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Wilsonian Rag

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Every once in a while, somebody commenting on this blog will have a conniption because some book or the other that he (or she) wants to buy and read isn’t in print anymore and isn’t available.

I’ve got a similar complaint–there are too many books out there I don’t really want to spend money on that are, in fact, still in print, and therefore cannot be had on the Internet for free.

One of these is the collection of essays by Edmund Wilson that includes both “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” and “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”   Last I checked, if I want them, I’ve got to buy the very expensive Library of America edition.


You’ve got to understand that I’ve got a very odd relationship to the work of Edmund Wilson.  I’ve read very little of it, and what I’ve read has seemed to me to be completely assinine. 

Wilson is not considered a serious critic in academic literature departments.  Neither in college and graduate school was I assigned a single one of his essays, although I got a lot of Yvor Winters, Cleanthe Brooks, Allen Tate and F.R. Leavis.  If you’d asked one of my old professors about Wilson, he’d have told you that the man was a “journalist” and that his audience was…well…you know. People who weren’t trained in the field.

To put it politely.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say that Wilson is “worshipped” as a critic, but he isn’t in the circles in which I move. What people seem to like about him, when they like him, is that he tried to “mold the taste” of the general public.

Most of us find the idea of a critic “molding our taste” to be annoying.  The thing is that people who admire Wilson think he did it successfully.  I’m more than a little skeptical.  Wilson carried on a forty year war against detective novels and Ernest Hemingway both.  Detective novels are still going strong–yes, even the country house ones–and Hemingway is not only going strong but even more firmly established as a Great American Writer than he ever was.

I’m not sure why it is people think that the course of American literature was ever actually “molded” by literary critics. 

It’s true that the past of American literature was, because the idea of a distinctly “American” literature with its own canon, separate from the British, was essentially invented in the Twenties and Thirties by people like that same Yvor Winters mentioned above.

But that project was a matter of hindsight, of taking what already existed (Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Cooper) and organizing it into a coherent whole.

That works because it’s an essentially evidence-based project:  here is what has lasted.  What does it mean that it has lasted?

What Wilson and the other Sheridan Whitesides of the American literary scene tried to do–and still try to do, today, sometimes–was to change the public in a way that would predestine certain kinds of things to succeed and others to fail, thereby determining in advance what would count as “literature.”

In general, they failed miserably, even during the time when they were actively being published and read.   I don’t think it’s something new that people don’t really want their taste molded.

But the idea that this once was the case, that a critic like Wilson or a stolid middlebrow institution like The Book of the Month Club could “mold” public taste into something more “intellectual” than it would have been otherwise persists.   You can find it in Susan Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason as easily as in Salon’s article about how Wilson “devastated” the country house mystery. 

I actually ran into a personal case of it a few weeks ago, when I went to give a talk at a library in northern Connecticut.  My hosts quite graciously took me out to a very lovely dinner–and brought to the signing a cake with a picture of the cover of Wanting Sheila Dead on it.  I’ve got a picture of that cake.  It’s wonderful.

We were talking about a recent contretemps at the library over a showing of Michael Moore’s Sicko, when one of the group told me positively that until the Sixties, there had been “consensus.”  Most people had agreed on most things.  There wasn’t all this rancor and division.

And he was at least as old as I am, which means he should have known better.

It doesn’t surprise me that people should want such consensus.  It only surprises me that people think it ever existed.  God only knows I get as tired as anybody else of all the yelling and screaming, but I think I know that there was always yelling and screaming.

And I think this was especially true, as it is especially true, in the public taste for literature of whatever kind.  The haydey of Edmund Wilson was also the haydey of the pulp magazines and the dime novels–and of Christie and Hemingway, neither of whom he wanted to public to be able to stand.

And, like I said, fifty years later, Hemingway is in no danger of being outshone by Wilson and the detective novel is actually having something of a surge.

And the only time I hear about Wilson is when he’s mooned at by some journalist somewhere, or somebody here gets annoyed with him.

Written by janeh

March 11th, 2011 at 11:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Wilsonian Rag'

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  1. I never heard of Wilson and hadn’t until here, recently, heard the theory that critics are supposed to guide taste. Had I thought about a critic’s work – and I certainly knew that there were professionals who wrote about writing – I suppose I would have fallen back on the standard response – a courteous public respect for the critic’s expertise and a private decision as to whether I agreed with him or her.

    Sometimes, I, too, think that there was more consensus in the past; at least, the recent past, the 50s and early 60s. But really, I think that is simply a result of the fact that for most of that period I was too young to realize that there were people around whose consensus was different from that reigning in my family. I must have been about 12 and attending a summer camp when I made an observation about the then-Premier that would have been a perfectly acceptable contribution to the conversation in my circle at home, and discovered that the same opinions were not held elsewhere.

    In addition, there’s a difference between reacting to a political defeat with ‘the people have spoken’, which might lead the not very perceptive types to think that the speaker has joined the majority, and one followed by ‘The other crowd cheated and stole the election and don’t represent me anyway!’

