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On Joseph Epstein
A look at Joseph Epstein's work, the importance of reading, and the role of the critic.
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In his 1928 essay “The Critic Who Does Not Exist,” Edmund Wilson asked a question that was pleading to be asked: “How is it possible for our reviewing to remain so puerile?” He then offered this typically Wilsonian observation: “When a new book of American poetry or a novel or other work of belles lettres appears, one gets the impression that it is simply given to almost any well-intentioned (but not even necessarily literate) person who happens to present himself; and this person then describes in a review his emotions upon reading the book.”
If that was true in 1928, glance around to see how much truer it is now. The average reviewer’s idea of literary comment is indistinguishable from a primary school book report: summary flanked by quotation, interspersed with how the book made him feel, as if his feelings have anything at all to do with the artistic success or failure of what he’s read. They do not. Where the novel is concerned, part of the problem is that many publications harness other novelists to do the reviewing. They must go this route for the obvious reason that our culture currently suffers from a dearth of Edmund Wilsons, H. L. Menckens, Elizabeth Hardwicks, and Lionel Trillings. But one can’t get around the fact that most creative writers don’t know the first thing about the critical mind. They can’t tell F. R. Leavis from R. P. Blackmur and they don’t much care to. They preside over literary comment much the way they preside over their MFA writing classes: either with saccharine equanimity, with a kind of artistic egalitarianism that scoffs at canonical standards, or with bromidic workshop lingo such as “I couldn’t sympathize with the narrator,” or “The plot feels unrealistic to me.” I’ve said this before but I hope you’ll agree that it bears repeating: Criticism is personal and passionate, the product of severe erudition, or it is impotent and dull, the product of mere opinion.
For more than five decades as a critic and essayist, Joseph Epstein has been one of our most valuable and vociferous antidotes against puerile and invertebrate reviews, a smasher of hype and entrenched pieties among the literati, an arbiter with a bloodstained yardstick, a writer serious about his convictions and his comedy. With Ruskin and Arnold and Wilde, Epstein is a shining example of how essay writing and criticism aspire to equal footing with imaginative literature. The author of twenty-four books—his newest collection, A Literary Education, will be released in June—Epstein illustrates the necessary difference between disposition and argument and never confuses rhetoric with logic, or rationalization with reasoning.1 By turns cantankerous and comedic, traditional and irreverent, damning and praising, he writes sentences you want to remember. And that, in the last analysis, is the only measure of a writer.
In her 1939 essay “Reviewing,” Virginia Woolf called the nineteenth-century reviewer “a formidable insect” with “considerable power” to alter the public reception of a book, and from the outset that’s precisely the program to which Epstein aspired—an arthropod sting that would soon swell and prove resistant to any available balm. The critic of abiding literary values and astute aesthetic sensibility has an obligation to help influence the reception of a book, a duty to punish efforts that transgress against originality and vigor, and to laud efforts that, in their language and vision and architecture, aspire to greatness—and then, alas, normally go unnoticed by the public.
In “Reviewing and Being Reviewed” (1985), Epstein admits that “the attraction of reviewing books for me has indeed been the chance it offers to correct taste.” He writes of the necessity of a critic’s “temperamental equipment” and “a controlled anger aroused by breaches in literary justice. When bad writers are praised and good writers neglected or misunderstood, he should feel personally offended.” Only a front-lines idealist—an idealist of actuality, as he once phrased it—speaks of literary justice, and the critic who is offended to fury is the critic who cares deeply about the integrity of literature and the trajectory of the culture. The critics and essayists of supreme worth are always those who are undaunted by taking up minority causes, by the possibility of being slandered for their principles and then uninvited to the party.
The endemic illusion among many reviewers is that talking about imaginative literature is a lot like talking about life. Try not to believe that. To talk about imaginative literature is to talk about art—artifice and architecture, the liturgical and the linguistic—and Epstein writes about books not through the vista of someone who has lived fully, but rather as someone who has read fully. In other words, he doesn’t make the tyro’s error of confusing art for life, even though he understands that art enhances, enriches, enlarges life. His essays are troves of literary reference and allusion, maps between centuries, countries, genres. More important, the torque and pitch of his literary assertions can be muscular introductions to those writers you don’t know well and also a whole new sheen on those writers you do. Here’s an illustrative bit from the title essay of Life Sentences (1997), a tribute to Joseph Conrad that begins with both Conrad and Henry James:
In the work of each writer, plot never supersedes artistic purpose and artistic purpose is never separated from moral vision. James invoked one to be a person on whom nothing was lost and, what comes close to the same thing, Conrad affirmed that, in the moral realm, ignorance is no excuse. James loved complication, and Conrad seemed unable to avoid it. Both would be out of business without the extensive use of irony.
