For years, in one capacity or anotheróas fledgling comp instructor, as seminar auditor, then as editor of a literary journal partly quartered thereóI mounted the front steps of the Boston University building at the end of Bay State Road, and as I did I never once failed to glance at the big red sign on the facade to my right identifying the place as home to the Partisan Review. Time-lapse clips would show me getting conspicuously older as the institutional masonry remains imperturbably unchanged, but for all that steady aging, my associations with that name still feel fresh.
First, going way backóeven though this was no longer the Partisan of its great decades (the journal came to BU in 1978)óI had a strong residue of provincial awe and often thought as I pushed open the building door that I was in live proximity to something legendary. Most readers will not need to be lectured here on the glory days of what was for so long America's premier intellectual/arts journal, home to writers and thinkers well known enough to be listed by their last names: Baldwin, Bellow, Howe, Silone, Jarrell, Orwell, Sontag, McCarthy, Trilling, MacDonald. But by the '80s, Partisan, like the literary culture, had long since declined from those heights. Still, the aura clung, and though it grew fainter as the years passed, as the journal seemed to lose its purchase on the culture, it never quite disappeared. I always felt a residual twinge, a surge of complicated emotion, whenever my eye landed on that sign. And then it happened. One day last year my glance slipped sideways, like a heel on ice, and I saw that it was gone. This is how realization sometimes comes. Though I already knew that Partisan had officially disbanded a few months before, it was only when the maintenance people finally came with their tools that I got it.
And now the retinal afterimage of that sign lingers and the implications haunt. The fate of Partisan Review signifies in a larger way. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more clearly I see that any substantive discussion of criticism in our day has to take in the whole systemic ecology of things, by which I mean the connections among writers, publishers, and readers, not to mention the vast influence systems of academia on the one hand and entertainment media on the other. As a working reviewer, I am aware of these considerations every time I pick up my pen to writeóthey have everything to do with the way books are read, discussed, and written about. And they have changed a great deal over time. If I begin by invoking the Partisan Review, it's because I see it both as an emblem of the kind of intellectual/cultural cohesion that was once possible and as a clear reminder that, as Robert Frost wrote, "nothing gold can stay." Partisan Review failed in part because it couldn't acknowledge that our intellectual and artistic needsóour cultural situationóhad changed. Its venerability guaranteed nothing.
Anyone who reads books and book journalism knows that the big ruckus in the sideshow tents the past few seasons has had to do with negative reviewing, the worst examples of which were christened "snark" in a widely discussed essay ("Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!") in the inaugural issue of the new journal The Believer, by its editor, Heidi Julavits. The precipitating eventóand one hates to give it any more ink than it has already gotówas an aggressively attention-grabbing review in the New Republic by Dale Peck of Rick Moody's memoir, The Black Veil. There have been other attack reviews elsewhere, of courseóby Colson Whitehead, Lee Siegel, Walter Kirn, James Fenton, and othersóbut this one got everyone going. Doubtless goaded on by the magazine's literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, who has for years enjoyed the sport of corrective deflations, Peck took Moody's book as the occasion for a gloves-off pummeling, going after the writer's whole career, taking in everything from his metaphors to his imputed motivations. "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation": So wrote Peck, and the relieved sighs from a hundred thousand epigones rustled whole forests.
Taken to task by readers, critics, and other writers, as of course he knew he would be, Peck insisted not only that he was defending the sacred honor of Literature but that he was flaying Moody for the author's own goodóbecause he had betrayed his considerable gift. I found myself recalling Norman Mailer's similar feints in his notorious 1959 essay "EvaluationsóQuick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room." He, too, rationalized his sadistic eviscerationsóof rival novelists James Jones, James Baldwin, and othersóby insisting that it was the deeper genius of their prose he was policing. A good trick, that, holding fast to the moral high ground even while twisting the blade for maximal damage.
