“Our literature is infested with a swarm of just such little people as this—creatures who succeed in creating for themselves an absolutely positive reputation, by mere dint of the continuity and perpetuality of their appeals to the public.”
In our age the business of literature has become as stale and well-organized as the reports, memoranda, and self-help books that comprise the literature of business. The days have long since past, when book-reading publishers hired learned editors to put out magazines like The Nation and The Atlantic or solicit original books for Scribner’s or Little, Brown. In our time vast conglomerates hire division managers to supervise publishing operations and promote the latest efforts of the Collins sisters. If they are looking for “quality,” they end up hiring a menagerie of schemers and poetasters who combine the literary taste of Alfred Kazin with the integrity of Gordon Lish.
Writers who make a living by running down the age they happen to live in—”the idiot who praises in enthusiastic tones every century but this and every country but his own”—have offered a variety of reasons for the decadence of our national literature. The usual suspects include the democratization of taste, the tendency of the marketplace to vulgarize everything it touches, the international Communist/Trilateralist conspiracy, and the centralization of power in New York in the hands of what Richard Kostelanetz (in The Decline of Intelligent Writing) calls “the mob.” There is something to be said for each of these fantasies, but like all conspiracy theories they suffer from one critical defect: they do not explain how an otherwise healthy organism got taken over by parasites and traitors.
It is a fine rabbinical technique to answer one question by asking another: cui bono? who benefits from the corruption? In answering that one, we are led to consider the fundamental questions of who gets what and how and why in the literature business—in other words, who’s in control. Being in control of anything means, essentially, the ability to reward your friends and punish your enemies. In literary terms, it is the power to patronize and its reflex, the power to censor.
Any simple-minded economist could explain the relationship between censorship and patronage. Imagine a society that has, say, only a billion dollars to spend on the written word. If the powers that be decide that $950 million will be spent on Barbara Cartland novels and copies of The New Republic, the chances of success for a serious novel or an open-minded magazine are somewhat reduced. Of course in a free market economy such a scenario would be ridiculous, but we do not live in a free market economy. Literature is controlled by monopolies and cartels that are about as open to competition as the postal system: Northeastern publishers, book agents, reviewers, foundations, government agencies, and the vast network of libraries and universities, private as well as public.
The vastness and diversity of these enterprises rule out anything so harmless as a conspiracy. Indeed, the authors of a major sociological study of the book trade (Books: The Culture & Commerce of Publishing) argue that the diversity of the various intellectual circles and the lack of connections within the actual trade have reduced the significance of “networking” in recent years (although they make an exception in the case of academic publishing). This objection to conspiracy theories is less cogent than it might be. In the first place, the fact that there are a number of different circles does not necessarily make the publishing business more open to outsiders: among academics, for example, the circle of Yale liberal philosophers does not overlap with Yale literary theorists; however, both circles have privileged access to certain elite presses, and neither group is particularly open to alternative points of view.
In the second place, it is probably misleading to speak of the publishing business in broad terms. What connection could we expect between, say, Alex Haley and Thomas Sowell? If we are interested in the control of ideas, then the arrangements made for publishing pulp fiction and diet books are irrelevant. What is important is control over the first several tiers of influence upon opinion-makers, and in this environment the publishing industry is a set of closed shops. Richard Kostelanetz, by the way, includes Lewis Coser, the senior author of that major study, as an important member of the establishment. It is important to bear in mind that we are not dealing with an infinite set of personalities: the same people move easily from chairs at major universities to seats on The National Arts and Humanities Councils to editorships at publishing houses to positions as referees and directors of every conceivable granting agency; of course, they are also among the most frequent recipients of grants from not only such government agencies as NEH, NSF, and NEA, but also from the MacArthur, Ford, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller foundations.
