Tuesday, June 14, 2005
A Golden Age of Literary Journalism
Could ours be one? That unlikely thought was prompted for me by the recent arrival of two magazines (print, bigod!) in the mailbox: the July/August Atlantic and the annual fiction issue of The New Yorker.
For my money, the Atlantic’s Benjamin Schwarz is running maybe the best back of the book going these days. He might have a weakness for controversy—he publishes Hitchens, introduced the world to Caitlin Flanagan, defends Dale Peck—but he recruits excellent young writers and assigns them interesting stuff. More admirable still, though, are his own capsule reviews. Every month Schwarz pens four or five lapidary essays on recent books—the style lucid and impersonal, the range wonderfully eclectic. This month the subjects include Sinatra, Chanel, and the diplomatic history of Europe between the wars. Last issue he covered, among others, J. G. Farrell, the California writing of Daniel Fuchs, and the biography of Pat Brown. (Among his qualities is a great ability to write compellingly about historiography.)
In the current issue, Schwarz reviews Lewis Dabney’s long awaited biography of Edmund Wilson, and, as he often does, he makes you sense at once both the distinctive virtues and historical importance of his subject. You want to run out immediately and reread Patriotic Gore and consult what Wilson had to say about Auden and Flaubert. The essaylet concludes, though, with an unusually harsh expression of historical regret.
The great virtue of Wilson’s work is that it needs no introduction. An accessible mandarin and a vivid writer who shunned abstraction, Wilson wrote books any one of which can still be simply picked up and read with enormous pleasure and profit. But I fear they won’t be. With the optimism and myopia of a scholar consumed by his subject, Dabney sees Wilson as a vital influence in today’s American intellectual and cultural life. I don’t. To me, that life is alien and hostile to all that Wilson’s work represents.
Well, in one sense, it’s hard to argue with that. Wilson had Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Silone and countless other luminaries to engage with. We’ve got reality TV. Schwarz’s own excellent essays—each of which echoes Wilson in the aim to make complex subjects clear and engaging—must seem to him sadly like a rearguard action.
But, no sooner had I put Schwarz down, then I picked up the New Yorker to discover Janet Malcolm on Stein and Adam Gopnik on Howells. Amardeep is right. The Stein essay, like everything Malcolm writes, is a marvel. Boy, does it grate to read Marjorie Perloff’s knee-jerk dismissal! Perloff only wishes she had Malcolm’s critical acuity and psychological perception, not to mention her steelcut prose style. (So should we all.) I’ve read more than my share of Stein criticism, and no one I’ve encountered yet has anything like Malcolm’s ability to capture the unique and profoundly disorienting experience of reading Stein (is she a genius? is she a mountebank? is she a fool?) or to render her ambitions with sympathetic and clarifying attention. The main burden of Malcolm’s essay is that The Making of Americans “is a dark, death-ridden work”—“a great outpouring of grief and anger and sorrow and doubt that had to take place before the certainties and jollities of the mature writer could come into being.” As Malcolm sees it, Stein’s mad, nine-hundred page assault on the novel dramatized a youthful crisis (personal, intellectual, vocational) and an effort variously lunatic and inspired to resolve it by a project to anatomize the complete permutations of human character. It’s not a work of art so much as a tormenting spiritual exercise—for writer and reader alike.
As Perloff senses, there’s an important challenge to one prominent view of Stein (and perhaps of literary modernism in general) hidden in Malcolm’s deceptively finespun approach—a view that points toward something important about the distinctive historical setting for Stein’s personal and intellectual development. There’s a lot more to be said here, and I for one am eager to read the book that Malcolm seems to be preparing.
What a pleasure, though, on finishing her superb essay to discover Adam Gopnik’s eloquent defense of Howells as the first major writer of modern New York. I’d like to return to the piece in a future post, since Gopnik raises some ideas that I find both provocative and doubtful. But first some meta-thoughts.
Malcolm and Gopnik are virtuosi, brilliant writers who make it evident why criticism matters--how it can and should enlarge our understanding of serious art. Schwarz is not quite so luminous at the moment, but he’s got a brilliant future. How do these guys do it? Well, for one thing, they’re great talents, of course. For another, they’re published by magazines that still, somehow manage to allocate the resources needed to support this kind of work. (How many months went into the composition of an essay that it takes 15 minutes to read? My guess is many.) Maybe Schwarz is right and the Atlantic and the New Yorker are publishing dinosaurs. After all, the former has been dying for over a century now. If and when they go, it’ll be a real loss.
