"The modern" is an idea, a very radical idea, that continues to evolve. We are now in a second phase of the ideology of the modern (which has been given the presumptuous name of "the postmodern"). This beginning of "the modern" in literature took place in the 1850s. A century and a half is a long time. Many of the attitudes and scruples and refusals associated with "the modern" in literature - as well as in the other arts - have begun to seem conventional or even sterile. And, to some extent, this judgment is justified. Every notion of literature, even the most exacting and liberating, can become a form of spiritual complacency or self-congratulation.Unfortunately, she doesn't do much with this. She goes off on a weird, somewhat dated digression about the "hyper-novel", before finally locating the problem with today's fiction with television. Then she spends several paragraphs on broad generalizations about the differences between the novel and television. I found very little of value in this section, very little that hasn't been said before. By the end it's clear that she is making an ethical argument in favor of the novel; she is saying that reading novels is good for us. It's not immediately evident to me what the purpose of such a piece is. If it weren't a posthumously published piece from Susan Sontag, I don't think anyone would care.
Most notions about literature are reactive - in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive. But what is happening in the repudiations advanced in the current debate about the novel goes far beyond the usual process whereby new talents need to repudiate older ideas of literary excellence.
In North America and in Europe, we are living now, I think it fair to say, in a period of reaction. In the arts, it takes the form of a bullying reaction against the high modernist achievement, which is thought to be too difficult, too demanding of audiences, not accessible (or "user-friendly") enough. And in politics, it takes the form of a dismissal of all attempts to measure public life by what are disparaged as mere ideals.
In the modern era, the call for a return to realism in the arts often goes hand in hand with the strengthening of cynical realism in political discourse.
Meanwhile, in the April issue of Harper's, Cynthia Ozick calls for more literary criticism to redress the problems currently besetting literary fiction. This article ("Literary Entrails") was similarly disappointing, though I certainly agree that we need more criticism. She begins by rehearsing the arguments made by Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus in two previous Harper's articles: Franzen's 1996 manifesto fretting about the lack of societal impact of literary fiction and calling for more socially engaged literature, and Ben Marcus' 2005 article, which defended experimental literature, largely from Franzen, by replying in part to Franzen's manifesto, but more to Franzen's notorious (and whiny) New Yorker essay from 2002 about William Gaddis titled "Mr Difficult".
Ozick argues that the kinds of manifestos and polemics made by Franzen and Marcus have nothing to do with the health of literature. They are bickering over readers who are increasingly not there to be bickered over. She says that what's needed is more literary criticism, the kind of literary criticism that "explains, both ancestrally and contemporaneously, not only how literature evolves but how literature influences and alters the workings of human imagination." She proceeds to single out James Wood as exactly the kind of critic we need, one who sees the "indebtedness" and "connectedness" between writers past and present. What we need, Ozick argues, are more James Woods (she actually says "What is needed is a thicket--a forest--of Woods"). Then she approvingly quotes several passages from Wood's criticism--this is a critical mind at work, she says. She mentions some others who provide "inklings" of a "potential critical aggregate", but that she includes Christopher Hitchens in this list is not encouraging (that she includes Wyatt Mason is, I think, encouraging). Again, I agree that more and better criticism is necessary, and I don't object to the idea that Wood is an interesting critic. But I think that one problem with literature today, in the absence of any sort of critical body of knowledge, is that everything is so uselessly contentious. People argue about their tastes, about their favorite authors, with very little general acceptance of the terms being argued over. People line up, as well, to argue about their favorite or hated critics, with James Wood often at the center of such disputes. As such, I don't think his role is positive.
Ozick admits in a footnote that Wood seems to have a blindspot with his partiality to "realism" (and against his bugaboo "hysterical realism"), but she contends that "a critic is nothing without an authoritative posture, or standard, or even prejudice, against which an opposing outlook or proposition can be tested." This sounds reasonable, but compare it with something Northrop Frye wrote in the "Polemical Introduction" to his Anatomy of Criticism (published in 1957). Frye is arguing that criticism should be developed scientifically, into a systematic study of literature, a body of knowledge. He writes:
There are no definite positions to be taken in chemistry or philology, and if there are any to be taken in criticism, criticism is not a field of genuine learning. For in any field of genuine learning, the only sensible response to the challenge "stand" is Falstaff's "so I do, against my will." One's "definite position" is one's weakness, the source of one's liability to error and prejudice, and to gain adherents to a definite position is only to multiply one's weakness like an infection.Frye would, I think, see James Wood as more of a "public critic" who "tends to episodic forms like the lecture and the familiar essay", whose "work is not a science, but another kind of literary art." Frye wanted a criticism that has "a clear notion of progress" by which a critic could "become anything better than a monument of contemporary taste, with all its limitations and prejudices." What Ozick is calling for seems very different than Frye's scientific ideal. Using his terminology (and noting the names she listed aside from Wood), it appears that she would like to see a broader infrastructure of such public critics, all duking it out over literary taste, essentially. Ultimately Ozick's article disappointed not because she identified a problem in this lack of literary criticism, but because she does almost nothing with it except praise--and quote--James Wood, who is already the most visible critic working today anyway, so hardly in need of the attention.
I haven't yet made it incredibly far into Anatomy of Criticism (I'm about halfway through the first the four main essays), but I wonder if he allows that a "definite" critical position can be held that can't be reduced to mere taste. I wonder, too, how someone like Gabriel Josipovici would fit in with this kind of schematic. It seems to me that he has a definite position, but can it simply be reduced to a matter of taste? Given his talk about Modernists, and present-day novelists writing in bad faith, some could argue (and did, in some of the comments, here and elsewhere) what if you just don't like the Modernists? I'm interested in reading in more detail what he has to say about such things (to that end, I ordered two of his books: The Book of God and On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion, each of which were like $1.00 via Amazon. Alas, his earlier Lessons of Modernism is nowhere available for under $50, as far as I can tell, and the recent The Singer on the Shore collection is still relatively pricey); I will no doubt be reporting some of what I find here, as well as more from Frye's book.