A Writer’s Capital
“What a dull and dreary trade is that of critic,” wrote Diderot. “It is so difficult to create a thing, even a mediocre thing; it is so easy to detect mediocrity.” Either the great philosophe was deliberately exaggerating or else Americans have always lived in an entirely different continuum from Europe. For us the making of mediocre things is the rule while the ability to detect mediocrity or anything else is rare. A century ago, E. L. Godkin wrote in The Nation: “The great mischief has always been that whenever our reviewers deviate from the usual and popular course of panegyric, they start from and end in personality, so that the public mind is almost sure to connect unfavorable criticism with personal animosity.
Don’t knock, boost! was the cry of Warren Harding. To which the corollary was plain: anyone who knocks is a bad person with a grudge. As a result, the American has always reacted to the setting of standards rather the way Count Dracula responds to a clove of garlic or a crucifix. Since we are essentially a nation of hustlers rather than makers, any attempt to set limits or goals, rules or standards, is to attack a system of free enterprise where not only does the sucker not deserve that even break but the honest man is simply the one whose cheating goes undetected. Worse, to say that one English sentence might be better made than another is to be a snob, a subverter of the democracy, a Know-Nothing enemy of the late arrivals to our shores and its difficult language.
I doubt if E. L. Godkin would find the American bookchat scene any better today than it was when he and his literary editor Wendell Phillips Garrison did their best to create if not common readers uncommon reviewers. Panegyric is rarer today than it was in the last century but personality is still everything, as the Sunday New York Times Book Review demonstrates each week: who can ever forget the Times‘s gorgeous tribute not to the book by Mr. Saul Bellow under review but to its author’s admittedly unusual physical beauty? What matters is not if a book is good or bad (who, after all, would know the difference?) but whether or not the author is a good person or a bad person. It is an article of faith among us that only a good person can write a good book; certainly, a bad person will only write bad books (the continuing Ezra Pound debate is full of fine examples of this popular wisdom).
But then moralizing is as natural to the American bookchat writer as it is to the rest of our countrymen—a sort of national tic. Naturally, there are fashions in goodness owing to changes in the Climate of Opinion (current forecast: Chomsky occluded, low pressure over the black experience, small Stravinsky-Craft warnings). Also, since Godkin’s time, the American university has come into its terrible own. Departments of English …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.