But, of course, there’s another important factor. The brilliant performance of each of these writers rests on the less glamorous labors of a legion of scholars. (In fact, the whole second half of Malcolm’s essay is an utterly fascinating story about the legendary Stein scholar Leon Katz. A kind of latter day “Aspern papers,” it points, like all Malcolm’s work to psychological distortions that seem both bizarre and ordinary.) Literary academia is much derided these days, and not without good reason. There are more than a few disestablishmentarians out there, and at least a few very vocal privatizers who argue that the only artistic and critical excellence we’re likely to see will come from people like Wilson--Grub streeters who write well because they write to be read. But not Malcolm, nor Gopnik, nor Schwarz could write as well they do if they weren’t able to draw on the less graceful accomplishments of toilsome academics.* A lot of that material is banal, much of it is misguided, most of it is forgettable. But that’s not all bad. No dull coral, no brilliant fish to swim about it.
*It is worth noting, though, that none of the scholarship Gopnick or Malcolm draw from directly was produced by the kind of academic stars who preside at tier-one universities. Something interesting to consider there.
Would anyone look down upon the University of Delware (not Pier One) this way?
Delaware, I mean.
But I’m not sure what you’re getting at in the note there at all. Surely there are more than what you’d consider “academic stars” at tier-one (whatever that might mean) universities. When I think of “star,” I have in mind about ten-twenty people tops who are still alive. They all aren’t in the same department, unless I’m missing something.
I didn’t enjoy Gopnik’s piece as much. The business about Wells, Waugh, and tannins seems to conflate two entirely different personality characteristics under the heading of “malice,” and plenty of people still read Wells. In fact, I’d be surprised if Wells doesn’t outsell Waugh by an impressive margin in absolute terms.
More on the Malcolm later, after I’ve digested (read: “read") the article. For now I’ll just gush over those first few sentences of The Journalist and the Murderer:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
I think it’s perfectly obvious why academics don’t write sentences like these: clarity of claims leads to easy refutation. Were I not the upstanding individual I try, on occasion, to be, I’d rewrite that sentence in different voices--Bhabha, Butler, Foucault, Derrida--in order to make the point that some complex claims can be made clearly and concisely, and that sometimes bad habits, esp. bad writing habits, are difficult to break.
Thanks for writing this—I was too lazy to give the Malcolm piece the level of attention it deserves.
I don’t know about tier 1 vs. non tier 1 schools. But on principle, smaller schools tend to give you a little more room to grow deeply involved with a particular author or problem. Big programs, where lots of guest speakers come through and where you have a crop of graduate students to train, are great for networking and “professionalization” (a word that I suspect will cause many to groan), but bad for the kind of scholarship that doesn’t produce quick results.
But there is also dark side to smallness, and that is that the same tolerance for idiosyncratic inquiries and a slower pace of research can also allow people to drift into real esoterica. Or not to write at all.
There could be an economics equation here (the effect of differential rates of ‘capital’ circulation on the value of labor), or an evolutionary biology type analogy (evolution and biodiversity on small islands vs. mainland). Both are probably wrong as literal explanations, but they might be helpful metaphors.
Are you using “big” and “small” to refer to number of students and faculty or reputation?
Alright, now that I’ve read the article, I can say that it certainly possesses one quality academic criticism avoids; namely, criticism. “Stein, realizing that she is not equipped to create fictional characters and yet believing herself to be a literary genius, stubbornly persists in her task of filling pieces of paper every day with her earnest and remarkable thought” (152). I outlined my problem with these unqualified claims a couple of months back, and I haven’t really changed my mind. Basically, what I said then was that literary journalists have the license to make claims historians or literary historians don’t...and what annoys me is that those claims are often unverifiable in the context in which they’re given. Not that Malcolm’s claim that Stein thought herself a “literary genius” is unverifiable, but that her belief in her genius drove her to write and write and write The Making of Americans is a claim--short of some evidence Malcolm doesn’t present--I wouldn’t feel comfortable making unattributed...and yet similar claims are bandied about in the pages of the Atlantic and the New Yorker every month. This isn’t a complaint, mind you, or if it is, it’s not the one you think I’m making: I wish I felt comfortable making such sweeping generalizations without tracking done and immediately citing evidence to support it.
(An aside: Aren’t book titles supposed to be underlined or italicized? Why does Malcolm refer to “The Making of Americans”? Given what I know about the line-editing Nazis over at the New Yorker, it’s no doubt correct, but still...it looks weird. I’ve probably been reading magazine reviews for years and have just never noticed this. Damn am I ever dense sometimes.)
I feel like I’m the guy around this site who just types “I think yer oversimplifying” all the time.
But I think yer oversimplifying (spoken in the *South Park* voice of the blue-collar workers who complain, “They took-ur jobs!").
I’m an English grad student at an Ivy. My three advisors all published their first books ("diss books") in the 94-95 era. They are all just completing their second manuscripts. That’s ten years for a second book. I think that’s plenty of time to write a decent study. (Christ, even Pynchon wrote two novels in 25 years.)
What needs to change, perhaps, is the need to turn the diss into a book in five years. But still: assuming that on average it takes four or five years of dissertating (not counting course work) to finish the Ph.D., that’s still nearly ten years to publication.
