Big Think Interview With Louis Menand
Question: What do you set\r\nout to accomplish when you write a literary essay?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: I’m trying to make the subject\r\ninteresting to other people, that’s the main job of being a writer. Because\r\nit’s a subject that I’m interested in, so that’s what I really care about, I\r\ndon’t really usually push an agenda, and I don’t feel that my main job is to\r\npersuade people of something. My\r\nmain job is to help them think about something.\r\n\r\n
Question: Who is your\r\npresumed audience when you write?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: For the kind of places I’ve written for\r\nand the kind of writing that I’ve done, the general way to think about your\r\naudience is to think about somebody who’s like yourself, but in a completely\r\ndifferent discipline. So I\r\ngenerally think of a biologist, or professor of biology. So if I’m writing about T. S.\r\nEliot, this is probably someone\r\nwho’s heard of T. S. Eliot, may have read some T. S. Eliot in college, but\r\ndoesn’t know a whole lot more about T. S. Eliot, because they’re busy doing more\r\nimportant things with their brains, but they might be interested in something\r\nthat I have to say about T. S. Eliot. \r\nSo I have to write it in a way that appreciates that this person’s\r\nprobably very well educated, a smart person, and at the same time, doesn’t know\r\nanything effectively about what it is I’m writing about. And that’s really the trick of writing\r\nfor places like the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker, which are two\r\nof the places that I’ve written a lot for.\r\n\r\n
So that’s really my audience. Now, the actual audience could be very different, could be a\r\nlot of retired high school teachers, or, you know, or graduate students or\r\nanybody. It’s very hard to know\r\nwho your readers are, but that’s who I’m... if I have somebody in my head, that’s\r\nprobably who it is.\r\n\r\n
Question: Is Lionel\r\nTrilling still your model of a great critic, as he was when you started?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: When I was young, I went to college,\r\nhad a teacher who was, had been a student of Trilling’s at Columbia, this was\r\nin California. And he, I started reading\r\nhim around that time, and then I went to Columbia as well, Trilling was still\r\nteaching there, I took a course with him. \r\nHe was not a great teacher, but he was, when I was younger, he was a\r\ngood model for the kind of criticism I wanted to do, because he thought very\r\ndialectically. That is to say, he\r\ncould see in any particular cultural moment, things that were happening and\r\nthings that were going on that would undermine whatever was happening. He had a very good feel for how\r\ncultural change takes place, and that’s a really complicated question that\r\ncriticism addresses, I think. So\r\nthat turn of mind that he had is something that really got me interested in\r\nbeing able to write that way.\r\n\r\n
Now, I wouldn’t say he’s a model at all for me now, and\r\nprobably has not been somebody I’ve read for a very long time. But when I was young, that was kind of\r\nwhat got me interested in doing this kind of writing.\r\n\r\n
Question: What is the\r\ncultural role of a literary critic now?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: I think in the, for most of the 20th\r\ncentury, and certainly through the period when I was in school, print was king\r\nand literature was thought to be the essence of a society or a civilization’s\r\nexpression of itself. You learned\r\nFrench literature or you learned British literature or you learned American\r\nliterature because that was a way of understanding that particular\r\nculture. And I think print is no\r\nlonger king, no duh, and I also think that the idea that there’s such a thing\r\nas a national literature that’s somehow uniquely expressive of a national soul\r\nor culture or mentality is probably also something that nobody really believes\r\nin anymore.\r\n\r\n
So the kind of criticism that a Trilling could practice or\r\nan Edmund Wilson could practice in the 1940’s, 1950’s, is obsolete in that\r\nsense.\r\n\r\n
Secondly, I think that when Trilling wrote the essays in\r\n“The Liberal Imagination,” which came out in 1950, he was writing for educated\r\npeople, most of them not academics, because the book was actually a bestseller\r\nand bought by people far outside the academy. But it was a readership of people\r\nwho believed that your taste in literature or your taste in music or your taste\r\nin painting actually told people something about your values, in particularly\r\nyour political values. That’s what\r\n“The Liberal Imagination,” that volume, is all about. I don’t think people believe that any more, I don’t think\r\npeople think that it really matters whether you appreciate Henry James more\r\nthan Theodore Dreiser, to use an example that Trilling used, or whether you\r\nprefer the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, or whatever the current version of that\r\nargument is, I think people like to have the argument, but I don’t think they\r\nthink a whole lot turns on which side you come out on.\r\n\r\n
