What I'm talking about is something called This Thing We Call Literature, by one Arthur Krystal, published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. It got a laudatory review from Micah Mattix at The American Conservative, and you know, slogans like "In Defense of Great Books" are a red flag for me. So for the moment, I'm just reviewing the review. If Mattix misrepresented Krystal, I beg pardon, but the position sketched out here is one I've encountered before.
According to Mattix,
... Krystal’s main concern is not to chop individual writers down to size and extol others—though he does do some cutting—as much as it is to defend the value of hierarchical thinking with respect to literature. “The prevailing mood,” he writes, “regards hierarchies with suspicion: Who’s to say who is worth reading and who isn’t?” While a willingness to include “formerly disenfranchised artists and writers” in the canon is a good thing, “the fact that writers are all entitled to a fair hearing doesn’t mean that they are equal.”I wonder if Krystal actually backs up the insinuation there, that "the prevailing mood" is that all writers are equal. It sounds like he's buying into the widespread if not prevailing notion that equality means sameness. The quotations indicate a fondness on his part for the gaseous cliché and le mot injuste, but then you don't have to be a good writer yourself to appreciate good writing by others.
Maybe I got it wrong, but I always had the impression that the call for reconsidering "formerly disenfranchised [not really the right word, Arthur] artists and writers" was motivated not by the belief that they were all equally good, but by the very reasonable belief that some good writers had been ignored because they had chosen to have the wrong skin color or genitals. Granted, in the heat of the politicking, some people probably overstated the virtues of the artists they championed, but it's not as if that didn't happen with the usual white male suspects as well. And the racism and sexism of the literary establishment was never really a secret; in the good old days, white men could and did openly dismiss work by women and Negroes and homosexuals and the Irish, just because they were women and homosexuals and Negroes and Irish.
I admit, I "regard hierarchies with suspicion," and I think that "Who's to say who is worth reading and who isn't?" is a fair question. From Mattix's review I am not sure Arthur Krystal is one to say it.
Unfortunately, Krystal doesn’t help his case—which I think is almost entirely right, by the way—by often failing to demonstrate in detail how canonical writers are actually better than the minor writers who were forgotten ... But in these first two essays, he mostly lists writers and critics or turns to ex cathedra pronouncements—“War and Peace is objectively greater than The War of Words”—which are rarely very satisfying, however correct they may be.I feel about the claim that some works just are great rather the way I feel about claims about objective reality: yes, I can go along with that, but how do you tell what's really great, and what's really real? In the case of art, we're talking about value judgments rather than measurements, and those judgments must function within traditions. They also change over time. The canon, which both Mattix and Krystal admit has "sociological roots," changes. Krystal says that those roots don't mean the aesthetic judgments are invalid, but how can you tell? He invokes "a credible, if not monolithic, consensus among informed readers," which is plausible, except that informed readers disagree with each other and change their minds over time. Numerous authors who used to be canonical aren't anymore.
When he does get more specific, things can get a little thorny. Is it true, for example, that great novels “rely more on accuracy of characterization than on the events that their characters react to”? I suppose it depends on what “rely more” and “accuracy” mean. Without further explanation, questions abound: Is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment accurate? Does the novel rely more on characterization than events? How about in classical drama? The Iliad and The Odyssey? Pamela and Jane Eyre?
... Krystal notes in passing that some fiction that goes by the name “literary” isn’t, but he doesn’t explain why, give examples, or offer even a brief analysis of the failures of literary fiction.
Mattix's questions might well be supplemented by others about different artistic traditions, such as Chinese poetry. Much if not most poetry doesn't translate well, and I still regret not having stuck with Russian long enough to read Pushkin in the original. Mattix quotes Krystal's lament that today's poetry lacks "music." Music is generally the first thing you lose in translation. Which is true of prose too, if less so.
An interviewer asked Gore Vidal about his claim that, "when it comes to matters of prose and of fiction at this time and in this place, I am authority." Whence, she inquired, comes this authority?
It is earned, mostly, but it is also a matter of temperament. The critic must know more than either writer or academic. He must also value experience and have a truth-telling nature. I think I have that. In their youth most people worry whether or not other people will like them. Not me. I had the choice of going under or surviving, and I survived by understanding (after the iron- if not the silver- had entered my soul) that it is I who am keeping score. What matters is what I think, not what others think of me; and I am willing to say what I think. That is the critical temperament. Edmund Wilson had it, but almost no one else now does, except for a few elderly Englishmen.I still agree with Vidal, but I'd add that he wasn't the only authority. Others would disagree with him about the value of different writers, and I disagreed with him about some of those he recommended -- Italo Calvino, for example. But still, the job of a critic is to persuade, by explaining why and how he or she thinks this particular work functions and succeeds (or fails).
One thing that seems increasingly important to me is that a critic, who reads widely and deeply, may forget that most people don't. As Edmund White has said, "A canon is for people who don't like to read, people who want to know the bare minimum of titles they must consume in order to be considered polished, well rounded, civilized. Any real reader seeks the names of more and more books, not fewer and fewer." And, I'd add, a real reader in this sense isn't all that concerned with greatness, though he or she won't be undiscriminating or non-judgmental either. But most people aren't, and never will be, "real readers" in this sense. It's up to teachers to try to guide as many of their students as they can toward a sense of what reading, or Literature with a capital L, has to offer. (I wonder, though, how many teachers really know that themselves?) If greatness is a thing, then it should be detectable by any reader, not declared ex cathedra.
It sounds as if Arthur Krystal lacks the capacity to do the critic's job, at least in Vidal's league. Maybe I'll read some of his other work. This Thing We Call Literature is only a little over a hundred pages long.