Plot never supersedes artistic purpose and artistic purpose is never separated from moral vision: Add “the dynamism of language” to “moral vision” and there’s your working definition of the difference between literary work with one eye on immortality and commercial work with both eyes on the trashcan. In “The Literary Life Today” (1982), Epstein quotes the great Cyril Connelly: “The true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence.”
Epstein’s first collection was published in 1979, “familiar essays” called Familiar Territory, written in the tradition of William
Familiar Territory is indicative of Epstein’s six books of familiar essays: cogent views of de Tocqueville alongside an appreciation of jokes, then a consideration of professor-student sex abutting an homage to the personal library. In A Literary Education you will find “Prozac, with Knife” (2000), a meditation on plastic surgery that effortlessly finds its way to W. C. Fields, W. H. Auden, George Orwell, and an exceedingly relevant passage in Henry James. Who but Epstein could write about boredom with such élan, about senescence with such sprightly resolve? In Essays in Biography (2012), you will see important people exalted or demolished, from George Washington and Adlai Stevenson and Susan Sontag to Alfred Kinsey and Joe DiMaggio and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Who but Epstein could compare the performances of Michael Jordan with those of Balanchine while naming the basketball star “the reincarnation of Achilles, but without the sulking and without the heel”? (Epstein is a lifelong Chicagoan.) He possesses the unmistakable quality that makes one most delightfully human and that also goes into making a multifarious writer, beholder, and witness: interest. He’s interested in almost everything.
Every writer ought to shoulder the obligation to be interested, but as Paul Fussell contended, critics especially have an obligation to be interesting. Here’s Fussell in his comical essay called “Being Reviewed: The A.B.M. and Its Theory” (1982):
Authors of some rhetorical sophistication know that a reviewer has an obligation that goes beyond deposing accurately and justly on the contents and value of the book in hand: he has an obligation to be interesting, which means, variously, funny, dramatic, significant, outraged, or winning. The reviewer is writing an essay, and the book in question is only one element of his material. No editor wants to publish a dull review, no matter how just.
How true is it that no editor wants to publish a dull review when lots of editors do just that? In a 1932 letter to a friend, George Orwell bellyached about the book pages of newspapers that “seem deliberately to seek out the dullest people they can get to review the dullest books.” A career enemy of dullness and dullards, Epstein has much to say about the intention and criteria of criticism. In “Reviewing and Being Reviewed,” he lambastes the widespread brand of literary comment that demonstrates “no intellectual precision, no originality of thought or even of phrasing,” comment that excels at “merely tossing off opinions, and the thing about opinions is that . . . one is as good as another.” The best reviews will be
the product of an interesting mind thinking about a book. But there is more to it than that. A reviewer has certain obligations to the book he’s reviewing and to his own readers: he must report what the book is saying; he must make a judgment about how well the author gets it said; and he must determine if what has been said was worth saying in the first place. Not to be dull, not to be fearful.
It might sound curious that one of Epstein’s admonitions to the critic is “not to be fearful,” since the job description doesn’t exactly match that of firefighter, but Epstein’s meaning applies to the business of publishing, a business in which the reviewer has become a kind of glorified blurbist, a marketer whose mission of appraisal is to be a pal to publishing by publishing praise of his pals, or people he wants as pals. Naked ambition, in other words. This phenomenon derives partly from the mutual-support ethos of MFA programs and writers’ conferences in which nobody should question anyone else too insistently, and certainly not question his literary merit, his choice to become a writer when he’s clearly better suited for bus-driving. To abrade an inferior writer’s work is to risk calumny and marginalization, to damage one’s own publishing prospects, to be seen as a bad guy. But there are no bad guys or good guys in literature. There are wrong guys and right guys, guys who write well and guys who don’t. A slavish conformity, a reluctance to judge, to distinguish precious metals from useless ore—that, ladies and gentlemen, is a species of nihilism.
Epstein observed this phenomenon in 1982, in an essay called “Matthew Arnold and the Resistance,” which, not incidentally, was right about the time MFA programs began replicating like so many pathogens: “Criticism,” he wrote, “has increasingly become an arm of cultural publicity.” (At the end of “The Literary Life Today,” also from 1982, there’s a comical hypothesis about what happens to F. Scott Fitzgerald after he attends the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.) That “arm of cultural publicity” has been pumping iron and now includes the day-and-night flexing of the Internet, the ungodly yawp of social media, where, like everything else, literary comment is bandied about unchecked and mostly brain dead.
