Fifty years after The End of Intelligent Writing.
By RICHARD KOSTELANETZ.
FIFTY YEARS AGO, I drafted a book about the literary situation at the time. Titled The End of Intelligent Writing, the manuscript encountered obstacles before it became a book. Especially after long chapters from it appeared in literary magazines, it became notorious, if not stigmatized, at a time, how can us senior writers forget, when commercial publishers were gatekeepers not just for distribution to bookstores, as they still are, but for simply getting anything into public print.
To the rescue came Philip Nobile, a writer my age who was then working for the Universal Press Syndicate that, though formed only a few years before in Kansas City, had become successful, mostly through the quick success of a comic strip written by a much younger sometime Yale student–Garry Trudeau. To copyedit the Doonesbury manuscript, the publisher sent to New York a young writer named W. Conger Beasley, Jr., aka Tony B. (1940-2016), who had passed through Columbia College. (Returning to Missouri to oversee some family interests, Tony later published small-press books that were recognized and thus remembered.)
As liberal Catholics, the young founders of the Universal Press Syndicate had purchased Sheed & Ward, a venerable literary publisher where one of them had worked before. My book was meant to extend that reputation. When The End finally appeared, it inspired strong reviews, more mixed than either favorable or unfavorable. More significantly, it was treasured and then remembered. By 1998, a quarter-century later, The End was featured in the individual entry appearing in Britannica.com, then a gatekeeper whose measure was simply What Will Last.
From time to time, I received inquiries about reprinting it, most memorably from Transition Books whose founding director, Irving Louis Horowitz, was unacceptably obnoxious. After 2000 or so, aware of new text-composition technologies, I proposed rewriting a digital scan of the text; but Horowitz, a dozen years older, was arrogantly ignorant of the process. Now that scanning has become more accurate and the development of on-demand printing has thus demolished literary gate-keeping, I decided to do the new edition myself, incidentally appropriating the original book’s subtitle for a paperback edition that was incidentally used for “folded and gathered sheets” from the original printing. (That accounts for why the paperback is scarcer than the original hardback and thus pricier from antiquariats.)
What made the book unique was that it was written by a trained (intellectual) historian who was developing a literary career. That background accounts for the originality, and now the continuing validity, of The End’s opening chapters. Influenced by The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929) by H. Richard Niebuhr, I regarded literary politics as different from politics-politics as a prerequisite to explaining how groups of writers who shared much sociologically and politically could become antagonists in their literary careers. A second theme was accounting for how literary groups succeed, even when individuals within the group personally despised one another; a third theme lamented the development of the literary-industrial complex that has only grown ever more dangerous in the decades since.
While these historical chapters have scarcely dated, the second half of The End, mostly about developments new at the time, has. One theme there more valid now, albeit with different details, is that the principal Culture War, to recall an epithet from the 1990s, is not between races or between genders but between (advantaged) mainstream media and (disadvantaged) alternative activities. Decades later, this theme is ever more true. Anyone wishing to read these dated surveys, as well as my original text for the first half, can find The End available from antiquarian booksellers, including myself. “Out of print” it’s not.1
–Richard Kostelanetz, FarEast BushWick. 1 January 2021
The title of this book, The End of Intelligent Writing, announces its argument, which holds that a panoply of growing forces and festering symptoms forecast the likely end of “literature” as we have known those traditions. The reason for this crisis is not that such writing is no longer produced, as quite the contrary is true, or that it is not read, which is also untrue, but that the channels of communication between intelligent writer and intelligent reader have become clogged and corrupted. Since this polemic differs from the other literary essays in taking its perspective from the future, these chapters explain how this predicament came about. It focuses upon the intermediary agencies that lie between writers and readers-between writers and print on the one hand, and between print media and readers on the other; for one theme reiterated in the following pages holds that the institutions of writing, which feed the channels of communication, determine not only what is published, but also what is promoted and recognized. This power in turn affects what is read by selecting what one is advised to read or what is available to be read, at a time when educated Americans still get most of their information and opinion from print.
As the institutions of writing are run not by machines but by people, this book begins with a general consideration of literary politics in America. The opening chapters endeavor to ascertain not only who, what, and when—the questions of literary history—but also who else, what else, why, and how. The latter considerations inevitably raise specific questions that would normally go unasked: Why do certain tendencies dominate, while others seem unduly neglected? How does “recognition” develop? Why do the activities of some writers seem collusive? What is “literary power” and how is it exercised? Who lacks it and why? How are they thus handicapped? Since the print media have previously considered these issues verboten, merely raising them constitutes a radical activity not unlike comparable investigations of economic disparities in the larger society.
