Big Think Interview With Louis Menand

A conversation with the Harvard University English professor.
  • Transcript


Louis Menand: My name is Louis Menand, and I’m Professor of English at Harvard.

Question: What do you set out to accomplish when you write a literary essay?

Louis Menand:  I’m trying to make the subject interesting to other people, that’s the main job of being a writer. Because it’s a subject that I’m interested in, so that’s what I really care about, I don’t really usually push an agenda, and I don’t feel that my main job is to persuade people of something.  My main job is to help them think about something.

Question: Who is your presumed audience when you write? 

Louis Menand:  For the kind of places I’ve written for and the kind of writing that I’ve done, the general way to think about your audience is to think about somebody who’s like yourself, but in a completely different discipline.  So I generally think of a biologist, or professor of biology.  So if I’m writing about T. S. Eliot,  this is probably someone who’s heard of T. S. Eliot, may have read some T. S. Eliot in college, but doesn’t know a whole lot more about T. S. Eliot, because they’re busy doing more important things with their brains, but they might be interested in something that I have to say about T. S. Eliot.  So I have to write it in a way that appreciates that this person’s probably very well educated, a smart person, and at the same time, doesn’t know anything effectively about what it is I’m writing about.  And that’s really the trick of writing for places like the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker, which are two of the places that I’ve written a lot for.

So that’s really my audience.  Now, the actual audience could be very different, could be a lot of retired high school teachers, or, you know, or graduate students or anybody.  It’s very hard to know who your readers are, but that’s who I’m... if I have somebody in my head, that’s probably who it is.

Question: Is Lionel Trilling still your model of a great critic, as he was when you started?

Louis Menand:  When I was young, I went to college, had a teacher who was, had been a student of Trilling’s at Columbia, this was in California.  And he, I started reading him around that time, and then I went to Columbia as well, Trilling was still teaching there, I took a course with him.  He was not a great teacher, but he was, when I was younger, he was a good model for the kind of criticism I wanted to do, because he thought very dialectically.  That is to say, he could see in any particular cultural moment, things that were happening and things that were going on that would undermine whatever was happening.  He had a very good feel for how cultural change takes place, and that’s a really complicated question that criticism addresses, I think.  So that turn of mind that he had is something that really got me interested in being able to write that way.

Now, I wouldn’t say he’s a model at all for me now, and probably has not been somebody I’ve read for a very long time.  But when I was young, that was kind of what got me interested in doing this kind of writing.

Question: What is the cultural role of a literary critic now?

Louis Menand:  I think in the, for most of the 20th century, and certainly through the period when I was in school, print was king and literature was thought to be the essence of a society or a civilization’s expression of itself.  You learned French literature or you learned British literature or you learned American literature because that was a way of understanding that particular culture.  And I think print is no longer king, no duh, and I also think that the idea that there’s such a thing as a national literature that’s somehow uniquely expressive of a national soul or culture or mentality is probably also something that nobody really believes in anymore.

So the kind of criticism that a Trilling could practice or an Edmund Wilson could practice in the 1940’s, 1950’s, is obsolete in that sense.

Secondly, I think that when Trilling wrote the essays in “The Liberal Imagination,” which came out in 1950, he was writing for educated people, most of them not academics, because the book was actually a bestseller and bought by people far outside the academy. But it was a readership of people who believed that your taste in literature or your taste in music or your taste in painting actually told people something about your values, in particularly your political values.  That’s what “The Liberal Imagination,” that volume, is all about.  I don’t think people believe that any more, I don’t think people think that it really matters whether you appreciate Henry James more than Theodore Dreiser, to use an example that Trilling used, or whether you prefer the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, or whatever the current version of that argument is, I think people like to have the argument, but I don’t think they think a whole lot turns on which side you come out on.