Epstein perceived his role to be one of cultural arbiter long before this age of instant publication on Amazon and rampant vanity presses and easily purchased MFAs—this age in which everyone’s a writer without having done the necessary and long-term labor in order to become one—but Epstein’s example is more crucial now than it’s ever been because our culture is buried beneath multiple avalanches of crap. Some books are better than others, and if you care about the distinction, if you understand that the distinction matters, you must summon the bravery and mental equipment to prove it. In Rebecca West’s response to Hugh Walpole’s complaint of her unfavorable reviews, she spoke of “the duty of a critic to point out the fallaciousness of the method and vision of a writer who was being swallowed whole by the British public.” West’s employment of “duty,” like Fussell’s of “obligation,” means an intellectual and moral duty to uphold the virtues of the well-made, to eschew the shoddy and lame, and that’s immensely important for the serious critic when the duty of most others is to their own shameless advancement.
About obligation Epstein has been both unapologetic and uncompromising from day one, and fervidly critical of the academy, where since the 1960s he’s seen, as so many have, the shucking of obligation, the debauching of literary discernment in favor of political correctness, of writers who are studied and lauded based solely upon their genitalia or epidermis or ideology. A Literary Education boasts five essays dealing directly with the baffling sanctimony of academia—Epstein taught at Northwestern University for twenty-eight years—but he’s considered the shaky state of our education, both explicitly and implicitly, in nearly every book he’s written. In the introduction to Plausible Prejudices (1985), he writes: “Politics is part of the business of literature—it is, that is to say, an altogether proper subject for writers—but literature ought not to be part of the business of politics.” Who could argue with clean commonsense such as that?
Entire quadrants of the academy, as it has turned out. Harold Bloom has famously tagged those academic politicizers the “School of Resentment,” or the “Rabblement of Lemmings.” Bloom and Epstein have little regard for one another; each has been publically censorious of the other, Epstein most mockingly in “Bloomin’ Genius” (2002), in which he says that Bloom is “the exhaustingly garrulous professor” whose “pretension rate is outside the solar system.” But I’d like to arrange a handshake and sit-down between these two critical behemoths because I’m convinced they have more in common that either wishes to recognize, the most pronounced of which are their bulletproof resistance to being bamboozled by modish trends in literature, their belief in the elasticity of literary wisdom, their frequent pleas that we read the right books because life isn’t long enough to spend it reading the wrong ones, and their mutual dedication to Montaigne, to Proust, to James, among others. Those are taut bonds not easily loosened.
Writers professionally passing judgment upon other writers seems a touch aberrant when you consider that ballerinas and trumpet players don’t augment their income with public assessments of their brethren. The British editor and critic Walter Bagehot, in his essay “The First Edinburgh Reviewers” (1855), wrote: “We are surprised at first sight that writers should wish to comment on one another; it appears a tedious mode of stating opinions, and a needless confusion of personal facts with abstract arguments.” The trick, to filch from Dr. Johnson’s definition of criticism, is to convert mere opinion into universal knowledge, and of course no literary critic worthy of the name would traffic in either personal facts or abstract arguments. In his introduction to Partial Payments (1989), Epstein insists that the literary essay “is the most sensible way to go about expressing our devotion to literature,” and in “Reviewing and Being Reviewed,” he argues that criticism is “a serious conversation about the shape and fate of culture, itself a most serious thing.” For the literary individual, it is the most serious thing.
Of all the serious names which appear again and again in Epstein’s work— Montaigne, Santayana, Beerbohm, James, Wilson—there’s one which appears most often and always with a grin: the incomparable, unstoppable H. L. Mencken. Epstein has written two treatments of Mencken, one of them a bracing apologia when Mencken was indicted for anti-Semitism in 1989 after his Diary was published to a predictable riot of self-righteousness among the newspaper critics. I’m reminded of T. S. Eliot’s alliteration “the confused cries of the newspaper critics,” and reminded also that Epstein has defended Eliot against charges that he, too, was an anti-Semite. But it is to Mencken that we must go in order fully to comprehend the source of Epstein’s critical reach and heat.
In his 1921 essay “Footnote on Criticism,” Mencken declares that the motive of the genuine critic is “the motive of the artist. It is no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world.” In “Piece Work: Writing the Essay” (1984), Epstein suggests that the critic “wishes to leave the stamp of his personality on the page—and, with great good luck, who knows, on the age.” Here are two paragraphs by Mencken, worth quoting at length because I bet Epstein has them tacked to the wall above his desk:
The curse of all the arts, indeed, is the fact that they are constantly invaded by persons who are not artists at all—persons whose yearnings to express their ideas and feelings is unaccompanied by the slightest capacity for charming expression—in brief, persons with absolutely nothing to say.
