I don’t get the urge for a good literary rant very often these days, and when I do I usually find it easier to tamp myself down, or else re-channel, letting the pressure discover a more civilized outlet—an essay, a book review. Sublimation is, after all, the engine of civilization. Every now and then, however, something will happen to waken the beast.
The other day a friend e-mailed me the “Book Babes” column (www.poynter.org) posted by reporters Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel. Entitled “The Plot Thickens at The New York Times Book Review,” the article/interview reported on the behind-the-scenes negotiations at NYTBR, for better or worse the most powerful taste-making (and book-selling) journal in the book world. Since Editor Chip McGrath announced several months ago that he would be stepping down as NYTBR editor, the circuits have been glowing with speculation about his possible successor. Will it be someone in-house, or someone from the New York media establishment; will it be a cultivated Brit or a news philistine? I’ve had several sure-bet tips passed to me over drinks and cheese cubes, and each name has conjured a wholly different profile for the Book Review.
Do I care? For a long time I didn’t. I didn’t imagine that the choice could have any great effect on my own fortunes there. I’ve been an occasional reviewer there for many years and have worked under several regimes, always happy to be asked. But then the article arrived and what I read there filled me with foreboding. And for once it was not just on behalf of my own finite interests, but on behalf of the larger literary culture. Pondering implications, I finally understood—deeply, viscerally—the extent to which the NYTBR both maps and influences our assumptions about the literary life; the extent to which the whole structural system—from writer, agent, and editor to publicist, marketer, bookseller, and customer—is affected when the powers-that-be make a decision.
But I saw something more. I grasped in a kind of low-voltage Blakean vision how in America in the early twenty-first-century imagination is locked in mortal combat with the forces that would quash it. The struggle is ancient and ongoing, and it seems to have boiled up most recently in the media world. This being America, however, the exercise of power is covert. The quashing won’t be a matter of prohibition, or censorship. What we will see instead is a suavely worked act of downsizing, a re-classification of priorities that looks quiet enough but in fact speaks loud volumes—for those who take heed—about where we are headed.
The article begins: “Publishing insiders have watched nervously since Steve Erlanger became cultural editor at The New York Times and began altering the focus of the daily ‘Books of the Times,’” and goes on to affirm that executive editor Bill Keller has promised “dramatic changes” in the Sunday Book Review now that McGrath is leaving.
According to Keller, “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world.” Hammond and Heltzel add: “Based on our interviews with Keller, McGrath, and Erlanger, top management thinks contemporary fiction has received more column inches than it deserves.”
Keller is quoted as saying, “Of course, some fiction needs to be done….We’ll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me.”
I read these words and I read them again, and I felt myself moving only slowly through the layers of my denial, much in the same way as I’ve taken in the outrages of the Bush presidency, thinking at first, whatever the situation, that they couldn’t possibly mean what they were saying; then allowing that maybe they did, but that no one would for a moment stand for it; then—and this is the worst, the most painful—conceding that ultimately they, we, probably would stand for it. Because the differential between the abstract them—those who make the decisions–and the individuals, us, has never been so great; because we have become schooled, trained by the horse-whisperers, though here I’m tempted to make that horseshit whisperers (or horse whippers).
Where we used to stand up for things, we now, increasingly, just stand for things. Much as the first urbanites learned to absorb what Baudelaire (or was it Walter Benjamin?) called the “shocks” of daily living, of stimulus bombardment, so we, anaesthetized by our proxy ways of living, have begun to accept as inevitable the determinations and directives of the office-suite brokers, whose individual features have been rubbed to old-penny sameness by the daily abrasions of venality.
Is it right for me to get so exercised by some high-echelon consensus on the status and importance of fiction, by what will ultimately be seen by most as a mere reduction in column inches given over to the ‘literary’? Well, when I put it like that, no. But I can’t seem to put it like that. Looking past, or through, the matter of the Times succession and the pragmatic rationales on offer, I see evidence of a bias that runs deep—possibly to the very core of what the Reader’s Digest used to call “Life in These United States.”
I’m talking about the profound and consequential turn away from imagination—the repudiation of what is, in the sphere of the arts (and, by extension, the sphere of private soul-making), the very life-force. By Imagination—let me dignify it with a capital letter—I don’t mean the twists and turns of cleverness that pass muster in the entertainment world, and that are really exercises of ‘fancy’ in the Coleridgean sense: easy and essentially passive reflex responses that require no deeper engagement with the world. No, Imagination—artistic Imagination—is of its very nature an act of independent volition, the initiative of an individual. It is private, not public. It repudiates political coercion. And it is not to be assimilated to networks, mass systems, or demographic pie charts. Without it there is no art.
Imagination seems to me to be in short supply these days. All but nonexistent in the social and political order, it appears to be ebbing from the cultural realm as well. Contemporary literature—fiction and poetry—is sadly impoverished. There are books aplenty, but very few of what Harold Bloom would call ‘strong’ works. A strong artist, in this conception, is the one who seeks to shoulder aside, to defeat his predecessor in what can be seen as a male-inflected Oedipal contest between generations. If the conceit has any merit at all, then one can work it through to conclusion: that the fathers have cowed the sons (and daughters), put down any stirrings of insurrection.
Speaking as one of the sons, I ask: How has this happened? Why have we failed? Did the world stop throwing big subjects our way, or did we just give up on the project of greatness, espousing the Zietgeist sentiment that made it unfashionable?
I leave the questions hanging for now. They are too serious and thorny and are not to be dealt with in a small space. But I do come back to insist that if indeed the NYTBR bows to the perceived imperatives of the marketplace, re-tailoring itself to serve the needs of the busy modern consumer, it will deal a further blow to the cause of Imagination.
By this I don’t mean to say that the serious literary artist requires that institutional endorsement to write her poems and novels. But let’s face it: Writers are only human. They depend on an idea of audience and community—they point their words at readers in the world. Decisions made in conference rooms by media moguls create complex chain reactions, affecting agents and editors in their decision-making, booksellers in their ordering strategies, advertisers and, not least, readers. The systemic effect of paying attention to Roth and Franzen while, possibly, ignoring Donald Antrim or Stuart Dybek or Alice Mattison or Francine Prose, is serious. The literary world is a complex ecology, and few writers arrive at greatness full-blown. Let’s not forget that Jonathan Franzen was shelved spine-out as a minority taste for years before he found large-scale success with The Corrections. Attention must be paid.
We insist on having our options in every other sphere of life, super-sizing this and soy-substituting that, but variety is precisely what is at risk here. If we strip our literary culture of its cranks and eccentrics, its mandarins and its visionaries, we dry up the whole vast irrigation system of Imagination. The potential consequences are unnerving. The inertial force of the status quo is enormous (and growing), and change of the sort thinking people hope for depends on innumerable acts of independent volition–on acts of daring and Imagination. These do not flourish in a void, and they are not, at root, non-fictional.
Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).
He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)