Standards

When we were students, most of us were told we would get flunked if we reviewed a book we had not read; but academic "standards" are not what they used to be--not at all. For evidence of "distinguished scholars" who do insufficient research, and for dunces who then quote ignorance with approval, we need go no further than a chaired professor of Harvard and his admirer, the former chairman of the NEH, now "Director of the UCSD Humanities Institute, which trains high school teachers in the use of reading and criticism, and in the techniques of writing." These subversives are transforming not only the Ph.D. but academic positions into licenses to parade ignorance.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

Even critical writing by English academics is frequently simplistic, barely aware of its penchant for superficial explanations or of literary criticism as a problem meriting various methods. Notwithstanding its provocative, incipiently incendiary title of Anarchy and Order (1954), by Herbert Read, opens with this unironic sentence: “Many years ago I was present at a formal dinner of some kind and found myself next to a lady well-known in the political world, a member of the Conservative party.”

Whereas America is basically a philistine country with a vulgar appearance but with a thriving high culture, England has a generally more intelligent and tasteful populace and a civilized demeanor but a lesser high-cultural achievement. American culture is, as usual, both better and worse.

“The English Literary Scene” (1966)

In the course of doing research for this book, and then lecturing on the material, I heard more than one subject declare, in supposed candor, that all my critiques were acceptable and persuasive--all, that is, except the parts about him or her. That curious testimonial makes me wonder: Are they trying to flatter me into modifying my criticism of them into something they could find more acceptable? Are they implicitly revealing that they generally regard the behavior of everyone else more critically than they would their own? Or are they innocently unaccustomed to seeing criticism, let alone the truth, about themselves in print? (Or have I indeed made a genuine mistake in appraising them?) Or is there another truth suggested by this declaration? My own feeling is that the first explanation, though superficially the most persuasive, is not entirely satisfactory; the third is probably closer to the truth--unlike professional athletes, say, these cultural officials are public virgins.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

My sense now is that, especially in their selections of younger people, nearly all of whom are commercial novelists and/or contributors to The New Yorker, among other slick magazines, the [American Academy of Arts and Letters'] literary department is embarked upon a suicidal trip whose fundamental motive is subversive. (Imagine if the music department were stacked with successors to Irving Berlin!)

By favoring fortunate beneficiaries over significant artists, AAAL academicians have apparently forgotten the truths that slick magazines are based upon limitations, much like pop songs, while great art depends upon transcending limitations; that successful commercial bookselling is based upon repeating money-making formulas; and that the reputations, let alone visibility, of institutional favorites rarely survive separation from their fortunate sponsors. (Remember Renata Adler, a sometime New Yorker staffer elected to AAAL in 1987 and still alive?)

“Shadowing the American Academy of Arts and Letters” (1998)

Speaking of legal action, let me suggest some principles for future use. It is not just unacceptable but loathsome for a professional writer to censor another writer. The mere act of hiring lawyers to “put our publisher on notice,” as happened here [to Susan Sontag's biographers], lends to my mind validity to substantial suspicions about the litigious writer. Even giving “notice” should be generally considered comparable to declaring “open season” on oneself, which is to say a voluntarily self-defeating move. Remember, conversely, people with nothing to hide don't need to hire thugs. Hailed as progressive in some respects, Sontag has been doggedly retrograde in others.

“Susan Sontag” (2001)