Writing in tribute to A.J. Liebling, Joseph Epstein has this to say: "There are major writers and minor writers, and somewhere in between there is, or at least ought to be, another category known as 'special writers.' Special writers are those we react to in a special, usually quite personal way, for we feel a kinship between their imaginations and our own. A.J. Liebling was a special writer for a great many people. I, for one, have missed his prose more than that of any other writer who has died in my lifetime."
This expresses rather well my own feeling about Joseph Epstein: He is, for me, a "special writer," one whose prose style I admire without reservation and whose opinions I almost invariably applaud because they are, almost invariably, my own. His essays appear most frequently in The American Scholar, Commentary and The New Criterion; in the first, of which he is editor, they seem most at home, while in the second two they are zephyrs of wit and self-effacement amid the gales of neo-conservative self-importance.
His range is broad, especially in his quarterly American Scholar essays, but in the 26 pieces collected in "Plausible Prejudices" he concentrates on the "distinctly second-rate literary era" in which American writing now finds itself. With devastating finality, he strips away the veneer of political trendiness with which contemporary fiction is coated and reveals the shallowness underneath. He is a tough and demanding critic but not a mean or spiteful one; he recognizes excellence when he finds it, but the problem is that there is, these days, so little of it to be recognized.
Quite properly, he lays a large burden of the blame precisely where it belongs. "The center of literary life today is the university," he writes, with the result that the fiction emerging from it deals with little "beyond fornication and fashionable ideas, which seem to be the chief forms of experience and knowledge available at contemporary universities"; it is fiction "that no one outside an English department would for a moment consider reading." Beyond that, literary criticism has produced "this work of structuralists, semiologists, Foucaultists," which "dominates the current literary-critical scene in a way it could never do if literary criticism were not so securely centered in the university, where people seem to have endless time for nonsense."
The result is fiction that parrots the political views prevalent in the university and disdains any readers whose politics do not conform to those views. Thus we have the work of Robert Stone, a most gifted writer who "has convinced himself that he has a vision when all he really seems to have is a political point of view plated over with a thin layer of metaphysics," or that of the similarly gifted Ann Beattie, "the chief purveyor of her own generation's leading cliche's -- the L.L. Bean of what passes for sixties existentialism."
Epstein's complaint, it is important to understand, is not that these writers' politics differ from his own. His complaint is that they and countless others have twisted literature to serve political ends. He quotes Stendhal: "Politics in a work of literature is like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert," and then observes that "many contemporary American novelists and poets are so patently and thoroughly political that reading them is like being at a pistol range hoping to hear a note of music."
The din is so loud, in fact, that even Epstein's clear hearing has been affected. How else to explain his praise, even if tempered praise, for such implacably political novels as "Democracy" by Joan Didion and the execrable "Rabbit Is Rich" by John Updike? On the other hand, his fixation on political elements in the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez leads him to underestimate "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and, most uncharacteristically, to misinterpret "The Autumn of the Patriarch," which is a novel about politics but most certainly is not a "political novel" in the narrow sense of pleading an immediate cause.
In any event, the quality for which Epstein is constantly on the alert, though rarely pleased to find, is what he calls "gravity," which is to be found in "a serious literary mind, unencumbered by the cliche's of the day, at work on serious matters." This he finds in the work of Solzhenitsyn and, "when they are writing well," V.S. Naipaul, Saul Bellow and I.B. Singer, to which brief list I would add Peter Taylor and, perhaps, Walker Percy. This may be as many substantial figures as any era produces; but in the great noise of the current one it seems an especially small number.
I do not mean to suggest, by concentrating on it, that the relationship between literature and politics is the only subject discussed in "Plausible Prejudices." There are first-rate inquiries into literary biography as now practiced, into the pack instinct among book reviewers, into novelists as fodder for the publicity and gossip mills, into the deleterious effects on fiction of the current preoccupation with explicit sexual detail. There's an especially fine attack on "the language of the supposedly educated: that of teachers, broadcasters, journalists -- people who make their living through the use of language," in which the all-too-accurate point is made that "literacy today is not imperiled by the unwashed masses but by the well-scrubbed college educated."
At one point Epstein writes, "Instead of performing the function of a coach, over the past fifteen or twenty years criticism has become a cheerleader." He is right, and all of us who have been guilty of that offense must take our punishment. But perhaps he will not object overmuch if I presume to lead three cheers -- enthusiastic and grateful ones -- for Joseph Epstein.