So perhaps what *really* needs to change is the need to have a “groundbreaking argument.” This is what frees great non-academic criticism up to be great. Few *New Yorker* or *Atlantic* literary-critical articles are thesis-driven; few advance claims that haven’t been advanced in the past; few do the hard work of close reading; few support their judgements with rigorous arguments. “Voice” is as much an element in such criticism as it is in contemporary short stories or lyrical poetry. (I think Sontag was only a voice sometimes, often having nothing terribly interesting to say.) I’ll venture that much of even the best of your New Yorker criticism rests on more on voice than on rational discourse, empirical evidence, logical argumentation, and all the other Procrustean beds on which academic types are evaluated.
That’s why I envy Greil Marcus so much. His book chapters can follow where he leads, can sniff out minute and tenuous connections that are more a sign of his perspicacity than of some intrinsic aspect of the art itself. And he can make strong judgements (note his devasting review of Doctorow’s *Ragtime*) without actually having to be held to them (he chooses which smaller pieces to collect and preserve in particular volumes, and very few people read back issues of, say, *Rolling Stone* to find Marcus’s dismissive review of album X or movie Y).
As far as the use of underlines or quotation marks go, I’ve never understood why your pop-star critics get to put book titles in quotation marks. (If I remember correct, Sasha Frere-Jones often puts album titles in quotation marks as well.) I do know that one official rule of such things has nothing to do with the type of work one is citing but rather with whether you are citing a work that was published alone or a work that was published as part of a larger work.
So that if you are discussing <The Making of the Americans> but you are using an edition that includes other Stein works, you can use quotation marks. And if you are citing a stand-alone, pamphlet edition of a single lyrical poem, you can use an underline or italics.
"As far as the use of underlines or quotation marks go, I’ve never understood why your pop-star critics get to put book titles in quotation marks.”
I corresponded with a major guy at Cambridge one who did this. I don’t know whether it’s a British / American thing, or whether he had quite sensibly decided not to do the extra work on his manual typewriter, but it was all fine with me. I would feel the same way in the case of more formal publications too. I’ve never understood why anyone cares about style sheets.
On the quotes—I think it’s just the New Yorker’s own proprietary style. I’ve noticed it before… Maybe it has to do with the font they use (italics might look awkward).
Jonathan: size, not rep. In my (admittedly limited) experience size has more to do with the socialization of expectations in departments than presumed prestige.
And Luther—about oversimplifying, yes, maybe. Though there are a lot of assistant professors at Tier 1 schools who are stressing right now about whether they can get their second manuscripts done before tenure. Not ten years—more like 2.
But I like the ‘groundbreaking argument’ problem, which is similar to the ‘smart criticism’ problem, as in Jeffrey Williams’s piece in the Chronicle from a few months ago. Related problems, if not quite the same.
(I responded to the ‘smart criticism’ piece here.)
Amardeep, point taken about those assistant profs forced to publish two books before tenure. That’s simply ridiculous.
Also, in your piece on “smart criticism,” I really like your call for more textbooks *of* literature that aren’t anthologies. I’ve been putting together a basic Intro to Fiction course, and while there are plenty of fiction anthologies, there is no decent textbook on narratology (and I’m using that term loosely—anything from Auerbach to Skip Gates would be useful). There are great “introduction to narrative theory” books, but they aren’t imminently teachable (Seymour Chatman’s *Story and Discourse* or Rimmon-Kenan’s *Narrative Fiction*, for instance).
Perhaps that would be a good thread: what sorts of textbooks would we like to see?
Amardeep’s right - it’s just something the New Yorker does, because they can.
Luther, in our Narrative course we use A.S. Byatt’s On Histories and Stories. There is also The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, by H. Porter Abbott - not a perfect textbook, but works ok as a basic primer.
This is what frees great non-academic criticism up to be great. Few *New Yorker* or *Atlantic* literary-critical articles are thesis-driven; few advance claims that haven’t been advanced in the past; few do the hard work of close reading; few support their judgements with rigorous arguments. . . . I’ll venture that much of even the best of your New Yorker criticism rests on more on voice than on rational discourse, empirical evidence, logical argumentation, and all the other Procrustean beds on which academic types are evaluated.
LB, I think this is almost completely untrue. Every one of the pieces I referred to makes a highly plausible and illuminating argument, and I think that’s in fact quite typical of the kind of essays these magazines publish. Popular readers are as uninterested in reading pointless essays as academics are.