Consider a few of the most obvious examples. Some time ago we pointed out the astonishing career of Gordon Lish, would-be novelist, editor at Esquire and Alfred Knopf, Yale professor, and recipient of awards from the Columbia School of Journalism and the American Society of Magazine Editors. Even more instructive is the cursus honorum of Alfred Kazin, who has worked for The New Republic and Fortune, taught at Smith, NYU, Amherst, Berkeley, Hunter, and Stonybrook, and received money from Guggenheim, Rockefeller, NEH, and the American Academy in Rome. Kazin’s entertaining memoir. New York Jew, is an impressive roster of the operatives who have kept the culture machine oiled since the 1930’s: Lionel Trilling, Richard Hofstadter, Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Sylvia Plath, Paul Goodman, and Robert Lowell among many others. Some are bright, some talented, some—like Kazin himself—merely ambitious, all hustlers.
Somewhere in Kazin’s circle of friends is Jason Epstein, former editor at Doubleday, editorial director of Random House, a director and founder (along with his wife, Robert Lowell and his wife Elizabeth Hardwick, poet James Merrill, A. Whitney Ellsworth—also associated with The Atlantic and Harvard—and Robert Silvers) of The New York Review of Books. Silvers, a member of the editorial board of the Paris Review and former associate editor of Paris Review, became co-editor of the NYRB. Those who have done the tedious work of reading back issues have noticed the strange coincidence: publishing firms with strong ties to the founders just happen to get their books regularly featured in the NYRB.
None of this networking and logrolling is exactly new. As long ago as 1849, Edgar Allan Foe made the same complaint against “the manner in which the cabal of The North American Review first write all our books and then review them.” Today, however, the same people not only write and review the books, they also arrange the money and the prizes.
It is not that all of these people are without talent or do not deserve the summer homes of which they are, as Kazin complains, so proud. Lowell was far from being the worst poet of his time, and for all his weaknesses Edmund Wilson was among the best of a bad lot of American culture-critics. Even Kazin is capable of an occasional insight, but does anyone really think that the richness and diversity of American life is fairly represented by Kazin, Epstein, Lish, and Silvers? Was their friend Delmore Schwartz, whose dismal life has been immortalized in countless novels, memoirs, and biographies, even a passable poet? Is there anyone who better sums up the rotten state of American verse—its dullness, incompetence and careerism—than James Merrill? It does not require the imaginative paranoia of Richard Kostelanetz to find something awry, when the literary life of a nation of almost 250 million people is under the control of a few dozen New Yorkers who, by the way, have no qualms about boasting of their success.
In figuring out the situation, some form of Public Choice theory might be invoked. In his interview with Madison Bell (Chronicles, June 1988), George Garrett pointed out that the market for contemporary poetry is not readers and book buyers, but the people who decide on grants and tenure. To a lesser—but very real—extent, the same holds true of most serious writing: novelists above the level of E.L. Doctorow and Jay McInerney, more competent historians than Barbara Tuchman, sounder scholars than Michael Grant or Allan Bloom—all of them have to write with at least one eye on the professional colleagues who have the power of life and death over their careers. Under these circumstances the life of the mind is reduced to a labyrinthine web controlled by a number of powerful spiders sensitive to every move within the network. An original writer who enters the web hasn’t the fly’s chance of making his escape.
This has little to do with “capitalism”—although the concentration of power makes it easier to make money off publishing—and only a little more to do with the regional arrogance of the Northeastern literati—although it is they who have controlled nearly every aspect of our impoverished intellectual life since even before Foe’s time. (The rise of the Southern writers in the 30’s was only a temporary interruption in the smooth running of the New York-Boston hegemony. Hilariously, Kostelanetz thinks there was a Southern mafia dominated by Allen Tate and William Faulkner, who more or less couldn’t stand each other.) Conspiracies aside, our literature exhibits all the ugliest features of monopoly: our writers are smug, uncompetitive, and incompetent; they are so obviously satisfied with their own performance, they cannot understand why no one in his right mind (i.e., people who are not in the business) ever reads their stuff. The most conspicuous exceptions prove the rule: interesting articles still appear in the Hollins Critic and the Sewanee Review, or in The American Scholar, which is edited in Chicago by a Chicagoan (Joseph Epstein).