So to that extent, the job of the critic, as it might have\r\nbeen conceived in the 1950’s or 1960’s, was some kind of role of moral arbiter\r\nfor people, not a huge number of people, but people who were, you know, fairly\r\neducated, well-placed people. I\r\ndon’t think anybody really thinks of critics as performing that function any\r\nmore. To me, that’s a good thing,\r\nbecause to me, I think, you want to have available to people lots of\r\nopportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, without\r\nfeeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in that\r\nappreciation. Sometimes there is,\r\nsometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste should be\r\nthe decider of moral issues.\r\n\r\n
But I think that’s, that was another reason that criticism had\r\nits great moment in the mid-years of the twentieth century and why it’s\r\ndifferent now.\r\n\r\n
And the final reason is that one of the functions of\r\nliterary criticism, or reviewing, generally—and I, most of my reviews actually\r\nare not about literature—but one of the functions of that is basically the\r\nsort of Consumer Reports function of letting readers know whether this is\r\nsomething they want to read. And\r\nthat function is now performed pretty much for nothing online. So if you’re reviewing a new book—this\r\nhappened to me a couple years ago—I was reviewing a book and I finished the\r\nreview, pretty much on time, that is, pretty much when the book was scheduled\r\nto come into the stores and I went on Amazon just to see what the sales are,\r\nand they are already 25 reviews on Amazon and just by the wisdom of crowds, if\r\nyou read all 25 reviews, you got a pretty good sense of the book, you really\r\ndidn’t need me to tell you about it. \r\nThat content cost nothing and it was available for nothing. So there’s a different business model\r\nfor reviewing than there was when I started out.\r\n\r\n
Question: Where do we\r\nstand today in relationship to modernism and postmodernism?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: Yeah, well, that’s one of those\r\nquestions that you can’t answer. I\r\nmean, yeah, we’re probably post-postmodernism? But what was postmodernism such that we’re post of it? So it’s pretty tricky.\r\n\r\n
But I think that the period of the 50’s and 60’s was a\r\nperiod of kind of high veneration of the modernists, like Eliot, and comparable\r\nfigures in the world of art, and so on. \r\nAnd the 60’s and the 70’s kind of replaced that with a different\r\ncanon. So when I started out, I\r\nwas actually a Victorianist, that was my field. I did 19th Century British literature, but by some fluke of\r\nthe job market, I got a job teaching modern literature and ended up writing a\r\nbook on T. S. Eliot, who was, in those days, sort of king of modern literary\r\nform, and criticism as well.\r\n\r\n
But now the canon’s very different from that period, people\r\ndon’t write about Eliot and Pound any more, so that’s really changed a\r\nlot. And I think our sensibility\r\nis not modernist anymore, that is, sensibility of people who are interested in\r\nart and literature.\r\n\r\n
Question: Are we\r\nexperiencing a broader decline in cultural literacy?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: I wouldn’t say that. I mean, it’s, decline’s a funny word to\r\nuse about any cultural moment. I\r\nthink things are different from the way they were 40 or 50 years ago, but the\r\nmedia are different, interests are different, you know, the demographics are\r\ndifferent. It’s just a different\r\nworld.\r\n\r\n
Just in higher education alone, more people go to college\r\nnow, by enormous amounts, than went to college in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. So that represents a whole new literate\r\npublic that’s a consumer of literature, of news, of print, of, you know,\r\nopinion. And that’s a bigger\r\naudience and much more diverse audience than it used to be. So it’s really hard to talk about\r\ndecline. I think it’s just things\r\ndo shift. And then when things\r\nshift, one’s own role in the culture shifts along with it and you have to\r\nadjust to that.\r\n\r\n
