but is wildly overstated. When it comes to cocktail party chatter, no doubt plenty of people pontificate about books they haven’t read (my favorite grad school professor, Perry Meisel, had a great anecdote about a student who once confessed, after a long debate in class, that he hadn’t read the book in question "personally."). But when it comes to actually committing opinion to print, or making publishing decisions, I have rarely, if ever, seen people totally faking it (although fad and fashion do exercise tremendous influence over what gets bought and reviewed; I mean, duh — that’s what "fad" and "fashion" mean). I either reviewed or wrote about countless books during the 90s, and I never once wrote about something I hadn’t read, and I never saw any evidence to indicate that I was in any way unusually conscientious. On the other hand, no doubt Aaron would argue that I rare wrote about a book that I had read with sufficient care, or about a subject that I understood sufficiently, and to a large degree, he’d be right.

    Finally, however, since (unless we count this blog) Aaron has never worked in the publishing industry himself, we can also say the same of his original post…;)

  23. Michael: Oh yes, a hipster Rhodes Scholar, the traditional accolade for the worst sort of careerist suckbutt (Spy once ran a great story about Rhodes Scholars with the memorable title of "Resume Mucho"); a pot smoker who didn’t inhale; a draft card burner who didn’t burn his draft card; a (lousy) saxophonist who appeared on Arsenio Hall in Blues Brothers sunglasses. Seriously, it’s hard to imagine anything whiter.

    On the other hand, your points about publishing are well-taken.

  24. Yes Aaron, I can’t resist. Sorry about that. Maybe you should pick another philosopher as your paradigm of poor thought – Rorty perhaps?

  25. Aaron:

    I agree thst many writers in the canon have been rescued from oblivion by what amounts to an accident of fate–Emily Dickinson seems to be the most striking example–but they stay in the canon, I think, only because once they’ve been brought to wider attention, the reading public takes to them and keeps them. I mean, I recall that as an undergrad English major in the 60s, we were fed the Eliot-bred line about not just Donne but the whole school of metaphysicals. That didn’t really take. My sense is that except for Donne, Johnson’s original judgment has been mostly reaffirmed by the judgment of subsequent readers. And I think even Donne is a bit overrated: His intellectuality (unlike Dickinson’s, or Shakespeare’s) is of the precocious, whiz kid sort especially attractive to smarty-pants undergrads–Iike me in my youth. So he fares well in an era when most poetry students are captive audiences in college classrooms. I don’t think he’s near the poet that Marvell is, whose poetry I still occasionally return to.

    The concept of the canon is also simply fascinating in its own right. It’s something of a chimerical phenomenon, yet also an inevitable one–like All-American teams: If the newspapers didn’t name official ones, college sports fans would make up their own. The canon is a mnemonic device–and filing system–in short, a provisional reading list. Which is why it is so essential to academia and and so inevitably the center of its cultural debates.

    The problem today, as I see it, is that those debates have become so shamelessly politicized. I mean I recently came across an essay by Henry Louis Gates that seemed to be arguing (well, was arguing, but even he could’nt bring himself to come out an say it) that Phyllis Wheatley deserves a spot on our canonical reading list. And he never even offered one tiny reason why anyone could expect to get anything out of reading her poems–as opposed to the not unimportant historical lesson you might get by knowing who she was and the circumstances under which she wrote poetry that inm fact just as dead in the water as that of innumerable 18th-century white guys happily excluded from any self-respecting mortal’s reading list. It’s stuff like that that makes some people suspect Toni Morrison may be being praised for the wrong reasons. (And to add my 2 cents on that: I think Song of Soloman is a superb book–but I havent been able to read more than 50 pages in any other books without giving up for sheer boredom. But that could be just me.)

  26. Mr. Birnbaum:

    Please do not sell yourself short. I am very much interested in actually understanding what Toni Morrison is saying. Please exercise whatever teaching skills you have to help inform me of Ms Morrison’s merits, particularly in the passage you chose.

    By the way, the phrase "self-important" should not disturb you. Newton was thought to be self-important, but we know of course he was also "important". Such may be the case with Ms. Morrison. "Claptrap" may merely be the way I disguise my own failure of understanding. So please, illuminate me.

    By the way, it is interesting you choose the Rite of Spring as an analogy. True it has grown in reputation over the years as our ears have changed. But it is still not very good when compared to Firebird or Petrushka, or Histoire du Soldat for that matter.
    And from that time period I prefer Sibelius to Stravinsky anyway. (His violin concerto is first rate.) Maybe Ms. Morrison is more like Alban Berg — bad still.

    Mr. Krantz:

    Assuming Morrison could really write in her early novels but somehow can’t now, what would account for this?

    Aaron once very asutely pointed out to me, some artists are in the thrall of a bad idea and therefore decline. His example was Picasso. After a minute of thought, I believed Joyce fit that mold.

    It might be a good blog topic.

  27. Mr. Birnbaum:

    Thank you. I was blind, but now can see.

  28. Bill: The idea is sound, but if I used Picasso it was a bad example. Wallace Stevens is a much better instance. Stevens had a remarkable ear, and "The Snow Man" and most of "Sunday Morning" are among the most beautiful poems in English, but hedonism is Stevens’ only theme. It is real but limited, and he soon wrote himself out on the subject and was left with nothing to say.

  29. Okay, Mr. Kaplan:

    Let me give it a try. One note of caution. This is my quick reading of Morrison’s text. It is not done as a legal brief or a bit of political/historical analysis butin case you have any inclination of generosity toward her the employment of some poetic license

    1)Who is doing the looting?

    Those who use oppressive language

    2)What are "mid-wifery properties"?

    Language is capable of spawning ideas and new ways of looking at the world and ourselves.

    3)Oppressive language IS violence? To whom and for what?

    To the people who are being menaced and subjugated. For
    all the reasons that dictators and nations and tribes and bullies oppress others

    4)Why does this "oppressive language" limit knowledge?

    In the same way that fences limit movement and blindfolds limit vision

    5)Science has "calcified language"? You mean terms like "squarks" and "Calabi-Yau space"? Scientific language seems to me to be the most subtle in describing new hypotheses of nature.

    No. Terms and language and language games are not the same things. Every discipline does seem to have a jargon and that jargon frequently becomes unresponsive to new developments. My turn: "What’s a new "hypothesis of nature"?

    6)What is "malign language of law without ethics"?

    It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.

    7) Is she referring to civil procedure, or more likely criminal procedure, or some substantive law which is unstated and not capable of being understood by ANY reader of this self-important claptrap?

    This is not a question that I take seriously as an inquiry though I do think it an example of the use of oppressive language.

    One more thing .where does the assumption come from that Morrison can not write?

    Hope this helps.

  30. Well, Ms. Morrison handily seems to have included nearly every type of language in her list of oppression except for hers, or others sanctioned by the PC police.

    And the Nobel commitee has become so politicized, that it’s judgements don’t hold much water in my mind, at least outside the sciences (and even there very political choices are made).

    And I suspect that when Aaron wrote "Nobody in book or magazine publishing reads even one-tenth of what he’s supposed to have an opinion on, and shortcuts become indispensable," that he was referring to things they just MUST have an opinion on socially, and not things that they had to have an opinion on for purposes of offering up an opinion in print.

    And I find Ms. Morrison’s view that what she finds to be oppressive language "must be rejected, ALTERED and exposed" (emphasis added) morally repugnant.

    It smacks of the loony left notion of "free speech, so long as it agrees with me", and is more than slightly reminiscent of Big Brother.

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