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[Reviews]

How Much Damage Can It Do?

Adjust
On the intellectual element in modern fiction

Discussed in this essay:

The Fun Stuff, by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
352 pages. $27.

Happiness: Ten Years of n+1. Faber and Faber. 384 pages. $16.

Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas, by Adam Kirsch. W. W. Norton. 320 pages. $26.95.

Strange as it might seem in the age of Miley Cyrus Studies and Fifty Shades 101, Columbia University’s English department offered no courses in twentieth-century literature until well after World War II. When the department finally relented to student demands for such a course, the job of designing it fell to Lionel Trilling. University English departments were then still very much dominated by the New Criticism, with its emphasis on close reading and its radical aversion to authorial intent and other extratextual matters. As Trilling laconically put it in his 1961 essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” “A couple of decades ago the discovery was made that a literary work is a structure of words.” Trilling found such an approach unsuited to the great modernists, because of “its polemical tendency, which is to urge us to minimize the amount of attention we give to the poet’s social and personal will, to what he wants to happen outside the poem as a result of the poem.” To read Joyce and Lawrence, Proust and Kafka, Yeats and Mann that way, he said, “went against the grain of the authors themselves — structures of words they may indeed have created, but these structures were not pyramids or triumphal arches, they were manifestly contrived to be not static and commemorative but mobile and aggressive, and one does not describe a quinquereme or a howitzer or a tank without estimating how much damage it can do.”

The poet-critic Adam Kirsch dedicates an entire chapter of his short book Why Trilling Matters (2011) to this essay, which he views as emblematic of Trilling’s critical approach. “The best way to describe Trilling’s uniqueness as a critic,” Kirsch argues, “is to say that he was always less concerned with writers than with readers, less interested in the way novels work than in the way we put them to work in our own lives.” I don’t know whether Kirsch was thinking of James Wood when he wrote those words, but the echo with Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008) is instructive in any case. For two decades Wood has been the dominant literary critic of the English-speaking world, the closest thing our era has to a cultural authority of Trilling’s stature. He has altered the way a generation of literary readers read and — what’s more impressive — the way a generation of literary writers write, and one obvious result of this influence has been the nearly complete abandonment of the view of the novel Trilling championed.

Wood is in many ways deserving of his eminence. He is a subtle and gifted close reader with an exhaustive knowledge of literary history, and an inspired stylist in his own right. When it comes to assessing the structural soundness of a novel, no one is better. Even the most common complaint about Wood — that he celebrates a narrow form of realism at the expense of more “experimental” literary traditions — isn’t quite fair, though it’s true that Wood is concerned with fiction that seeks to represent life. “It is impossible to discuss the power of the novel without discussing the reality that fiction so powerfully discloses,” he writes in the preface to the essays in his first book, The Broken Estate (1999), “which is why realism, in one form or another and often under different names, has been the novel’s insistent preoccupation from the beginning of the form.” But this “in one form or another” is an important caveat: Wood’s vision of realism is expansive enough to include László Krasznahorkai as well as Alice Munro, Roberto Bolaño as well as Marilynne Robinson. What he admires in all these writers is the sense of life they convey, particularly of interior life, of what it feels like to be conscious in the world. While he makes frequent reference to the structuralism of Roland Barthes and the formalism of Viktor Shklovsky, Wood’s real critical model seems to be Henry James, and his view of the novel is similar to the one James articulated in his 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction.” James believed that a writer, like a painter, must be allowed his choice of subject and judged on his treatment of that subject. The treatment may be naturalist or impressionist or expressionist, but it will always be finally a treatment of life. “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life,” James wrote. “When it ceases to compete as the canvas of the painter competes, it will have arrived at a very strange pass.”

“Oblomov, Interior Spread” by Kerry Mansfield, from her series Expired

“Oblomov, Interior Spread” by Kerry Mansfield, from her series Expired

But this formulation — art not representing but competing with life — suggests an aspiration that Wood does not often recognize. Most literature seeks not just to depict life in some manner but to question it, to put life as we know it under some critical pressure. This critical tendency is what Trilling found challenging about the modernist tradition: “No literature has ever been so shockingly personal as that of our time,” he wrote. “It asks every question that is forbidden in polite society. It asks us if we are content with our marriages, with our family lives, with our professional lives, with our friends.” For all his supposed mandarin detachment, Trilling readily admitted when a novel made him uneasy. This is not a sense one ever gets from Wood, despite his sensitivity as a reader. He evinces curiously little interest in the possibility that a book might intervene in our lives, that something might happen outside the work as a result of the work. He seems to find the desire for such an intervention a bit vulgar, if not self-defeating, as though it could only descend into brute instrumentalism (How Proust Can Change Your Life) or crass plays for relevance (Proust Was a Neuroscientist).

