Literary Senescence

The New York Times, on September 11th, published an article by the critic A.O. Scott in which he bemoans what he identifies as a trend towards the adolescent in contemporary culture. The Young Adult sector, he proclaims, is on the rise in the reading and viewing habits of American adults in no small part because of the decline of certain figures of the patriarchy. The article, which borders on misogyny the way Russia borders on the Ukraine, is either derivative of or woefully unaware of a number of earlier diagnoses of the sad state of the American man– even in the classical era of the Father-Knows-Best style of patriarchy that Scott claims is passing, pop culture frequently depicted men as bumbling and immature, grown children requiring the constant attention of a woman. Stanley Cavell pointed that out long ago, in work that resembles Scott’s in some ways, except that Cavell isn’t a pretentious dilettante. Equally absent from the piece is any mention of David Foster Wallace’s 1997 diagnosis of the decline of the Great Male Narcissist, or GMN for short. The problem, of course, isn’t that Scott didn’t mention Cavell and Wallace– it’s that the piece lacks any sort of historical sense at all. He’s basically right, I think, in assaulting Mad Men’s “meticulous, revisionist, present-minded depiction of the past,” but at least the show has some sense of history, however problematic. Scott, besides a few vague allusions to Huck Finn, seems to have none at all. I don’t want to talk about the article in any more depth for two reasons. Firstly, because it makes me apoplectic and secondly because all you need to know about it is that everything that is wrong below is exponentially worse in the Scott.
Christopher Beha, responding to Scott, among others, in The New Yorker, does substantially better. His essay is constructed around his recent reading of Henry James’s corpus of works, which provides him several things, most importantly a means to consider the social realities of the “eat-your-vegetable” tone that attaches to reading Serious Works of Literature.  And the essay is at its most charming and also makes it most important cultural statement, in my view, at least, when he writes that: “Occasionally, reading James stopped being fun and, when it did, I stopped reading him, sometimes for months at a time. Eventually, I came back, because so few other writers offer the particular pleasures that James does.” I don’t mean to be dismissive of the rest of the article, which makes many fine points and did much to broaden my sense of the frame of the current debate, whose lineage Beha traces through a bunch of thoroughly ignorable Slate and Salon articles and through a worthwhile James Wood piece. Rather, I think Beha’s doing something important when he describes his approach to reading James.  Vegetables taste much better when they’re not force-fed to you with stern lectures about the moral virtues of consuming them. The same should be true of literature. In general, Beha’s incredibly compelling as an advocate for James, who, I will confess, is a writer I’ve always wanted to enjoy but never have. I am tempted to try again now. And more generally, Beha is great when he writes in praise of real literacy– affable, engaging, and with a generally low pretension to erudition ratio. Beha makes you want to read widely, passionately, and constantly. There are few more positive things I can think to say about a critic. On the question of Young Adult fiction, and of the status of adulthood in contemporary culture more broadly, however I disagree with Beha fundamentally. The matters of taste that distinguish us here are, I think, finally unimportant– Beha, like James Wood, hated Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which I thought was tremendous. Their prerogative, certainly. Part of the appeal of the book, for me though is exactly what Wood and Beha seem to dislike about it– that it takes place in an admittedly simplified and contrived world whose relationship to our own is not entirely clear. The aesthetic that both Beha and Wood espouse in their response to The Goldfinch is realist to the core. When Wood writes that he, “kept on trying to imagine a different novel, stripped of its unreasonable raison d’être and its childish sweets, a more rigorous fiction entitled, perhaps, not “The Goldfinch” but just “Theo Decker,” it’s hard not to read the rigor he’s referring to as a rigorous adherence to the conventions of realist fiction, as practiced, for example, by Henry James. It is a fine preference to have. But the problem is that Wood’s article subtly conflates a realist aesthetics with literary seriousness, and Beha then doubles down by underscoring the connections between this emphatically serious aesthetic and stylistic difficulty, which his essay implies is integral to the novel’s status as a Work Of Art. When Wood writes, disparagingly, that, “the point is not the disclosure of a meaningful reality but the management of continuous artifice, a proffered tray of delicious narrative revelations,” he puts himself in one of two camps. Either he dislikes any cultural production that highlights its own artifice, and so would have little interest in, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kafka, Borges, etc. Or– and I think this more likely– Woods is simply reverting to this emphatic realism because he can’t simply say that the book wasn’t serious enough for him because it draws from literary sources that are childish and he is An Important Literary Critic. His critique, in other words, reveals him to either have incredibly narrowly defined tastes or to be falling back on a contrived tautology to justify what is, finally, a simple prejudice.
