Art Durkee deserves credit for rising to my challenge to show just how my five definitive propositions about literature are conservative or essentialist.
The common error, if I may be permitted use of such a phrase, is memorably described by Philip Roth in American Pastoral:
One of the easier ways to get people wrong is to assume that they mean the same thing you would when they use a specific word. Thus, as R.T. observes, the “fly in the ointment” is the word best in Patrick Kurp’s and my clearly labeled “selected bibliography” of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998. The unthinking assumption, exemplified most openly by Andrew Seal’s complaint that there are “more Philip Roth books . . . on there than books by men of color,” is that selections of best books are made on the basis of some illegitimate and carefully concealed criterion like race. How does Seal know this? Because that is how he would use the word best, as he immediately demonstrated by resolving, in response to Kurp’s and my list, “to read no novels or poetry by white American men for the next year.”
Similarly, Durkee assumes that just any selection of the best is an attempt to establish a fixed and restrictive canon. “The word [best] carries implied value judgments, obviously,” he says. “The presumption is that, as you write, and R.T. amends, ‘There are some works of literature that every civilized American [or educated person] should be familiar with.’ ”
But this is mistaken on several scores.
(1) “Best” is simply the superlative form of the adjective good, and I have said again and again that the use of the word good yields no fixed definition.
(2) The best ballplayers, the best restaurants, the best cars under $40,000—nor is any should implied. Deontological advice is distinct in kind and effect from value judgments. Here, for comparison, is a list of What Books Every High School Student Should Have Read. On the list are the essays and poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I might agree that every American high-school graduate should have read these, but that does not mean they are particularly good.
(3) R.T.’s amendment, changing “every civilized American” to “every educated person,” is R.T.’s, not mine. As an Orthodox Jew, in fact, I most emphatically do not accept it. For centuries, the Jews have resisted the pseudo-universalism which takes for granted that the dominant culture is a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which everything else is barbarism. There are, as I have dogmatically asserted, “some works of literature every civilized American should be familiar with. . . .” And there are some works that every educated Jew should be familiar with. But these are different works. A civilized American need not be familiar with the Talmud; an educated Jew who lives in France need not be familiar with, say, the essays and poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And the American who knows not the Talmud, or the French Jew who is ignorant of Emerson, is not a barbarian as a consequence.
(4) It does not follow that the best works of a thirty-year period are among the works that every American should be familiar with. I could offer you a list of the best American poetry prior to 1850 without believing that you or anyone else should be familiar with it.
(5) Besides, I added the qualifying phrase “there will be much disagreement about what [those works every civilized American should be familiar with] will be.” This qualifier puts disagreement on at least an equal footing with the duties of civilization.
So much for Durkee’s accusation of conservatism. There is a way in which my thinking—and Kurp’s too—is conservative, although Durkee did not point it out. Namely: Kurp and I believe in value. And I cannot speak for Kurp, but I even plump for objective values. Shocking, I know.
Durkee’s accusation of essentialism does not fare much better. Any value judgment is essentialist, he argues, because it implies the objects of value (in this case, books) have “an underlying and unchanging essence.” Here is how he identifies the essence: “That we would all agree that a list of which books are the best books relies upon a presumed agreement to a value judgment.”
But here again he commits a fundamental mistake. A selection of best books does not imply that agreement, because someone might agree with the judgment while founding it upon any entirely different value. Kurp and I might select a book because we are impressed by the precision of its grammar, the exactness of its phrasing, while you might enjoy it because you identify with the main character. Kurp and I might even believe that such a value (“identification”) is naïve and destructive of the otherness upon which good writing depends. But we and you still agree that the writing is good.
The technical term essence needs to be used with exactness, or not at all. In philosophy it refers to the foundation of being, which in Christian theology is God. Thus Hooker:
The essence of a thing is what makes it what it is. Literature is indeed constituted by its value, but—to paraphrase E. D. Hirsch Jr. once again—its value is stipulated, and no one must agree to the stipulation. Or, in other words, literary value has no fixed definition. No fixity means, well, nothing unchanging. Doesn’t it? Therefore, no essence.
This has already grown long, but I need to dispense with one more objection to my five-fold definition of literature. Litlove finds it of “uncertain value.” She asks:
Update: Upon reflection it dawns upon me that there is a practical effect after all that I should like to see my redefinition of literature achieve, although I am not so unrealistic or preening as to expect it would ever come about. Namely: it would be well if critics stopped using the word literature as an term of praise, as if there were an upper class of works, an aristocracy of books. As my redefinition should establish, to use the word in such a manner is to speak tautologically. For a critic to describe a book as literature is to testify to nothing more than his describing the book as literature.
Update, II: To distinguish further between “best books” and “books every civilized American should be familiar with.” If it were stipulated that only American fiction from the period 1968 to 1998 could be considered, I would have no problem agreeing that, say, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved should be known by any civilized American. But if I am asked whether Beloved is any good, I have to answer, reluctantly, “No.”
1. Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy (5.56.5), quoted in J. V. Cunningham, “Idea as Structure: The Phoenix and the Turtle,” in The Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow, 1976), p. 199.