Though Peck was hardly the first mudslinger in the annals of reviewing, his piece became a headline event in literary circles, evidence, for those who needed it, that we have, along with the Brits (who have their own Dale Peck contretemps in Tibor Fischer's gob-lofting review of Martin Amis's latest novel, Yellow Dog), entered the dark ages. Heather Caldwell promptly covered the Peck-Moody controversy for the Salon website, where the outraged parties shared equal time with the indefatigable optimists, who opined, as they always do, that all the fuss just proved that people still cared to argue about books and that this could only be good for the cause of literature. "Like it or not," Caldwell wrote, "Peck's down-flung gauntlet has the literati talking about such larger questions as: What makes for good criticism? Is the literary world too polite and clubby? And finally, what is the effect of this kind of skirmish on literary culture at large?"
After Caldwell came Julavits's lengthy essay asserting her belief that literature has "an intrinsic worth" and calling for "fairness and rigor when assessing the success or failure of an author's project." Julavits was, in turn, countered in the op-ed pages of the New York Times by Clive James, who concluded by saying: "When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded. It would be better to admit this fact, and admit that all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree, than to indulge the sentimental wish that malice might be debarred from the literary world. The literary world is where it belongs. . . . Civilization tames human passions, but it can't eliminate them. Hunt the snark and you will find it everywhere."
Then, in October of last year, James Atlas published "The Takedown Artist," his lengthy profile of Peck in the New York Times Magazine. Peck was, tellingly enough, posed in both photos with a hatchet. The second, smaller picture had him lowering the blade with contorted echt-samurai expression upon a stack of books. Full victim identification was not possible, but my skilled bookman's eye saw the name "Charles Dickens" prominent on the top spine and made out Don DeLillo's Underworld, John Barth's Giles Goat Boy, and what looked alarmingly like my own distinctively jacketed memoir on the bottom of the stack. I'm being disingenuous here. I knew damn well it was my book, knew it because after opening with the inevitable quotation about Moody, Atlas segued right to a somewhat less arresting but similarly assaultive quote about me. So, yes, here I need to show my cards. Atlas's profile quoted at some length an unpublished (because "axed") piece Peck had written about me for the New Republic. (I have learned from the Atlas article that "The Man Who Would Be Sven" will be available as a chapter in Peck's forthcoming collection Hatchet Jobs, but I have not seen it.) And if the fact of being attacked for reasons as yet unspecified skews some of the assertions in this piece (how could it not?), the reader is invited to make the compensating adjustment.
The distressing thing about Atlas's piece, apart from the fact that I naturally took the sting of Peck's assessment of my enterprise, was Atlas's broadcast assumption that literary culture, like celebrity culture, is now mainly sensationalistic, that readers are irresistibly drawn to carny-barker strategies and that the ethos of "buzz" governs the reviewing world almost to the exclusion of the more pedestrian business of consideration and evaluation. Opening with his barrage of incendiary extracts, Atlas caught the reader by the lapels: "You're curious, right? . . . You want to read more." And this is the essential tone of the article and, more or less, the sum of its contents.
Did the profile itself have its intended effect? Did it capture my attention? I daresay it did, yes. But what it prompted, after the initial fantasies of rejoinder had played themselves out, wasóinevitably, perhapsóa very personal reassessment of the whole vocation. I had to ask myself: Is this the world I know? Have we really fallen thus? Is our newspaper of recordóits magazineóreally commissioning and printing photos of books of Dickens (and others) on the chopping block? I wished perversely that I'd been there to watch the shoot being set up.
Oddly, maybe appropriately, just as I was asking these sorts of questions the whole Stephen King dustup began. The National Book Foundation had decided to award its annual gold medal for distinguished literary achievement to the master of the horrific-premise novel. Was this not a betrayal of its lofty symbolic office? Fiction-award winner Shirley Hazzard thought so and suggested as much in her acceptance speech (Hazzard was later photographed politely admiring King's medal). The argument, before and after, followed the predictable paths, the indefatigable optimists opining, as they always do, that all the fuss just proved that people still cared about books and that this could only be good for the cause of literature. Of course, everyone knew that the whole point of the awarding was to generate publicity and excitement for an event (and a cause) widely perceived to be in need of both. My heart sank for the second time in as many weeks. Was this indeed a trend? Was Atlas right?
