In 1974, Richard Kostelanetz published a book called The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America. Amplifying arguments Kostelanetz had been making throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the book argues that "the end of intelligent writing" is being hastened by two obstacles making it difficult for such writing to reach an audience: control of the reviewing/critical media by a self-perpetuating group of like-minded editors and writers and the blinkered perspective of publishing companies obsessed with finding best-sellers and committed to their current practices simply because they are what have always been done.
Kostelanetz calls the cabal controlling critical discourse the "New York mob," but this mob is essentially comprised of the group of critics arising in the 1950s and early 1960s that has come to be called the "New York Intellectuals." This collection of critics--mostly Jewish and mostly politically radical (although anti-communist) were associated with the creation and flourishing of The Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, and, somewhat later, The New York Review of Books. The New York critics were notable for bringing literature into "intellectual" debates, but their predominant approach to literature (almost exclusively fiction) was intensely political and sociological. They disdained an "aestheticist" approach to literary criticism (their betes noires were the New Critics), and while some of them championed the great modernist writers of the immediately preceding generation, the appeal of modernism was not its formal or stylistic innovations but the way in which it provided insight into the "modern condition" of alienation and uncertainty. (For some of these critics, modernist writing provided them a way to forget their previous allegiances to Communism and its kind of "engaged" writing in a more suitably high-minded and elitist pursuit.)
Kostelanetz excoriates the New York Intellectuals (especially Norman Podhoretz, Irving Howe, and Jason Epstein) both for their aesthetic conservatism and their chokehold on what was published as "serious" criticism through their control of the most highly regarded magazines and their ability to reward and promote their acolytes. As the agenda-setters, they influenced critical discourse to the extent that challenges to their critical principles (and to their liberal anti-communism) were summarily dismissed when not simply ignored.
Kostelanetz's case against the big publishers is somewhat less conspiratorial:
The larger American trade publishers--the literary-industrial complex--responded to the new prosperity by developing a consuming interest in the big killing. Individual firms differ, to be sure, but certain practices and assumptions have become almost pervasive. Anythinig offering the promise of huge success now commands a comparably huge advance, which is often several times larger than what was available only a decade before. Authors of previous best-sellers are particularly favored, partly because the rule of precedent suggests that their next book will continue to attract a large audience, but also because such stars radiate an "aura" that seduces publishers as well as readers.
Not only are literary agents more adept at scoring extravagant contracts for patently hyper-commercial properties, but editors make their reputations not upon the solidity and breadth of their commitments, but upon a few fortuitous choices--"big books," as they are called. . .Oscar Dystel, the president of Bantam Books, speaks for his colleagues in judging that, "There is no disastrous situation in publishing which cannot be saved by the publication of one really big best-seller.". . . .
The "rule of precedent" states that what has happened in the past must guide future decisions. One might say that a similar such rule governs the publication of criticism and reviews as Kostelanetz describes it. Only the kind of criticism that had previously been published in the "mob" periodicals could continue to appear. "Serious" or "highbrow" criticism is what appears in those periodicals, and any other possible approach is marginalized as less than serious, even in (perhaps especially in) publications not otherwise directly affiliated with the New York intellectuals themselves. Just as in publishing the rule of precedent results in the same old kinds of books getting published, in criticism it creates an environment in which the same old critics proceeding under in-common assumptions are those allowed a public voice.
The particulars of Kostelanetz's indictment are dated (he names names throughout), but its general outline might still be relevant. Indeed, Kostenlanetz's decription of the practices of book editors and publishers might even still apply directly. Publishers continue to pursue the "big killing," authors with a track record of financial success are still preferred, editors hope for that "fortuitous" find that will "take off." The rule of precedent continues to determine what titles will appear on the seasonal lists. If anything, these methods (to the extent they could be called thought-out methods) are being even more desperately employed now than in the 1970s. Perhaps only the proliferation of independent presses--which probably exist in greater quantity now than then, and probably have achieved greater exposure--has allowed "intelligent writing" to persist, since the big publishers appear not to consider at all the value of making such writing available, which arguably some publishers in the past did, out of a sense of obligation to literature. There are no indications that anyone in today's "book business" feels such an obligation. The notion that they ought to has even been made to seem rather absurd.
The more interesting question is if something like the situation Kostenlanetz describes in relation to literary criticism still obtains. Whether or not Kostelanetz's specific critique of the Partisan Review/Commentary critics is a fair one (and it does uncomfortably suggest that The Jews Control Everything), it seems to me unquestionably true that a critical establishment hostile to formally innovative fiction and inclined to view fiction primarily as cultural symptomology (and to ignore poetry altogether) did dominate book reviewing and generalist criticism after World War II, and in my opinion this critical orientation remains the most influential, if in a somewhat diluted and decentered form. Magazine and book review editors are doubtless as guilty of cronyism as Kostelanetz contends the New York critics were, but cronyism is probably unavoidable in what is essentially a closed system in which self-appointed "gatekeepers" feel it is necessary, given the limited space available, to carefully monitor access to the gate. Kostelanetz maintains that the New York critics were able to bring attention and esteem to the writers they designated "important," particularly Saul Bellow, whose reputation as a "great" writer was earned mostly through the relentless efforts of these critics to proclaim him such. Can anyone look at the recent hype of Jonathan Franzen's latest novel and say that a similar effort is not involved?