It isn’t quite right to say of Wood what T. S. Eliot said of James: that he has a mind so fine no idea could violate it. Wood is interested in ideas, but mostly religious and metaphysical ones, that is to say, the intellectual questions that interest Wood are questions about the nature of reality — which is the central preoccupation of literary realism. Wood shows almost no interest in social questions, the kind of questions — about our marriages, our families, our professional lives, our friends — that Trilling found so shocking when he encountered them in modernist novels. Jonathan Franzen, Wood wrote in his mixed assessment of The Corrections, “is at his finest when being ambitious and even theoretical about the soul, when he is examining consciousness. . . . [When he] attempts to enlarge his theme of correction socially, the attempt stalls.” Perhaps Wood is right in this case, but it is striking how frequently he finds that a novel has succeeded when it deals with the questions Wood himself likes to ask and that it has failed when it strays into territory alien to him.

By aiming for “topicality, relevance, a large audience, the mainstream,” Wood writes, the novel gives up on the things that only the novel can do — particularly the Jamesian “palpable present-intimate” — and in the process dooms itself to further irrelevance. Franzen’s novel appeared just before 9/11, the review just a month after, and the timing was significant to Wood’s argument:

If anyone still had a longing for the great American “social novel,” the events of September 11, 2001, may have corrected it, through the reminder of an asymmetry of their own: that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk smarts — in short, the contemporary American novel in its big triumphalist form — are the novel’s chosen sport, the novel will sooner or later be outrun by its own racing material.

Here Wood seems to be committing one of those non sequiturs he is so quick to spot in others. Why must “social comment” go hand in hand with “preachy presentism”? Is the choice really between dealing only with those aspects of the human predicament that endure in all times and places — or else producing reportage? In one of Trilling’s best critical essays, 1948’s “The Princess Casamassima,” he argues that it was precisely James’s talent for social observation that gave his work lasting value. In the underrated novels of his middle period, Trilling writes,

James is at the point in his career at which society, in the largest and even the grossest sense, is offering itself to his mind with great force. He understands society as crowds and police, as a field of justice and injustice, reform and revolution. The social texture of his work is grainy and knotted with practicality and detail. And more: his social observation is of a kind that we must find startlingly prescient when we consider that it was made some sixty years ago.

Trilling’s extended reading of The Princess Casamassima abounds in references to Marx and Bakunin and the anarchist movements of the late nineteenth century, and part of what Trilling shows is how a full reading of James’s novel demands consideration of the violence and social turmoil around him. To read James only as a formal virtuoso is to do a disservice to his work.

Wood’s insistence on the false distinction between art and social comment leads him to misread the novelists he most admires. In his latest collection, The Fun Stuff, he praises Mortals, Norman Rush’s novel about a Milton scholar and CIA agent named Ray Finch, for its “superb combination of free indirect style . . . and stream-of-consciousness” but ignores the content of that consciousness. Wood calls Rush’s characters “proficient, perhaps slightly glib intellectuals.” He notes that “ideologically speaking, Ray, the liberal who eventually leaves the agency, is perhaps too good to be true, so that one wonders about the likelihood of such a right-thinking (or, rather, left-thinking) fellow ever joining the CIA in the first place.” This bothers Wood as a lapse in verisimilitude; he does not spend a moment on what Rush might have been getting at by joining such a man to the CIA. Could Rush be suggesting to his own right-thinking intellectual American readers that they are complicit in America’s foreign meddling whether they like it or not — that they have, in essence, joined the CIA? Wood isn’t interested. His comment on a lengthy set piece in which Finch helplessly wanders through a battle during an African nationalist insurgency is almost parodically unconcerned with the scene’s subject matter: “One admires the precision of Rush’s effects, which keeps his lyricism on a tight budget.” The reader who feels interrogated by Rush’s novel may be struck by something other than the precise lyricism of the proceedings.

