Working on the bias: Reviewers, Critics, and the Christian POint d’Honneur
Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus got into a spat fifteen years ago. A storm in the proverbial teacup, to be sure, but for a brief moment it put one of the most important issues of interwar Marxism squarely on the most literary minds of the professional-managerial class (PMC). Franzen, whetting his distinctive I’m-a-genius-why-isn’t-everyone-reading-me/don’t-read-me-I’m-a-genius style, posed the question in the essay “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books,” whether modernist fiction is not self-defeating. We write novels, Franzen insists, in order to communicate and understand our humanity. The novels of Gaddis or Pynchon are virtuosic in their depictions of the experiences of life in the modern world, but they are disasters of communication. Only the elite read them, and most of the elite do not even understand them.
There is a certain populist edge to Franzen’s claim, which is rare in The New Yorker, but squint and you’ll see the bud of that same hallucinatory dread for Western Civilization that is in full bloom at American Affairs or First Things. Not that the Overton window is now such that Franzen could be considered conservative, but there is always a reactionary streak running through every self-respecting liberal. Franzen simply chose this as the way to reveal it. Stipulating that Franzen’s politics are a muddle, he nevertheless makes a point that Georg Lukács first levied against Ernst Bloch in 1938: whether or not, despite its revolutionary pretense, expressionist or modernist art is, in fact, a counter-revolutionary ruse of bourgeois culture, one that vitiates the radical mobilization of power by turning it into a concern with style and mien. Franzen does not raise the point for political reasons; he’s complaining that his kind of people do not read his novels in the numbers he thinks they should, and he blames “difficult fiction.” A far duller insight than Lukács’, certainly, but nevertheless Franzen glimpses what Lukács anticipated a century prior, that the success of modernist art is its ruin.
Not to be outdone, Ben Marcus bared his belletristic conatus to the world in a reply to Franzen published in Harper’s three years later with the sarcastic title “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It.” Marcus mocks Franzen’s moralizing, and celebrates that arduous work of reading the abstruse literary vanguard because they expand the limits of language, stoke the fires of human desire, flout convention, and thereby remake our humanity. They expand the realm of human freedom. The politics in Marcus’s rhetoric is only a vestigial organ of the evolution of hard novels, but his point is in essence the same as Bloch and Benjamin, among others, who defended expressionism against Lukács. The point is to anticipate, now the future of humanity that we aspire for, inspiring and unleashing the free creativity that can attain it.
Yet, and perhaps to Lukács’ point, Franzen and Marcus have no discernable political project. They are completely preoccupied with questions of style, and what they do or do not speak to their readers. And this is no small difference from Lukács, Bloch, Adorno et al., who were well aware that what they were critiquing was not style itself, but the different ways in which to overthrow the corrosive transformation of art into a commodity.
Enter Cynthia Ozick.
Ozick replied in Harper’s to both men with her own 2007 essay, “Literary Entrails: The Boys in the Alley, the Disappearing Readers, and the Novel’s Ghostly Twin.” And what Ozick has to say about what is really going on in this argument can help us see something meaningful, maybe even novel, in the need for a publication like The Bias and what it is trying to do. As Ozick puts it, artists are justified in being anxious about the social power of their work, and their ability to reach an audience, but issues of realist versus modernist styles are red herrings. What is really at issue is the preponderance of reviewers and the paucity of critics:
“. . .in searching for the key to the Problem of the Contemporary Novel (or Novelist), there are cupboards where it is useless to look. And there are reasons that do not apply: writers vying for the highest rung of literary prestige; potential readers distracted by the multiplicity of storytelling machines. Feuds and jealousies are hardly pertinent, and the notorious decline of reading, while incontrovertible, may have less to do with the admittedly shaky situation of literary fiction than many believe. The real trouble lies not in what is happening but in what is not happening.
What is not happening is literary criticism.”
For Ozick, Amazon reviews and academic literary criticism are, at least for us today, different species of the same creature: the reviewer. While what Ozick commends to us is exemplified in a writer like Lionel Trilling, whom she insists is an artist in his own right, one whose work is to “catch the cross-reverberations” between politics, religion, culture, and economics. The critic embellishes “the stock of available reality” by glimpsing otherwise unnoticed family resemblances, forging unforeseen alliances, and endowing us with new insights and possibilities for moral action. The Problem of Contemporary Art is, in other words, the social problem of how we incorporate works of art into our world—incorporate in the precise, etymological sense of integrating them into our bodies. That is the distinctive, rare, and precious work of the critic.
If Ozick is right that the critic’s art—an art that is not simply literary, as we usually understand it, but social, material analysis of life—is in decline, that the common good suffers because those connections that work on the bias of political economy, religion, culture, and the moral life are not made, being replaced with a pageant of reviewers of varying degrees of cleverness—then it is not just a crisis for literature or aesthetics. The Problem of the Contemporary Novel (or Novelist) is, with equal and maybe greater force, The Problem of the Politics of the Contemporary Church (or Christian). The critic transects the whole of our social life, and that is no less of a religious work than it is an aesthetic, economic, and political one. (Terry Eagleton is a critic in just this sense, one who recognizes that religion is vital to the art of criticism.)
Indeed, inattention to religion is already a critical failure. Marx, that shrewdest of critics, understood this well: “Religion is the general theory of this world, it’s encyclopedic compendium, it’s logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, it’s enthusiasm, its moral sanction….” So, for Marx, we have not begun to grasp our political, economic, or cultural situation if we neglect religion or, what may be even more significant, the religious dimension of our situation.
But, of course, Ozick’s point, though she’s far too refined to state it so brusquely, is that the dispute between Franzen and Marcus displays nothing but the degeneration of criticism, that both of these boys in the alley fail at the task of criticism. Donning her critical cap, Ozick intends to redeem it. But when we drill down further than Ozick, connecting—like she asked us—the social significance of the absence of the critic to the intra-Marxist debates about art as a commodity, and further yet to Marx himself who says religion is the index by which to grasp the general theory of the social situation—that is the point at which we not only amplify the stock of reality available to us, but expand our capacity for freedom, which is the necessary condition for all moral action.
Catching the cross-reverberations within social life, politics, culture, economics, and religion—conducting them together in chorus is the work of the critic. This is a materialist work in that it is concerned, in the first instance, not with how ideas shape the world, but with how material concerns determine our ideas about the world. At some point long ago, Christianity decided to cut its losses with the modern world and cast its lot with the reviewers. Insightful engagement with culture was debased into the culture wars, analysis of the actual material and political conditions of life and the responsibilities that Christians have for those conditions have been reduced (borrowing from Trilling) to a series of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” about Western, Christian civilization, and something or other about Tradition, lost Moral Ideals, and once again (God help us) the Nation.
The Bias exists to change that.
There is no ethics that is not social ethics; there is no social ethics that is not invested and incorporated in material life; there is no announcement of Christian Good News apart from either. As Jesus says to John the Baptist (Matt 11:2-11, RCL reading for today), there is no recognition of the truth of who he is apart from a change in the condition of the poor, the outcast, the suffering, the imprisoned.
The Bias exists to announce that.
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