Joseph Epstein is an essayist, short story writer, and editor who worked for years at The American Scholar and is a long-time contributor to The New Criterion, Hudson Review, and Commentary. He’s written biographies, as well as books on gossip, friendship, snobbery, and divorce, but I was most interested in his familiar essays on literature — book reviews, really, with a few other essays assessing the state of literary criticism at the moment.
Plausible Prejudices was published in 1985, and (as Epstein frankly admits in his introduction) is almost entirely negative. “My case is that literature is going through a very bad patch at present — that there is something second-rate about it, especially in America, though not here alone,” he says. Norman Mailer, John Irving, Philip Roth, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, and John Updike all come under his subtle knife, or, as George Washington might have it, his little hatchet. He also considers older writers (these, generally, with a wry but more approving eye): Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, A.J. Liebling, Edmund Wilson. A few essays on language round out the book.
The book reviews are the best part of the collection. Epstein is wonderfully well-read, always equipped with the perfectly barbed quotation with which to sting his subject. He is marvelously readable: his language is sharp, elegant, and breezy without being flippant. I laughed often (especially at those barbs), and I was impressed by his wide-ranging knowledge of his subjects’ work. (In “Why John Irving Is So Popular,” he seems to have read all five of Irving’s novels to date, and in “Mailer Hits Bottom” he seems to have read all eight of Mailer’s novels, plus a good chunk of his journalism. Such self-sacrifice is beyond the pale for most of us.) His observations are, for the most part, also deadly accurate. Again in “Why John Irving Is So Popular,” Epstein points out the repetitive theme of mutilations and amputations in Irving’s novels. “There arises the question, to adapt a phrase of Henry James’s,” he says, “of the disfigurement in the carpet.” All this work is to support Epstein’s lively undergirding sense of the purpose of literature. According to him, wrong-headed praise of bad literature, or insufficient praise of good literature, means that things have gone wrong in a larger sense: he means with his criticism to uphold “a yes to life, a yes to literature, a yes to the necessity of holding writers up to the highest standard, a yes to the act of writing itself.”
Epstein blames the “bad patch” in American letters on the political agenda of the university. Once the university began studying contemporary novels, he says, and setting up black studies programs and women’s studies programs and so forth, things went sharply downhill.
Years before the intervention of contemporary writing in the university — or has it been the other way round: the intervention of the university in contemporary writing? — nothing was conceded to a writer because she was a woman or he was a Jew or she was a black or he was a homosexual. There was something called the Republic of Letters, and this republic took no census. It included only people who were serious about writing. There was also a fairly simple division of writers, or at any rate only one that mattered: good writers and bad.
Epstein goes on to conclude that when a university uses contemporary literature in the classroom, or does research on those authors, it judges them to be as good, or greater than, classic authors, which means that “Virginia Woolf would be a greater writer than Tolstoy, which, as Virginia Woolf herself would have told you, is scarcely so.”
It is depressing to see a sharp thinker like Epstein wield this sort of rhetoric. He must certainly know that for centuries — indeed, millennia — this Republic of Letters had a gate that was strait and narrow, and only those thought worthy of education were allowed in at all, to begin their work of being serious about writing, or of being good or bad. Women? Dogs on their hind legs, I’m afraid. Africans? Slaves? Native Americans? You must be joking. I suppose at least it keeps the squabbles down, about the right-of-way: of course you need not concede anything to women, if there are no women in your Republic.
I also wonder about the language of competition inherent in Epstein’s theory. If we consider contemporary authors, either in or outside of the classroom, why does that mean we automatically think they are “better than Tolstoy”? If we study Tolstoy, but we also study Shakespeare, Gilgamesh, Austen, the Iliad, and Toni Morrison, are we automatically judging Morrison to be the best because she’s the most recent? Or what? Why is it a competition? When I teach literature, I look at each work for what it offers: themes, prose, historical context, subtlety, beauty, representation of a body of literature or a school of thought. I wonder what it might teach my students and how it might spark conversation. I want them to learn to think, and to make their own judgments, and I want many kinds of voices to enter into that education. If diverse and contemporary voices necessarily make for a worse patch in literature, how long must we wait to find out whether they’re worthy to speak?
Other parts of his writing ring equally false. His essay on Willa Cather, for instance, with its heavy-handed insistence that there’s absolutely no videotaped proof she was a lesbian, begs its own question: if he thinks her orientation couldn’t possibly shed light on her work, why is he writing the essay? In another piece, on euphemisms for sex, he quotes at length what I thought was a very clean passage, with nothing really more explicit in it than “the tottered senses’ outgiving of astonishment,” and then says that the passage is “extremely repulsive — enough to put a virile man off his sexual feed for quite a spell, enough to drive a refined woman into a nunnery.” Um. What?
In other words, I had mixed feelings about these essays. I enjoyed reading them and thought Epstein’s analysis was clear-minded, worth reading, and eminently fair. His writing is a pleasure: elegant, funny, wise. His insistence, however, on checking everyone’s credentials at the gate of the Republic of Letters begins to seem officious. Is this the purpose of literary criticism? Is this the “yes to life” he proclaims at the beginning of the book? Give me leave to question it.