I will agree, though, that there’s a difference in something that (I think mistakenly) goes by the name of “rigor.” Malcolm and Gopnik’s arguments are not highly elaborated. It’s an opportunity, and a demand, of their form that they make strong claims without extensive explanation and evidence. What helps shield their judgments from arbitrariness, however, is (somewhat as in the blogosphere) the expectation that their claims will be scrutinized by a large public with many well informed readers among them--some of whom will be not at all inclined to be generous. You can bet that many a Stein authority will be picking over Malcolm’s essay looking for problems. (As Marjorie Perloff did with an earlier essay. It’s not unrevealing, I think, that Perloff can find nothing substantively wrong with Malcolm’s view. You can be sure that’s not because she wasn’t looking. Another case in point: Scott’s comments about Malcolm’s claims re genius do not seem outlandish at all if you’ve read the unpublished notebooks Malcolm describes. Malcolm doesn’t quote from them at length, as an academic might need to, but her characterization of them is not arbitrary in the slightest.) A reader like myself will give Malcolm a lot of trust not simply because of the authority of her voice and the evident brilliance of her mind, but because of the knowledge that the expectation of such feedback will have been built into her composition.
This is all worth mentioning, I think, not just because it would be unjust and unwise to dismiss superb journalistic criticism out of hand, but because the “procrustean beds” you mention are not actually functioning very well in literary academia at the moment. Would that it were the case that “rational discourse, empirical evidence, [and] logical argumentation” mattered more to literary scholarship. But in fact the demand for rigor, and smartness, have had quite the opposite effect. Not only do we not get many bold judgments these days, but they’re very often not carefully made or usefully scrutinized. Our feedback system--not journalism’s--isn’t functioning very well.
It’s the smartness problem mentioned by Amardeep that I meant to refer to in my throwaway comment at the end. I think he, and Williams, are absolutely right.
I agree, though, LB that Marcus stopped making arguments sometime aroung Lipstick Traces. Personally, I don’t think it’s served him well. Give me “Presliad.”
Is Gopnik’s piece anything other than a belletristic review-essay of the Howells biography?
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s neither better nor worse than scholarly writing--just different.
Malcolm doesn’t quote from them at length, as an academic might need to, but her characterization of them is not arbitrary in the slightest.
Sean, just so we’re clear, I wasn’t claiming they were. I suppose another way of asking the same question would be: why are Harper’s and anyone who publishes David Foster Wallace the only major magazines to extensively footnote their articles? Or, to ask the same question yet another way: why do the Joan Didion articles in the NYRB contain footnotes but the Chabon ones don’t? (If you’re tempted to answer “because Didion isn’t writing about literature,” I could rephrase that question: why is it when Didion writes about The Left Behind series her work contains footnotes but when Chabon writes about Sherlock Holmes...)
I think there’s an expectation that these sorts of claims--even when firmly grounded in fact--need not be backed, explicitly, by evidence when the subject matter in question is literary. That strikes me as odd and, perhaps, indicative of a larger problem with the field.
(Also, anyone who thinks Malcolm untrustworthy ought to read the aforementioned The Journalist and the Murder. She absolutely savages herself...and not in a flattering early-Woody-Allen way, either.)
“. . . these sorts of claims--even when firmly grounded in fact--need not be backed, explicitly, by evidence when the subject matter in question is literary.
I don’t think it’s odd, and I don’t think it’s really quite true. Malcolm, Gopnick and writers like them do give evidence, just not (for the purposes of economy and grace, I assume) exhaustive amounts of it. Like I say, I think that’s not a serious problem because of the implicit understanding that everything written will be subject to extensive public review and exchange.
Most journalistic forms of writing do not involve footnotes, of course--as, we have been reminded, most blogospheric writing doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean that argument and evidence are not involved. Most examples depend on the premise that sources for information and quotation can be supplied on demand. If you write for the New Yorker or similar publications, you go through an elaborate fact-checking process. That process may not extend to interpretive questions, but a writer who does not subject herself to comparable forms of reflexiveness, and thereby stay within the bounds of credibilty, will not maintain much authority.
Obviously, this is a special institutional context. It depends on writers addressing widely known subjects and speaking to a large and interested audience. Footnotes and other scholarly apparatus are important where the institutional context is different, but not in my view because substantively different kinds of intellectual operations are being pursued. There’s no significant distinction between Malcolm’s arguments about Stein and those of academic Stein experts--except that she’s bolder, more graceful, and a far more vivid writer. The real problem in the field, I think, is that there are a good many academics with footnotes up the wazoo who left behind the bounds of credibility many lightyears ago.
(Wallace’s fns are not evidentiary, are they? They’re just stylistic geegaws. The inconsistency with the NYRB, I think, stems from the fact that it reprints a lot of prefaces and speeches, which aren’t usually footnoted. But it may just be inconsistent. I don’t think that matters very much, though.)
There’s no significant distinction between Malcolm’s arguments about Stein and those of academic Stein experts--except that she’s bolder, more graceful, and a far more vivid writer.
Well—she also gets paid better.
That might of course not tell us very much: does she get paid better because she’s a better writer to begin with, or does she get to be a better writer because the incentive and the audience is there for her?
