The 48th annual International PEN Congress, which will bring about 700 writers from 50 different countries to New York next week, is being touted as "the literary event of the year." In some sense, no doubt, it will be. After all, never will so many literary celebrities have gathered in one place at one time.
To be sure, some of the best writers in the world -- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Milan Kundera and V. S. Naipaul, for example -- have for one reason or another declined to attend. But almost everyone else of any reputation will be there: such novelists as Gunter Grass and Amos Oz, such poets as Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz, and such playwrights as Eugene Ionesco and Tom Stoppard.
The presence of all these famous writers is sure to succeed in making the congress the literary event of the year from a social point of view (one's head aches at the mere thought of so many parties). But the congress is equally sure to fail in concealing the calamitous decline in the standing of literature that had already set in when the last such congress was held in New York exactly 20 years ago, and that has accelerated at a mighty rate ever since.
As recently as the late 1950s, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say, the great books of the past served the secular culture of the age as a substitute for the Bible. They were treated, that is, with reverence and awe as a source of the deepest truths about the nature of things. So, for that matter, was the Bible itself -- not because it was taken as the word of God but because it was taken as a great work of literary art.
This attitude toward the literature of the past naturally spilled over into the way serious contemporary writers were read and discussed. They were regarded, quite simply, as claimants to the "scriptural" canon. In the early 19th century, John Keats, stung by criticism, consoled himself with the conviction that he would be "among the English poets" after his death. Up until the early 1960s, give or take a few years, the question, always hotly debated, was which new books, if any, were worthy of being admitted into the sacred company of the great works of the past.
By the time of the last International PEN Congress to be held in New York, this exalted estimate of the importance of literature was already coming under pressure from various quarters. And the literary world, instead of defending itself, actually joined in the attack.
Indeed, one of the main speakers at the 1966 congress was the late Marshall McLuhan, a one- time literary critic who had achieved fame and fortune by writing books about the alleged obsolescence of books as a result of the advent of television and other electronic media.
In addition to being declared obsolete by McLuhan and his disciples, literature was charged by radical students in the universities with being irrelevant to their concerns; and again the literary world itself responded with craven agreement.
Thus a professor of English at a major university argued against teaching the poetry of John Milton on precisely this ground of irrelevance. Yet far from being discredited in the eyes of his colleagues, he was promptly elected to the presidency of the main academic literary association.
What now certified a book as relevant was not its literary value but its usefulness to a particular political purpose: black nationalism or feminism or the revolution against Western civilization in general. As for literary merit, "good writing," declared a radical feminist, echoing a remark Lenin had made about music, was "counterrevolutionary."
Like so much else that came out of the 1960s, the campaign against literature has subsided. But like so many other institutions that suffered a similar failure of nerve in those years in the face of radical attack, the literary world has found it very hard to recapture the proud and confident sense of itself it previously enjoyed.
One reason (which admittedly has little or nothing to do with the '60s) is that since the death of Thomas Mann in 1955, no novelist of universally recognized classical stature has appeared. Nor, since the death of T. S. Eliot in 1965, has there been a poet as great as he was to take his place. Certainly there is not a single writer among us today, not even Solzhenitsyn, of whom anyone would think of saying what Chekhov said of Tolstoy at the dawn of the 20th century -- that "his work justifies all the hope and faith we put in literature."
Second (and this has everything to do with the '60s), very few writers nowadays believe, as most writers once did and as Solzhenitsyn almost alone still does, that they are engaged in the most important of all human activities. More than 150 years ago, Shelley asserted that poets were "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." The 48th International PEN Congress pathetically asks in the statement of its theme: "How does the writer seize the attention of the government?"
But there is no need to go all the way back to Shelley. As a young novelist in the '50s, Norman Mailer once announced that he would "settle for nothing less" than making a revolution in the consciousness of his time. Today, as president of the American branch of PEN, he is evidently willing to settle for nothing more than the hope that writers will "have their opinions taken as seriously by the public at large as generals and executives in the Department of Defense."
So much for the "literary event of the year."