I do the computation and realize with a shock that I published my first critical piece exactly twenty-five years ago, a long review-essay on Robert Musil. My choice of subject matter says a great deal to me, about my aspirations starting out, as well as about my faith in the "serious." Literature was a capitalized noun, and there was nothing more important, apart from creating the stuff itself, than writing about it.
This was in 1979. I was twenty-eight years old, a veteran not of graduate schools but of bookstores. As a self-directed reader, I had my own syllabus of critics, and it was strongly weighted toward the belle-lettristic essayists, including, on the one hand, writers like Edmund Wilson, George Steiner, Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin, Cyril Connolly, Erich Heller, Guy Davenport, and Hugh Kenner, and, on the other, the various writers orbiting around the Partisan Review, including the aforementioned Howe, Trilling, Bellow, and MacDonald, as well as Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz.
I was not plucking these names and reputations from nowhere. They were, many of them, presences in the air. Working in bookstores, first in Ann Arbor, then in Boston and Cambridge, I was positioned to see exactly who was reading what. I felt I knew month to month just how many atmospheres of pressure Benjamin or Howe or Sontag exerted, and I read and aspired accordingly. I am not at all surprised now, looking back, to see that my Musil essay is a stir-fry of Sontag and Steiner, with a liberal garnish of Helleróvery earnest, very humanist, very European looking.
I don't think it was just me. I moved about in a whole circle of the like-minded. These were serious times, with the governing taste set by eminences from abroad. The New York Review of Books was like a marquee for this imported sensibility, regularly featuring essays by Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, and Isaiah Berlin, to name just a few. Sontag was writing the essays that would be gathered in Under the Sign of Saturnóa ruminative celebration of European sensibility. In my mind these writers were carrying on the Partisan line, taking their place at table with Orwell, Silone, Chiaramonte. The journals were then hospitable to these perspectives, and as a reviewer just breaking in, I found it fairly easy to approach editors at The Nation, the New Republic, as well as, say, the Boston Phoenix or Boston Review, with ideas for longer review essays on subjects like Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, and Max Frisch.
But climates and scenes are changeful. Perched behind the counter at the Harvard Book Store, where I worked for five yearsóinto the mid-'80sóI became aware of what would soon be known as just "theory" encroaching like a frontal system. I noticed how the grad student intellectuals were turning from the familiar humanist syllabus, coming up to the register now with books by Derrida, de Man, Barthes, and Cixous. The tonality of things seemed to be getting perceptibly cooler. But to me the drift away from traditional belle-lettristic approaches did not seem especially alarming at first. If anything, there was the feeling that there was something almost sacerdotal going on in the upper strata of the literary, and this could only be to the good.
In retrospectóyears lateróI began to think the reverse may have been true, at least from the perspective of the practicing reviewer. The explosion of theory in academia, so invigorating in the beginning, had the effect in the long run of depreciating the merely literary and making the profession of any old-style humanism seem a hopelessly rearguard, conservative practice. In front of the work was always the idea of the work, the ism that framed it and made discussion possible. Essays in cutting-edge academic journals like Representations, Critical Inquiry, and Semiotext(e) grew cleverly opaque, or opaquely clever, and while reviewing of the sort I did continued on and literary essays got published, things began to feelóto use a then-current expressionó"destabilized." Educated academics, mainstay readers and writers of the former literary order (which included, in my mind, the now-faltering Partisan Review), were fleeing the old mainstream for their respective academic niches. Deconstruction and post-structuralist discourses carried the day. Fewer and fewer thinking critics were willing to be spotted wearing generalist garb.