This is particularly true of the art of letters, which interposes very few technical obstacles to the vanity and garrulity of such invaders. An effort to teach them to write better is an effort wasted, as every editor discovers for himself; they are as incapable of it as they are of jumping over the moon. The only sort of criticism that can deal with them to any profit is the sort that employs them frankly as laboratory animals.
It actually gets nastier from there, if you can believe it. Mencken called for “the revival of acrimony in criticism—the renaissance of the doctrine that esthetic matters are important.” Why are aesthetic matters important? Because without the beauty of language and form, without the depth and dynamism of language, no one who has cultivated the diehard combo of intellect and taste will care a damn about what the writer wants to say.
“Literature,” Mencken wrote, “always thrives best . . . in an atmosphere of hearty strife.” In “H. L. Mencken for Grownups” (1980), Epstein writes: “The pleasure in reading Mencken came in witnessing a man lashing out so handsomely, bashing away with an exuberance I did not even know was allowed in literature till encountering him,” and some might say the same about Epstein himself. Epstein’s own gospel of “hearty strife” is this: “Along with possessing at least a modicum of anger, a good book reviewer ought not to show too much generosity. . . . Dubiety ought to be his normal condition. Books, unlike criminals, are best judged guilty until proven innocent—for innocent, in this context, read without falsity, fudging, or flagrant flaw.”
As with any critic who writes often and always with a passionate and convinced insistence, there’s much to quarrel with in Epstein, manifold verdicts which the ultimate arbiter, Time, will no doubt overturn—verdicts on Bloom, on Updike, on Philip Roth, among others. There’s always been the touch of the Leavisite in him: Tell him what books you read and he’ll tell you who you are. Or, more specifically, what your moral coordinates are. In the introduction to Plausible Prejudices, he writes, “The reason I have so often come to say no when presented with the work of a particular novelist or tendency in contemporary literature is love for literature itself,” and you can be sure that that’s both noble and sincere. Epstein was at one time accused by another critic of being “penurious with praise,” but he can write with touching sensitivity, even tenderness, about so sad and squalid a figure as F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he’s eager to extol writers when they meet his fought-for critical criteria, when they combine an uncommon sapience with a style that probes, prances, pirouettes.
Referring to his own models, to Macaulay, Arnold, Sainte-Beuve, and Goethe, Mencken maintains that “they were first-rate artists. They could make the thing charming, and that is always a million times more important than making it true,” because “nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed.” In one of his several pieces on Edmund Wilson, Epstein argues that “criticism lives or dies by the persuasiveness of the critic, a persuasiveness based largely on his confidence and the strength of his assertions.” In the Matthew Arnold piece, he argues that “literary sensibility weighs in more heavily than correct opinion in a critic,” and that’s all one can hope for from our best critical minds: that they remain loyal to their own erudition, that they never betray their literary barometer, that they are dauntless in elucidating the difference between the jewels and the dreck.
Take Epstein’s five most popular books—Ambition (1980), Snobbery (2002), Envy (2003), Friendship (2006), Gossip (2011)—and add them to his first, Divorced in America (1974), and you’ll see that he’s been one of our indispensible diagnosticians of all the hurly-burly in American social life. Read Epstein’s twenty-four volumes in toto and it will occur to you that he’s been one of our most urgent bulwarks against the extinction of the literary life, a life lived for and through the magnifying, clarifying lens of literature, a lens aimed within and without, microscopic, telescopic, kaleidoscopic. Across the decades he’s written repeatedly about the necessity of what he calls “a literary point of view,” an aperture that allows in all the light of living, that permits us to apprehend and appreciate the myriad forces at work and play in the world. Wide and deep readers of literature have the privilege of a sundry percipience, of experiencing life with a fullness and profundity that nonreaders will never know. They are granted access to intimations of wisdom, to the roar and riot of emotions, the mystical allure of beauty—access they might otherwise have little hope of ever achieving.
The title essay of Epstein’s new book, A Literary Education, is subtitled “On Being Well-Versed in Literature,” and it includes this: “If any inkling about the way the world works and the manner in which human nature is constituted were to be remotely available to me during my stay on the planet, I should have the best chance of discovering it through literature.” In “The Pleasures of Reading” (1996), he quite simply says this: “Not to read is to risk barbarizing oneself.” That warning should strike us, repeatedly and with the utmost potency, as one of the truest lines we’ve ever heard.
1 A Literary Education, by Joseph Epstein; Axios Press, 636 pages, $24.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 May 2014, on page 14
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