Plausible Prejudices

plausible prejudicesJoseph 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.

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23 Responses to Plausible Prejudices

  1. Yes, the good old days when genomics and computer sciences weren’t on the curriculum!

    The comment about Virginia Woolf made me think of the scene in To The Lighthouse where the father worries that people have stopped reading Walter Scott, because when nobody reads Walter Scott any more, the father knows that he will have stopped being relevant.

  2. Huh. I was pleased at the start of this review, because I do not care for any of the authors you listed up front, the Roth-and-Updike clan, and I was excited to read some skewering of them. But that sort of rhetoric about how THIS critic only considers authors based on their MERITS and never even THINKS about gender or race or sexuality or whatever else — that gets my goat. Hm. But I really like to read essays where people make fun of the Roth-and-Updike bunch.

    • Jenny says:

      The reviews and the skewering are both wonderful. I had mixed feelings about the politics, but it didn’t put me off the reviews in the least. See if you can skim the other stuff if you like Roth-skewering.

  3. I’ve read 13 of Epstein’s books, although not this one. He has given me a great deal of pleasure and insight.

    That last essay suggests the risks of publishing your more political magazine writing. Boy can it date fast. I guess at this thirty year distance it is intellectual history. The Cather issue, for example – there was a huge debate at the time, including some arguments over the use of Cather’s letters that were vitriolic, in part because of what now, since the letters have been published, looks like scholarly misconduct.

    I actually wouldn’t call these familiar essays, but would reserve that term for the pieces on varied subjects not tied to particular books – naps and expensive pens and bypass surgery and so on, every one light and elegant full of perfect quotes and jokes. This is how literal I am – the familiar essays are in the books where the subtitle is Familiar Essays. The three PP books are for reviews and litracha,

    How I wish I could write like Epstein.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t hold the politics against him, especially at this distance. If I were to read only those with whom I agree, I’d have a rather thin stack on my nightstand! Thank you for the context about the Cather essay, though he leans on another issue himself. And I do agree about the pleasure and insight and the excellent writing. I am quite sure I heard of him from you, in the first place.

  4. mum61e says:

    There’s a bunch of fizzing, popping Joseph Epstein essays at:

    including the two Jenny singles out:

    Mailer Hits Bottom

    Why John Irving Is So Popular

  5. litlove says:

    See, I feel the problems that arise in this sort of criticism come from the critic forgetting he has a subjective perspective like anyone else. If we allow our opinions to be divine, and to be exclusive and to set some sort of artistic standard, then we can so easily end up saying things that we will live to regret. Like women and black people only get published because of our generous white Western condescension. Ouch. I do own a book of Joseph Epstein essays and am now curious to read them… great review, Jenny.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s exactly right — it’s a difficult critical task to signpost our own bias, but so important. But his writing is a real pleasure, and full of insight about the literature. It’s good not to throw any critical babies out with any critical bathwater.

  6. Hi, Jenny. Thanks for your balanced review. I guess what Epstein doesn’t “get” is that he himself can be pigeon-holed under a contemporary label as well as those he scorns for their affiliations with various groups newly admitted to the academy in the time he was writing, or shortly before: he fits under the category of “male reactionary,” and while this group can be very amusing and worthwhile to read for some of their legitimate criticisms, they do seem to be blind to their own questionable rhetorical stance/position.

    • Jenny says:

      You make a very good point here, similar to litlove’s — we all have our own subjective viewpoint, and it’s impossible to escape from it even if we wanted to. The best we can do is try to identify it and then speak from it. Is objectivity even desirable? Being human, and reacting as a human being, is part of reading literature. Rising above it, or being so pure that you don’t have a gender or race, seems both impossible and pointless.

      • Hang on – Epstein hasn’t “forgotten” that he’s a member of a group (he mentions his group in the quotation Jenny selects). He “gets” it – at this point he would have been informed of his group memberships often enough. He is arguing against the practice of grouping, right? He’s not trying to be “pure,” a Romantic idea, but rather equal, an Enlightenment idea.

        Unfortunately I have used up my monthly allotment of free articles at Commentary, so I can’t read the article for myself. But presumably he scorns people who insist on the importance of affiliations in literature rather than scorning people for their affiliations?

    • Jenny says:

      I think you’re right, he is suggesting that in the Republic of Letters, everyone is equal — judged merely on the merits of the writing. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that that was never true (hence, for instance, the anxiety to know whether George Eliot was a man or a woman, along with many, many, many other examples.) He is arguing against the practice of grouping, as you say, and against studying contemporary literature, for reasons that seem to me to be shaky at best. But “pure” was the wrong word for me to use.

      • The argument about power – now that is one that Epstein likely did not “get” at the time, if this is around 1980. His side lost that argument, both politically and intellectually. Shaky, yes.

        It all worked out pretty well for literature in the end (I am taking right now as “the end”), whatever the rhetorical excesses of the fight.

  7. Hi, again, Jenny. If you feel the dose of Joseph Epstein was too strong, and you want to have a look at someone who’s more sceptical (to an extreme even) about where one lays one’s groundwork or takes one’s stand, have a look at some of Stanley Fish’s essays. He often undercuts every potential stance he finds, and he finds a great number. The extent to which he acknowledges the subjective as what really controls our perspectives is amazing. I can’t remember exactly which book of essays will come in the handiest for this sort of question, but it would either be the shorter “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech (And It’s a Good Thing, Too)” or the longer “Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies.” Basically, I think his point often centers around the idea that there’s no such thing as thinking outside the box: we each are in a box of our own that it’s impossible to think outside of. This is not necessarily nihilistic, though; he’s very personable, and persuasive. I think you’d like him.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you — Fish is familiar to me, and indeed I have a friend who once dreamed he beat Stanley Fish at playing HORSE. I can’t imagine a better graduate-school dream, can you?

  8. Jeanne says:

    Why it’s a competition, of course, is another box of rhetoric we could open. If a person can only take so many undergraduate classes in “English” (which didn’t used to be a department, back when educated people were expected to read anything in their native language on their own) how does a professor choose which books that person will read closely and analyze? Especially for non-English majors, the number of books a person can be introduced to is dauntingly small.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, in that sense it’s a competition — making decisions about what gets real estate is agonizing, and ask me about canon formation sometime! But I suppose what I meant is, why must we be supposed to be saying that even the books we choose to study in class are automatically better than the books we don’t? I don’t think that.

      • Jeanne says:

        It might be good to make that more explicit. I used to include one thing I didn’t like, or that I’d only read once, so we could discuss re-reading and selection.

      • Jenny says:

        What a great idea! That’s good pedagogy — sounds like something I would really like to try. It was also a surprise to me to see that someone thinks that studying something in a university classroom makes it equal in quality to everything else we study in a university classroom. I don’t think that, either. Aren’t we often talking not just apples and oranges, but apples and, say, marmots? One thing is often much too different from another to say it is “better.”

  9. Stefanie says:

    Sounds like a mixed bag in some ways but still worth reading if I am understanding correctly. Your comment about Mailer made me laugh! Since the book was published in 1985, I wonder if Epstein has changed his mind about anything he wrote then? I’d like to think he felt differently about teaching contemporary literature in universities.

    • I would direct interested parties to “A Literary Education” (2008), found in A Literary Education and Other Essays, which is explicitly subjective, a bit of memoir by means of the title subject. I believe the weak argument about contemporary literature has been discarded.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, definitely worth reading — interesting opinions, elegantly and intelligently expressed, are always the thing most worth reading. And as I said earlier, I don’t hold anyone’s politics against him, particularly in the artistic realm. “Agreeing with me” is not a prerequisite to writing well.

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