The theater is dead, the novel dying, poetry extinct; biography is the province of graveyard ghouls, and history a battleground on which disheveled armies of academic theorists contend with hucksters and prostitutes for the fate of an entire civilization. These conclusions of a temperate man in a good humor pretty much sum up the business of literature in our time, an age that cannot decide between the merits of John Irving and Tama Janowitz—our own Dickens and Thackeray—and chooses to elevate Prof Bloom to the status of reigning Jeremiah. There are exceptions, good writers writing good books, but it is hard to escape the conviction that they are as irrelevant to the times as Dante and Thucydides; which is to say that they are highly relevant but largely ignored.

One review editor of our acquaintance sighs periodically over his monthly pile of publishers’ catalogs. The author of Ecclesiastes probably knew of no more than a few hundred books, but the thought overwhelmed him with weariness of the spirit. He was unlucky enough to live before the New York Review of Books, whose exhausting actual reviews have made the reading of books obsolete. Of course the real purpose of all review journals has been to displace writers with critics, and this was true even in the days of the Edinburgh Review, when both authors and critics were veritable giants.

The causes of so much literary mortification? The pessimist can select his favorite from a list that includes mass literacy, mass marketing, and mass democracy—all have a justifiable appeal for the aspiring elitist and go a long way toward explaining the decline in standards in the literary marketplace. But the other side of the literature business is serious writing—fiction, verse, and scholarship, which is in a worse state than the “knockoffs” designed for the K-Mart book section.

Any attempt to discuss the fate of serious writing must take account of the circumstances in which it is practiced. Here and there an independent scholar or poet works between intervals of selling insurance or towing shrimp nets; an occasional serious novelist may make enough out of a book to support himself for a few years; but for steady living—regular income, social security, and health insurance—the citadels of higher learning have become the place of asylum for those who would lead the life of the mind.

Asylum is quite the mot juste, since the university is not only a refuge from which there is little hope of escaping, but it also resembles, as any visitor can tell, a mental hospital in more ways than one. In the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack Nicholson seizes upon the resemblance. When planning his fishing trip for the asylum inmates, he explains that he will tell people the lunatics are just college professors.

I am not thinking now of the most obvious zanies—the soft-faced androgynes preaching revolutionary Marxism to bored students, the lesbians and child-molesters who are eager to destroy whatever inhibitions American teenagers have left, the doddering old liberals who haven’t reexamined a single assumption since FDR’s last term (do they even know he’s dead?). No, the bizarre minorities are only the bubbles on the surface of a stagnant pond. The really bizarre quality of academic life can only be measured by the mainstream of not-too-bright but not downright stupid plodders, who teach the same courses year after year and publish two reviews a decade in a journal where they know an editor, who put in 20-hour weeks for eight months and complain of low salaries, who introduce themselves everywhere as “Dr. Howard” or “Dr. Fine,” and who despise the hardworking tradesman, plumbers, and real estate agents who earn enough to send their children off to college. Anti-intellectual to the very marrow of their being, they parade their little store of specialized learning to show that they are scholars, while at the same time waging war against any real work that might be going on. They thrive on meetings—the institutionalized form of Coleridge’s person from Porlock.

One vignette should suffice. In payment for the sins of my youth, I found myself teaching at Miami of Ohio and fell in with a sociologist named something like Biff. Biff was a likable lout, forever asking his colleagues to meet him somewhere and “throw the old ball around.” Never very good at math, he became a devotee of “humanistic sociology,” by which he apparently meant editorializing on current events. His big chance came when the nearby county seat experienced the largest family murder in American history. Biff went on local television to explain the event. “It’s simple,” he declared, “an obvious case of repression-aggression.” A middle-aged man blows away his brother, sister-in-law, parents, nieces, and nephews over a breakfast table dispute, and the academic finds a simple explanation in a phrase that, when you analyze it, means nothing. If there were a Nobel Prize for sociology, Biff would have been eligible.

In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that capable artists and scholars should find themselves doubly alienated, first from the real world beyond the academic groves and second from the folly and inconsequence of academic life. Small wonder that writers cultivate a Bohemian irresponsibility as a cover for their real seriousness. The public drunkenness, lechery, and malicious humor of writers-in-residence seem positively amiable and wholesome qualities when they are contrasted with the petty malice that serves as the norm of academic respectability.

Not all of them play the aesthete’s game, but even those who buy their clothes from Brooks Brothers are subject to the same hothouse atmosphere and find themselves writing only for the connoisseurs. The poetry is especially bad, but who outside the academy has ever enjoyed any example of that swelling genre, the campus novel? The exceptions proving the rule are Lucky Jim and A New Life, both written by nonacademics and told from an outsider’s point of view.

But the faults of academic novels are not restricted to the campus setting of so many of them. The problem is more basic. They constitute a kind of court literature designed to appeal only to a small circle of cognoscenti, with this difference: Much court literature is, in fact, antiprofessional and addressed to aristocratic amateurs with good taste. Our own academic writers, however, would never dream of writing a novel that could be enjoyed by, say, Roger Smith.

It is not so much the Royal courts that serve as a model but the Alexandrian Library. “Chickens in a coop”—so the writers at the Library were described by a satirist. The Alexandrian Library was the first actual institution to employ writers-in-residence, and under the first Ptolemies (third century B.C.) it attracted both scholars—like Eratosthenes, who first correctly calculated the earth’s circumference—and poets like Callimachus and ApoUonius. The Library flourished in an age of uneasy cosmopolitanism, and the literature it nourished—personal, idiosyncratic, technical—stood in stark contrast with the communal and religious poetry of the Greek city-states. The combination of offhand colloquialism with obscure references, technical brilliance with minor themes is the hallmark of Callimachus, and more than one modern critic has made the obvious comparison with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Indeed, Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius is a tribute to Callimachus’ Roman disciple, an imitation of an imitation that acknowledges the influence of the master.

For the serious reader, Alexandrian verse can be very moving, but for the casual lover of poetry, it is often as perplexing as the Cantos—even the ancients found Lycophron’s Alexandra impossible, and it is Lycophron, not Callimachus, that John Ashbery resembles—gibberish arranged attractively on the page. There are several reasons for the obscurity of Alexandrian verse, but the existence of the Library, with its vast collection of books and its staff of gabbling intellectuals, must have exerted a powerful pressure.

The parallels with our own time are too obvious to belabor: an urban cosmopolitan civilization whose deracinated intellectuals and writers travel about the world in search of adulation and security—”diaphanous gowns and regular meals,” as W.C. Fields explains to his daughter in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man; a proliferation of books about books, a crushing sense of the past’s masterpieces on which the writer reflects even as he is scurrying to distance himself.

How many serious novels today are really ironic literary criticism in the guise of fiction? Updike’s Roger’s Version comes immediately to mind, along with much John Barth, but it is not these obvious allusive patterns that define contemporary fiction so much as the layer upon layer of borrowed imagery and points of reference. There are writers like Doctorow and Hawkes who must lie awake nights calculating the little tricks that will keep dissertation writers busy until the end of the century. If the end result were anywhere near so good as Callimachus’ epigrams and hymns or Apollonius’ little epic, the Argonautica, a temperate man might be inclined to merciful judgment. In fact, the state of serious writing in the country is far worse than I have suggested in this best-case comparison with Alexandria, and the result of all the institutionalization of writing in America has been to literature a genuinely academic question.