Question: What would be\r\nyour ideal solution to the “problem of general education?"\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: Yes, general education, of course, are\r\nthe courses that every student’s required to take in order to graduate from\r\ncollege. And most colleges that\r\nhave a general education requirement, so called, use a distribution model, I\r\nthink that’s what Yale uses, in which students have to take three courses,\r\nusually, in each of the three divisions in the academy, natural science, social\r\nscience, and arts and humanities. \r\nAnd generally, they can take any three courses. So that doesn’t really add up to a very\r\nprescriptive curriculum, obviously, because students can cherry-pick the courses\r\nthat they’re interested in, or the courses they think will be easy.\r\n\r\n
So a real general education model that is, say, one that I\r\nthink has some legitimacy is one that has requirements that actually are shaped\r\nby a rationale of the particular kinds of knowledge that students are going to\r\nneed. Columbia has one, Harvard\r\nhas one, Stanford and Princeton have them, obviously Chicago, St. John’s, they\r\nhave a Great Books curriculum, and so on. \r\nSo, those are the models that are available.\r\n\r\n
My own view is that the general education curriculum that a\r\ncollege picks has to be appropriate for the kind of student body that it\r\nhas. I don’t think the same\r\ncurriculum fits every student body. \r\nNow, that’s a little bit of a circular proposition, because Columbia has\r\nthis Great Books curriculum, it’s called Literature and Humanities in the\r\nContemporary Civilization, and they’ve had the same, roughly the same\r\ncurriculum for about 50 years. So\r\nwhen students apply to Columbia, they already know, they’re already selecting\r\nthat curriculum, that’s something that they want when they apply to\r\ncollege. If you were to impose\r\nsuch a curriculum at Harvard or Yale, students would object, probably, on the\r\ngrounds that they’re being required to do something that they basically didn’t\r\nopt for when they applied. So\r\nColumbia kind of gets away with it because it’s grandfathered in, so to speak,\r\nto the institution.\r\n\r\n
I think at a place like Harvard, our experience, I was\r\ninvolved with, at various stages, in trying to implement a new general\r\neducation curriculum, our experience was that Harvard’s all about\r\nspecialization, that’s not just true of the professori, it’s also true of a lot\r\nof the undergraduates, too, and they come, they kind of know what they want to\r\ndo, they select it because they have a strong aptitude for something in\r\nparticular. So to try to have a\r\nkind of one-size-fits-all general education curriculum for them will probably\r\nnot fly. You know, you have to\r\nhave students wanting to take the courses, otherwise you’re not going, they’re\r\nnot going to be very effective.\r\n\r\n
So Harvard has something that manages, I think, to provide a\r\nlot of options for students, but still fairly prescriptive about the kinds of\r\nsubjects that the courses ought to cover. \r\nJust started, the new curriculum has just begun this year, it actually\r\nseems to have gotten off to a pretty good launch.\r\n\r\n
Question: To what extent\r\nare curricula shaped by “consumers” (parents of students)?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: Yeah, zero. Because, I mean, ideally, zero. Because the way universities operate is the decision about\r\nwhat students need for the degree are... is the decision made by the\r\nfaculty. Should not be made by any\r\nother group, administrators, trustees, parents, students, and so on. Obviously input is helpful to faculty\r\nin trying to come up with a curriculum, but ultimately it’s the faculty’s job\r\nto know what students need to know. \r\nMake a decision about it and present it.\r\n\r\n
The difficulty with coming up with a curriculum is mainly\r\nthat faculty aren’t trained to think in terms of general education. They’re trained to think in terms of\r\ntheir own discipline, or their specialty. \r\nSo when they’re asked, what are your views about what everybody ought to\r\nknow, it’s not something that they’ve ever really given thought to, it’s not\r\npart of their training. They have\r\nviews, but they tend to be quite eccentric and quite different from one\r\nanother. So getting faculties to\r\ncome to a consensus about something that they’ve never really thought about or\r\nhad to worry about in their careers before can be a rather slow process and a\r\nlong process, it certainly was the case at Harvard, and it’s the case with most\r\nof the general education curricula that I know of, it takes four or five years\r\njust to get everybody on board with one idea.\r\n\r\n
