Literature Is Dead (According to Straight, White Guys, At Least)

A controversial Harper's essay about the waning relevance of poetry is just the latest in a long history of similar writings—whose authors share a few particular characteristics.

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Jonathan Franzen; Mark Edmundson; David Foster Wallace (Wikimedia; Mark Edmundson)

Every few months, a new "Literature is Dead/Dying" think piece crops up in high-profile media. Perhaps you've noticed. As a book nerd, I certainly have, though they've begun to bleed together: Their diagnoses of literature's ills tend to be eerily similar.

I've suspected for a while that these essays, as a category, might somehow be rooted in declining privilege: Literature has never been a majority interest in America, so I've wondered if these writers might be projecting some kind of status insecurity onto literature. Still, until recently I'd never thought to look at the identities of the authors before. And I certainly never thought I'd discover that every last author whose work I had read on the subject would be a white male—or that all but one was straight.

Take The New York Times' Verlyn Klinkenborg, who recently wrote that a "technical narrowness" is responsible for the "decline and fall of the English major." A few months prior, J. Robert Lennon derided contemporary literary fiction as "fucking boring" in Salon. Before that, Lee Siegel informed us that today's fiction is "irrelevant" because it's too professionalized, and because nonfiction got quite good. Before him, former up-and-coming author Ted Genoways warned against the "death of literary fiction" in Mother Jones a year before he was accused in national media (perhaps unfairly) of having bullied a former employee at the Virginia Quarterly Review into committing suicide. No less a luminary than Philip Roth made a splash when he said in 2009 that it was "optimistic" to think that anybody would be left reading novels in 25 years; in 2003, David Foster Wallace claimed that "every year the culture gets more and more hostile . . . it gets more and more difficult to ask people to read," which he blamed on the speed of Internet culture, lagging educational standards, and weak demand for "serious books" relative to Europe. Before all of these it was Jonathan Franzen, a novelist known for riffing on the theme of literature's failings—its inability to change anything, its over-intellectualization, and its experimentalism. Then there are creative optimists like David Shields, who expressed the belief in Reality Hunger that novelistic fiction was dead or dying and could usefully be abandoned for new frontiers. John Barth felt similarly about literary realism in 1967 when he wrote "The Literature of Exhaustion."

There is, as well, a history of academics and critics declaring literary deaths: George Steiner proclaimed "The Death of Tragedy" in 1961, Frank Kermode claimed that the paradoxical "fate of the novel, considered as a genre, is to be always dying" in 1965, and Alvin Kernan acted as the mortician at "The Death of Literature" in 1992. For a yet-further expanded scope, see Caleb Crain, who wrote in the New Yorker that not just literature but literacy itself might be endangered.

Without exception, the writers listed above are white men. They are also at least putatively straight, having married women. (Crain, who is gay, is the single exception.)

Surely there are a decent number of straight white men in the world of literature who aren't doom-and-gloom pessimists about its future. But despite wracking my brain and looking through online media and academic archives, I could find no female or non-white writers who have made comparable statements, none who have similarly contributed to this literary despair. Why?

For a possible answer, we can turn to the latest entry in the literature-is-dead genre: Mark Edmundson's "Poetry Slam," which appears in the most recent issue of Harper's magazine. It declaims modern poetry as "weak," written by "courtiers" lacking "ambition" or "fire"; poets today, Edmundson writes, "struggle" to not be "Thinkers." They are not ambitious enough: too "[reticent] about speaking in large terms, swinging for the fence," too timid "to attempt an Essay on Humanity" or to ever dare to hope, like Shelley, that their words could "change the world." At the heart of this claim is Edmundson's belief that poets are currently shackled by a political correctness that prevents them from writing as though they could speak for all humanity—and thus, keeps their poetry from becoming truly universal.

I won't add to the pile of defenses of poetry Edmundson has prompted, which are plentiful, hostile, smart, and devastating. But the undercurrent of chauvinism is troubling and worthy of comment. When Edmundson claims poetry is now "mannered," "soft," and "lovely" when it should strive for "conviction, risk, [and] power," the dichotomy is obviously gendered, with 'female' traits understood to be lacking. Edmundson makes it seem impossible that poetry could be simultaneously lovely and risky, careful and full of conviction, soft and powerful. He's convinced that poets today are sissy, girly wimps; that poets need to get buff.

