Commentary Magazine


Literary Blog

A Mountain of Unread Writing

No one at all reads literary scholarship, and there is far too much poetry for any human being to read. Or, in other words, two of the three legs of literary culture’s three-legged stool are wobbling dangerously. And fiction, the remaining leg, has been sawed in half — “genre” fiction has been taken away for a different project, and only “literary” fiction remains.

The problem, as I’ve said before, is one of markets. Over the past three decades literary scholars, poets, and writers of “literary” fiction have responded rationally to economic opportunities and limitations. But those opportunities have been almost entirely opportunities for careers in university departments of English. The literary market has been reduced to academic committees — hiring committees, tenure committees, salary committees, promotion committees — none of which considers sales or readership (or, in the case of literary scholarship, citations by other scholars) in reaching its decisions.

As the poet Dana Gioia wrote two decades ago in the Atlantic:

The proliferation of literary journals and presses over the past 30 years has been a response less to an increased appetite for poetry among the public than to the desperate need of writing teachers for professional validation. Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed.

Literature in America has become a fully subsidized market. Among literary scholars, in fact, the ideology of production is exactly the reverse of Dr. Johnson’s: no man but a blockhead writes for money. There is respect and honor in writing for specialized journals that no one reads, although every university library in the country subscribes to them. There is only compromise and superficiality in writing to be read. Scholars are judged on the bulk and prestige of their CV’s, not the originality and influence of their research and writing.

The literary scholar Mark Bauerlein is devastating on “The Research Bust” in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

[A]fter four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?

When he must propose a solution to the problem, however, Bauerlein falls back upon fantasies of institutional reform: “The time has come . . . for [English] departments firmly to declare the counterpoint: ‘No! We ask for less because we judge on quality, not quantity. We are raising standards, not lowering them [by reducing the demand for publication].’ ”

If possible, the critic Robert Archambeau is even more cavalier in addressing American poetry’s “problem of the multitude.” There is so much to read that even those who are devoted to contemporary poetry “must tune out certain presses, journals, styles, schools, forms, or even generations,” he observes. There is simply “no way to keep track of the multitude of new books,” no way to sort good from mediocre. What to do? What to do? Archambeau shrugs:

The multitude is the condition of American poetry in our time. The problem of the multitude, though, exists only for poets ambitious for recognition, and readers who wish to feel they can read everything worth reading.

Abandon all literary ambition, in short, along with any practical means of literary evaluation. And what becomes of poetry under this new “condition,” then? It becomes pretty much the same as electronic gaming. It is an absorbing hobby with a lot of participants and no audience.

The real problem is not in the institutions with which writers and scholars affiliate themselves and make careers. The real problem is in the thinking behind academic affiliation and career advancement. Writers and scholars have severed their ties with ordinary readers and placed their fate in the hands of a bureaucratized elite. The class that rules the institutions of literary life in America establish and uphold the standards by which writing and scholarship are to be judged, and inevitably these are the standards that confirm and expand their own authority.

There is another conception of literary authority, however, in which authority derives from a literary tradition, which entails faithfulness to experience and responsibility to an audience. The tradition of the 19th-century novel, for example, is still rewarded in the marketplace. Who knows but that a return to the tradition of Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson might not do the same for American poetry, or a return to the tradition of Lionel Trilling and Yvor Winters might not do the same for literary scholarship? Poets and scholars will have to stop writing for committees and return to writing for readers — actual readers, ideal readers — if they have any hope of repairing their legs of the stool.