Like I say, I think that’s not a serious problem because of the implicit understanding that everything written will be subject to extensive public review and exchange.
Ah...if only we wrote under the same burden. I suppose it’s because I teach literary journalism that I’m always a little suspicious of the claims of literary journalists. Not because I don’t trust them--I probably trust them more than most people--only that the fact-checking is often done by people with no familiarity with the subject. Consider, for example, the problem of unpublished notebooks. Malcolm probably went to a scholarly library, took notes, etc., and then, if asked, could provide those notes to the fact-checker. All well and good. But what if...? (Insert your own scenario of honest but compounded mistakes.) Malcolm would be the first to admit that this occurs (and has herself written about such events). All of which is beside my point, because what I’m really saying saying isn’t that she ought to be more like us but that we ought to find ways to write more like her.
P.S. My comment about DFW was entirely glib. Then again, if he can find a way to gracefully introduce footnotes into his Harper’s articles on Michael Joyce, lobster, state fairs and cruises…
Well, I went out and bought a *New Yorker* for the first time in a long time, and read the Malcolm piece over some delicious Mexican food while chain-smoking Camels and drinking Dos Equis. And I’ll stick by my initial complains.
What *claim* does Malcolm make about Stein? She offers nothing of much interest about the text of *Making* as such—a few local observations, long block quotations, not much attention to form or language beyond content. And then the article becomes essentially a journalistic account of her dealings with Katz—which are interesting, but of very little literary-critical value. Her failings to engage with recent Stein scholarship (such as Bob Perelman’s first critical book on Pound, Stein, and Joyce, and the issue of “genius) are, well, failings, especially in an article very much about Stein’s self-transformation into a “genius.”
Her comment that no “school of Stein” has arisen seems simiarly unfounded. We hear Stein in Heminwgay certainly, but what about DeLillo and Kathy Acker? I’m reading *Mao II*, and much of the prose style is straight Stein parataxis? What about poets like Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian (sp?), Susan Howe, Harryette Mullen? Just as *Finnegan’s Wake* is tracable largely through poetry (the great book *Irish Poetry Since Joyce* claiming as much), so too is Stein’s influence clearly visible among poets.
This isn’t to say that the article wasn’t very well-written and interesting. It’s just that, on the whole, I still feel her style of literary engagement is more about the voice and labor of the critic than it is about the work at hand.
In my last post, I called “rational discourse, empirical evidence, [and] logical argumentation” the Procrustean beds on which academic discourse is evaluated. I meant “evaluated” by the sort of critics we find in, say, *Theory’s Empire*. Whether or not we agree that contemporary scholarship meets those demands, I still think we should agree that Janet Malcolm is not the way out. I don’t want to poop on Malcolm’s work—which I like—but I do want to assert that it’s *not* what literature scholars should be trying to accomplish. I’ll take Franco Moretti’s *The Modern Epic* any day. Or, to cite a lesser known critic, John Berger’s *After the End*.
Well, we’ll have to disagree about this, LB. I think your read puts more emphasis on style than on substance, and since I think Malcolm’s style is enviable, I guess we’re bound to look at things differently.
Here are the arguments I recall Malcolm making about MOA. The major one is, of course, a biographical and vocational argument about the way MOA served as a crucial transition in Stein’s career and an extended process in which she overcame a profound sense of failure and mortality and left behind the fin de siecle haute bourgeois lifestyle she’d been accustomed to. This is not a completely unprecedented view of Stein’s career, but it is a surprisingly rare one. Lots of people talk about Wm. James. Very few people talk about Stein’s departure from Hopkins or the context of the 1890s at all. (Brenda Wineapple is an important exception, who does deserve more credit from Malcolm.) The dominant account continues to accept Stein’s own blithe characterization of her life, which even a cursory reading of her ms suggests is wildly inaccurate.
A related argument is that MOA is centrally concerned with mortality—especially in the chapters on Fanny and David—, that Stein envisions the quixotic effort to anatomize human character as in some way an answer to death, and that the book doesn’t just assume this view, but dramatizes it in the narrator’s recurrent doubts and schemes. Again, an approach anticipated in some ways by some other writers, but also very much a minority view, and one that seems to me obviously correct. (Very few other readers of MOA that I recall take the narrator’s recurrent expressions of despair seriously.)
The essay also discusses the way the book progressively moves away from the nineteenth century novel (true) and develops into a version of the art work that deemphasizes the object and stresses the engagement of writer, text, and audience. This is not such a shocking idea, but surprisingly not emphasized much in Stein scholarship. There is also an unexpectedly admiring account of Stein’s prose style that stresses Stein’s dissatisfaction with all conventional expression and a meditative or incantatory result. These are far more familiar points, but Malcolm makes them with a clarity and force that I think is unusual and, pointedly--and correctly, I think—does not link them to the celebratory antiformalism common in Stein scholarship.
