Friday, September 25, 2009

"Genuine Literary Discernment"

What happens in English departments does not always stay in English departments.

Often enough one of their arcane theories escapes captivity and starts roaming through the larger culture. The effect is rarely salutary.

Imagine an impressionable young man taking a course where he learns that facts are fictions and that reality is a social construct. He has an epiphany and comes to believe that the media has not been presenting objective fact but has been selling a series of distortions that enhance the prestige, power, and affluence of the ruling class.

One day this young man graduates from college and goes off to run the family newspaper. Here is an opportunity to put his insight into practice. Where others followed strictly objective reportorial standards, he wants his newspaper to promote policies he favors and to destroy politicians he disfavors. Not merely on the editorial page, but throughout the news sections.

If he has a monopoly he can get away with this for a time. Yet, when information and opinion are available in absurd quantities on the internet, he might well find that slanting the news costs him readers, advertisers, and revenue.

Or consider the comments that Meridith made about yesterday's post on "Free Trade in Ideas." Since many literature students set out to work in the media or publishing, she wonders whether these students would gain an advantage by knowing how to distinguish great from mediocre fiction.

As former executive editor-in-chief of Random House, Daniel Menaker put it: "Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors." Link to Menaker's take on the state of publishing here.

We could also look at this from a different angle. Perhaps, students who learn critical theory seek out jobs where literary discernment is an undesirable skill.

Meridith suggests correctly that the publishing business has been moving in the direction of the movie business. Increasingly Hollywood has been producing tedious formulaic films headlined by major stars. Then they market the films to within an inch of their lives, the better to separate as many people from as much of their money as quickly as possible.

Obviously, some publishers still take risks with more literary fiction. And publishers in the past did use the outsized profits from best sellers to support their more literary books.

Ironically, the biggest market for those books was literature students whose professors wanted them to be reading the best in literature.

But it is not merely a question of profits and loss. We cannot explain it away by saying that capitalism corrupts art. Publishers in the bad old days made money; they were not running charities.

They were simply using a different business model. They did not worry about instant mega-sellers because they believed that they could make money by selling great literary works off of their backlist.

Where a great work of literature or a great work of art has enduring value, the kinds of celebrity vehicles that flood the marketplace today are made to be used up and discarded.

It is probably not an accident that literature students today learn that great art does not have intrinsic value. For them there is no fundamental difference between a great novel and a box of Cheerios.

We are all the poorer for it.

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