By regarding literary individuals as members of larger constellations, some of which are more explicit than others, literary-political analysis confronts such anomalies as why the reputations of certain “leading” writers should seem so much larger than their ostensible achievements—say, Norman Podhoretz’s or Allen Tate’s, Archibald MacLeish’s or Robert Creeley’s—or why one talented writer becomes a star, while another of apparently comparable quality (or even style) remains a bit player. Of the numerous “poetic realists” who emerged around 1960, why should Philip Roth and John Updike have become literary household words, while other novelists of comparable quality, such as Walter N. Miller, Jr. (Canticle for Leibowitz, 1959), Robert Phelps (Heroes and Orators, 1958), and Paule Marshall (Brown Girl, Brownstones, 1959) remain neglected as Mitchell Goodman, Alfred Grossman, Arno Karlen, Alan Marcus, Clancy Segal, Richard Yates, and Curtis Zahn, all of whom published their initial works of fiction around 1960?
FACED WITH DISCREPANCIES like these, the literary historian customarily offers the answer of “critical opinion”. But let me suggest that a writer’s place in that shifting hierarchy of publicized ratings ultimately reflects literary-politicking, precisely because the opinion-makers are entwined in the literary-political process. Explanations of such disparities must therefore take historical forms, showing in verifiable detail how individual endeavors reflect collective aspirations (and vice versa) and how literary-political threads underlie years of superficially miscellaneous activity, for the purpose of such examinations is penetrating beneath the chaotic surface in order to raise into consciousness what might otherwise remain hidden. Analysis of this sort constitutes not a sociology of literature, to draw a crucial distinction, but a sociology of literary reputations or of literary history.
A further assumption is that the efforts of a lone writer, like those of an individual voter, count for naught until his lot is allied with that of others. Though individual works and careers have an existence apart from literary-political history, it will become clear, in the following chapters, that much literary art and literary life reflect, to various degrees, the demands of professional business. “Art writers,” in Francis V. O’Connor’s judgment, “have ignored the cause of art in favor of its effects,” and critics ignore the process in reputation-making in favor of its results. Or, in private conversation, they will offer strictly individual accounts, such as “charm” or “promiscuity,” that explain too much and too little. “We do not in fact know who are ‘our greatest living novelists,'” the literary historian Jay B. Hubbell has remarked, “and I doubt whether we can even identify them by polling any number of editors, critics and authors.” That is true, to be sure, partly because such surveys will probably reflect the literary politics of the time (and perhaps the pollsters).
At its best, then, literary-political analysis brings concept and rigor to what might otherwise be dismissed as “gossip” precisely because such analysis talks about groups–both formal institutions and informal alliances welded together by varying degrees of cohesiveness. The principal deceit of literary politicians is the establishment of a system of taste upon non-esthetic criteria. For this reason, literary-political analysis usually proceeds apart from critical judgment, instead identifying factors other than intrinsic quality as contributing to literary eminence. Therefore, how one or another critic values a particular work is less important than the place of that work (and criticism supportive of it) in larger patterns that signify the presence of a “movement.” Rather than conjecture about the motives of complex people, such analysis also prefers to let scrupulously marshaled facts suggest their own conclusions. One pitfall of this approach, not only here but also in Harold Cruse’s otherwise exemplary The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), is an excess of petty intellectual history of figures who were, for the while at least, thought to be culturally eminent.
Literary politics, like politics in general, also affects what is written, though its power over the individual writer is ultimately less decisive simply because writing itself is a fundamentally private transaction between an isolated mind and a piece of paper. The act of setting words to paper is done in nearly ideal freedom, epitomizing the qualities of independence and integrity that are subsequently compromised by the processes (and politics) of public communication. Indeed, since the phrase “literary politics” incorporates a contradiction in purist terms, the necessary length and detail of the following discussion is itself symptomatic of the current malaise, Out of small problems, by contrast, come short books.
The prime social reality behind literature is, of course, publishing, which supports the auxiliary domains of book-reviewing and bookselling; and though publishers customarily blame the neglect of important works upon the “illiterate public,” my contention is that the literary industry, rather than the populace, is primarily responsible for the imminent death of intelligent writing. The villains lie not outside but within the publishing system, in the shapes-not only-of restrictive policies but deleterious attitudes; so that foisting blame upon “the public” (which is in no position to talk back) represents an evasion of both responsibility and truth. It is statistically known that, despite the impact of television, more Americans are buying good books and magazines than ever before, and that more good works are sold, especially to young people, who are also more likely to read them. What Dwight Macdonald noted a dozen years ago is true today: “So far, our Renaissance, unlike the original one, has been passive–a matter of consuming, rather than creating.” However, the reasons why certain manuscripts are published (while others are neglected) reflect narrowly concerned business priorities; and why one high-quality book or magazine (and not another) is purchased and read has less to do with personal taste than the degree of merchandising effort.