So to that extent, the job of the critic, as it might have been conceived in the 1950’s or 1960’s, was some kind of role of moral arbiter for people, not a huge number of people, but people who were, you know, fairly educated, well-placed people.  I don’t think anybody really thinks of critics as performing that function any more.  To me, that’s a good thing, because to me, I think, you want to have available to people lots of opportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, without feeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in that appreciation.  Sometimes there is, sometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste should be the decider of moral issues.

But I think that’s, that was another reason that criticism had its great moment in the mid-years of the twentieth century and why it’s different now. 

And the final reason is that one of the functions of literary criticism, or reviewing, generally—and I, most of my reviews actually are not about literature—but one of the functions of that is basically the sort of Consumer Reports function of letting readers know whether this is something they want to read.  And that function is now performed pretty much for nothing online.  So if you’re reviewing a new book—this happened to me a couple years ago—I was reviewing a book and I finished the review, pretty much on time, that is, pretty much when the book was scheduled to come into the stores and I went on Amazon just to see what the sales are, and they are already 25 reviews on Amazon and just by the wisdom of crowds, if you read all 25 reviews, you got a pretty good sense of the book, you really didn’t need me to tell you about it.  That content cost nothing and it was available for nothing.  So there’s a different business model for reviewing than there was when I started out.

Question: Where do we stand today in relationship to modernism and postmodernism?

Louis Menand:  Yeah, well, that’s one of those questions that you can’t answer.  I mean, yeah, we’re probably post-postmodernism?  But what was postmodernism such that we’re post of it?  So it’s pretty tricky.

But I think that the period of the 50’s and 60’s was a period of kind of high veneration of the modernists, like Eliot, and comparable figures in the world of art, and so on.  And the 60’s and the 70’s kind of replaced that with a different canon.  So when I started out, I was actually a Victorianist, that was my field.  I did 19th Century British literature, but by some fluke of the job market, I got a job teaching modern literature and ended up writing a book on T. S. Eliot, who was, in those days, sort of king of modern literary form, and criticism as well.

But now the canon’s very different from that period, people don’t write about Eliot and Pound any more, so that’s really changed a lot.  And I think our sensibility is not modernist anymore, that is, sensibility of people who are interested in art and literature.

Question: Are we experiencing a broader decline in cultural literacy?

Louis Menand:  I wouldn’t say that.  I mean, it’s, decline’s a funny word to use about any cultural moment.  I think things are different from the way they were 40 or 50 years ago, but the media are different, interests are different, you know, the demographics are different.  It’s just a different world.

Just in higher education alone, more people go to college now, by enormous amounts, than went to college in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.  So that represents a whole new literate public that’s a consumer of literature, of news, of print, of, you know, opinion.  And that’s a bigger audience and much more diverse audience than it used to be.  So it’s really hard to talk about decline.  I think it’s just things do shift.  And then when things shift, one’s own role in the culture shifts along with it and you have to adjust to that.

Question: What would be your ideal solution to the “problem of general education?"

Louis Menand:  Yes, general education, of course, are the courses that every student’s required to take in order to graduate from college.  And most colleges that have a general education requirement, so called, use a distribution model, I think that’s what Yale uses, in which students have to take three courses, usually, in each of the three divisions in the academy, natural science, social science, and arts and humanities.  And generally, they can take any three courses.  So that doesn’t really add up to a very prescriptive curriculum, obviously, because students can cherry-pick the courses that they’re interested in, or the courses they think will be easy.

So a real general education model that is, say, one that I think has some legitimacy is one that has requirements that actually are shaped by a rationale of the particular kinds of knowledge that students are going to need.  Columbia has one, Harvard has one, Stanford and Princeton have them, obviously Chicago, St. John’s, they have a Great Books curriculum, and so on.  So, those are the models that are available.

My own view is that the general education curriculum that a college picks has to be appropriate for the kind of student body that it has.  I don’t think the same curriculum fits every student body.  Now, that’s a little bit of a circular proposition, because Columbia has this Great Books curriculum, it’s called Literature and Humanities in the Contemporary Civilization, and they’ve had the same, roughly the same curriculum for about 50 years.  So when students apply to Columbia, they already know, they’re already selecting that curriculum, that’s something that they want when they apply to college.  If you were to impose such a curriculum at Harvard or Yale, students would object, probably, on the grounds that they’re being required to do something that they basically didn’t opt for when they applied.  So Columbia kind of gets away with it because it’s grandfathered in, so to speak, to the institution.

