Under the headline "We Need More Writers We'd Miss," Time magazine for July 26 urges that we contemplate the counsel of Cyril Connolly ("Let us reflect whether there be any living writer whose silence we would consider a literary disaster"), bids a dry-eyed adieu to John Cheever ("A loss to American writing, but not really a disaster"), and surveys the current literary scene:
" . . . the writing we tend to get now, books milling around aimlessly at the dead end of the post-modern (or wherever we technically find ourselves), seem sic somehow inadequate. Our literature paces like an unhappy animal in a small cage. On the whole, we learn no more about the meaning of things from our 'creative' writers than a child learns about wildlife by watching the disconsolate, paranoid polar bear in the Central Park Zoo. The brute scowls and flips a beer keg around his stagnant pool and dreams of killing someone: a perfect model of the literary life."
Only a fortunate few--Bellow, Singer, Beckett, the "morally imposing" Solzhenitsyn--are touched by Time's imprimatur. Everywhere else it looks, the magazine sees only midgets. Gore Vidal, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, John Gardner, Donald Barthelme, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller--on and on goes the list of writers whose voices Time considers less than clarion, whose silence it might in fact welcome. John Irving, who graced Time's very own cover barely a year ago and was the subject of a most admiring story, is swept away in the "pogrom" that also terminates Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and William Styron. Mediocrity is everywhere:
"Up close, most writers tend to look minor, to look like transient scribblers: aphids, small potatoes, twerps. One imagines a golden age long gone, and a gray, leaden trivial present. The effect is only heightened by the undiscriminating hype. One has to listen hard to hear any real thunder in the books."
The point of all this, apart from affording the essayist the opportunity to compose some of the silliest prose to ooze out of Rockefeller Center in recent years, is difficult to locate. No doubt the magazine is indulging in a bit of controversy for the sake of controversy, which is a harmless and sometimes entertaining use of journalistic license, but beyond that its purposes are far from clear. Is it saying, as it seems to be, that the voices of the writers who do not win its approval are no longer worth listening to? Is it saying, as it also seems to be, that serious "creative" writing is no longer being done in this country? Or is it merely spinning its wheels, filling up the space for another "Essay" in a slow midsummer week?
Whatever the case, it's gotten about a third of the way toward a provocative idea, and then abandoned the enterprise. Its central argument, that most contemporary American literary reputations are badly inflated, is entirely accurate, and its willingness to cite chapter and verse is admirable--even if it declines to acknowledge that in previous issues it had much to do with hyping some of the reputations it now wishes to deflate. But in sniffing about for an explanation, the best it can come up with is the obvious and the fatuous: television, which makes it "difficult for the solitary writer wringing his psyche over the Smith-Corona to compete with all that bounces down from the satellite."
Blaming television is easy and convenient, but it misses the point. Time's yearning for the past ("Once, we think, we were a people of the book") to the contrary, serious writing has always been the business of a very small elite. People who write for television and people who watch it would not write or read "great books" if television did not exist; they would simply turn to other forms of diversion, other sources of information about "wars and disasters and space shots and pageants." Certainly television has altered the framework of our lives, but it has not displaced the "literary imagination."
The difficulty, instead, is that "serious" writing in America has, in the years since World War II, become the province of the universities and, worse, the academics. If too many writers seem to have too little to say about "the meaning of things," that is because they have chosen to address narrow issues and a narrow audience. They live on or around campuses, they teach in creative-writing departments and conduct seminars at writers' retreats, and they come to believe that this hermetic existence is in point of fact the real world. There could be no more revealing demonstration of this than "The World According to Garp," which is an earnest, appealing, determined effort to break away from purely "literary" fiction and to reach a larger audience--yet which has as its central character a writer who teaches at a school and whose vision is, however inadvertently, limited by its boundaries.
This is a lot easier to deplore than to change. Like it or not, the university--more specifically, the creative-writing department--has become the central fact of life for American writers of "serious," or "literary," fiction. It gives them the two things a writer most craves: an assured source of income and a worshipful audience. No other institution in our society has the situation and the resources to do likewise--certainly not the publishing industry, which usually loses money on "serious" fiction. The trouble is that on the campus, the writer is isolated and lionized, with debilitating results for all but those who are most confident of their own vision.
The number of living American writers who are untouched in any way by the university experience, as students or as teachers or (as is more and more the case) as both, is appallingly small. However deeply many American writers may yearn for that elusive combination of great critical and popular success, the evidence is that most are more than happy to settle for the smaller but heart-fluttering ecstasies of being the star attraction at the dean's departmental soirees--and to write the kind of narcissistic, inaccessible, bloodless fiction so much beloved by the others in attendance.
Saul Bellow's most recent novel is about a professor; so is John Gardner's. Philip Roth's is about a writer; so in substantial measure is William Styron's, and so will be John Updike's forthcoming book. If our writers live in little worlds, if they travel in constricted circles where they are treated as minor deities, it stands to reason that this will be reflected in what they write. The culprit is the university and its adoring claques, not the television set.