Question: In what ways\r\ncan professorial “groupthink” be harmful?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: Well, you want diversity in any\r\nintellectual organization. I mean,\r\nthat’s how good ideas arise. They\r\nhave to do battle with less-good ideas. \r\nIf, to the extent that everybody is accepting roughly the same paradigms\r\nfor inquiry and there’s certain expectations about what counts as good result\r\nof your research, that’s not very good for diversity and it’s not very good for\r\nintellectual ferment, which is what you want to encourage.\r\n\r\n
I mean, universities are set up to get people to work\r\ntogether by having them disagree with each other. So one of the difficulties with relative homogeneity of\r\nopinion among professors is—I happen to be of the same opinion as most\r\nprofessors, most professors are kind of liberal Democrats—it’s just that it\r\ndiscourages people from getting into the profession, which it’s very difficult\r\nto get into anyway, because they feel they’re going to be discriminated against\r\nor shunned or just not included in the conversation. I don’t think that necessarily would be the case, but it’s\r\ndiscouraging to people.\r\n\r\n
Basically what you want in any profession—I would say the\r\nsame thing if I were a lawyer or a doctor—is you want bright undergraduates to\r\nlook at your profession as something they would be interested in getting into. If the barriers to entry are really high\r\nand there seems to be some requirement that you tailor your views to fit the\r\nviews of your colleagues, it’s going to discourage people from entering and\r\nthey’ll go do something else that’s got a, you know, more reliable track to a\r\ncareer.\r\n\r\n
So I do worry a lot about the time it takes for people to\r\nget a PhD, about the difficulty of finding employment, about the difficulty of\r\ngetting tenure, and generally about the perception that undergraduates have,\r\nthat this is a very high-risk career to get started. And I don’t want people to\r\nfeel that. I want people to feel\r\nthis is something that would be fun to do, and doable.\r\n\r\n
Question: How can\r\nuniversities become more ideologically diverse?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: Well, I think, I mean, there are lots\r\nof, there are ways in which universities will never be a reflection of the\r\ngeneral opinion of the public and they probably shouldn’t be. It’s generally sort of sociologically\r\nobserved that the better educated people are, the more liberal they tend to be,\r\nwhich would suggest that professors are going to be more liberal than the\r\ngeneral public. And I don’t think\r\nthat you want to see universities in any way trying to have any kind of quota\r\nsystem about political views, or views in general. You want the market to work in the way the market works.\r\n\r\n
But I think that one of the things that would make it a\r\nlittle bit more likely to get diversity into—I would just say to oxygenate the\r\nsystem that we’re working in—would be to make it a little easier to get a\r\nPhD. Sometimes I think we should\r\njust give more PhD’s, but even if we didn’t get more PhD’s, if we just didn’t,\r\nif we didn’t make it 8 or 9 or 10 years to get a PhD, I think it would\r\nencourage people to enter who would otherwise find lots of reasons why it\r\nwasn’t a very wise thing to do.\r\n\r\n
Question: Are humanities\r\ndegrees high-risk?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: Yeah. Well, I think the time to degree is right now the big\r\nobstacle to entry into the professions. \r\nNow, the median time to degree, to PhD in the humanities is nine years,\r\nand that’s time as a registered student. \r\nThe time between Bachelor’s degree and a PhD, the median time is over 11\r\nyears. So then you’re still only\r\non a tenure ladder, you’re not tenured. \r\nSo it generally takes 6 to 8 years after that to get tenure. So that’s a very long period of what’s\r\nessentially apprenticeship, of insecurity. \r\nI don’t think that’s very healthy for any business, certainly not for a\r\nbusiness where you want people to be original and creative and take risks. So I think that’s a big problem, and\r\nthe humanities seems to be doing worse than the other disciplines, though the\r\nother disciplines also have increased time to degrees.\r\n\r\n
Now, part of the reason for that is that it’s difficult to\r\nget a job and people stay in school longer because they’re employed as teaching\r\nassistants or instructors by their schools, by their schools where they’re\r\ngraduate students, and that does become exploitative eventually because they’re\r\nvery cheap labor and there’s a way in which in it’s not in the institution’s\r\ninterest to give them a degree if they can continue to employ them, I don’t\r\nthink anybody thinks that way, but effectively that’s the way the system is\r\nstarting to work. That’s a bad\r\nmorale problem and it’s something that gets into the mentality of the ABD’s, who\r\ndo a lot of this teaching, and it’s not good for, again, not good for\r\ncollegiality, and not good for intellectual culture.\r\n\r\n