Something similar happens when Wood writes about Saul Bellow, another of his touchstones. As Wood well knows, Bellow’s books are overstuffed with social comment — not to mention sidewalk smarts. But reading Bellow “in the context of his many ‘ideas’ ” is a mistake, Wood writes, because “the comedy of the novels has much to do with the prospect of the inefficacy of ideas.” To Wood, one of the things that recommends Bellow is the fact that he doesn’t really take these social ideas that seriously.

Except of course that Bellow did, as can be seen in his forthcoming volume of collected essays, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, which shows him quoting Tocqueville alongside Tolstoy, Durkheim alongside Dostoevsky. It is no accident that Bellow taught for more than three decades at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He was a social critic. That he was also every bit a novelist, that his novels are never merely vehicles for his own ideas about society, simply proves that the binary Wood offers us isn’t quite so neat in practice. Wood rightly has little time for critics who ignore the artistry of Bellow’s later novels — particularly Mr. Sammler’s Planet and The Dean’s December — because they find them ideologically disagreeable. But it is a fact that Bellow took a neoconservative turn in the face of Sixties radicalism, and it is a fact that his novels of the Seventies reflect this turn. One can’t fully read these books without addressing these facts, any more than one can read The Princess Casamassima without reading it as a response to the radicalism of its own time.

In the bravura ending to his essay about Rush, Wood writes, “For once, knowledge in an American novel has not come free and flameless from Google, but has come out of a writer’s own burning.” But the writer’s burning is useless unless it produces a corresponding fire in the reader. “Well, this famous truth for which he was so keen,” Sammler thinks near the end of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, “he had it now, or it had him.” The truth, or their own version of the truth, is not something that Bellow’s characters come to possess but something that possesses them. For all his skill as a reader, Wood never betrays the sense that he is being possessed, and you will wait in vain for any hint from him that a book can do damage.

Wood’s blind spot wouldn’t be worth spending so much time on except that it has had a defining influence on contemporary American literary culture. A decade and a half ago, Wood worried that the “DeLilloian idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer — a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry — has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die.” In fact, the idea died astonishingly quickly. The effort to bring the warmth of humanity into the social novel, to express ideas by embodying them within the novel form — an effort explicitly undertaken by Franzen and David Foster Wallace, among others — has been largely abandoned. Many of the novelists once seen as DeLillo’s brainy heirs have recently delivered surprisingly straightforward realist novels: Franzen’s Freedom, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. With the exception of Freedom, the results have been underwhelming; Franzen seems like the only one genuinely driven in this direction, and not merely inclined to experiment in what Chabon called “the genre of mainstream quote-unquote realistic fiction.” (One writer who has not given up on the attempt to make novels that are novelistically humane and also theoretically challenging is Zadie Smith. That she is both the most active and thoughtful critic among contemporary Anglophone novelists and the writer who has most publicly engaged with Wood’s critical project suggests the importance criticism can have in determining the path the novel takes.)

Even Wood’s detractors tend to take up the debate on the terms he has laid out. Ten years ago, a group of young novelists and literary critics started n+1, a literary magazine self-consciously modeled on Partisan Review, the old house journal for Trilling’s brand of intellectual criticism. In the very first of its unsigned Intellectual Situation editorials, n+1 went after Wood for his “narrow, aesthetician’s interests.” There was a degree of callowness in the attack, which also suggested that “Wood seemed to want to be his own grandfather” and concluded, “We’re young yet: so we’ll go and be among the young.” But all in all it suggested that the magazine would stake itself to a more socially engaged method of reading fiction.

Before long, however, the editors revealed what giving up Wood’s obsession with aesthetics actually entailed. Whereas Wood complained about the novelist attempting to be a social theorist, n+1 argued in its second issue that the theorist had effectively replaced the novelist: “Theory took over the thinking function of fiction as well as the stylistic: it treated social theory in the way the novel always had, more for liberatory power than strict fidelity to scholarship, and offered wild suspicion as the route to personal enlightenment.” Rather than arguing against the binary Wood had established — you can have the novel or you can have social criticism — n+1 accepted the choice and opted for the latter.