It should be clear by now that this critique deals with the fortunes of Literature rather than cookbooks, comic books, trade manuals, and the like; and the adjective “sub-literate” is used to characterize works and writers (and at times an audience) that are at best journalistic-accessible, simplistic, transient, stylistically derivative, superficial, and unashamedly faddish. In this respect, both the daily newspaper and the underground press, both Time and nearly all of The Whole Earth Catalog are sub-literate; so are television programs and rock music. Literature, by contrast, is simply that writing which is appreciated long after its first publication, as well as that writing which emerges from distinctly “literary” traditions. “Intelligent writing” particularly includes poetry and fiction, and also criticism that is more substantial and considered than glib reviewing, and, to a lesser extent, other serious non-fiction expository forms that inhabit a realm between special knowledge and the general interests of the educated public. (The predicament of American theater and, by extension, American playwriting constitutes another terrain, deserving its own detailed study.) In generalizing about literature, I frequently use such terms as “radical” and “conservative,” “innovative” and “conventional,” for although precise definitions would take another book, my practical assumption is that most of us roughly know the meaning of these discriminations. Nonetheless, this critique deals less with differences in taste, though they are worth noting, than larger issues of literary classes and collective fate.
This is, in many passages, also a personal book about the literary universe. Although everyone this side of egomania naturally hesitates to generalize from his own observations, I think that experience in several worlds of writing, both critical and creative, has given me some of the perspective and comparative criteria prerequisite to objective scrutiny. Perhaps because my work has been various, I have managed to meet American writers of all classes–young and old, poets and novelists, critics and playwrights, professionals and amateurs. Conversation has frequently enabled me to discover what they are doing or wanted to do, what their professional experience has been, and what problems they faced in realizing their aims. Especially if they were equally young, I noticed that their sense of the writing world, as well as professional obstacles, resembled my own. If they were similarly experimental, in their sense of either writing style or personal activity, then our accounts were more identical. For that reason, most of my generalizations about “young writers” or “new writing” are also true for me, and vice versa. (If not at least personally true, then such generalizations would be dubious.) This is, quite frankly, a book I would prefer not to have written–or not to have found enough compelling reasons to write.
Conspiracy Theories & Censorship.
IT IS OBVIOUS that in a state-supported literary society such as Soviet Russia, certain writers and styles are disseminated to the exclusion of others; yet too many of us remain oblivious to similar forces and pressures shaping the public life of American writing today. The pervasive neglect of whole classes of literature suggests the possible existence of a “conspiracy,” the quotation marks acknowledging a word that others like to use; but since American publishing is scarcely of a single piece, the causes, as well as the explanation, must be more various, elaborate, and complex. It is illegal, by analogy, to exclude blacks or to conspire to exclude them; yet it is also clear that certain areas of American society are lily-white. The most sophisticated explanation of this incongruity would probably show how what might seem the result of a conspiracy was actually caused by a confluence of attitudes, historical precedents, and initially independent discriminations, “a consensus” that combines to function with conspiratorial effectiveness. To put it differently, a relative absence of conspiracies in America does not prevent attempts to form them, as one definition of a “conspiracy” is that all parties act toward a common goal, whether by design or by inadvertent cooperation that is only retrospectively apparent. Even if conspiracies can be more implicit than explicit, the failure ever to recognize them constitutes a form of blindness. Nonetheless, since “conspiracy theories” are so disreputable in North America nowadays, one would sooner be caught clutching Confederate money.
This essay repeats criticisms made by me in periodicals and conversations over the past decade, when they were heard or read by an angry but ineffectual few. Only in 1970 did I realize that if my complete critique were written and then published in permanent form, we could have more leverage in dealing with adversity. The first few chapters came so quickly that I saw the end in sight, and so I submitted those early drafts to some of my previous publishers. All of them refused it. Junior editors at several other firms sponsored the manuscript, only to find their chiefs refusing it. Parts appeared prominently in literary journals, some of whose editors asked, with more generosity than I could accept, to print the entire book out of personal funds. A prominent bookseller wanted to found a publishing imprint with The End of Intelligent Writing as his initial book, but he· was unable to get appropriate backing. One young editor-in-chief said he wanted to publish the book, but then seemed unable to deliver the promised contract. Perhaps the manuscript was more “threatening” than even I envisioned it to be, since its own history with publishers was illustrating one of my theses. However, proof-by-suppression was not the kind of convincing I initially had in mind. No, no, not at all.
