If there's any truth to the rumor that Lewis Lapham's departure as editor of Harper's is occasioned at least in part by complaints about the magazine's attack on the American literary establishment, then a great injustice has been done. The attack, however clumsily delivered, was richly deserved and often on target.
This is not a defense of Lapham or Harper's. Lapham's calculatedly contentious essays are often windily self-important, and the magazine under his editorship has failed to reverse its decades-long slide into mediocrity. But the two-part series featured in its August and September issues, Bryan F. Griffin's "Panic Among the Philistines," laudably punctured some of the biggest egos in the literary community; if the ensuing howls and wails have been heeded to Lapham's detriment by the MacArthur Foundation, which owns Harper's, then the MacArthur Foundation doesn't belong in the magazine business.
But this is also not a defense of Bryan F. Griffin. His arguments, however valid and useful some of them may be, are couched in irresponsible and arrogant terms. His prose style is a bizarre mixture of H.L. Mencken, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and Time magazine, with the emphasis on the least attractive characteristics of each. He believes in the sweeping generalization and the insulting adjective. He also has a weird hang-up about matters sexual, to wit:
E.L. Doctorow is "a popular writer of rather smutty political novels." Scott Spencer is "a clever young writer of explicitly erotic novels." John Updike writes "tales of cunnilingus" and Robert Coover writes "dirty stories." D.M. Thomas' novel "The White Hotel" is one of his "Erotic Epics." "Good as Gold" is described on one page as "a dreary novel of political scatology from Joseph Heller" and, two pages later, as "a dreary scatological farce from Joseph Heller."
The smugness with which Griffin delivers these dismissals suggests that he fancies himself to be slicing deftly with a rapier, when in point of fact he is gallumphing around with a blunt axe. What does it mean to call John Irving a "schlock novelist" or William Styron a "political novelist" or Jerzy Kosinski a "cult novelist"? It doesn't mean a thing. It has the ring of forcefulness, and to those who share Griffin's adamant literary conservatism it may even have the ring of wit -- but it is empty. Or "half-empty" may be the more fitting phrase, since Griffin is a master of the half-truth, tarring a writer with his least defensible characteristics and ignoring all others.
Griffin further has the singularly irritating habit of making utterly insupportable claims and passing them off as received truth. This, for example, is the premise upon which his two articles rest: "The cultural establishment had deliberately rendered itself 'trifling and superficial' over a period of 40 or 50 years, and by 1980 it had become a bloated irrelevance, a dead weight that the artistic conscience of the larger society was no longer willing to listen to or support." Later he writes: "Everybody knew that something was horribly, horribly wrong, but it was the nature of the disease that nobody in charge had any idea what it was."
Says who? Upon what evidence does any of this gibberish rest? Has anyone else chanced upon a "deliberately" reeling, irrelevant "cultural establishment"? And who, for heaven's sake, is this "everybody" who "knew" all these terrible things? Who? I'll tell you who. It's Bryan F. Griffin, that's who!
Griffin isn't content merely with representing himself as the final authority on matters of literature and taste; he also tries to pass himself off as a one-man consensus. It doesn't wash; more to the point, it weakens the serious and worthwhile points his articles attempt to make.
At core, those points can be quickly summarized: In literature as in the other arts, mediocrity is these days often fobbed off on an eager audience as genius, and "celebrity" is more highly honored and valued than achievement. He sees ours as "the age of Capote and Warhol and Updike and Pollock masquerading as the age of Pericles." Touche'!
Though Griffin fails to make anything like a systematic critical case against them, many of the writers whom he holds up to ridicule have asked for it: Vonnegut, Mailer, Kosinski, Doctorow, Capote. Not one of these people is likely to be read much past the turn of the new century, but all of them now bask in the limelight cast by Elaine's, People magazine, the Hamptons and the Upper West Side. They are people to whom fame has come too quickly and easily, and who have lost sight of whatever serious literary aspirations they may once have treasured. They and the claques that shout their praises are proof positive of Griffin's claim that the literary community is "not, in fact, a particularly bookish community." As he writes, in the past tense he so maddeningly adopts:
"Books were not for reading, and ideas were not a basis for life; books were for talking and shouting about, and an idea was something you passed around with the pistachios and the burnt peanuts, until you grew tired of sniffing at it (after which it became something you had 'been through')."
Griffin is no less on target when he pounces on those of us among the country's reviewers and critics for employing what he calls "the language of pretension" and the "desperate superlative." Like it or not he is right: Too often we are in thrall to the "Profundity God," and through the casual, profligate, sometimes mindless application of adjectives and adverbs we play our own distasteful little role in the culture of hype.
It's easy enough to dismiss Griffin's writing as small-minded and mean-spirited, because it is. But his central arguments simply must be taken seriously. His is a voice, though hardly as civilized a voice as he supposes, raised against sham and pretense and celebrity. He sees that many of our literary emperors have no clothes, and he's willing to say so; it's about time someone did.