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 now produce by what appears to be parthenogenesis novels intended only for the classroom; my favorite demonstrated that the universe is—what else?—the university. Occasionally a university novel (or U-novel) will be read by the general (and dwindling) public for the novel; and sometimes a novel written for that same public (P-novel) will be absorbed into Academe, but more and more the division between the two realms grows and soon what is written to be taught in class will stay there and what is written to be read outside will stay there, too. On that day the kingdom of prose will end, with an exegesis.
Meanwhile, bookchat, both P and U, buzzes on like some deranged bumblebee with a taste for ragweed; its store of bitter honey periodically collected and offered the public (?) in books with titles like Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction by Granville Hicks, one of the most venerable bees in the business, a nice old thing who likes just about everything that’s “serious” but tends to worry more about the authors than their books. Will X develop? Get past the hurdle of The Second Novel (everyone has One Novel in him, the First) or will fashion destroy him? Drink? Finally, does he deserve to be memorialized in Literary Horizons? Mr. Hicks’s list of approved novelists contains one black, one Catholic, one Southern Wasp, and six Jews. That is the standard mix for the Seventies. The Fifties mix would have been six Southern Wasps, one Jew, no black, etc.
For those who find puzzling the high favor enjoyed by the Jewish novelist in today’s bookchat land, I recommend Mr. Alfred Kazin’s powerful introduction to The Commentary Reader, “The Jew as Modern American Writer.” Mr. Kazin tells us, with pardonable pride, that not only are Jews “the mental elite of the power age” but “definitely it was now  the thing to be Jewish.” As a result, to be a Jew in America is the serious subject for a P or even U novel, while to be a Wasp is to be away from the creative center; the born Catholic (as opposed to a convert like Flannery O’Connor) is thought at best cute (if Irish), at worst silly (if drunken Irish). In the permissive Sixties, Negroes were allowed to pass themselves off as blacks and their books were highly praised for a time but then there was all that trouble in the schools and what with one thing or another the black writers faded away except for James Baldwin, Mr. Hicks’s token nigger. Yet even Mr. Hicks is worried about Mr. Baldwin. Does he really belong on the List? Is it perhaps time for his “funeral service” as a writer? Or will he make one final titanic effort and get it all together and write The Novel?
Like Bouvard, like Pecuchet, like every current bookchatterer, Hicks thinks that there really is something somewhere called The Novel which undergoes periodic and progressive change (for the better—this is America!) through Experiments by Great Masters. Consequently the Task of the Critic is to make up Lists of Contenders, and place his bets accordingly. Not for Mr. Hicks Brigid Brophy’s truism: there is no such thing as The Novel, only novels.
At any given moment the subject or the matter of American fiction is limited by the prevailing moral prejudices and assumptions of the residents in bookchat land. U-novels must always be predictably experimental (I reserve for another occasion a scrutiny of those interesting cacti) while the respectable P-novel is always naturalistic, usually urban, often Jewish, always middle-class, and of course, deeply, sincerely heterosexual.
Conscious of what the matter of fiction ought to be, Mr. Hicks somewhat nervously puts Louis Auchincloss on his list. On the one hand, Auchincloss deals entirely with the American scene, writes in a comfortably conventional manner, and is one of the few intellectuals who writes popular novels. On the other hand, despite virtues, Auchincloss is not much thought of in either the P or the U world and Mr. Hicks is forced to buzz uneasily: “Although I have read and reviewed most of Louis Auchincloss’s work in the past twelve years, I hesitated about including him in this volume.” So the original Debrett must have felt when first called upon to include the Irish peerage. “Certainly he has not been one of the movers and shakers of the postwar period.” As opposed, presumably, to Reynolds Price, Wright Morris, Herbert Gold, Bernard Malamud, and the other powerhouses on Mr. Hicks’s list. Actually, only two or three of Mr. Hicks’s writers could be said to have made any contribution at all to world literature. But that is a matter of taste. After all, what, Pontius, is literature?
Mr. Hicks returns worriedly to the matter of fiction. Apparently Auchincloss “has written for the most part about ‘good’ society, the well-to-do and the well-bred. And he has written about them with authority. What bothers me is not that he writes about this little world but that he seems to be aware of no other. Although he is conscious of its faults, he never questions its values in any serious way.” This is fascinating. I have read all of Auchincloss’s novels and I cannot recall one that did not in a most serious way question the values of his “little world.” Little world!
It is a fascinating tribute to the cunning of our rulers and to the density of our intellectuals (bookchat division, anyway) that the world Auchincloss writes about, the domain of Wall Street bankers and lawyers and stockbrokers, is thought to be irrelevant, a faded and fading genteelgentile enclave when, in actual fact, this little world comprises the altogether too vigorous and self-renewing ruling class of the United States—an oligarchy that is in firm control of the Chase Manhattan Bank, American foreign policy, and the decision-making processes of both divisions of the Property Party; also, most “relevantly,” Auchincloss’s characters set up and administer these various foundations that subsidize those universities where academics may serenely and dully dwell like so many frogs who think their pond the ocean (the universe is the university again).
Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs. Yet such is the vastness of our society and the remoteness of academics and bookchatterers from actual power that those who should be most in this writer’s debt have no idea what a useful service he renders us by revealing and, in some ways, by betraying his class. But then how can the doings of a banker who is white and gentile and rich be relevant when everyone knows that the only meaningful American experience is to be Jewish, lower-middle-class, and academic? Or (in Mr. Hicks’s words), “As I said a while ago and was scolded for saying, the characteristic hero of our time is a misfit.” Call me Granville.
Ignorance of the real world is not a new thing in our literary life. After the Second World War, a young critic made a splash with a book that attributed the poverty of American fiction to the lack of a class system—a vulgar variation on Henry James’s somewhat similar but usually misunderstood observations about American life. This particular writer came from a small town in the Midwest; from school, he had gone into the service and from there into a university. Since he himself had never seen any sign of a class system, he decided that the United States was a truly egalitarian society. It should be noted that one of the charms of the American arrangement is that a citizen can go through a lifetime and never know his true station or who the rulers are.
Of course our writers know that there are rich people hidden away somewhere (in the columns of Suzy, in the novels of Louis Auchincloss) but since the Depression, the owners of the country have played it cool, kept out of sight, consumed inconspicuously. Finally, no less a P (now P-U) writer than that lifelong little friend of the rich Ernest Hemingway felt obliged to reassure us that the rich are really just folks. For the P-writer the ruling class does not exist as a subject for fiction if only because the rulers are not to be found in his real world of desperate suburbs. The U-writer knows about the Harkness plan—but then what is a harkness? Something to do with horse racing? While the names that the foundations bear do not suggest to him our actual rulers—only their stewards in the bureaucracy of philanthropy: the last stronghold of the great immutable fortunes.