I began to realize more immediately, and viscerally, the real costs of non-publication, not only for myself, but for others. While suffering, on one hand, from a growing fear that more than two years of persistent effort would be wasted, I found, on the other, that people seeing one chapter in a periodical would ask about the others, trying to piece the book together from its fragments, that more people wrote me about these essays than anything else I had recently published, and that booksellers had repeated requests for the whole book (from those who had read these parts). Or, when asked my sense of “American culture,” I would launch into an analysis that would prompt me to cry, “This is all explained in greater, more definitive detail, in a book you unfortunately can’t get.” I made so many photocopies, for so many reasons, that I began to consider self-publication as a cheaper solution to the problems of private communication. The most disheartening conclusion was that nobody would publish a comprehensive critique of the channels of literary communication.
MY INTEREST IN de facto censorship was fed by the appearance of George Orwell’s recently uncovered essay on the difficulties he encountered in finding a publisher for his classic Animal Farm. After noting that “extremely centralized” newspapers frequently censor controversial material, he continued: “The same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals. . . . Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing.” What Orwell exposed was not the familiar kind of censorship that occurs after publication but the more subtle and less visible blockage that publishers exercise among themselves, largely on their own initiative. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England,” Orwell wrote, “is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” He attributed this insidious censorship to British publishers’ fear of “public opinion,” but it became clear, in his experience that those few publishers possibly interested in his kind of books were afraid not of the amorphous public or even the government. What they primarily feared was the disapproval of each other, which is to say the gossip circle in which they immediately moved.
One suggestion frequently made in the following pages is that writers are obliged to expose the crisis, and that is precisely what I have done. I have named names where possible, preserving anonymities largely when revealing privileged information and/or threatened with a libel suit (which is worth a rich man’s while, though not a poor defendant’s time and money); and for that reason, I have favored published sources wherever possible. Even when private information persuaded me to examine an issue my own conclusion has depended upon verifiable public sources. Rather than clutter the manuscript with footnotes, I have identified these sources in the book’s bibliography. In general, my criticisms are directed at kinds of behavior, rather than specific individuals, because the decapitation of some stuffed heads will be less consequential than truly comprehensive change in the literary climate. As radical liberal, if not an anarchist, I tend to regard individuals as the victims of circumstance, rather than the reverse.
In the course of drafting the text, I was frequently asked “to go easy” on one or another individual or institution, for some reason or other (or warned that a certain powerhouse “won’t like what you say about him”); but the text alone should make it clear that I have scrupulously avoided such compromises. C. Wright Mills reportedly observed of the responses to his classic White Collar (1951) that white-collar readers tended to agree heartily with his critiques of everything except their own particular profession whose self-image still commanded their loyalty; and I suspect that the following pages might well produce a comparable pattern of reactions–literary professionals readily agreeing with everything except the passages relating to themselves, as an illustration of what Marxists call false consciousness. The first reader radicalized by this book was myself, and that may account for the burst of outrage; but both the book and its author, after all, remained enmeshed in the real world it describes.
Certain parts, points, and phrases of this book draw upon essays published before in Hudson Review, The San Francisco Book Review, December, Chicago Review, Panache, Michigan Quarterly Review, Unmuzzled Ox, Kontexts, Denver Quarterly, Margins, Open Letter, Voyages, and elsewhere. I am grateful not only to the editors of these publications for permission to reprint here, but also to those friends who supported the book in innumerable letters, corrected drafts, gave good advice, threw parties, or typed the final version. May I apologize in advance for possible misspellings and minor incorrect details. The history documented in these pages stopped with the date at the bottom of the page.
New York, New York
January 1, 1973.
Richard Kostelanetz is an American artist, poet, critic, and essayist. Individual entries on his work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster’s Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. He was the editor of Assembling and is the author of many books. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born.
- One unusual move I made in the late 1970s was composing a double-fronted book, The End Appendix/The End Essentials (1979). For one side I composed by myself an abridgement with scissors and rubber cement (just before the development of word processors that would have made such work easier). The companion book contains dropped passages and rejoinders to reviewers among other miscellanea. This book too is still available from antiquariats and me.