So I think everybody recognizes at this point that we’ve\r\ngotten ourselves into a really weird situation where the supply curve and the\r\ndemand curve are just not, you know, where they should be and it would be very\r\ngood for the profession generally, and the humanities in particular, because we\r\nhave a lot of other things that we’re struggling with and if we could get the\r\nprofessional training part of it, a little more rational and efficient.\r\n\r\n
Question: What is the\r\nfuture of literary studies?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: There has been this period of about 15 years of\r\nanxiety, about sort of loss of exciting, theoretical paradigms, which were very\r\nvibrant for about 20 or 30 years after the ‘60’s and it kind of gave life to\r\nliterary studies, basically critical theory, post-structuralism, then feminist\r\ncriticism, and so on. Queer\r\ntheory... All these other, things were exciting and brought people into the field\r\nor gave people a new way of reading and teaching this material. And then there’s been this kind of\r\ndrought for a little bit and the kind of post-theory moment, and so forth,\r\nwhich has, of course, been heavily theorized as well.\r\n\r\n
And right now I feel that the sort of coming thing is this\r\nuse of cognitive science and talking about why we read and how we read, and\r\nthere have been some books that people get excited about that have come out in\r\nthe last three or four years on the subject and cognitive science, generally, I\r\nthink is one of the places in the whole academy where things are happening that\r\neverybody in other disciplines is now paying attention to. Even in the economics department,\r\nthey’re paying a lot of attention to it.\r\n\r\n
So that seems to be, when I look at, for example,\r\napplications to our graduate program, a lot of people, just even in college,\r\nare already expressing an interest in pursuing literary studies in combination\r\nwith something in cognitive science. \r\nMy 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\r\nable to say about them. But that\r\ncould change. I mean, cognitive\r\nscience is a rapidly developing area, so it could be that there are some\r\nsurprises around the corner. That\r\ndoes seem to be kind of where the trend line is leading. And you could say this is just an\r\neffort on the part of people in literature to get some, you know, street cred\r\nin the academy by being scientific. \r\nBut it’s more than that, I think there’s a genuine feeling that this is\r\na kind of exciting way of repositioning the subject that we teach, getting away\r\nfrom arguments about the canon and arguments about, you know, ranking, and\r\nwho’s the best author, and that kind of stuff and much more in the direction of\r\nsomething that’s appropriate to scholarship and research.\r\n\r\n
Question: What’s the most\r\nvehement reader reaction you’ve ever gotten?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: One\r\nof the oddities about responses that you get to what you write, if you get a\r\nfair number of them, is that people have very different ideas of what you\r\nsaid. People tend to read with a\r\npreconceived idea of what the piece is about. If there are nuances in the argument, they won’t pick them\r\nup. Sometimes people won’t even\r\nfinish a piece that you wrote, because they’ve already decided what it is that\r\nyou want to say, and generally I, whatever I say in the first half of the\r\npiece, you should not assume I'm going to end up with, but they don’t finish reading\r\nthem. So, and people read\r\nfast and stuff. So you do get odd\r\nresponses, but a lot of that is just that, you know, that people are, just\r\naren’t reading it quite the way that you wrote it.\r\n\r\n
I think the, I guess the oddest response recently that I got\r\nwas I wrote an editorial about Fox News, a comment, as the sort of editorial,\r\nfirst piece in the magazine. And\r\nthis was a response to some statement from the Obama administration that they\r\nwere going to not treat Fox News reporters as real reporters. So I wrote a comment about it, and I\r\nthink Fox News is fairly ridiculous—and certainly the opinionaters on Fox are\r\nridiculous—and I’ve made some fun of them at the beginning of the piece, but I,\r\nat the end of the piece, which was only about 1,000 words, I said that I\r\nthought it was a bad idea for the state or the White House, whatever, to single\r\nout one news organization and say you’re not a real news organization. I just think that’s a very chilling\r\nthing and the First Amendment is all about letting people, even people whose\r\nviews your despise, have their say, because then at the end of the day, you can\r\nsay, "You had your say and you lost." \r\nIf you silence them, you don’t get to say that. So I said this in the piece.\r\n\r\n
