On May 21st, the New York Times Book Review published the results of its survey, “What is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?” Accompanying the dismal list of “winners” was an essay by A.O. Scott, “In Search of the Best.” With the typical absence of passion, criteria, and commitment that characterizes modern criticism and especially that of the New York Times, Scott, a film critic for the Times, neither applauds the survey results nor condemns them.
Scott describes the “Great American Novel” as a “crossbreed of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism.” His nattering, gossipy article snickers at the subject of “best”, striving to assure its readers that the author could never be accused of valuing anything, not even the rubbish heap that passes for modern literature. It is just there, beyond judgment or comparison.
“…Late 20th century American Lit comprises a bustling menagerie, like Noah’s ark or the island of Dr. Moreau, where modernists and postmodernists consort with fabulists and realists, ghost stories commingle with domestic dramas, and historical pageantry mutates into metafiction. It is, gratifyingly if also bewilderingly, a messy and multitudinous affair.”
How can one judge? Should one judge? Scott asks but evades answering those questions, and abstains from judging the “best” works, twenty-two of them, just as he abstains from faulting or praising the over one hundred judges — “prominent writers, critics, editors, and other literary sages” — for their choices. Little is communicated in his essay but a contempt that percolates through an amused scorn for the whole subject. Comparing the “Great American Novel” with the yeti, Loch Ness monster and sasquatch, he notes, “The Times Book Review, ever wary of hoaxes but always eager to test the boundary between empirical science and folk superstition, has commissioned a survey of recent sightings.”
Focusing on the “winner” of the survey, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Scott merely reports on the judges’ consensus:
“When the book first began to be assigned in college classrooms, during an earlier and in retrospect much tamer phase of the culture wars, its inclusion on syllabuses was taken, by partisans and opponents alike, as a radical gesture. (The conservative canard one heard in those days was that left-wing professors were casting aside Shakespeare in favor of Morrison.) But the political rhetoric of the time obscured the essential conservatism of the novel, which aimed not to displace or overthrow its beloved precursors, but to complete and to some extent correct them.”
“Enshrine mediocrity,” Ellsworth Toohey told Peter Keating in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, “and the shrines are razed.” Reading Scott’s comments on the winning and neglected authors and their works, one is immediately certain that the idea of literary shrines is alien to him. He is a product of his age and education, a subjectivist/relativist who does not presume to venture beyond the perceptual and the visceral, or to question others’ appraisals. If his object is more demolition work, he is unaware that his literary and critical predecessors have already razed the shrines and that he is wandering through ruins overgrown by weeds, infested with vermin, and tenanted by vagrants. The great or notable literature of the past, to him, is a mirage. Who is he to hold himself or other writers up to a higher standard? Or to any standards? To Scott, the dishwater gray culture he sees before him is the norm.
“The American masterpieces of the mid-19th century…were compounded of precisely these elements [what he calls earlier realism, allegory, folk tale, Gothic and romance], and nowadays it seems almost impossible to write about that period without crossing into the realm of the supernatural, or at least the self-consciously mythic.”
Given the novels chosen by the Times judges as the “best” in the last twenty-five years, one might understand why Scott would consider the masterpieces of the 19th century an unattainable mirage. But Scott is not an innocent party; he helps to perpetuate the grayness. Not one of the survey novels deserves extended critical attention here; they all echo the common charge, as critics never tire of pointing out, that America is “mythic,” founded on violence, illusions, hypocrisy, racism, shallowness, and angst. It is a country based on fraud, and populated by trolls and gnomes.
Scott himself apparently does not aspire to anything greater than the stature of a troll. He writes effusively and with nagging drollery about modern literature in Harvard-taught patois, but devotes not one word to what “might and ought to be.” The concept is impossible to him. It is not a treasure trove of values that he seeks or regrets the loss of, but the chamber pots of modern American writers. What they have produced, is there. To Scott, nothing else is conceivable.
Against what literary or esthetic criteria does he measure modern literature? None. Such criteria do not exist, according to Scott. It is a “myth.” He might have redeemed himself had he attempted this kind of appraisal: “As modern France is no longer the France of Victor Hugo and Edmond Rostand, America is no longer the America of Hawthorne and Whitman.” But that kind of observation requires a perspicuity and intellectual honesty based on the knowledge that one is confined in a suffocatingly dreary, boring, bankrupt culture.
Scott, previously a book reviewer for Newsday, is also a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. He is representative of the modern profession of criticism, virtually indistinguishable in his philosophy and style from his colleagues who write for other major publications. He cannot take literature seriously enough to approach it with any passion or conviction. How could he or anyone stoke up a passion for the drearily undifferentiated trash the subjects of his essay? One holds a conviction about a truth. How could he have a conviction about anything when he claims there are no absolutes and no measures of value?
The measure he does employ is not esthetic or literary, but sociological. Scott calls it “cultural importance.” How does a particular work of fiction “reflect” its time, how well does it succeed in revealing the foibles, absurdities, dishonesty or hubris of society at this or that particular period of history? If one must portray individuals, they must be “types,” or symbols, or transparently neurotic or confused or helplessly miserable or oppressed, and readily identifiable by the random reader as a satirical mirror image of himself as victim or victimizer, or as a helpless, inconsequential cipher in a deterministic milieu.
Heroes? Achievements in the face of terrific odds? The larger-than-life? Happiness? Don’t make Scott laugh. And he will laugh, in chorus with the rest of the literary establishment.
“Every man to his taste,” goes the proverb, and it is claimed that “taste” cannot be accounted for. But, “taste,” or a hierarchy of specific literary and esthetic values, can be accounted for. One can reject the corrosives of naturalism, subjectivism, and nihilism, for which critics like Scott constantly shill in book reviews and essays, and instead measure or formulate literary and artistic values by an “ought.” It was done in the past; it can be done again.
Those who value literature, especially benevolent, heroic, Romantic, life-affirming literature — literature, Ayn Rand once wrote, that serves as live-saving emotional or spiritual fuel to fight one’s own battles and that can propel one to accomplish one’s own goals — in turn cannot take the likes of Scott or anything that passes for literature today seriously. Scott and his ilk cannot, on their premises, fight for or advocate anything of literary or artistic value. All they can do is gloat, and chant in their reviews and essays, “Such is life.”
All we can do is yawn, and work to stage a revolution in literature.