Yet as successful as these and other commercial authors are,rnone always has the odd feeling that their publishers are slightlyashamedrnof them and wish thev were instead publishing the latestrnliterar)’ masterpiece, perhaps the new no’e] by Balzac, bookrnjacket enlivened with a photograph of the author swilling lukewannrnbeer and pounding on the bar at New York’s White MorsernTavern in the grand tradition of Dylan Thomas or, for the homerncrowd’s benefit, competing in the Tourde France.rnMany of publishing’s elite have lost sight of the fact thatrnthe great writers like Balzac and Dickens and GeorgernEliot and Tolstoy and Dostoyevskv, or such modern literaryrnmasters as Musil and Hemingway, were not only elegant st’listsrnin total conmiand of vocabulary and s’ntax but gifted stor)-rntellers who possessed the abilit)’ to define time, place, and socialrncircumstances and deal with the moral and ethical questions ofrntheir era by the way the’ used language and created charactersrnand situations. They were not neurotic word-meisters fussingrnobsessively over the id or academic writers composing, time afterrntime, novels about “struggling with the problems of being arnwriter.” It has been customar)’ to denigrate the so-called Europeanrn”academic” painters of the late 19th centurv as lacking inrncreative ingenuity, but one camiot deny thev knew how tornpaint. The pomposity of some of their canvases—with htles describingrnpretentiously staged scenes along the lines oiNapoleonrnInspecting His Troops Before Austerlitz, perhaps, or Roman CenturionsrnCrossing the Alps—niay hae been ridiculed as passe bvrnthe trendy critics of their dav, biit it is possible to maintain thatrnthere was more artistic worth, certainly more of a message, onrntheir canvases than in the dribblings and slashings of JacksonrnPollock and Franz Kline, with their Newjge tides like ConceptrnNumber 41. Yet many of the more academic novelists of today,rnrather than showing preoccupation with tradihonal approachesrnto their art, seem as incapable of telling a convincing story asrnPollock would have been of painting a Delacroix or weaving arnNavajo rug. Residing in an hermetic world of perpetualrngrievance, they continue to regard writers who tell stories as oldrnhat and faintly suspicious, possibly unsavory.rnGiN’en their subject matter—what little there was of it—Pollockrnand his cronies usually did not gie their works titles likernProvincial Governor Gazmg at a Bust of St. Dominic, or VirginrnWith Unmuzzled Bandicoot, but these days, book titles so oftenrnsound alike that one might be forgiven for wishing that morernwriters vvoidd do just that. Today’s literar)’ galaxy is not one circlernbut many interlocking ones, yet too many of its inhabitantsrnshare with a certain t)’pe of academic nonfiction specialist thernelitist and misguided idea that anv book widely read rruist be inferior;rnit must have been dumbed down, to use Daniel PatrickrnMoynihan’s celebrated phrase. This attitude carries with it thernunmistakable whiff of contempt for oHiers that has too oftenrncharacterized the cultural elite, the notion that a novel by Brodkey,rnor even by a more accessible writer such as John Updike, isrnonly for “our crowd,” and not tor loathsome bourgeois hpesrnsuch as computer executives, smart-aleck yuppies selling deri ativesrnon Wall Street, or members of the Waiters’ and Bartenders’rnUnion.rnWriters like Philip Roth, the late Joseph Heller, or newcomerrnCharles Frazier have managed to have it both ways by virtuernof sheer talent: to be literar)- while at the same hme telling storiesrnirresistible even to average readers; to create works that arerninventive, humorous, even profound; to sell impressive quantitiesrnof books and still be nominated for, and win, the highest ofrnliterar’ awards. Rccendy, writer and former Secretary of thernNaw James Webb, in an editorial-page essav in the Wall StreetrnJcjunial, praised Heller’s Catch-22 as one of the great modernrnnovels, a model of literature and stor-tclling. Yet there are thosernin die literar)’ commrmit)- who grumble that this, too, is illegitimate.rnHeller and Roth and man’ other writers like them havingrnsold out to die “establishment,” to Mammon, to corporate entitiesrnlike Barnes & Noble or some other alleged enemy, allrnthrough the fiendish con game of actually being good at tellingrna ston-, of doing what once upon a time (back in the days whenrnthat phrase was still in use) all genuine writers knew how to do.rnInherent in this childishly antagonistic attitude is the tatteredrnMarxist notion that someone cannot hae gotten rich, or becomernsuccessful, due to intellect, talent, and perseverancernalone —such a person must have cheated, or stolen, or otherwiserntaken advantage of someone inferior. How quaint, then, tornoxerhcar modern literar)’ hpcs talking up the true meaning ofrnart at cocktail parties while high-mindedly claiming, as if in anrnepisode of Seinfeld, that their books are not really “about anything,”rnas if that were some grand achievement.rnEqually preposterous is that related and informal subspeciesrnof literature consisting of ostentatiously literary, and too often allrnbut incoherent, books about which the intelligentsia pontificaternendlessly but which few seem actualK- to have read. Swollen,rnhysterically undisciplined novels such as David Foster Wallace’srnInfinite jest and Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost are suddenlvrnblessed as works of genius, much as Harold Brodkey wasrngien a cover storv in New York magazine proclaiming himrn”The Genius” before his drear- magnum opus had even appeared.rnMany publishing elites and other envious writers, if notrnactivcl)’ bad-mouthing these works, make vague commentsrncasting doubt upon the books’ alleged elegant qualities. Therernis no excuse for the incoherence, but one could suggest logicalrnreasons for the failure to read the books themselves: The mostrnrelevant is tiiat diesc books are unreadable, but some of thernmore cunning members of the chattering classes have caughtrnon to the realit)’ that diere is no reason whatever to read one ofrnthese books even if ever)’one else is talking about it. There is anrningenious strateg)’ employed by attendees at philosophers’ conventionsrnor at gatherings such as the annual Potato Chip SnackrnFood Association Conention: It is always possible to deflect,rneade, or fake the answer to an- question by replying with arntrick)’ phrase like, “Ah, but what do -ou mean by that?”; “But isrnthat alwa)’s possible?”; or, in Nabisco terminology, “Yes, butrnwho’s to say what Olestra really is?” And since, in the halls ofrnposbiiodernism, there are usually no matters of plot, character,rndialogue, or social setting worthy of debate (with the exceptionrnof politically correct necessities like K’pecasting all businessmen,rnand especially conservative businessmen, as lowliferns\ ine), one is then free to spend hours carping about minutiae,rnand indeed there are entire symposia devoted to such crucial literan-rnmatters. Anyone vvidi the fortihide to attend the ModernrnLanguage Association convention will find, on a yearly basis,rnmore than 500 panels, including such can’t-miss offerings asrnthe formal annual meetings of the Slavonic Literary Society andrnthe Association of Melville Scholars and, one fears, the informalrnannual get-togcthcrs of the League of Hermaphroditic SteinbeckrnScholars, die gala reunion of Gameroonian-AmericanrnSemaphore Poets, and —in odd-numbered years only—thernCouncil of Disabled Comanche Travel Writers Wlio Are AlsornCkuinnet Chefs.rnYet there are seldom panels —not literary panels, in anyrn16/CHRONICLESrnrnrn