So I got a very angry email from somebody who was a Fox News\r\njunkie, who said, “You Harvard professors are all the same, Fox News is great,\r\nyou know, you’re full of it,” and so I wrote back and I said, “Did you finish\r\nreading the piece?” And he said,\r\n“No, I didn’t bother, it was such drivel.” So I was like, “But you bothered to write an email about it,\r\nisn’t that kind of weird?” I mean,\r\nso you do get that.\r\n\r\n
Question: After you\r\ncriticized the “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” author, did people start critiquing\r\nyour grammar?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: If you write for the New\r\nYorker, you always get people critiquing your grammar, you can count on\r\nit. So, because a lot of New\r\nYorker readers are kind of, you know, amateur grammarians and so you do get a\r\nlot of that. So that, I’m used to\r\nthat.\r\n\r\n
But I think, yeah, with that piece, so this was this book by\r\nLynne Truss and it was a big, big bestseller in the US, and there were a lot of\r\nbad things about it. One was that\r\nthe style of punctuation that she was explaining in the book is British style\r\nof punctuation, which doesn’t work in the United States, I mean, they have\r\ndifferent rules, so it didn’t make sense that people buy this book in the US\r\nand think they were going to learn how to punctuate from it.\r\n\r\n
And then the book itself was full of real, I mean, like\r\nhowlers, I mean, really bad punctuation mistakes and some grammatical\r\nerrors. So I had to say this, I\r\nmean, you know, I just thought the world should, at least somebody should say\r\nthat she doesn’t know how to punctuate.\r\n\r\n
So the great thing was that there was a fuss in England\r\nabout it, apparently, and her editor was interviewed and he was asked about my\r\nreview, and he called me a "wanker"—which I thought was, you know, not very\r\nclassy, but all right—and then it\r\nturned out that the next book Lynne Truss was going to write was civility, how\r\nthere’s no civility any more. She\r\nshould start with her editor.\r\n\r\n
Question: Have you seen\r\nAmerican literature develop a style influenced by MFA programs?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: Yes, I was reviewing a book by a guy\r\nnamed Mark McGurl, who teaches at UCLA, and which I think is a terrific book,\r\ncalled, The Program Era, and the argument of the book is that American fiction,\r\nsince 1945 or 1950 has been highly influenced by the fact that so many\r\nnovelists and so many people who teach novelists, have gone through writing\r\nprograms. And it’s not a take-down\r\nin any way. His book, his book basically says that writing programs provide a\r\ncertain environment where a particular kind of fiction gets produced and these\r\nkinds of fiction are very interesting, they’re often very experimental, they\r\ntake fiction in directions that otherwise wouldn’t go. It doesn’t mean that\r\neverything is being dumbed-down or cookie-cuttered. And I thought that was very provocative and he gave some\r\npretty good readings of contemporary fiction to back up his claim about it. So\r\nI would tend to agree with him. I\r\nmean, it is different. It’s a fact\r\nof life since 1950 or so, that wasn’t true before that. Writers had different ways of\r\norganizing themselves and different sort of social groupings in which to\r\nperform their work. But the fact\r\nthat many of them go through the university now does affect what they write,\r\nbut doesn’t mean that they write it, what they’re writing isn’t interesting.\r\n\r\n
As I said in that piece, I, myself, was a creative\r\nwriting major in college and I look back on those experiences with great\r\nfondness and I think they were very good for me, too. So I think it’s a, it’s a totally appropriate thing to have\r\ninside the academy.\r\n\r\n
Question: Did studying\r\ncreative writing shape your own style?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: I wish I could say it made it\r\nbetter, but it certainly gave me lots of models to bounce off of and learn\r\nfrom. And then part of it is just\r\nthat I wrote poetry, and you know, not that many people are into contemporary\r\npoetry, but if you can hang out with the people who are in your college, it’s\r\nreally a wonderful thing to share and I really value that a lot. So I’m glad I had the opportunity to do\r\nit and I think it’s a good thing to, a good opportunity for students to have.\r\n\r\n