(This subtext is hardly unique to Edmundson, it's worth noting: Genoways expressed a desire that writers "[s]top being so damned dainty and polite"; Franzen once wrote that Alice Munro's "almost pathological empathy for her characters" had the "costly effect of obscuring her authorial ego." David Foster Wallace once defended the practice of writing of long books against feminism, of all things, offering this weird non-sequitur on Charlie Rose: "Feminists are always saying this. Feminists are saying white males say, 'Okay, I'm going to sit down and write this enormous book and impose my phallus on the consciousness of the world.'")

The single concrete, quantifiable complaint Edmundson lodges regarding poetry is that it no longer uses the pronoun "we" or the possessive "our." This, he writes, is evidence that poetry no longer deals in universal truths. A poet that doesn't speak as everyone must not have anything big to say about the human condition. Edmundson believes poets are reluctant to write as "we" due to a "theory-induced anxiety," an academy-instilled voice in poets' heads that says:

How dare a white female poet say "we" and so presume to speak for her black and brown contemporaries? How dare a white male poet speak for anyone but himself? And even then, given the crimes and misdemeanors his sort have visited, how can he raise his voice above a self-subverting whisper?

Edmundson's point is factually untrue. Poets of all kinds still use 'we' and 'our' and 'us.' But if they do so from the perspective of a gay man, a woman, a black woman, a Hispanic man, their attempts to look at big themes are often overlooked or dismissed rather than championed.

Take Richard Blanco's inaugural poem, the only poem millions of Americans will encounter over a four year-span. It's full of "we," "us," and "our." Does Blanco, who is gay and Latino, even count for Edmundson?

Edmundson also dismisses Frank Bidart, a poet who writes in the plural and from other perspectives besides his own—including that of an anorexic woman in "Ellen West." Bidart, too, is gay, and Edmundson reduces "Ellen West" to an "isolated droplet" in which the poet "quivers at the sight of one lover at a restaurant feeding another." The actual poem contains many scenes, none of which, as far as I can tell, feature any kind of "quivering." It is also extremely relevant to a broad range of people living in a society where physical aesthetic and health are engaged in a costly, perpetual war.

Edmundson dismisses Anne Carson, too, as "opaque" and "inscrutable"—the same Anne Carson who became a hit when her compulsively readable, gay coming-of-age "novel in verse" Autobiography of Red was name-dropped on Sex and the City. When Edmundson asserts that "no well-known poet" writes about big subjects like sex, he ignores the entirety of Carson's work. Take just one example from her collection Plainwater: "Men know almost nothing about desire / they think it has to do with sexual activity / or can be discharged that way. / But sex is a substitute, like money or language."

As a woman, though, does Carson count? Do her broad statements on gender and sex not matter for Edmundson's thesis?

The argument that poets need to tackle larger subjects may appear patently fallacious, but it's frequently repeated among writers. Edmundson's claim was explicitly endorsed by poet David Bespiel at the Rumpus, and Genoways, like Edmundson, claimed that the timidity and insularity of American writers was evidenced by a (perceived) reluctance to write about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is. (The idea that literary fiction writers are not all that engaged with the world is propounded by Siegel and Lennon, as well.)

Even if poets did need to tackle larger subjects—and I'm far from convinced, since my favorite contemporary poets address themes as big as sex, death, identity, history, and time—the idea that poets should solve that problem by speaking as though they had access to everyone else's experience elides an important fact. Women and minorities don't have a proportionally fair number of opportunities to speak for themselves in the literary world. (In fact, women's industry-wide low publication rates were documented to much discussion last year by VIDA, an organization for women in the literary arts.)

Literature would hardly seem in decline to the women or ethnic or sexual minorities just now getting access to its hallowed halls. That's why Edmundson's silliest assertion is that nobody finds themselves represented by poetry anymore. "No one," he writes, "will say what Emerson hoped to say when he encountered a poet who mattered: 'This is my music, this is myself.'"

But if Edmundson only recognizes himself in older, white, male poets, it may just be because he's older, white, and male.

The irony of Edmundson's essay is that it was published three months after Tony Hoagland wrote that poetry could literally save America—also in Harper's. According to Hoagland, poetry—contemporary poetry—could be used to "build our capacity for imaginative thinking, create a tolerance for ambiguity, and foster an appreciation for the role of the unknown in human life." Worthy goals, one would think.

We can all do better than writing (or publishing) tired essays about how poetry or fiction or literature is dying because it's no longer virile and manly. These writers reveal more about their own anxieties than about literature—reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's dismissal of the female writers who outsold him as a "damned mob of scribbling women."

Let's acknowledge that straight, white males' stranglehold on American culture really is loosening. They are no longer expected to speak for everyone else. That's a good thing—but you can't expect them not to complain about it.