While reading “Making It” — Norman Podhoretz’s depiction of ideological combat and Manhattan’s cocktail circuit contentiousness, recently re-released by the New York Review of Books for its 50th anniversary — I was struck by how much more interesting the arguments of New York City’s literati in the 1950s and 1960s were in comparison to today. And, in an odd way, how sadly similar some of our sillier fights feel.
“Making It” is Podhoretz’s first memoir, a recounting of his struggle for recognition — and, perhaps more important, his desire for recognition in a culture that shunned ambition, considering it, at best, gauche. As Terry Teachout noted in his new introduction, those who know Podhoretz only for being one of the progenitors of neoconservativism may be surprised to find that “Making It” “is not really a political book at all, save by indirection. It is what it purports to be, a book about what it means to be ambitious in America.” And yet, as a literary critic writing for Partisan Review and Commentary, that often meant muddling through the day’s big political questions, as well as wading through the prose of those who couldn’t separate a work’s politics from its literary merit.
“Making It” remains vibrant 50 years on because of the bold names that dominate the narrative and the odd ways in which they interact. Podhoretz praises his onetime teacher, former Columbia professor Lionel Trilling, an academic and critic who was “exactly in tune with the temper of a period which found Tocqueville a more reliable guide than Marx to the American reality.” Later in the book, we learn that Podhoretz’s connection to Trilling was used as evidence by Saul Bellow that Trilling had put Podhoretz up to slamming Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” — a book Trilling himself had praised! This sort of bizarre, convoluted intrigue gives the memoir a propulsive readability despite many of its characters being long dead. It has an almost gossipy tone that, as Louis Menand noted in an unduly harsh look back at the book for the New Yorker, would damage the writer’s standing among his friends.
In addition to being a fascinating historical document of an all-too-brief intellectual moment, “Making It” is also a strident invocation of the power of criticism. It’s hard to imagine a more succinct plea for the need to take artistic analysis seriously: “The idea that wrong critical judgments do not really matter means that the literature in question does not really matter, that it lacks the power to shape the spirit of the age, to mold and extend consciousness, to heighten a sense of reality which would otherwise be dulled, to make order where there would otherwise be disorder, to bring life to the mind and imagination where there would otherwise be illness and death.”
However, Podhoretz’s criticism from this period also serves as a reminder that some of the more annoying critical tics never truly go away. In an essay on Edmund Wilson collected in “Doings and Undoings,” Podhoretz notes with approval that Wilson, writing in the 1930s, “spoke out repeatedly against the tendency to judge a work of literature by its ideological content.” Podhoretz himself, in “Making It,” would lament “the curious tyranny that taste came at some point to exercise over the souls of educated Americans, leaving them with the uneasy conviction that by the fruits of their aesthetic sensibilities would they be known as saved (superior) or damned (crude and philistine) … taste tends to become a substitute for politics as an area for the testing of virtue.”
We deal with something similar but, perversely, almost reversed today: Politics has in a very real way become a substitute for aesthetic consideration as a means of demonstrating virtue. But it’s a narrow, shallow definition of politics. This is why a writer for a site such as Vice can suggest, with a straight face, that, actually, “Predator” is good because “the two most intolerant characters (Shane Black’s misogynistic Hawkins and Ventura’s homophobic Cooper) are the first to meet their grisly fates” or why a writer for a site such as Pajiba feels the need to spend the vast majority of a 197-word capsule write-up of “Boyhood” defending its very right to exist because it focuses on a white dude. It’s why critics feel the need to highlight and defend the importance of “Wonder Woman,” propelling the film to a 93 percent fresh Rotten Tomatoes score even as aesthetically identical films suffer far worse fates.
The raucous intellectual debates of Podhoretz’s time — between communists and anti-communists, hawkish liberals and peaceniks and nascent conservatives — have been replaced by an overarching ideology that one could call checklistism, an effort to reduce qualitative analysis to little more than an analysis of how many boxes it ticks off: Is a work of art made by someone of the correct race or gender or orientation; does it run afoul of cultural appropriation or whitewashing or whatever faddish notion Tumblr and Twitter are obsessing over on any given day? There’s little room for nuance, little concern for the meaning of a work.
The heady critical days of “Making It” may come again. They probably won’t. It’s certainly easier to reduce art to a checklist. And in an age where 140-character missives have replaced 1,400-word essays, easier is generally what counts.