In this respect, Malcolm implicitly differs strongly with those like Perelman, Bernstein, Hejinian, and similar minded writers who want Stein to be an early poststructuralist or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet. I think Malcolm’s view is quite the correct one here, and is given substance by her attention to Stein’s life and unpublished writing. Stein actually shares very little with those writers and their effort to recruit her is based mainly on misreading or overreading. (Jennifer Ashton has recently written forcefully on this point. She’s the only scholar I know who has made this counterhegemonic and highly plausible contention.) The story about Katz is of literary-critical significance in this context, btw, because it’s a reminder that there is a whole aspect of Stein’s history that remains unknown, that is potentially quite illuminating, and that is the kind of information that the dominant school of Stein criticism (represented ably by Perloff) hasn’t taken very seriously. Malcolm’s earlier writing about Stein and Vichy, which came out around the same time as a few young scholars began to notice it, is similar: biographical and intellectual context that seriously challenges a prevailing view of Stein and her work.
These are all arguments, I think. They just don’t trumpet themselves the way academics usually do, but, especially in the context of Stein criticism, they’re models of rigor and clarity. I’ve read a lot of Stein scholarship and criticism (including the Perelman, which did not strike me as extraordinarily impressive), and I found more insight and ideas in Malcolm than in a whole sea of overelaborate, scholastic argument. I agree that Moretti is an interesting guy, btw. But you want to use Berger as an example of rational discourse? The last thing I read by him—In the Pocket—is outright mysticism and is avowedly the kind of impressionistic, belletristic criticism you complain about than Malcolm could ever be.
Sorry, Sean, that should have read “James Berger,” not “John Berger.” James Berger is a professor at Hofstra who writes on trauma and contemporary American culture (he had a good piece in the recent PMLA about DeLillo).
I did find her earlier piece on Stein and Vichy really superb (and was glad that *The New Yorker* was returning to long articles—can you believe that Arendt’s introduction to Benjamin’s *Illuminations* was originally a single *New Yorker* article?).
On the Language Poets, I don’t quite understand how you’re differentiating Malcolm’s view of her rejection of conventional expression with the Lang Po’s view of her rejection of conventional expression. Leslie Scalapino is a poet who has made a career out of developing Stein’s “meditative or incantatory result.” But I won’t disagree that later writers proleptically read earlier writers; that’s the way of literary history, where Kit Smart becomes Ginsberg and *Tristram Shandy* becomes the first postmodern novel. My only point is that the 20th century avant garde poets have maintained Stein’s influence.
The Katz stuff I just didn’t find essential. It felt more like a journalistic version of, say, Ozick’s *The Messiah of Stockholm*—the holder of a literary secret that is probably more smoke and mirrors than anything radical. I suppose I would have liked more attention to her experience in reading the novel than in tracking down its readers. But as you wrote, we can agree to disagree. Malcolm’s clarity and style are beautiful. But I think issues of clarity become more difficult when one actively engages a text and describes its features for an academic audience.
Wait a minute, LB. There’s an arcane and highly abstract text in which you’re seriously interested. Despite the abstract surface of that text, there is also a strong documentary record that many of its features and avowedly impersonal categories are directly based on intensely emotional personal relationships. One witness, who has offered other credible and important information about the text and writer, claims to possess important information about those personal relationships--received from the typist and lover of the author. But . . . this doesn’t seem essential?
That seems a strange reaction. Sure, the information might turn out to be useless. But to decide it’s useless without even seeing it doesn’t seem, well, very scholarly. How different would our understanding of Three Lives be if we had decided in advance that Katz’s information that “Melanctha” (that it’s a reworking of Q.E.D. and thus Stein’s retelling of her own story of a miserable same sex love triangle)was probably smoke and mirrors?! Very. How different would our picture of Ulysses be if Stuart Gilbert decided to stuff his information under a mattress. Maybe Gilbert is misleading, not the ultimate answer, etc. But would you really want to say the information he had was probably unimportant?
(Then, too, I imagine that the story of Katz isn’t in Malcolm’s essay just as information; it’s consistent with her theme of the way that literary creation is bound up with psychological compulsions about power, authority, reputation, etc. We’re pretty clearly meant to see Katz and Stein as in some way comparable figures.)
My point about Malcolm vs. L. poets is that Malcolm--rightly, I think--recognizes that there’s nothing liberatory for the young Stein about the suspicioun of conventional language. It’s an ordeal. Since Walker, Chessman, et al. the dominant view of Stein has seen her alleged antiformalism as playful, antipatriarchal, subversive, etc. Malcolm doesn’t belabor the point, but by giving us a completely alternative portrait of Stein she suggests quite clearly the limitations of that view.