Beha is explicit here where Wood is implicit, but I think his argument function in essentially the same way: These works are childish because they do not construct a rigorous engagement with real experiences of the world, and therefore can’t function as the basis of mature reflection on it. I call bullshit. The Brothers Grimm spent their days compiling the most authoritative dictionary of the German language and revolutionizing linguistics and their evenings compiling the children’s stories their maid told them. None were realist in nature. And the Grimms were only part of a tendency towards the recovery of folk culture, and specifically folk culture for children, that animated the emergence of romanticism, which, in turn provided much of the basis for Freud’s explication of the unconscious and discovery of the crucial role of childhood in identity formation. And this is only one strand of a literary and intellectual engagement with problems of adolescence. We can trace the tradition of literary writing about and, at least in some sense, directed towards, adolescent readers back to Plato’s dialogues– The Republic, after all, begins with an old man excusing himself to let Socrates talk to the youth.  And Beha is right in pointing out that Henry James takes adolescence as his theme, too– though he repeats Scott’s error of thinking this to be a particularly American fixation. The novel of marriage was, from its inception, presented as pedagogical in nature and was frequently written with a young reader, especially female in mind. Moll Flanders, Clarissa, Pamela, Shamelaand La Princesse de Clèvesfor example, all follow this basic model. Male protagonists in the early novel are also typically youthful. Here the classical model is the picaresque, where an impish youth goes out into a bizarre and punishing world, and strange things happen as a result. These books, incidentally, hold up much better (for me, at least) than do many of the early novels featuring female protagonists, where a heavy-handed sexual morality often predominates. Lazarillo de Tormes and Simplicissimusfor example, are both absolute pleasures to read, whereas Pamela can feel like an 800 page precursor to a sexual harassment manual. Though Moll Flanders and La Princess de Clèves are both fun, too. As is Shamela, but only if you suffer through Pamela first– which is sort of like breaking your own leg so you can look forward to the cast coming off.
If literature has a long history of engaging with adolescents, literary criticism has nearly as long a history of condemning works that engage with the process of coming to maturity. It’d be easy here, very easy indeed, to insert Wood, Beha, and Scott in a long tradition of cultural reactionaries who think that the only thing worse than literary pleasure is the female orgasm, though the two are related and both lead to perdition. But we’ll grant them, instead, a bit more credit and assume that at least two out of three professional critics have read the classic treatment of adult men reading immaturely– that obscure Spanish masterwork, practically forgotten by history, Don Quixote. Quixote is the story of an aging man so possessed by reading immature tales of adventure that he’s no longer capable of distinguishing between the world of fantasy and the world of reality. He tilts at windmills and, his mind filled with childish tales of adventure, believes them to be giants. But it is only the most cursory reading of the book that would allow one to think that the proper differentiation is between adult and childish literature. The preface makes clear that this is not Cervantes’ intention. It begins with a complaint about the difficulty of writing a preface, and the narrator confesses that he’s on the verge of abandoning the project altogether, when a generous friend, whose quotations occupy the rest of the preface, emerges and makes the following suggestion:
