Jasper Johns' Flag (1954-55, oil & collage on plywood, MOMA, NY)
Off the Shelf
American Culture, Literature in Recession
Candide's Notebooks/December 22, 2005
We’re not a very interesting culture at the moment. Not in literature, not in moviemaking, and discounting the Marsalis clan, not in music, either. Television is in an oddly creative spurt if you look past the reality shows and the news networks’ dismal fictions and colon-centered “news-you-can-use” posing as information. But if television is the new gold standard of cultural creativity, the bar has dropped dangerously low. It’s surprising, considering that from The Great Gatsby to Bill Gates the United States has been inspiration, leader and trend-setter in business, technology, law, human and civil rights, popular and high arts, every science imaginable and unimagined not so long ago, all the while managing to save the world a couple of times and send greetings to the four corners of the universe along the way. Not a bad run for an adolescent country. What a reversal lately. If we’re not plundering, bombing or boring the rest of the world with preachy and occasionally lethal crusades, we’re being plundered at home by rhetoric and political lawlessness out of character even for this Republic of excess s and pay-per-lobbyist corruption.
Nevertheless it should be a toasty climate for culture, for literature especially. Indignation irrigates the novelist’s imagination better than balmy prosperity. It’s the muse’s irritant, ink’s thunderstorm. The American language should be exploding with wealth and practitioners as a counterweight to the other kind of wealth migrating out of the United States at the rate of $2 billion per day. The internet should be the engine of a thousand voices blooming and booming every day. Instead, the language is languishing. The Internet is doing its job, but in a perverse sort of way. Everyone is a writer. No one can write. Everyone is a novelist. No one can tell a story. The whole world speaks American. No one is too thrilled to bandy about the latest book by—who? If it wasn’t for American non-fiction, a once-in-a-while saving grace, we’d have been a nation of quasi illiterates by now. American hegemony is about to extend to Pluto (with next month’s launch of New Horizons). The American Language (to use Mencken’s nice thick title) is in remission, exiled in its own country.
“Let American confront a novel problem alongside English,” Mencken wrote in his exuberant American Language, “and immediately its superior imaginativeness and resourcefulness become obvious. Movie is better than cinema; and the English begin to admit the fact by adopting the word; it is not only better American, it is better English.” What happened to that inventiveness, to that wealth that made the American language, like so many other things American, the envy of the world? In reality the inventiveness isn’t gone. It’s very much alive, kept alive, rather, by the ceaseless influx of immigrants in combination with the Internet’s quiet linguistic revolution. But no one seems to be doing anything with this creativity—no Sinclair Lewis is bracing it into a new generation of Americanisms, no American mercury or New Yorker is codifying it, however loosely, into something more aesthetic, more culturally distinctive, than something anarchic. Maybe this criticism misses the point entirely. The language explosion is so pronounced—so Big Bang-like—that it’s too early for distinction. The writers are in the nursery. Their great age is yet to come. One should hope so, because for now, the language’s masters are elsewhere.
Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, dourly departed Anthony Burgess, Derek Walcott, J.M. Coetze, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer — they’ve kept English in joyful business in all these lands where the sun once never set on the British Empire . But they’ve also stolen America ’s literary thunder. If it wasn’t for the Methusalean trinity of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison, the American literary scene of the last decades would have been the arid preserve of writing workshops and Fine Arts camps. There’s been great books (Updike’s Rabbit at Rest, Carver’s Cathedral, even Franzen’s Corrections, Heller’s Catch-22, maybe a title or two of DeLillo’s, if we could ever make it to the end. But aside from that trinity we mentioned, there hasn’t been any oeuvres to speak of: Bodies of work by a single writer to stack up on the Washington D.C. Mall right next to the big monuments and say: Here, this is what America can be proud of. The last fifty years have produced wonderful histories and biographies and social studies and other precious ores from the non-fiction mines, with great literary qualities to boot. But with the publication of Lolita, and with Lolita’s death, it’s as if Nabokov was bringing to a close the fifty muscular years of Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, maybe even a bit of Hemingway and Lewis, just as—not coincidentally—the television age was beginning, and with it a history of devolution that makes good writing almost illegal, because no longer marketable.
“A vast concourse of inadequate works, for adults and for children, crams the dustbins of the ages,” Harold Bloom wrote five years ago, as this century was beginning. “At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes.” He was writing in the context of a very critical badgering of the Harry Potter books, a badgering that earned him goblets of hatred from the few Harry Potter readers who also could call themselves Harold Bloom readers. But he wasn’t wrong. In a quasi-literary world where anything goes, of course the Potter books can be a phenomenon. Of course the Nabokovian can no longer be (if it’s even out there, trying). Just as well. The United States had its time, literature-wise. Maybe it’ll have it again by the time the Internet is done rezoning the literary map. Maybe it’ll give back to editors and writers what publishers, then publishers chained to Wall Street’s charts, took away.
At the end of Lolita Humbert stands—his monstrosities over, his object of desire dead—on a cliff looking at and hearing children at play: “I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.” He’d raped and murdered the child in her. He has the good sense to recognize it (too late, but still) before capital punishment ends his pages. It’s discordant to use that passage to make a point, and of course Nabokov would have found it vulgar to do it this way, but the point should be made anyway, because there’s something to it: Wall Street is doing to American literature what Humbert did to Lo: Its rapacity for immediate gratification makes it impossible for young voices to find themselves, to grow up and to give us these oeuvres we so long to read.