In the April 25 New York Times profile of novelist Steve Stern, we get this from Harold Bloom:
"I started to read Stern thinking I would just dip into it," Mr. Bloom said in a telephone interview from his home in New Haven. "But he has gusto, exuberance, panache; this is immensely readable and vibrant."
And then Mr. Bloom asked, "Who is he?"
I have great respect for Harold Bloom as a literary critic. If anything, his response to Steve Stern only reinforces my high opinion of his critical acumen. But that Bloom was unfamiliar with Stern's work not only indicates the degree to which Stern is unjustly neglected by the current literary scene, but also how little we should in general rely on English professors, "literary scholars" more broadly, for insight about contemporary literature. Bloom keeps up with current writers more thorougly than most academic critics--especially for a critic whose specialty is Romantic poetry--but that a writer as accomplished as Steve Stern remains unknown to him speaks volumes about the essential disconnection between literary academics (excluding creative writers) and the larger literary world populated by writers and readers of contemporary work.
In my opinion, a good case can be made that the operative definition of what constitutes "literature" in the first place should come from the practice of current writers. They--and their readers--have inherited the literary tradition studied by academics and are expanding and modifying that tradition through their ongoing work. Thus critics and scholars interested in understanding the literary impulse, the nature of literature and the possibilities of literary form, ought to be attending to contemporary writers.
But this is not what happens, of course. Through academic study the procession of writers and works that make up literary history are carved into periods and "specialties," and academic scholars, even those most up-to-date on reigning theories or critical approaches, usually spend their time becoming experts on these periods. I know from experience that many such scholars think of "their" writers as the most interesting or rewarding writers one might study, and tend to regard contemporary writers as so much fluff, a sad decline from the standards set in the Renaissance, or the 18th century, or even in the first half of the twentieth century. In this context it would not be surprising at all for most English professors to respond to the names of even more well-known writers than Steve Stern with Bloom's "Who is he/she?" (A notable exception in the blog world is Miriam Burstein (The Little Professor), who specializes in Victorian literature but who frequently posts very intelligent reviews of current fiction on her weblog.)
Over the past thirty years or so an academic specialty called, strangely enough, "Contemporary Literature" arose partly as a reaction to this attitude on the part of literary scholars. It was designed by those who helped establish it as an academic discipline to bring more attention to contemporary writing, to demonstrate that it, too, was worthy of serious academic attention. For a while this happened. Current writers were the subjects of numerous very good scholarly books in the 1970s and 1980s, and courses in contemporary literature came to be taught in most English departments. But even this "specialty" in contemporary literature has, in my opinion, turned out to be mostly unhelpful in creating real interest in current writing and in contributing to anything that could be called a "literary culture" in the United States. It, too, has been carved into various sub-specialties, has become atomized and fragmented. Scholars of postmodernism don't often have much to say to scholars specializing in feminist writers, who don't generally have much to say to those studying minority writers, and none of these academic critics usually speak much to the creative writers.
Thus the last person you should probably approach for an informed opinion of contemporary literature would be an English professor. The best you will probably get is someone like Bloom, who is willing to read current writing and take it seriously; at worst you will get outright disdain or condescension. (Which doesn't mean the professor will refrain from making a pronouncement on the writer or work in question.) Most literature professors don't think that much about what "literature" might be as a vital, continuing practice, only about what it was at some time in the past. The word has indeed meant different things to different people at different times. "Historicizing" is a perfectly nice thing to do, and sometimes it tells us interesting things about the poetry and fiction we still continue to read. For myself, I generally prefer to concentrate on what serious writing can do for us in the here and now, which requires keeping up a little bit on the new books and writers who can help us achieve this goal.