I think at a place like Harvard, our experience, I was involved with, at various stages, in trying to implement a new general education curriculum, our experience was that Harvard’s all about specialization, that’s not just true of the professori, it’s also true of a lot of the undergraduates, too, and they come, they kind of know what they want to do, they select it because they have a strong aptitude for something in particular.  So to try to have a kind of one-size-fits-all general education curriculum for them will probably not fly.  You know, you have to have students wanting to take the courses, otherwise you’re not going, they’re not going to be very effective.

So Harvard has something that manages, I think, to provide a lot of options for students, but still fairly prescriptive about the kinds of subjects that the courses ought to cover.  Just started, the new curriculum has just begun this year, it actually seems to have gotten off to a pretty good launch.

Question: To what extent are curricula shaped by “consumers” (parents of students)?

Louis Menand:  Yeah, zero.  Because, I mean, ideally, zero.  Because the way universities operate is the decision about what students need for the degree are... is the decision made by the faculty.  Should not be made by any other group, administrators, trustees, parents, students, and so on.  Obviously input is helpful to faculty in trying to come up with a curriculum, but ultimately it’s the faculty’s job to know what students need to know.  Make a decision about it and present it.

The difficulty with coming up with a curriculum is mainly that faculty aren’t trained to think in terms of general education.  They’re trained to think in terms of their own discipline, or their specialty.  So when they’re asked, what are your views about what everybody ought to know, it’s not something that they’ve ever really given thought to, it’s not part of their training.  They have views, but they tend to be quite eccentric and quite different from one another.  So getting faculties to come to a consensus about something that they’ve never really thought about or had to worry about in their careers before can be a rather slow process and a long process, it certainly was the case at Harvard, and it’s the case with most of the general education curricula that I know of, it takes four or five years just to get everybody on board with one idea.

Question: In what ways can professorial “groupthink” be harmful?

Louis Menand:  Well, you want diversity in any intellectual organization.  I mean, that’s how good ideas arise.  They have to do battle with less-good ideas.  If, to the extent that everybody is accepting roughly the same paradigms for inquiry and there’s certain expectations about what counts as good result of your research, that’s not very good for diversity and it’s not very good for intellectual ferment, which is what you want to encourage.

I mean, universities are set up to get people to work together by having them disagree with each other.  So one of the difficulties with relative homogeneity of opinion among professors is—I happen to be of the same opinion as most professors, most professors are kind of liberal Democrats—it’s just that it discourages people from getting into the profession, which it’s very difficult to get into anyway, because they feel they’re going to be discriminated against or shunned or just not included in the conversation.  I don’t think that necessarily would be the case, but it’s discouraging to people.

Basically what you want in any profession—I would say the same thing if I were a lawyer or a doctor—is you want bright undergraduates to look at your profession as something they would be interested in getting into.  If the barriers to entry are really high and there seems to be some requirement that you tailor your views to fit the views of your colleagues, it’s going to discourage people from entering and they’ll go do something else that’s got a, you know, more reliable track to a career.

So I do worry a lot about the time it takes for people to get a PhD, about the difficulty of finding employment, about the difficulty of getting tenure, and generally about the perception that undergraduates have, that this is a very high-risk career to get started. And I don’t want people to feel that.  I want people to feel this is something that would be fun to do, and doable.

Question: How can universities become more ideologically diverse?

Louis Menand:  Well, I think, I mean, there are lots of, there are ways in which universities will never be a reflection of the general opinion of the public and they probably shouldn’t be.  It’s generally sort of sociologically observed that the better educated people are, the more liberal they tend to be, which would suggest that professors are going to be more liberal than the general public.  And I don’t think that you want to see universities in any way trying to have any kind of quota system about political views, or views in general.  You want the market to work in the way the market works.