to prove yourself a man of erudition in polite literature and cosmography, manage that the river Tagus shall be named in your story, and there you are at once with another famous annotation, setting forth—The river Tagus was so called after a King of Spain: it has its source in such and such a place and falls into the ocean, kissing the walls of the famous city of Lisbon, and it is a common belief that it has golden sands, etc. If you should have anything to do with robbers, I will give you the story of Cacus, for I have it by heart; if with loose women, there is the Bishop of Mondonedo, who will give you the loan of Lamia, Laida, and Flora, any reference to whom will bring you great credit; if with hard-hearted ones, Ovid will furnish you with Medea; if with witches or enchantresses, Homer has Calypso, and Virgil Circe; if with valiant captains, Julius Caesar himself will lend you himself in his own ‘Commentaries,’ and Plutarch will give you a thousand Alexanders. If you should deal with love, with two ounces you may know of Tuscan you can go to Leon the Hebrew, who will supply you to your heart’s content; or if you should not care to go to foreign countries you have at home Fonseca’s ‘Of the Love of God,’ in which is condensed all that you or the most imaginative mind can want on the subject. In short, all you have to do is to manage to quote these names, or refer to these stories I have mentioned, and leave it to me to insert the annotations and quotations, and I swear by all that’s good to fill your margins and use up four sheets at the end of the book.
The point, not to put it too finely, is that even the greatest works are susceptible to bad reading and, when read poorly, become empty and pleasureless symbols of cultural authority. The bumbling pedant, pulling out allusions to Ovid at every turn, is no better than the Knight-Errant. It is this tendency– the bad reading of good books– and not the reading of books intended for young audiences that we should be attacking. Beha concludes his essay by writing that,
Putting down “Harry Potter” for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child.
But this is the falsest of dichotomies. Alcohol is another pleasure of adulthood, but enjoying a whisky on a Friday night doesn’t mean that you can’t want an apple juice on Monday afternoon. Indeed, you’ll end up in trouble if you insist that you’re exclusively interested in drinking “adult beverages.”  A well-rounded life should consist of a balanced relationship between the pleasures of maturity and a real engagement with the pleasures of childhood. As admirable as I find Beha’s advocacy for James, the claim that I, as a proper adult, should forego one pleasure in favor of the other only ends up reinforcing the very eat-your-vegetables quality that Beha so effectively bemoans. I’ll leave aside the fact that I think Harry Potter is a tremendous and important work of literature, and one that has a real chance of maintaining the classical status it has already begun to achieve. Instead I’ll just say this– there is no particular reason to think that there is either anything shameful about reading Harry Potter or admirable about reading Henry James. The only shame, and the only pride, should come in how you read. Read with a critical eye, Harry Potter might inform our political, social, and cultural thinking on the following: the status of predestination in a post-secular society; the desire for an extension of the performativity of language in a technological age; the replication of privilege through structures of inheritance and identity formation; the role of pedagogical theories in the construction of authoritarian regimes. The list could easily be extended and a good critic, operating with a generous spirit and an open mind, could steer readers who liked Harry Potter to works that engaged with these same questions in ways that are far from childish–towards J.L Austin or Thomas Piketty or, yes, Henry James. An adequate criticism could take the popularity of certain books designated as Young Adult literature as a diagnostic for the themes, narrative techniques, and literary styles that occupy us more broadly. An adequate criticism could insist that these works should supplement and not supplant works that put us in a childish frame of mind. Instead, we are stuck with a literary elite that can only see it as “self-defeating and a little sad” to enjoy as children enjoy. Like teenagers thumping their chests and proclaiming their sophistication, our literary elite go around congratulating themselves on their seriousness and then wonder why everyone finds them dour. Our immaturity is self-incurred, and not by those reading Harry Potter. Fantasy is a useful tool, as you can learn from Freud if J.K. Rowling isn’t a good enough source for you, so I’ll confess one of mine–that Dumbledore would point his wand towards New York and say, with a flick and a swish, Sapere Aude!