Books No Longer Express America’s Soul

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


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So the kind of criticism that a Trilling could practice or an Edmund Wilson could practice in the 1940’s, 1950’s, is obsolete in that sense.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