With the appearance last year of the anthology Happiness: Ten Years of n+1, we can see that the journal has more or less stuck with this choice ever since. That is not to say that novels and social thought can’t often be found side by side in the pages of n+1, especially in the early issues. But the journal’s critics by and large read novels as unconscious expressions of various economic and social forces rather than as conscious expressions of authorial will. This method — the Marxist-Freudian “hermeneutics of suspicion” rather than the “hermeneutics of belief,” to put it in the kind of academic terms n+1 likes to use — has become the default mode of intellectual criticism these days. It is particularly handy when one wants to write intelligently about popular culture, since works of popular culture are often notably the result of economic and social forces rather than conscious authorial will. Plus it allows one to sidestep the question of whether the work under consideration is particularly smart or even any good. But it’s an odd tack for a magazine founded by a bunch of literary types to take. An essay in the third issue examined two popular literary novels (Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep) to show how each expresses the logic of our neoliberal age. There was an essay about the “hype cycle,” and one about the culture of book reviewing, and one that linked the rise of “how to read” manuals to “the last halcyon days of ‘Third Way’ capitalism — when the world was embracing a kinder, gentler free market as a solution to all our problems.” There was an essay — and then another essay and then another and finally an entire anthology (MFA vs. NYC, also published last year) — about the material conditions facing the twenty-first-century American writer. An appraisal of Roberto Bolaño acknowledged that he is “the real thing,” but spent most of its time on the sociological question of why he was canonized by a reading public that can’t generally spot the real thing when it sees it. The explanation turned out to involve “some big metanarrative about the novel — one that proclaims that, even post postmodernism, the form remains in crisis.”

The big metanarrative of the novel in crisis wound up having a lot of explanatory power. One of the smartest works of criticism the magazine has published, Marco Roth’s “The Rise of the Neuronovel,” is also a classic act of suspicious hermeneutics. The essay takes a broad trend in contemporary fiction — an interest in neurological pathology over consciousness or the mind — and reads it as a result of impersonal cultural forces. The trend Roth spotted was real, and his diagnosis of it is certainly plausible. “At the most obvious level,” he writes, “the trend follows a cultural (and, in psychology proper, a disciplinary) shift away from environmental and relational theories of personality back to the study of brains themselves, as the source of who we are.” But there is more going on here, Roth believes. In the end, what is really being expressed by the neuronovel is the novelist’s own unconscious “anxiety about the role of novelists in this new medical-materialist world, which happens also to be a world of giant publishing conglomerates and falling reading rates.”

“The novel’s anxiety to have a ready-made public makes it less and less deserving of one,” the editors wrote in an early issue. Well, two can play the Marxist-Freudian game, and it’s no great leap to suggest that this anxiety may be something of a projection. Almost everything, in the eyes of n+1’s editors, comes back to cultural relevance — to falling reading rates. And yet they can’t quite escape Wood’s suggestion that cultural relevance and the novel aren’t compatible. What makes Wood look so much like his own grandfather — “the silhouette of an intellectual world that was once rumored to exist” — is that he keeps faith with the novel nonetheless. These guys would rather go be among the young. With the economic crisis and the rise of Occupy, suddenly relevance seemed within reach; a recent issue of n+1 featured no essays on fiction at all. Meanwhile, Benjamin Kunkel, the most talented novelist among the founding editors, set aside his work in progress to write long essays on Marxist economics. “I guess I felt like this novel will be equally good or bad whenever,” he told a reporter, “whereas we seem to be in a moment where things are more up for grabs intellectually and politically.”

When one realizes that Adam Kirsch is an exact contemporary of n+1’s founders — that he likely shared a Harvard literature classroom with a couple of them — it is all the more remarkable how little he shares their anxiety. Few critics today could write an entire book of essays on contemporary poetry, as Kirsch did in The Modern Element, that spends almost no time discussing poetry’s relative insignificance to the culture at large, and no time at all bemoaning it. Nor does Kirsch react to that insignificance with self-protective obscurity or academic jargon. He writes for a general audience, under the assumption that a general audience is capable of caring about poetry if a critic makes it sound like something worth caring about.