But I think that one of the things that would make it a little bit more likely to get diversity into—I would just say to oxygenate the system that we’re working in—would be to make it a little easier to get a PhD.  Sometimes I think we should just give more PhD’s, but even if we didn’t get more PhD’s, if we just didn’t, if we didn’t make it 8 or 9 or 10 years to get a PhD, I think it would encourage people to enter who would otherwise find lots of reasons why it wasn’t a very wise thing to do.

Question: Are humanities degrees high-risk?

Louis Menand:  Yeah.  Well, I think the time to degree is right now the big obstacle to entry into the professions.  Now, the median time to degree, to PhD in the humanities is nine years, and that’s time as a registered student.  The time between Bachelor’s degree and a PhD, the median time is over 11 years.  So then you’re still only on a tenure ladder, you’re not tenured.  So it generally takes 6 to 8 years after that to get tenure.  So that’s a very long period of what’s essentially apprenticeship, of insecurity.  I don’t think that’s very healthy for any business, certainly not for a business where you want people to be original and creative and take risks.  So I think that’s a big problem, and the humanities seems to be doing worse than the other disciplines, though the other disciplines also have increased time to degrees.

Now, part of the reason for that is that it’s difficult to get a job and people stay in school longer because they’re employed as teaching assistants or instructors by their schools, by their schools where they’re graduate students, and that does become exploitative eventually because they’re very cheap labor and there’s a way in which in it’s not in the institution’s interest to give them a degree if they can continue to employ them, I don’t think anybody thinks that way, but effectively that’s the way the system is starting to work.  That’s a bad morale problem and it’s something that gets into the mentality of the ABD’s, who do a lot of this teaching, and it’s not good for, again, not good for collegiality, and not good for intellectual culture.

So I think everybody recognizes at this point that we’ve gotten ourselves into a really weird situation where the supply curve and the demand curve are just not, you know, where they should be and it would be very good for the profession generally, and the humanities in particular, because we have a lot of other things that we’re struggling with and if we could get the professional training part of it, a little more rational and efficient.

Question: What is the future of literary studies?

Louis Menand: There has been this period of about 15 years of anxiety, about sort of loss of exciting, theoretical paradigms, which were very vibrant for about 20 or 30 years after the ‘60’s and it kind of gave life to literary studies, basically critical theory, post-structuralism, then feminist criticism, and so on.  Queer theory... All these other, things were exciting and brought people into the field or gave people a new way of reading and teaching this material.  And then there’s been this kind of drought for a little bit and the kind of post-theory moment, and so forth, which has, of course, been heavily theorized as well.

And right now I feel that the sort of coming thing is this use of cognitive science and talking about why we read and how we read, and there have been some books that people get excited about that have come out in the last three or four years on the subject and cognitive science, generally, I think is one of the places in the whole academy where things are happening that everybody in other disciplines is now paying attention to.  Even in the economics department, they’re paying a lot of attention to it. 

So that seems to be, when I look at, for example, applications to our graduate program, a lot of people, just even in college, are already expressing an interest in pursuing literary studies in combination with something in cognitive science.  My own view of the moment is I don’t really see cognitive science as actually adding all that much to what we’re able to do with texts, we’re able to say about them.  But that could change.  I mean, cognitive science is a rapidly developing area, so it could be that there are some surprises around the corner.  That does seem to be kind of where the trend line is leading.  And you could say this is just an effort on the part of people in literature to get some, you know, street cred in the academy by being scientific.  But it’s more than that, I think there’s a genuine feeling that this is a kind of exciting way of repositioning the subject that we teach, getting away from arguments about the canon and arguments about, you know, ranking, and who’s the best author, and that kind of stuff and much more in the direction of something that’s appropriate to scholarship and research.

Question: What’s the most vehement reader reaction you’ve ever gotten?

