The State of Books in America

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Editor's note: In advance of President Obama's State of the Union address next week, RCP is rolling out daily "state of" reports to better frame the issues facing the nation. Today: The state of American books.

Rarely has it felt so awkward, so nostalgic, or so generally beside the point to speak of such a thing as the American literary scene, let alone to render some fixed assessment of its "state." In our post-meltdown new millennium, literary expression seems to have embraced a self-conscious role as lifestyle ornament, offering imaginary retreats from the historical present in lieu of any sustained reckoning with the way we live now.

In his widely hailed love-triangle novel, The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides recreates the more innocent (if theory-besotted) academic world of his 1980s alma mater, Brown University. In 1Q84 Japan's master postmodernist writer Haruki Murakami went Eugenides one better, setting a noirish tale of political intrigue in the Tokyo of his 1980s young adulthood -- but then proceeds to recast the decade as an underground alternate reality. And Chad Harbach's bestselling novel The Art of Fielding perhaps unfairly one-ups all the nostalgic competition by gracing readers with a coming-of-age tale set at a small liberal arts college (though apparently not during the 1980s) that doubles as a fable about the timeless charms of baseball. Forrest Gump -- who just narrowly missed being an '80s icon in his own right -- would seem to be the de facto literary muse of 2011: After an unsettling tour through campus life and a fraught 1960s political scene, he, too, discovered the tonic, restorative virtues of athletic prowess.

Meanwhile, in apparent recognition of their own correspondingly diminished role, culture critics settled into a nostalgic mood of their own. Freshly reissued collections of harsh twentieth-century taste arbiters such as Dwight MacDonald and Pauline Kael came in for long appraisals in outlets like the New Yorker -- the august weekly where both Kael and MacDonald had previously published, but which now has to make do with the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik as public intellectuals.

David Brooks, the New York Times theologian of Beltway consensus who has often professed his own nostalgia for the midcentury cultural and ideological pyrotechnics of The Partisan Review, produced what was easily the year's worst book: The Social Animal, a didactic portrait of the family life of a pair of fictionalized ideal-types intended to embody the hallowed pundit principles of meritocratic worth and social capital. In fairness, though, the sex scenes in The Social Animal have to rank as the year's greatest (if also its most inadvertent) moments of literary farce.

Brooks, as it happened, had also been on the vanguard of one of the most striking literary trends of late 2010 -- which, given the general paucity of more timely material of interest, we may as well count as part of our year-end review: the jihad declared on the one recent novel that has tangled with the degraded American social world, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

In a column betraying almost no actual familiarity with the book's contents, Brooks derided Franzen's novel as a classic specimen of the "Quiet Desperation Dogma" that is catnip to an "American literary culture" hellbent on deriding "small-town and suburban" existence in these United States. While Franzen is an undeniably talented writer, Brooks conceded, his unforgiving vision of the bourgeois American scene is confined within an "intellectual cul de sac": "There's almost no religion. There's very little about the world of work and enterprise. There's an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling."

In an expert dissection of the literary right's multifront assault on Franzen's novel, Maureen Tkacik noted that there are no less than seven fundamental misrepresentations of Freedom's plot and characters in those three sentences alone. To take just the most obvious among them, the bit about the absent world of work, which had Brooks mistakenly claiming that just one major character in Freedom was holding down a real job: "Franzen's characters main and minor are universally not only gainfully employed, but unusually industrious and devoted to their jobs." It was, Tkacik marveled in the Washington City Paper, very much as though Brooks had reported that the novels of Candace Bushnell, while "important," were dismayingly short on "references to female friendship, casual sex, meals consumed in trendy restaurants, ludicrously expensive anti-aging ointments and/or cosmetic surgery procedures, homosexuals, frivolity in general." To take another howling Brooks misreading of the most basic features of Freedom: None of the action in Franzen's novel occurs in or around suburbia or small-town America, save for a very brief epilogue near the end.

Still, as Tkacik also noted, Brooks was far from the worst offender. That laurel went to B.R. Myers, who composed a feature-length essay in The Atlantic grousing mainly about Franzen's use of profane and slang-ridden dialogue, which somehow culminated in the arch, dogmatic dismissal of Franzen's book as "a 576-page monument to insignificance." Next to such outbursts, Adam Kirsch's charge, in The New Republic, that Freedom was somehow anti-Semitic for featuring a neoconservative plotline seems downright restrained.

This shrill and rigid public denunciation of a novel about America's social mores and ideological folk wisdom spoke volumes, of course, about the actual subject of Franzen's novel: the way the pliant and worthy American ideal of freedom gets bent out of all recognizable shape in the service of brute personal, ideological, and commercial ambitions. Even at the height of the 1950s Red Scare, when conservative demagogues professed to find anti-American conspiracies and ideological formations in anodyne school textbooks and public-health initiatives, most cultural commentators were content to let American novelists ply themes of social criticism on a fairly wide scale.

Sure, the "conformity novel" of the '50s produced some thuddingly earnest exercises in pasteboard storytelling such as Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, but in hands of far more assured writers such as Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov and Richard Yates, the distempers of the suburban soul were not fodder for Maoist preachments on the spiritual snares of consumer capitalism -- and no one mistook them as such. Even the most heavy-breathing Red baiters of the age would have regarded such critiques as lunatic ideological readings of works of art. In the new millennial ambit of postideological American literary consensus, very much by contrast, a novel about family life and relationships that veers pointedly at times into the world of political ideas is treated as a 600-page thoughtcrime.

Indeed, the intense convictions of the 2010 Blame Freedom First crowd supplies a striking parallel with the 2011 boom market in tidy backward-glancing lifestyle parables. When a social novel of comparatively modest reach comes in for such a sustained beatdown from our most prestigious opinion-making outlets, where's the percentage for writers publishing anything other than sepia-toned works of campus reminiscence, or meditations on the metaphysics of defensive baseball?

What's more, it's no great stretch to suggest that the heyday of critics such as Kael and MacDonald helped to stoke stronger demand for cultural works that more directly and honestly engaged their own historical moment. To take just one illustrative instance, when Saul Bellow had achieved early success as a midcentury literary enfant terrible, he promptly sought to leverage it into a career as the editor and publisher of a quite good small literary journal, The Noble Savage. In that long-ago literary age, the works of critics of artists were understood as being very much of a piece -- which is also why Bellow would later fictionalize the plight of intellectuals losing touch with the American bourgeois culture in powerful works such as Herzog and Humboldt's Gift.

In our new century, Bellow's best-known legatee in American letters -- his son, Adam -- has published his own impassioned vindication of his chosen career path, In Praise of Nepotism, and is now best known as the publisher of Sarah Palin. It's a rich saga of intrafamilial ambition, intellectual orthodoxies, and free-ranging anxieties of influence -- all great material for a social novel of its own, if we had any writers left with the nerve to try one.

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