Monday, August 29, 2011

The failure of university English departments

In today's university, no one is any longer in a position to say which books are or aren't fit to teach; no one any longer has the authority to decide what is the best in American writing. Too bad, for even now there is no consensus about who are the best American novelists of the past century. (My own candidates are Cather and Theodore Dreiser.) Nor will you read a word, in the pages of "The Cambridge History of the American Novel," about how short-lived are likely to be the sex-obsessed works of the much-vaunted novelists Norman Mailer, John Updike and Philip Roth or about the deleterious effect that creative-writing programs have had on the writing of fiction.

With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today. The most lauded novelists in "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" tend to be those, in the words of another of its contributors, who are "staging a critique of 'America' and its imperial project." Thus such secondary writers as Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow are in these pages vaunted well beyond their literary worth.

The indispensible Joseph Epstein on why we don't care about novels anymore... Well, not really, but may as well be about that. It's really about how universities have failed students, critics, readers (and by extension writers) of American fiction. I'm not sure that the works of Roth and Updike are likely to be short-lived, or that Vonnegut is a secondary writer. But there is no doubt that the importance of 'contextualization' in the study of literature has raised mediocre novels to an undeserved status, and given aspiring novelists a low bar to shoot for. 'Good' and 'bad' are no longer legitimate criteria on which to judge novels since everything is culturally relative. And it extends beyond the walls of academia. I read far too many book reviews (a practice I have told myself I have to stop for fear that it will turn my brain to sludge). And one notices how readily and often reviewers laud new novels, how loosely they throw around terms like "masterful" and "exceptional" and how rarely "bad" (or its euphemisms) show up. You don't have to read a ton of reviews like I do (did). Pick up any new novel off the shelf and read the blurbs and 'praise for' on the back cover and you see what I mean. With so much mediocre work stocking the shelves and being lauded to the hilt it's no wonder that readers don't know what to believe anymore and seem to have stopped caring.

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