I think the L school poets, along with critics like Perloff and the dominant strain of Stein scholarship over the past several decades has misread Stein by mistaking texts that appear to have similar features for texts that are inspired by the same kinds of motivations. This has allowed Stein scholars to not work very hard to understand her critical arguments or her literary experiments or their relationship to her personal and intellectual history. (Jennifer Ashton’s essays are, I think, devastating on this subject. She argues quite strongly that Stein’s dissatisfaction with conventional language was motivated by attitudes virtually the opposite of poststructuralists and L school poets. There’s also a good recent essay in Modernism/Mod’ty on Stein’s theory of the art work and its relation to the public that takes a comparable line. Both are very forceful challenges to the Perloff/Perelman, etc. position.)
The Vichy stuff is not a bad example of the weakness of dominant Stein scholarship. There’s some startling new information here, but a lot of it’s been publicly available (e.g., Stein’s early dismissal of the importance of Hitler) for decades. It hasn’t received much attention because, I think, of: (1) a commitment to seeing Stein as formally subversive and (2) a related premise that intellectual history is therefore not important. Weinenger is another good example. It was Katz who revealed the importance of Weinenger to the young Stein. The dominant response (e.g., Damon, Doyle, Wald)--when W. is considered at all--is to argue that Stein must have been subverting Weinenger’s repellent attitudes. These arguments are, I think, almost shockingly thin and are based mainly on the sense that Stein must have been subversive because, well, she must have been subversive.
Malcolm talks in her essay about a rich trove of information about Stein that hasn’t really been considered in much depth--the notebooks for MOA. It’s unpublished information, of course, and it’s painfully difficult to decipher and understand. (Hence the extraordinary importance of what Katz may possess.) But it’s almost scandalous how little this material is known and discussed. So by my lights, Malcolm has actually been the more diligent, rigorous, and repsonsible scholar. A lot of academics are blowing smoke by comparison.
Sean, thanks for the clarification on your Malcolm vs. LangPo. I agree that the Language Poets frequently turn modernists into mirrors of themselves. My point isn’t so much that they are right or wrong, but rather that they *are*, for better or worse, the tradition of Stein. What artists do when they construct literary historical narratives is different, I believe, than what scholars do. Artists nearly always read history proleptically and teleologically: “How did *I* emerge out of *Them*? Or, how am *I* a direct result of *Them*?
I agree, too, that Katz’s information may be essential. What I wanted to argue was that a scholar couldn’t get away with Malcolm’s article in a scholarly journal, for better or worse. There are many riffs possible on Malcolm’s: take Pynchon’s letters at the Morgan Library. Or DeLillo on Pynchon. Both of those could potentially change the way we read Pynchon, but simply saying that gets us nowhere.
You’ve won me over on two aspects. I think you are right that Malcolm is doing the hard, archival work that many critics can’t do, whether due to issues of access, money, or methodology. And you’re right that Malcolm is convincing on MOA as a turning point in Stein’s career.
Not knowing Stein scholarship myself, I can’t speak to Ashton’s contribution. But it seems to me that some binary of playful/tortured regarding Stein’s style isn’t very constructive. It’s hard to ignore the playfulness of much of her work, from *Tender Buttons* to her exasperating lectures to her libretto for Virgil Thompson. It’s also hard, as Malcolm shows and you’ve shown me, to ignore that style wasn’t all fun and games for Stein. But neither is it all fun and subversion for many of the Language Poets and their ilk. Take Scalapino, for instance. I think Perelman and Bernstein are misunderstood precisely because their work’s surfaces are so ludic. But there is also a tense, disturbed aspect to their style, a deep engagement with suffering and injustice. Or take Silliman’s *Under Albany*. The early, Stalinistic self-presentation of the LangPos can’t be taken as the final word on their actual work and development.
Finally, and this is a whole other can of worms, I worry about the influence of this sort of biographical/gossipy perspective on art. It’s important for understanding Stein as an artist, but it could potentially reduce the complexity of the work to a roman a clef with a secret decoder ring in Katz’s underground laboratory. Malcolm is certainly right to go after that material, because she seems ultimately interested in how artists transform art out of experience (her work on Chekhov is great in that regard). But still. I worry.
I had a lot of problems with Ulla E. Dydo’s big book, but her research definitely establishes that Stein’s writing method was to abstract and distance. So I think it’s fair to say that repersonalizing (whether from the sentimentally feminist pro or the asshole dismissive con [I like Stein]) goes against her method and, very likely, her intention and, very clearly, her influence.
But saying this is a Golden Age of Literary Journalism sounds to me like saying this is a Golden Age of Destroying Any Hope of the Survival of the Species, so maybe I’m just the wrong guy to comment. I might feel more upbeat if this was a Golden Age of Political Journalism or a Golden Age of Literary Creation.
Finally, and this is a whole other can of worms, I worry about the influence of this sort of biographical/gossipy perspective on art. It’s important for understanding Stein as an artist, but it could potentially reduce the complexity of the work to a roman a clef with a secret decoder ring in Katz’s underground laboratory.