Is it merely a coincidence that when one goes through the weekend book review sections of the most prominent newspapers one finds the same books covered? Sometimes the critical verdict is positive, sometimes negative, but that this particular book--usually a work of conventional psychological realism and/or written by a "name" author--was deemed significant enough to warrant review in the first place is what counts (including for whatever future attention and sales the book gets, even if an individual review points thumb down). By whatever combination of publisher pr, reflexive deference to name recognition, an underlying herd mentality, and sincere conviction that the books selected truly do represent the best American fiction currently has to offer, editors (and reviewers) mutually work to set and reinforce an agenda that determines what writers and books deserve consideration. As much now as in 1974, new and experimental writers need not apply, unless the writer has the right pedigree (respected writing program, previous publication in eminent journals), the right publisher, has already achieved notoriety in some other way, or has written a book so unusual it has some interest as a curiosity. The influences on book reviewing appear to be such that what emerges when considering print book reviewing as a whole is a collective disdain for work that introduces novelty or uncertainty into the process of judgment.
I aspired to become an academic critic precisely because so much general interest criticism was focused on the "mushy middle" of literary fiction and avoided the books I was most interested in reading. Academic journals were much more likely to feature experimental and unconventional writers (some journals concentrated exclusively on such writers) and gave them more than the cursory treatment afforded by most book reviews besides. Academic criticism no longer manifests these virtues, however. It is as agenda-ridden as literary journalism, although its agenda emphasizes a different kind of propriety, the propriety of political and cultural analysis (in its way similar to the kind of analysis favored by the New York Intellectuals). And while academic journals continue to offer longer and more sustained commentary, this commentary is more concerned with context--historical, culture, theoretical--than with the text, the latter serving only to illuminate the former. Academic criticism of contemporary fiction no longer provides a more rigorous, expansive, open-minded alternative to the popular reviewing media. For text-based criticism, the general interest book review is what we're stuck with.
At one time I held out hope that new online book reviews and literary blogs would provide a plausible alternative to print book reviewing. I still think that, in theory and potential, both could still be perfectly good sources of serious literary criticism. There is nothing in the nature of the cyber medium that precludes it being the publishing vehicle for serious writing of any kind. If serious critics, facing the likely demise of newspaper and magazine reviewing in the not distant future, turn to the cyber/blogosphere as an available substitute, literary criticism will flourish well enough. Such book reviewing sites as The Quarterly Conversation and The Critical Flame already demonstrate that online reviewing can be just as credible as print reviewing. Unfortunately, it cannot at this point be said that the literary blog has validated hopes it might sustain a form of general interest criticism that could replace, perhaps even surpass, what is left of print criticism. There are indeed some very good literary blogs offering worthwhile criticism (most of them are listed on the blogroll to the right), but on the whole the literary blogosphere has become largely an echo chamber for book business gossip, psuedo-literary trivia, and the establishment perspective. Literary blogs have become not an alternative to the established critical order but part and parcel of it.
Those blogs now calling themselves "book blogs" in particular have pledged themselves to this order. Mostly devoted to superficial appraisals of potboilers and best-sellers, these blogs actively seek to be conduits of publishing propaganda (in the guise of "promoting" books). They have apparently become the most popular type of "literary" blog, and if "book blog" eventually becomes the name applied mostly to such weblogs, the future of literary criticism online is bleak indeed. But even those still self-identifying as "literary blogs" have settled in to an overly cozy relationship with both publishers and the print reviewing media. (Many of the bloggers have themselves sought out reviewing opportunities in the print media, as if the ultimate purpose of creating a literary blog was after all to attract enough attention to catch on as a newspaper reviewer). While in general one does get from literary blogs a fuller sense of the diversity of fiction available to readers (more emphasis on independent presses) than from the print book reviews, too many of the posts devoted to specific books are discussions of the newest and hottest from mainstream publishers--the deluge of commentary on the Franzen novel provides only the most recent illustration. Much time is spent obsessing over lists of various inane kinds (the top 10____), and in preoccupation with prizes, the dispensing of which is apparently what will have to suffice as some less arduous version of criticism (make a list of names and then choose one) absent the real thing,
Literary blogs are (unwittingly, I hope) abetting the capitalist imperative to get out "product" as quickly as possible. New books appear, are duly noted, presumably consumed, and then we're on to the next one. While sometimes lit bloggers consider an older title, it's usually by an already established author or a "classic" of one sort or another. Little time is spent considering more recent books that might not have gotten enough attention, or assessing a writer's work as a whole. Once the book has passed its "sell by" date, nothing else is heard of it and every book is considered in isolation, as a piece of literary news competing for its 15 seconds. The more potential readers come to assume that this is the main function of lit blogs, the less likely it is that the literary blogosphere will have any lasting importance. Literary blogs might let you know who reviewed what in the New York Times, but that The New York Times might not be the best place to go for intelligent writing about books is not something they'll have the authority to suggest.