This businessóof confidence, of tonality, of voiceórequires comment, even though it's also true that nothing is harder to pinpoint. The colonization of literary discourse by theory, with its implicit unmasking of assumptions and positions of vantage, had all manner of consequences, but the most telling of these was, as I suggest, climatological. The widely publicized (and, in a sense, necessary) suspicion of ideologies and the incessant questioning of the "natural" sign made it singularly difficult to venture straight literary judgments. The supreme narrative confidence of, say, an Edmund Wilson, whose trust in common sense and linguistic adequacy was his bedrock, became harder to sustain.
Consider the squared-off diction of the opening sentence of Wilson's 1925 review of a work by Mencken: "H.L. Mencken's Notes on Democracy adds nothing that is new to his political philosophy: its basic ideas are precisely those which he has been preaching for many years and which already appear in his book on Nietzsche, published in 1908." This is the plain style, long the dominant voice of American criticism, and we hear it not only in Wilson throughout his long career but in Eliot, in Howe, and with adjustments and qualifications in Trilling and the Partisan critics. But while it has not died out completely, this steady assertion of judgmentóGore Vidal remains a living exemplaróthe tonality has become almost impossible to generate, much less sustain, in the wake of the poststructuralist decentering.
The natural, obvious default has been the ironic mode, which from the threshold evades the danger of straightforward declaration, the most exposed of all positions. More and more we encounter a cunningly preemptive tonality. Here is Michiko Kakutani reviewing a recent novel by Nicholson Baker: "Remember that American Express commercial a few years back," she begins, "in which Jerry Seinfeld demonstrated his 'perfect pump' technique by making the self-serve pump stop exactly on the dollar?"
The reviewer is winking at her audience, creating her analogy from the democratic realm of popular culture; she will not be caught out insisting on anything that smacks of an absolute standard or posture of judgment. We have moved in these two samples from the modern to the postmodern.
Such a comparison is, of course, rigged. With a bit of creative research one can find instances for anything, and I'm sure that I could easily enough turn up some flip whimsy from the earlier period and counter it with a reasoned pronouncement from a categorically grounded critic like James Wood. But the tendency is there to be mapped, and I'll stand by it. I'll argue, as well, that where there is ironic discourse, snark cannot be far behind. Snarkóseemingly gratuitous negativityóis where the ironist goes when evasions begin to cloy.
My whole argument, I recognize, depends on a reading of the big picture; it generalizes. Needless to say, it is extremely difficult to calculate how a large-scale shift or trend modifies what had been the status quo, the more so as there are usually a number of such shifts taking place at once. The rise and spread of theory was just one development. Lest we forget, there was also the society-wide advent of personal computers and the first self-trumpeting wave of digital culture. Do we even recall how suddenly all that happened, and how much the conceptóthe paradigm-shifting certaintyóof it all impinged on everything we did? The binary worldview of the structuralists seemed to have propagated, become the zeros and ones that were the basis of the new communications systems. Literature, so tethered to its tradition of concrete representation, suddenly took on the patina of the antique, as if narrative belonged to the old dispensation.
Other forces supervened as well. In the all-important commercial sector, we began to see during this same period the fiercely waged corporatization of the publishing industry and the rapid transformation of bookselling by the tentacular exertions of superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. And, of course, it was digitization that made the massification of a formerly eccentric retail niche possible.
But for me these were all big transformations happening in the background. At ground level, trying to make my way as a reviewer, I noticed more immediate, specific consequences. For one thing, it seemed to be getting harder to work in the old review-essay track. Straight-on discussion of books felt increasingly outmoded, even as magazines like Harper's and the New York Review of Books exerted themselves to keep the critical tradition alive. Not only were there fewer venues to publish in, but there were also noticeably fewer literary books being published by the major trade houses. Though it's true that editors are always grumbling about the state of things, the grumbles were now louder and more widespread. The great shell game of book editors disappearing from one house and reappearing in another had begun, filling already anxious authors with dread.
