Books No Longer Express America’s Soul

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

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Louis Menand:  When\r\n I was young, I went to college,\r\nhad a teacher who was, had been a student of Trilling’s at Columbia, \r\nthis was\r\nin California.  And he, I started reading\r\nhim around that time, and then I went to Columbia as well, Trilling was \r\nstill\r\nteaching there, I took a course with him. \r\nHe was not a great teacher, but he was, when I was younger, he \r\nwas a\r\ngood model for the kind of criticism I wanted to do, because he thought \r\nvery\r\ndialectically.  That is to say, he\r\ncould see in any particular cultural moment, things that were happening \r\nand\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 \r\nthat\r\ncriticism addresses, I think.  So\r\nthat turn of mind that he had is something that really got me interested\r\n in\r\nbeing able to write that way.

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Now, I wouldn’t say he’s a model at all for me now,\r\n 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.

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Question: What is the\r\ncultural role of a literary critic now?

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Louis Menand:  I\r\n think in the, for most of the 20th\r\ncentury, and certainly through the period when I was in school, print \r\nwas king\r\nand literature was thought to be the essence of a society or a \r\ncivilization’s\r\nexpression of itself.  You learned\r\nFrench literature or you learned British literature or you learned \r\nAmerican\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 \r\nthing\r\nas a national literature that’s somehow uniquely expressive of a \r\nnational soul\r\nor culture or mentality is probably also something that nobody really \r\nbelieves\r\nin anymore.

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So the kind of criticism that a Trilling could \r\npractice or\r\nan Edmund Wilson could practice in the 1940’s, 1950’s, is obsolete in \r\nthat\r\nsense.

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Secondly, I think that when Trilling wrote the \r\nessays in\r\n“The Liberal Imagination,” which came out in 1950, he was writing for \r\neducated\r\npeople, most of them not academics, because the book was actually a \r\nbestseller\r\nand bought by people far outside the academy. But it was a readership of\r\n people\r\nwho believed that your taste in literature or your taste in music or \r\nyour taste\r\nin painting actually told people something about your values, in \r\nparticularly\r\nyour political values.  That’s what\r\n“The Liberal Imagination,” that volume, is all about.  I\r\n don’t think people believe that any more, I don’t think\r\npeople think that it really matters whether you appreciate Henry James \r\nmore\r\nthan Theodore Dreiser, to use an example that Trilling used, or whether \r\nyou\r\nprefer the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, or whatever the current version \r\nof that\r\nargument is, I think people like to have the argument, but I don’t think\r\n they\r\nthink a whole lot turns on which side you come out on.

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So to that extent, the job of the critic, as it \r\nmight have\r\nbeen conceived in the 1950’s or 1960’s, was some kind of role of moral \r\narbiter\r\nfor people, not a huge number of people, but people who were, you know, \r\nfairly\r\neducated, well-placed people.  I\r\ndon’t think anybody really thinks of critics as performing that function\r\n 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, \r\nwithout\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 \r\nshould be\r\nthe decider of moral issues.

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But I think that’s, that was another reason that \r\ncriticism had\r\nits great moment in the mid-years of the twentieth century and why it’s\r\ndifferent now. 

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And the final reason is that one of the functions \r\nof\r\nliterary criticism, or reviewing, generally—and I, most of my reviews \r\nactually\r\nare not about literature—but one of the functions of that is basically \r\nthe\r\nsort of Consumer Reports function of letting readers know whether this \r\nis\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 \r\nthe\r\nreview, pretty much on time, that is, pretty much when the book was \r\nscheduled\r\nto come into the stores and I went on Amazon just to see what the sales \r\nare,\r\nand they are already 25 reviews on Amazon and just by the wisdom of \r\ncrowds, if\r\nyou read all 25 reviews, you got a pretty good sense of the book, you \r\nreally\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.

The kind of literary criticism that Lionel Trilling practiced, which assumed that national literatures reflected deep national values, is dead now.

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