Louis Menand: One of the oddities about responses that you get to what you write, if you get a fair number of them, is that people have very different ideas of what you said.  People tend to read with a preconceived idea of what the piece is about.  If there are nuances in the argument, they won’t pick them up.  Sometimes people won’t even finish a piece that you wrote, because they’ve already decided what it is that you want to say, and generally I, whatever I say in the first half of the piece, you should not assume I'm going to end up with, but they don’t finish reading them.   So, and people read fast and stuff.  So you do get odd responses, but a lot of that is just that, you know, that people are, just aren’t reading it quite the way that you wrote it.

I think the, I guess the oddest response recently that I got was I wrote an editorial about Fox News, a comment, as the sort of editorial, first piece in the magazine.  And this was a response to some statement from the Obama administration that they were going to not treat Fox News reporters as real reporters.  So I wrote a comment about it, and I think Fox News is fairly ridiculous—and certainly the opinionaters on Fox are ridiculous—and I’ve made some fun of them at the beginning of the piece, but I, at the end of the piece, which was only about 1,000 words, I said that I thought it was a bad idea for the state or the White House, whatever, to single out one news organization and say you’re not a real news organization.  I just think that’s a very chilling thing and the First Amendment is all about letting people, even people whose views your despise, have their say, because then at the end of the day, you can say, "You had your say and you lost."  If you silence them, you don’t get to say that.  So I said this in the piece.

So I got a very angry email from somebody who was a Fox News junkie, who said, “You Harvard professors are all the same, Fox News is great, you know, you’re full of it,” and so I wrote back and I said, “Did you finish reading the piece?”  And he said, “No, I didn’t bother, it was such drivel.”  So I was like, “But you bothered to write an email about it, isn’t that kind of weird?”  I mean, so you do get that.

Question: After you criticized the “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” author, did people start critiquing your grammar?

Louis Menand: If you write for the New Yorker, you always get people critiquing your grammar, you can count on it.  So, because a lot of New Yorker readers are kind of, you know, amateur grammarians and so you do get a lot of that.  So that, I’m used to that.

But I think, yeah, with that piece, so this was this book by Lynne Truss and it was a big, big bestseller in the US, and there were a lot of bad things about it.  One was that the style of punctuation that she was explaining in the book is British style of punctuation, which doesn’t work in the United States, I mean, they have different rules, so it didn’t make sense that people buy this book in the US and think they were going to learn how to punctuate from it.

And then the book itself was full of real, I mean, like howlers, I mean, really bad punctuation mistakes and some grammatical errors.  So I had to say this, I mean, you know, I just thought the world should, at least somebody should say that she doesn’t know how to punctuate.

So the great thing was that there was a fuss in England about it, apparently, and her editor was interviewed and he was asked about my review, and he called me a "wanker"—which I thought was, you know, not very classy, but all right—and then it turned out that the next book Lynne Truss was going to write was civility, how there’s no civility any more.  She should start with her editor.

Question: Have you seen American literature develop a style influenced by MFA programs?

Louis Menand:  Yes, I was reviewing a book by a guy named Mark McGurl, who teaches at UCLA, and which I think is a terrific book, called, The Program Era, and the argument of the book is that American fiction, since 1945 or 1950 has been highly influenced by the fact that so many novelists and so many people who teach novelists, have gone through writing programs.  And it’s not a take-down in any way. His book, his book basically says that writing programs provide a certain environment where a particular kind of fiction gets produced and these kinds of fiction are very interesting, they’re often very experimental, they take fiction in directions that otherwise wouldn’t go. It doesn’t mean that everything is being dumbed-down or cookie-cuttered.  And I thought that was very provocative and he gave some pretty good readings of contemporary fiction to back up his claim about it. So I would tend to agree with him.  I mean, it is different.  It’s a fact of life since 1950 or so, that wasn’t true before that.  Writers had different ways of organizing themselves and different sort of social groupings in which to perform their work.  But the fact that many of them go through the university now does affect what they write, but doesn’t mean that they write it, what they’re writing isn’t interesting.

