Distinctions

I first learned about his sad syndrome when I did my masters thesis in black history four decades ago. It was said at the time that one reason African-Americans haven't done well economically is that they would sooner hire a white doctor, say, than a black, sooner patronize a white bank, etc. I first witnessed such lack of self-respect at a university when I was teaching at the University of Texas at Austin in the spring of 1977. My friend the great avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson was returning to Austin, from which he graduated less than two decades before, to perform not at the university but at a local theater a piece that he would later present in New York. Even though I recommended his forthcoming show to all the faculty I met at parties welcoming me only a few weeks before and even though I told them I was writing about this advance show for the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section, the only professor who come to Bob's shows was Paul Schmidt, who had been Bob's favorite professor at Austin, and who later threw up tenure, as the British would say, to move to New York himself. My sense was that the other senior faculty couldn't believe that someone who had been a student at their school merited their attention. Would they be similarly disdainful, you rightly wonder, if Bob showed up again in Austin now, a quarter-century later, after an incomparably rich forty-year career? Would its Harry Ransom Center, so proud of its collections of major writers' papers, purchase his archive? At any rate, that's when I realized that respecting one's own was not just “not a Brown thing to do.” It could happen elsewhere.

“Brown University, Fifty Years Later” (2010)

One measure of major writers is developing their own visions; minor operatives perpetuate visions preceding them.

“Paul Mundoon & Archibald MacLeish” (2008)

Corporations often reveal implicitly in their behavior whether they should be regarded as first-rate or second. Behaving like a first-rate university differs from claiming to be one; actions don't lie. The risk implicit in ignoring the gap between what is claimed and what is done creates secondary problems, such as palaver, which is a polite euphemism for bullcrap. [The management consultant Bernard] Muller-Thym once advised me that even if an outside consultant tells second-rate institutions what those first-rate do, the second-rate can't do it; something always gets in the way—something that measures their secondary status. They are always full of lame excuses for why they can't they be the best, such as “not a Brown thing to do.” Since Muller-Thym as an independent individual consultant dealt directly with chiefs, he thought that the people at the top establish an institution's morale. Correction from below, even positive correction, comes to be regarded as agitation.

“Brown University, Fifty Years Later” (2010)

Cyril Connolly long ago distinguished "coterie" literary magazines from "eclectic." As he saw the difference, the former, founded by a closely entwined group of people, exist to publish their work primarily, if not exclusively. Coterie magazines are designed to serve writers who, for one reason or another, are reluctant to submit their work to editor-strangers they don't already know. Cot-mags typically discourage "unsolicited submissions," if not all the time, at least during part of the year, for lack of any concern with what others might be writing. In our time, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E and the mimeos associated with the St. Marks Poetry Project would be examples of coterie journals. "Eclectic" magazines publish work from a variety of sources, purportedly selecting the best from what appears in their mailboxes, regardless of the reputation, nationality, or professional affiliation of its authors. Poetry and Partisan Review would be examples of successful eclectic journals. One charm of Connolly's distinction was allowing to each side the possibilities of both editorial integrity, albeit of different kinds, and literary influence.

In the age of grants and institutional rewards, especially in America, a third kind of literary magazine has emerged that superficially appears to be a synthesis, publishing a limited group of lesser-knowns along with celebrities, generally regardless of the quality of the latter's work. Since the celebrities often come from different, if not contrary, directions, while the lesser-known writers strive for unexceptional acceptability, such magazines forbid themselves the kinds of literary influence typical of great magazines in the past. They too discourage unsolicited submissions, since the two circles of possibly acceptable contributors are circumscribed in advance.

“Kinds of Literary Magazines” (1997)