In this context, the great debate over censorship in America is nothing more than a distraction from the main point. It is hard to believe that the defenders of intellectual freedom really want us to take them seriously. University of Minnesota librarian David Berninghausen, in a tract published by the American Library Association (The Flight From Reason), continues to fear a rightist conspiracy against the First Amendment. From it you can see how the fanaticism of the New Left in the 60’s and 70’s has really resulted in an upsurge of McCarthyism. That Berninghausen, who has also held positions in the ACLU and the AAUP, does not see himself and his organizations as part of the reigning establishment, can only be due to the blinders of regionalism. If he lived in New York, he would be either more perceptive or more candid.
What does the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights mean, for an industry that is, for the most part, so tightly controlled? All the news that’s fit to print, of course. If ideas and writers too exotic or too conservative for Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and the various buying services do make it into print, they usually will not have to face actual censorship: they simply won’t be reviewed, distributed, or purchased. If a comparatively small number of publishers, editors, and critics don’t happen to like you or if, like George Gilder and Kingsley Amis, you step on the toes of feminists or homosexuals, even the prospects of a healthy sale will not tempt most publishers. If we accept the old definition of censorship as prior restraint on publishing, then the only real censors in the US are Alfred Kazin and the Our Gang members who have spent their lives patting each other on the back, and funding and honoring each other’s books. Writers and editors who had the courage to “break ranks,” in Mr. Podhoretz’s phrase, are insulted in the vilest terms. For this reason, the so-called neoconservatives probably can never go back to the old alliance. In comparison with the heavy-handed power of the Northeastern left, a few scattered cases of book-burning in middle America are hardly worth the attention they have received in the press.
Consider a few fairly recent censorship cases that are supposed to boil the blood of every right-thinking civil libertarian:
—The case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeider in which a superior court declared that a high-school principal could in fact censor the school newspaper.
—The Reagan administration’s decision to close down the FLO information office in September 1987.
—The district court ruling against the Librarian of Congress who dropped Playboy from the Library’s braille publication series; the judge declared the action to be “a type of censorship.”
—Complaints against The National Endowment for the Arts for funding allegedly pornographic poets; the NEA’s predictable answer was the cry of “censorship.”
—The several cases in Canada, West Germany, and elsewhere, in which teachers and writers have been prosecuted for challenging the standard view of the Holocaust.
—Finally: Tipper Gore and rock music, textbook cases in Alabama and Tennessee, attacks on Huckleberry Finn and other literary works for racist and sexist stereotypes, new feminist pornography laws in Indianapolis and Minneapolis, threats of violence against performances of Vanessa Redgrave, who supports the FLO, and the PTA’s national call for rating rock music.
The most striking of these cases are little more than minor league conflicts between ethnic, political, and religious factions: feminists against liberals, fundamentalists against atheists, Jews against Arabs, blacks against whites. Meanwhile our intellectual life is dominated by the same people who have been running things since the 30’s; which brings us back to the question of how it happened.
I don’t have a complete answer, but I can guess at part of it. Once upon a time there were rivals to the literary monolith of the Northeast; once upon a time New York was independent of New England, although even James Fenimore Cooper saw the change coming. Even after the New York-Boston axis took over American letters, regional centers like Charleston, Richmond, and Baltimore were able to support the careers of Poe, Gilmore Simms, and Lanier.
However, regional and local diversity were only possible under a political and economic system that guaranteed the rights of states and local communities. In the past two generations. Congress, the federal courts, and countless regulatory agencies have done their best to destroy the federal structure of our government. All our businesses, including publishing, are now dominated by national and multinational corporations regulated by national (and even international) agencies. The various trade groups and interest groups representing writers, editors, and publishers are national (or, in the case of PEN, international) in scope. Although some small measure of local autonomy is permitted, censorship per se is more and more a matter for federal courts to decide.
One speculative conclusion emerges from all of this, that in any enterprise there is a rough correspondence between the locus of control and organization and the locus of regulation: if a business is locally regulated, there is a greater likelihood that it will be locally owned and operated. When federal courts, the FCC, the FTC, and the ICC regulate things, there are obvious advantages that accrue to national organizations, whether the business is hardware or literature. The Emperor Caligula, who apparently understood the value of centralization, is said to have wished that all of Rome had but one neck. For some time now, our national literature has had something like one neck. Small wonder it has proved so easy to lop off our collective head.