This was the beginning of Andrew Wylie's reign in the world of agenting, the glorification of greed that in spirit owed more to Boesky than Brodsky. Huge German corporations like Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck were picking up publishing houses like jacks. Very clearly it was an industry in flux, and when I went around to my usual bookstore hauntsóI had by this point traded up from bookselling to teachingóI saw from what was displayed and stocked, from the obvious emphasis placed on moving quantities of "big" books, that what I had for so long believed was a kind of constant, a kind of water table, was in fact a tide that had peaked and was now ebbing.
And isn't this how change announces itselfóthrough complex adjustments in a whole series of linked spheres: less of one thing, more of another? With the perceived diminution of the literary comes the more widely registered assumption about what matters. There were self-fulfilling prophecies and feedback loops. I realized that I had got in just in time. In 1987 I'd assembled a book of my pieces on various lesser-known, mainly European writers and had been very lucky to find a major trade publisher. Now, only a few years later, the same book would have been much harderómaybe impossibleóto place.
By the mid-'90s, it was obvious to many people that the rules of the literary game had been rewritten. Corporate conglomeration in the publishing world (addressed by Andre Schiffrin in The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took over Publishing and Shaped the Way We Read) ushered in the era of the blockbuster. Editors began to pay out succulent advances for "sexy" books like Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, while midlist writers went begging, many then shifting to small presses. No question, the prestige of the merely literary was depreciatedóa harder sell in the trade marketplaceóand the reviewing culture naturally reflected the change. Meghan O'Rourke's recent contention in Slate that John Leonard's tenure at the New York Times Book Review, from 1971 to 1975, was a kind of golden age assigned more importance to sensibility than cents and salability. If anything wags the dog, it's the profit-and-loss statement.
And this is more or less where we find ourselves now. Psychologically it is a landscape subtly demoralized by the slash-and-burn of bottom-line economics; the modernist/humanist assumption of art and social criticism marching forward, leading the way, has not recovered from the wholesale flight of academia into theory; the publishing world remains tyrannized in acquisition, marketing, and sales by the mentality of the blockbuster; the confident authority of print journalism has been challenged by the proliferation of online alternatives.
Even more debilitating, if harder to locate, I think, is the widely perceived loss of center, of the momentum that arises either through adversarial necessity or the emergence of the new. Or both. Partisan Review, in its glory days, rallied the best writers around the twin mission of opposing Stalinist ideology and defining and promoting modernism. It drew great energy, moreover, from another historical circumstance: the generation of American Jewish intellectuals separating itself from the world of the fathers. What a talent pool Partisan Review had to draw onóalongside the powerhouse polemicists and essayists were fiction writers like Roth, Bellow, and Malamud.
Similarly, the kinetic upstart journalism of the '60s and '70s was significantly powered by the broadly prosecuted opposition to the Vietnam War and the vigorous emergence of the ethos or style of what we now call the New Journalism. Again, the fusion of the literary/cultural with the socially active boosted the prestige of the writer. I think of Esquire, Harper's, The Nation, the Village Voice, the New York Review of Booksóoutlets where every week one could read fresh work by Mailer, Sontag, Baldwin, Didion, Fielder, Talese, Vivian Gornick, and Tom Wolfe. These writers aren't all gone, of course, but the pressure of sensibility they represented has long since dissipated.
What I am talking about here is, it's true, more polemic and feature-related journalism than reviewing per se, but the vitality of the latter depends in a thousand subtle ways on the vitality of the former, and if our situation feels demoralized, dissipated, without urgent core, it is to some degree because we are without a larger rallying cause and without any stirring sense of possibility. This is not to say that there are no rallying causes availableóI can think of a few, beginning with the outrages of the current administrationóbut that we seem to be without the rallying will. We have lost the sense that there is any gathering place. Our intellectual life is fragmented. It has, perhaps of economic necessity, migrated into the academy, where it can only conform to the dominant strictures of theory-suffused disciplines (the luftmenschen of old, as Russell Jacoby reminded us in The Last Intellectuals, are no more). Connected and informed as never before, we nonetheless register a dispiriting sense of isolation, of not mattering.