Question: What books have\r\nyou enjoyed reading recently?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: Yeah, I read a book actually, this was\r\nkind of for business, but I really thought was great. It’s called "Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?" and\r\nit’s by a professor at Stanford called Blakey Vermeule, and it’s an example of\r\nwhat we were talking about earlier, which is trying to apply some of the\r\ndiscoveries of experimental psychology and cognitive science to novels, and\r\nparticularly ask the question why is it that people care very much about what\r\nhappens to a fictional character, given that not only have we never met this\r\nperson, but the person doesn’t exist. \r\nBut we actually, we see a movie or read a novel, and the bad guy gets\r\naway with it, we’re pretty upset. \r\nWhy would we, why would we care? \r\nSo she has an explanation from evolutionary psychology, but she has some\r\nother insights as well into what it means to read or what it means to identify\r\nwith characters that have to do with the way we relate to other people.\r\n\r\n
And even though I felt the cognitive science part of it I\r\ncould take or leave, I thought that her manner of reading novels was great,\r\nit’s a wonderful book, and she just has a great voice as a critic and I felt I\r\nwould follow her wherever she went.\r\n\r\n
Question: Have you ever\r\nfound yourself caring deeply about a fictional character?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: Sure, of course, yeah, most\r\nof them. Hans Castorp probably,\r\nhero of "The Magic Mountain," when I was a kid I read that, I mean, not a kid,\r\nprobably about 20, and I remember being, like, deeply invested in that\r\ncharacter. I don’t even know why\r\nanymore, but I remember feeling it really mattered to me how things came out\r\nfor him.\r\n\r\n
Yeah, no, that’s part of why, I suppose, I suppose everybody\r\ndoes get attached to characters whether in movies or in stories, but I think\r\nthat’s part of the reason you get involved with literature is because there’s\r\nsomebody that grabs you about it and then you want to figure out why. That’s part of what the job is, really,\r\nis to figure out what is it about this story or this character or this outcome\r\nor this style or this voice that gets to you. What’s getting to you? \r\nWhat does it mean? And\r\nthat’s really an interesting problem to try to figure out. So that’s what this book was taking a\r\nstab at doing and I just thought it was a pretty original and fresh and fun\r\ntake on the subject.\r\n\r\n
Question: What advice do\r\nyou have for an aspiring literary critic?\r\n\r\n
Louis Menand: I think the only way I can answer that is to say it, in my\r\nown case, because people do, students do say, “Well, how did you get to be a\r\nprofessor and also a magazine writer?” \r\nSo, my answer to that is that I didn’t plan it, A; B, that to be a\r\nprofessor, you have to pay your professional dues, there’s no kind of shortcut\r\nto that. So you have to write a\r\ndissertation, you have to publish an academic monograph, you have to have, you\r\nknow, respective peers in your scholarly field and all of that stuff, you can’t\r\nkind of substitute book reviews for that.\r\n\r\n
At the same time, one of the good things about the\r\nprofession of being a professor, is that you also have time to do what\r\ninterests you and what you care about or what you’re good at. In my case that was, it did turn out to\r\nbe magazine writing, I don’t know that I would’ve predicted that, but that’s\r\nhow it turned out.\r\n\r\n
So the fortunate thing for me is that my writing is such,\r\nthe way I naturally write is such that it’s just commercial enough for\r\nmagazines to publish it and just academic enough for me to have a career in the\r\nacademy. So it’s worked out really\r\nwell. But I’m not one of the\r\npeople who has a kind of scholarly hat and writes in a certain way for an\r\nacademic audience and then puts on a public intellectual hat and writes a\r\ndifferent way for a different kind of readership. I generally write the way I write, no matter what and it\r\nseems to have worked for me.\r\n\r\n
So I think in general there’s no point in going into a field\r\nlike English literature if you’re not going to have fun with it. I mean, you’re not going to get\r\nanything else out of it, you’re not going to get rich, you’re not going to get\r\nfamous, and you’re not going to really have a big affect on, you know, foreign\r\npolicy. But you are going to do\r\nthings that if you’re interested in it, that nobody else can do with their\r\ncareers. And if you’re not going\r\nto enjoy it and have fun with it and feel like this is what you care about, I\r\ndefinitely would not advise going down the very long road to get there.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n
A conversation with the Harvard University English professor.
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