The kind of literary criticism that Lionel Trilling practiced, which assumed that national literatures reflected deep national values, is dead now.
Question: Is LionelrnTrilling still your model of a great critic, as he was when you started?rnrn
Louis Menand: Whenrn I was young, I went to college,rnhad a teacher who was, had been a student of Trilling’s at Columbia, rnthis wasrnin California. And he, I started readingrnhim around that time, and then I went to Columbia as well, Trilling was rnstillrnteaching there, I took a course with him. rnHe was not a great teacher, but he was, when I was younger, he rnwas arngood model for the kind of criticism I wanted to do, because he thought rnveryrndialectically. That is to say, herncould see in any particular cultural moment, things that were happening rnandrnthings that were going on that would undermine whatever was happening. He had a very good feel for howrncultural change takes place, and that’s a really complicated question rnthatrncriticism addresses, I think. Sornthat turn of mind that he had is something that really got me interestedrn inrnbeing able to write that way.rnrn
Now, I wouldn’t say he’s a model at all for me now,rn andrnprobably has not been somebody I’ve read for a very long time. But when I was young, that was kind ofrnwhat got me interested in doing this kind of writing.rnrn
Question: What is therncultural role of a literary critic now?rnrn
Louis Menand: Irn think in the, for most of the 20thrncentury, and certainly through the period when I was in school, print rnwas kingrnand literature was thought to be the essence of a society or a rncivilization’srnexpression of itself. You learnedrnFrench literature or you learned British literature or you learned rnAmericanrnliterature because that was a way of understanding that particularrnculture. And I think print is nornlonger king, no duh, and I also think that the idea that there’s such a rnthingrnas a national literature that’s somehow uniquely expressive of a rnnational soulrnor culture or mentality is probably also something that nobody really rnbelievesrnin anymore.rnrn
So the kind of criticism that a Trilling could rnpractice orrnan Edmund Wilson could practice in the 1940’s, 1950’s, is obsolete in rnthatrnsense.rnrn
Secondly, I think that when Trilling wrote the rnessays inrn“The Liberal Imagination,” which came out in 1950, he was writing for rneducatedrnpeople, most of them not academics, because the book was actually a rnbestsellerrnand bought by people far outside the academy. But it was a readership ofrn peoplernwho believed that your taste in literature or your taste in music or rnyour tasternin painting actually told people something about your values, in rnparticularlyrnyour political values. That’s whatrn“The Liberal Imagination,” that volume, is all about. Irn don’t think people believe that any more, I don’t thinkrnpeople think that it really matters whether you appreciate Henry James rnmorernthan Theodore Dreiser, to use an example that Trilling used, or whether rnyournprefer the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, or whatever the current version rnof thatrnargument is, I think people like to have the argument, but I don’t thinkrn theyrnthink a whole lot turns on which side you come out on.rnrn
So to that extent, the job of the critic, as it rnmight havernbeen conceived in the 1950’s or 1960’s, was some kind of role of moral rnarbiterrnfor people, not a huge number of people, but people who were, you know, rnfairlyrneducated, well-placed people. Irndon’t think anybody really thinks of critics as performing that functionrn anyrnmore. To me, that’s a good thing,rnbecause to me, I think, you want to have available to people lots ofrnopportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, rnwithoutrnfeeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in thatrnappreciation. Sometimes there is,rnsometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste rnshould bernthe decider of moral issues.rnrn
But I think that’s, that was another reason that rncriticism hadrnits great moment in the mid-years of the twentieth century and why it’srndifferent now.rnrn
And the final reason is that one of the functions rnofrnliterary criticism, or reviewing, generally—and I, most of my reviews rnactuallyrnare not about literature—but one of the functions of that is basically rnthernsort of Consumer Reports function of letting readers know whether this rnisrnsomething they want to read. Andrnthat function is now performed pretty much for nothing online. So if you’re reviewing a new book—thisrnhappened to me a couple years ago—I was reviewing a book and I finished rnthernreview, pretty much on time, that is, pretty much when the book was rnscheduledrnto come into the stores and I went on Amazon just to see what the sales rnare,rnand they are already 25 reviews on Amazon and just by the wisdom of rncrowds, ifrnyou read all 25 reviews, you got a pretty good sense of the book, you rnreallyrndidn’t need me to tell you about it. rnThat content cost nothing and it was available for nothing. So there’s a different business modelrnfor reviewing than there was when I started out.