I don’t think this is another can of worms. This is the nub of our disagreement.
It’s true that, as Ray says, Stein’s method is to abstract and distance. And it’s equally true therefore that, to some degree, seeking to understand the intellectual, as well as biographical and historical motivations for that method, will cut against it. But that’s not really an argument for not doing it; only a reason for doing it with care and full consciousness of what’s being pursued. What you’re doing in this passage, I think, is setting up a boogie man at the bottom of a slippery slope. Any critical method can be abused. Since at the moment Malcolm’s approach is about as far from the critical orthodoxy as it’s possible to get, the real concern should be not its potential dangers, but what’s being missed when people like Perloff dismiss it out of hand.
About Ashton, it was misleading for me to suggest that the difference was primarily a matter of tone. That’s my emphasis and a product of my personal interest in the early over the late Stein. Ashton’s argument is that Stein’s motivations are quite different, even contrary to the L poets. E.g., she claims that Stein is not concerned to celebrate linguistic indeterminacy, but to unrelentingly pursue (however unlikely the pursuit may ultimately be) a kind of linguistic determinacy. One ideal for Stein, in other words, and a source of her perhaps misinterpreted dissatisfaction with nouns in general, is the proper noun. The problem with names for her, in other words, is not (as a derridean approach would suggest) that they aspire to or impose determinacy or an impossible authority, but that they lack such qualities. The essay about the status of the work of art I was thinking of earlier (Lisa Siraginian, Modernism/Modernity 10.4) makes a similarly counterintuitive, but I think very plausible argument that Stein pursued a radical (and ultimately, I think, absurd) effort to imagine the work of art as entirely independent of its readers. (A view not inconsistent with Dydo’s point about the centrality of abstraction.) If these arguments are correct, some receptions of Stein have placed themselves in a false tradition. Nothing unusual about that, of course. But there’s also no reason it should just be accepted critically. And, of course, it would matter to our understanding of both Stein and the L poets if we were convinced that the tradition the latter asserted was an invented one.
I agree, Ray. It would be better if this were a golden age of literary creation. I just wanted to float the unlikely thought that public critical writing is not in as bad a state as a declinist like Schwarz thinks. Do you think literary journalism means the end of humanity?
Well, it certainly argues against long mourning afterwards.
Misunderstood “traditions” have been key in the development of many writers and genres. The Language Steinians (and earlier serious readers of Stein) started from sincere fascination with and extended reading of Stein’s work, despite the sneers it’s received from academics and journalists. I would call their response more “invented” only in the sense that it was more original.
I don’t in fact think that this is a Golden Age of Literary Jouralism, but I have such dislike for the genre, I’m hardly a judge. This dislike does not extend to informal criticism, illuminating criticism, or stylish criticism. Nor does it imply praise for Perloff—I share some of her loves, but I wish they had a better defender.
But for the Atlantic in 2005 to call Gertrude Stein tiresome and William Dean Howell underrated? That’s illuminating criticism only in the sense that PBS’s “Lawrence Welk” re-runs are challenging television.
(Having gotten off such a fine zinger, maybe I’d better go look at the Malcolm and see if I enjoy it. That’s the trouble with responding to comment threads instead of posts—by the time you get to the bottom, you’re convinced you’ve read *something*, but sometimes what it was gets a bit muddled.)
I have a hard time grasping why part of your post is really generous, Ray, and part seems so ungenerous. It would be easier to be more critical about the Language Steinians--i.e., they wanted to have a predecessor, they invented one, as a consequence they read partially and maybe sometimes lazily. We give artists a lot of leeway with this kind of thing, of course, but when it coexists with the development of a critical orthodoxy it deserves to be held up to scrutiny.
Likewise, it would be easier to be a lot more generous to the Atlantic and the New Yorker--the latter of which published the essays we’re discussing, neither of which, btw, says anything like what you suggest. What would be wrong with saying these magazines publish (quite surprisingly, I think) serious criticism about important artists who would otherwise go entirely neglected in current popular culture? I can’t see why L poets merit such deference while these folks merit contempt?
whoops, I posted my last comment before I saw your last, Ray.
I deserved the mild castigation, Sean. One of these nights I should learn that posting while miserable is far more dangerous than posting while drunk.
My loathing of literary journalism compares in extremity to Blake’s opinion of Rubens and Reynolds—much too extreme to comfortably fit a comment box. I hate what it does to its readers and hate even more what it does to its writers. Sure, I have unasked-for opinions on how academic journals could be better. But I do read through them monthly with profit, whereas I doubt I’ve finished a single issue of the New York Times Book Review in the last 25 years without throwing it across the room in disgust. Never have I encountered a feeding hand more toothsome than Salon’s.
(He’s off again.) Well, more than enough generalizing from me. I owe some attention to that issue of the New Yorker.