Kirsch seems to have quite deliberately adopted Trilling’s critical interest in authorial will. His first book of criticism, The Wounded Surgeon (2005), offered readings of a number of midcentury poets — Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz, and Plath — who are united in Kirsch’s eyes by the fact “that each eventually rebelled against the New Critical understanding” of the poem as a self-contained object. In his essays, he praises Derek Walcott as “a poet whose struggle, from his early youth, was to convince himself and the world that originality is still possible.” Jorie Graham is taken to task because her poems “reside in the privacy of the poet’s mind and not in the public realm where poet and reader discuss things in common.” This is not to suggest that Kirsch falls prey to a slavish desire for “relevance.” One of the few essays in which he considers poetry’s popularity is a slashing review of Billy Collins, perhaps the most popular living poet. “In the face of the Collins phenomenon,” Kirsch writes, “it is important to remember that popularity weighs not at all in the scale of merit.”

The title The Modern Element is an allusion to the Victorian poet-critic Matthew Arnold’s essay “On the Modern Element in Literature,” a title that Trilling also played with: “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” was originally called “On the Modern Element in Modern Literature.” Kirsch, for his part, clearly sees himself as a link in a chain that includes both men. (Just as Kirsch wrote a book-length study of Trilling, Trilling wrote one of Arnold.) The Modern Element begins with an extended meditation on Arnold that concludes:

Over time, it has seemed less and less likely to me that criticism ought to offer disinterested assessments. Instead, I hope that these essays, by exploring the work of significant contemporary poets, will also serve the purpose of asking what poetry can and should do today, what it is for, what it and no other art can provide. Perhaps there is still no better answer to those questions than the one Arnold gave, when he defined poetry, unfashionably but wisely and truly, as “a criticism of life.”

Kirsch returns to Arnold’s definition in the preface to his latest collection, Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas, but he explicitly expands it: “All literature, not just poetry, is a criticism of life.” With the exception of a review of Leopardi, the essays here are about prose writers — though they are not necessarily writers normally identified as literary. The collection begins with three long essays about the application of Darwin’s theories to aesthetics and history, and there are several essays about political philosophers.

Throughout, Kirsch pays social thinkers the compliment of comparing their work to literature. “One of the most appealing things about [Peter] Sloterdijk’s philosophy,” he writes, “is that, like literature, it leaves itself vulnerable, instead of trying to anticipate and refute all possible objections.” Elsewhere he makes a similar suggestion about Hannah Arendt, approvingly quoting Michelle-Irène Brudny, her biographer, who said, “I definitely take Hannah Arendt to be less a political philosopher or a political theorist . . . than an author in the strong sense of the word.” About Walter Benjamin: “Ultimately, his strange, beautiful works are best read as fragments of a great poem.” Marx and Freud are “artists of the real.” In other hands, this kind of aestheticizing of theorists can be a way to defang their ideas, but in Kirsch something like the opposite is going on. When Kirsch says a piece of writing has the attributes of literature, he does not mean to suggest that it should not be read for the content of its thought. In an essay about evolutionary explanations for the art-making impulse, he offers what might be the guiding principle behind all his critical work:

The aesthetic itself is a distinct dimension of human experience — not the by-product of something more fundamental, but itself fundamental. This dimension is defined in many ways — by its love of the hypothetical, of order and symbol, of representation for its own sake, of the clarity that comes from suspending the pragmatic; and it has, perhaps, as much in common with theoretical knowledge and contemplation as it does with sensory enjoyment.

Here, finally, the Woodian difference has been split: Kirsch does not want to give up on either the autonomy of the aesthetic or its intimate connection to contemplation and theoretical knowledge. For this reason, the best essays in the collection by far — the ones that suggest that Kirsch might be able to change the cultural climate surrounding the contemporary novel for the better — are about fiction writers.

The approach works particularly well in his essay on The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel about boredom and the IRS. During Wallace’s lifetime, many critics treated him as something of a brainy show-off, heir to a postmodern tradition of the novel as a heady but ultimately trivial game. After his death, he began to be taken more seriously as a moralist, even a kind of self-help guru, with particular attention paid to his essays, despite the fact that they were so obviously secondary in Wallace’s own view. Kirsch is able to treat Wallace for what he was: a novelist who advanced a criticism of life through his fiction. Writing about the publication of Wallace’s undergraduate philosophy thesis, Kirsch notes, “What Fate, Time, and Language demonstrates is not the value of analytic philosophy for literature, but its dramatic inferiority to literature as a way of discussing the most existentially urgent problems.”

