“The literary life” at 25

Joseph Epstein in The New Criterion:

Epstein2My essay of twenty-five years ago featured the attenuation, the thinning out, of literary culture. Criticism had become professionalized in the universities, with French theory beginning to make heavy incursions into the old common-sense American tradition, not at all to criticism’s gain. Poets continued solemnly to scribble away under the ever-diminishing illusion that they had an audience. Through the agency of interviews and television appearances flogging their books, writers came to seem to be making larger contributions to the history of publicity than to that of literature. Politics in literature—which Stendhal likened to “a gunshot in the middle of a concert, something uncivilized to which, however, it is not possible to turn your back”—had begun to play a larger and more divisive role in literary culture. Europe, as a place American writers could look to in the hope of discovering models of literary courage and pertinence, was no longer supplying them in impressive numbers, if at all. Such, such, were among my grim findings of a quarter century ago.

Has much changed over the past twenty-five years? Many things have, and in ways whose consequences cannot be known. For example, theory in academic literary criticism seems to be playing itself out by the sheer force of its deep inner uselessness.

More here.