As I said in that piece, I, myself, was a creative writing major in college and I look back on those experiences with great fondness and I think they were very good for me, too.  So I think it’s a, it’s a totally appropriate thing to have inside the academy.

Question: Did studying creative writing shape your own style?

Louis Menand:  I wish I could say it made it better, but it certainly gave me lots of models to bounce off of and learn from.  And then part of it is just that I wrote poetry, and you know, not that many people are into contemporary poetry, but if you can hang out with the people who are in your college, it’s really a wonderful thing to share and I really value that a lot.  So I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it and I think it’s a good thing to, a good opportunity for students to have.

Question: What books have you enjoyed reading recently?

Louis Menand:  Yeah, I read a book actually, this was kind of for business, but I really thought was great.  It’s called "Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?" and it’s by a professor at Stanford called Blakey Vermeule, and it’s an example of what we were talking about earlier, which is trying to apply some of the discoveries of experimental psychology and cognitive science to novels, and particularly ask the question why is it that people care very much about what happens to a fictional character, given that not only have we never met this person, but the person doesn’t exist.  But we actually, we see a movie or read a novel, and the bad guy gets away with it, we’re pretty upset.  Why would we, why would we care?  So she has an explanation from evolutionary psychology, but she has some other insights as well into what it means to read or what it means to identify with characters that have to do with the way we relate to other people.

And even though I felt the cognitive science part of it I could take or leave, I thought that her manner of reading novels was great, it’s a wonderful book, and she just has a great voice as a critic and I felt I would follow her wherever she went.

Question: Have you ever found yourself caring deeply about a fictional character?

Louis Menand:  Sure, of course, yeah, most of them.  Hans Castorp probably, hero of "The Magic Mountain," when I was a kid I read that, I mean, not a kid, probably about 20, and I remember being, like, deeply invested in that character.  I don’t even know why anymore, but I remember feeling it really mattered to me how things came out for him.

Yeah, no, that’s part of why, I suppose, I suppose everybody does get attached to characters whether in movies or in stories, but I think that’s part of the reason you get involved with literature is because there’s somebody that grabs you about it and then you want to figure out why.  That’s part of what the job is, really, is to figure out what is it about this story or this character or this outcome or this style or this voice that gets to you.  What’s getting to you?  What does it mean?  And that’s really an interesting problem to try to figure out.  So that’s what this book was taking a stab at doing and I just thought it was a pretty original and fresh and fun take on the subject.

Question: What advice do you have for an aspiring literary critic?

Louis Menand: I think the only way I can answer that is to say it, in my own case, because people do, students do say, “Well, how did you get to be a professor and also a magazine writer?”  So, my answer to that is that I didn’t plan it, A; B, that to be a professor, you have to pay your professional dues, there’s no kind of shortcut to that.  So you have to write a dissertation, you have to publish an academic monograph, you have to have, you know, respective peers in your scholarly field and all of that stuff, you can’t kind of substitute book reviews for that.

At the same time, one of the good things about the profession of being a professor, is that you also have time to do what interests you and what you care about or what you’re good at.  In my case that was, it did turn out to be magazine writing, I don’t know that I would’ve predicted that, but that’s how it turned out.

So the fortunate thing for me is that my writing is such, the way I naturally write is such that it’s just commercial enough for magazines to publish it and just academic enough for me to have a career in the academy.  So it’s worked out really well.  But I’m not one of the people who has a kind of scholarly hat and writes in a certain way for an academic audience and then puts on a public intellectual hat and writes a different way for a different kind of readership.  I generally write the way I write, no matter what and it seems to have worked for me.

So I think in general there’s no point in going into a field like English literature if you’re not going to have fun with it.  I mean, you’re not going to get anything else out of it, you’re not going to get rich, you’re not going to get famous, and you’re not going to really have a big affect on, you know, foreign policy.  But you are going to do things that if you’re interested in it, that nobody else can do with their careers.  And if you’re not going to enjoy it and have fun with it and feel like this is what you care about, I definitely would not advise going down the very long road to get there.