All of this leads, and not all that circuitously, to the question of snark, the spirit of negativity, the personal animus pushing ahead of the intellectual or critical agenda. Snark is, I believe, prompted by the terrible vacuum feeling of not mattering, not connecting, not being heard; it is fueled by rage at the same. If writers and critics felt similar aggressive urges in the pastóand of course they did, for personal, if not cultural, reasonsóthey were held back from venting, if not by an inner sense of decency, then by a more externalized awareness of prohibition. Cheap shots were not to be takenónot in the public arena. This was the tactic of the scandal rags and Hollywood gossip sheets, and it was just not done. But even moreóand I hope I'm not getting starry-eyed hereóthere was yet a prevailing belief that the arts, serving and expressing creativity, were, yes, above that. They were nobler, pitched to higher ends; they did not traffic overtly in the commercial. Artistic media and entertainment media were separate. Stephen King would never have been considered for a medal from the National Book Foundation.
But for all of the reasons outlined above, the commercial consideration (sales, circulation, publicity) has in recent years become paramount. The logic of the situation is obvious. And desperation driven. What we are seeing is an effort in certain quarters to awaken a somnolent literary culture, to create attention, the idea somehow being that power and money go where the noise is. There is no way to solve the problem at the source, of courseóit is systemicóso the best strategy is the quick fix. The jump start. "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation," writes Dale Peck. "You're curious, right?" queries James Atlas. The gamble here is that we readers are ourselves jaded and angry and TV conditioned enough to play along, to accept that this is the new way of things. For this sort of gambit works only when readers in their secret hearts do take pleasure in assault, when it serves as a valve for frustrations and blocked emotions. I doubt any of us who read the piece believed for an instant that Peck was right. But if we read onómost likely we didóit was with the same churning fascination we feel when someone on the city bus starts acting crazy and shouting obscenities. The screamer's "Fuck you!" about his job or spouse lets us get to our own frustration and rage. All well and good, but it has nothing to do with literature.
If I began this reflection by invoking memories and associations with Partisan Review, it was not because I wanted to propose that magazine as a model or its writers as guardian figures. In fact, I was more focused on its decline and disappearance, which seemed to me in many ways emblematic of the state of things on the literary front. It was an important decline, a bellwether. Partisan Review in its heyday was a model of mattering. Its circulation never exceeded fifteen thousand, but it nevertheless outlined the very nerve system of influence in our collective cultural life. Its main contribution, over and above the contents of any of its pieces, was that in its great years it gave us an intellectual idea of ourselves. It created the terms of the debate. By postulating a certain kind of intelligentsia, it helped to foster it. That intelligentsia was nonacademic (though academics devoured the journal) and politically and morally engaged; it deplored provincialism and assumed a cosmopolitan view; it believed in the necessity of the modernist project. We have nothing like the modernist aesthetic certainties. Indeed, our lotóhenceforthóis to be suspicious of all projects. In a pluralistic and relativistic culture like ours, the clash of rival pundits may be the best we can come up with.
Partisan Review lost relevance and went under because that audience and that conjunction of beliefs and ideals faded away. This has everything to do with the state of our critical culture today, and with reviewingóindeed, with our intellectual life in general. The journal gave us a sense of center to some degree by assuming one, but finally the idea of a center itself proved no longer sustainable. The deeper structure of things is too much changed. Still, though I had not been a Partisan reader for years, when I heard it was gone I felt surprisingly bereft. Its demise reminded meónot for the first timeóof all the young assumptions I have learned to do without.
The author of five books of essays and a memoir, Sven Birkerts edits the journal Agni, based at Boston University.