Kirsch situates Wallace within the ethical tradition of Immanuel Kant: “The only valid laws are the ones we legislate for ourselves, in accordance with the dictates of reason: this is the key to moral autonomy, and in The Pale King it is the definition of adulthood.” He faults Wallace for not recognizing the source of this insight: that Wallace seemed to think that the problems he diagnosed were peculiarly postmodern American problems rather than universal ones weakened him as a philosophical novelist in Kirsch’s view. But finally, and appropriately, Kirsch’s judgment of the novel is aesthetic, not theoretical: “Wallace had not yet imagined his way to a satisfying treatment of the themes he wanted to address in The Pale King. Above all, he had not yet resolved the tension at the heart of the project, the problem of how to write an interesting book about boredom.” Reading this, one senses a different kind of tension being worked out, the problem of how to take ideas in novels seriously as novelistic ideas.

In “The Last Men: Houellebecq, Sebald, and McEwan,” Kirsch traces the genealogy of the historical type of the “last man,” from its identification by Nietzsche to its more recent appropriation by Francis Fukuyama, before finally turning to its use by the three novelists of his title. “Three more different writers could hardly be invented,” Kirsch writes, “which makes it all the more suggestive that their portraits of the spiritual state of contemporary Europe are so powerfully complementary.” Michel Houellebecq and W. G. Sebald, in particular, are so stylistically and temperamentally different that it is jarring to see them taken together here. But Kirsch recognizes that Houllebecq’s The Elementary Particles and Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn “both depict a civilization collapsing from within, unable to stand what it has become.” Meanwhile, Ian McEwan’s Saturday shows that same “privileged, guilt-ridden, indecisive civilization” under attack from the outside by an “angry, jealous barbarism.” This is a classic exercise in the hermeneutics of belief: Kirsch does not read the presence of the last man in such diverse places as an unconscious expression of the culture but as the conscious expression of three authorial wills encountering and responding to that culture. And he is finally convincing in his argument that taking these three disparate novelists together can tell us something not just about the present or future of Europe but about these novels themselves.

At the same time, the essay exposes the weaknesses in Kirsch’s approach. There is a curious leveling effect — or worse, a false hierarchy. If there is a difference in quality between the three writers, you could not possibly discover it by reading Kirsch’s essay. I suspect that Kirsch thinks that Sebald is a better novelist than McEwan or Houellebecq, but the subject never comes up. After all, Sebald’s superiority has nothing to do with whether his vision of European civilization is more or less relevant than McEwan’s to the age of global terrorism. Instead, it consists in the kinds of qualities Wood celebrates — the richness of humanity in his books, the control of his rhetorical effects, the sheer beauty of his style. These are qualities Kirsch consistently notes in his essays on poetry but rarely takes time with when writing about novelists.

Kirsch sometimes seems hesitant to read novels as novels, perhaps because he doesn’t have the same command of novelistic form that he does of poetic form. Whenever Kirsch considers a writer who is equally distinguished in fiction and the essay — like Susan Sontag — he writes about her non-fiction work. Even Saul Bellow is included here by way of a review of his collected letters. Of course, a literary journalist like Kirsch is to some degree at the mercy of editorial assignments and publication schedules, but these essays suggest that Kirsch has no great love for the novel itself. Certainly he lacks the single-minded passion for it that one finds in Trilling and Wood.

Here it may be relevant to note that whereas Wood, like Trilling, has published a single novel, Kirsch, like Arnold, is a poet by avocation. Arnold made sometimes extravagant claims for poetry, which he thought would come to replace “most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy.” One of the excitements of reading Kirsch on poetry is the sense that he still holds out this quixotic ambition for the form, never mind the current fashion. He’s a bit more circumspect about the novel: “In the nineteenth century, a reader of Dostoevsky and Flaubert could have gained insights into the state of Europe that a reader of newspapers would have missed. In the twenty-first, it is at least possible that the most significant European novelists can give us similar insights.” The editors of n+1 may have lost faith in the novel, but Kirsch may not have had all that much to begin with. What the contemporary novel needs is a critic who combines Wood’s belief in the novel as a form with Kirsch’s belief in what literature can do.

is a deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of the novel Arts & Entertainments (Ecco).

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February 2015