    People have forgotten that it’s possible to live with difference. I know, I know, that’s all they talk about, but what most people mean is by that is that we’re all the same underneath and the differences are superficial. That’s not always true, and it’s much more useful in producing a calmer society if you can work with people who are really different, and simply not worry about the fact that they have this really idiotic view on taxation or sending the troops overseas – unless, of course, you want to actually learn about his or her idiotic views.

    And periodically you get to elect leaders to represent ALL of you, and you take it with as much resignation as you can manage if more people vote for the idiotic views than for yours, because that’s how modern democracies are supposed to work.


    11 Mar 11 at 3:29 pm

  2. I’ve hear of Wilson but have never read either his work or any other literary critic. They do not guide my reading.

    I was in high school and university during the 50s. That was the start of the Civil Riights movement. What I remembe of national politics was thas it was possible for some Republicans and some Democrats to vote for a bill and some Republicans and some Democrats to vote against the bill. They did not have the block party line voting that we are seeing now.


    11 Mar 11 at 4:31 pm

  3. I’m pretty sure the “consensus” before the 60s was because people only listened to a certain group of people. Who even had access to news outside the mainstream? We’ve not only had movements by all sorts of groups to have their voices heard, we’ve also had an explosion of media through which to hear different voices.

    Other voices always existed, but the mainstream people didn’t encounter them.


    11 Mar 11 at 10:44 pm

  4. I think the division between public and private was different then. A lot of what was considered private is now considered public, and appears to manifest itself as a demand for public approval. For many people, it’s no longer enough to know who they are – they seem to need public affirmation of who they are. I’m not talking merely about the celebrities who don’t seem to think they exist at all unless they’re in all the ‘news’ shows, I’m talking about people whose need for public approval means that they see any criticism as oppression. This can extend from political issues, and the inability to accept the results of an election or a different view on international policy to the relentless public display of personal issues which in the extreme leads to, well, various celebrities’ ways of life.

    I know that some people in the mainstream didn’t encounter ‘different voices’ before the Internet and cable TV, but that can be vastly overstated. Mainstream people read books, and knew people of more different views and backgrounds than they may do today, and young people of the smallest degree of curiousity grew up learning to interpret the kind of language never taught in school; the kind that was used to refer to and discuss non-mainstream ideas and behaviour.


    12 Mar 11 at 8:32 am

  5. Hmmm. I find “concensus” is often used in a specialized sense–to mean “the other side had the good sense to stay quiet.” There is also the McClellan sense: After McClellan threw away the only chance to end the Civil War in a day in the bloody futulity of Antietam, he wrote his wife to tell her that “the people whose opinion {he} valued” told him he’d been brilliant. There’s a lot of that these days. Either meaning will produce a concensus from about 1952-1964.

    Wilson. Can’t help with “Detective Stories” but “Akroyd” is included in Haycraft, THE ART OF THE MYSTERY STORY. It shouldn’t be too hard to find. Still, if you’re looking for sheer Wilsonian pig-headed blindness, you’d also want his essays on Tolkien and HP Lovecraft. (And yes, I DO have the LOA Lovecraft–worth every penny to me that there be such a thing even if I had never read that copy.)

    If you’ll permit the distinction, Wilson was not a critic in the sense of those I keep on my shelves–Litz and Southam on Austen; Shippey and Zimbardo on Tolkien. The critic helps me better understand and appreciate the work, and it’s a great thing to do when done right. When it’s done wrong you get Edward Said, “Jane Austen and Imperialism” or Sedgwick, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” No, I didn’t make those up.

    But if those are critics, Wilson was a book reviewer. He wrote about newly-printed or reprinted books and contemporary authors and told people “this is trash” and this you MUST read.” That too is a useful service, even though from my point of view Wilson was no good at it. Books were good or bad to Wilson as they appealed to his taste, and when he suggests that a book might appeal to some other taste, he always means that the book’s admirers must be inferior to Wilson to enjoy such a thing. Effectively, he believed there was an objective standard of literary merit and he was it–sort of a mainstream Harlan Ellison.

    But he does have a following, and they are not all journalists–or not exclusively so. I found Nicole Krauss drooling over him in the most unseemly fashion in a recent NEW REPUBLIC, and Krauss is a poet with three published novels. But she’s also almost a cliche “New York intellectual” which may be more to the point, and which may tie into earlier observations on “the high culture as fashion statement.” Remember above all else, Wilson was a snob, and it seems to be universally true of his admirers. The whole point of such reviewing is to establish the “in” crowd who read Book X and that they have more “sophisticated” or “educated” taste than THOSE people who read Book Y. If in 50 years people continue to read and be inspired by Book Y and Book X is one with the Nehru jacket, that makes no difference.

    In that sense, I think Wilson has had a lasting influence: the overall effect of 50 years of English teachers telling students that “only X is worth reading and you’re an ignorant swine if you read Y” may not have done much for Book X, but it may have permanently depressed recreational reading rates. It’s a legacy, of sorts.

    And my complaint is not books out of print per se, but books out of print AND STILL UNDER COPYRIGHT. If I don’t care for the price, that’s between me and the author. But three quarters of English-language books can’t legally be purchased new at any price, and since we often can’t find the copyright holder or even know who he is there’s no way out without something very like the Google Settlement–grinding through the courts like Jarndice v Janrndice.


    13 Mar 11 at 10:36 am

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