Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.
—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

This 1999 book by British journalist Saunders is the classic account of the CIA’s semi-secret mid-20th-century sponsorship of cultural organizations, literary and political journals, artistic movements, and related ventures (including films and political campaigns) throughout the world to combat the influence of communism.

Taking the form of a narrative history, The Cultural Cold War focuses on three men who were the relays between seemingly independent artists and intellectuals and the American (as well as British) intelligence services.

Saunders’s stars are Melvin Lasky, a Bronx-born and City-College-educated militant anti-communist who became a prominent editor in Germany after World War II; Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to the more famous novelist Vladimir, a White Russian émigré and flamboyant composer who would go on to be at the center of the artists and writers knowingly or unknowingly recruited to fight communism; and Michael Josselson, descended from an Estonian Jewish family exiled after the Russian Revolution, who became an American citizen and then an intelligence and psychological warfare expert  overseeing the Agency’s domination of arts and letters.

This trio’s travails are the emotional spine of the book, and Saunders treats them with sympathy, especially Josselson, whom she seems to regard as a tragic figure, a man of cultivation and passion caught in world-historical circumstances well beyond his control. At times, I felt I was reading a sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, another vast and complex story about humanists compromised by the domineering services to which the masters of war inevitably wish to put humanism.

While The Cultural Cold War is a dispassionate book with a minimum of editorializing, Saunders seems to reserve most of her judgment not for the intelligence officers, but for the artists and intellectuals themselves. They either cynically or naively accepted CIA money laundered through philanthropic foundations (many of which were simply fronts, little more than mail drops for the transfer of funds) even as they nevertheless congratulated themselves for being on the side of a free society where the government did not interfere with cultural life.

The CIA was instituted in 1947, an outgrowth of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and it became a tentacular and autonomous bureaucracy operating unaccountably worldwide. Its motivation in waging a cultural Cold War was to recruit a “non-communist left.” Understanding the appeal of dissidence to artists and thinkers, and understanding too the pre-war attractions of communism during the 1930s, the CIA grasped that keeping rebellious intellectuals in the fold of liberalism would be crucial to ensure the success of “the American century.”

To that end, they funded a European organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the famous British liberal literary journal Encounter (edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol), and art and music exhibitions meant to emphasize the progressive side of American culture to European audiences skeptical that America had a culture at all. Exemplary here are the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionist painting as an individualist and apolitical antidote to socialist realism and of jazz and other African-American arts as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s charges of American hypocrisy in complaining about communism’s civil unfreedom.

Saunders emphasizes that the CIA really did represent the liberal side of the internal American debate over how to handle the Cold War, referring to “many romantic myths about the CIA as an extension of the American liberal literary tradition.” The men she writes about were generally horrified by the know-nothing populism of Joseph McCarthy, while a number of presidents, including Truman and Johnson (but excluding the suave would-be Pericles Kennedy), resented intellectuals, distrusted modernist art, and would have preferred a more populist cultural ethos of God and country.

The American intelligence service, she notes, was staffed by the country’s traditional Anglo-Protestant elite, an educated class who felt the responsibility of national stewardship: “Many of them hailed from a concentration in Washington, D.C., of a hundred or so wealthy families…who stood for the preservation of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian values that had guided their ancestors.” Yet their waging of the Cold War would result, ironically, in that elite’s and those values’ cultural dispossession.

Part of this book’s sly comedy comes in the intelligence elite’s sometimes uncomprehending interaction with the “new class,” primarily Jewish intellectuals, but in the background there is also the emergence of Catholic writers and black artists and postcolonial talents, all of whom the CIA recruited as a bludgeon against communism. If the literary-sociological headline of midcentury American writing is the rise of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American authors to unprecedented prominence, Saunders implies that this was in a way a project of the WASP elite, a move in the Great Game against Russian communism and for western values.

But for Saunders, this new class, particularly the New York Intellectuals, did not acquit itself well, especially those who would go on to fill the ranks of the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol seems more or less to be the book’s villain. He represents for Saunders a type of pseudo-thinker who possesses an essentially militarized mind, a man who cannot conceive of intellectual life outside of polarizing combat and enemies to slay. Saunders tends to portray Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler in the same unflattering light.

Quoted throughout the book as moral authorities, by contrast, are more independent-minded figures devoted to a nuanced conception of the literary and political life: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein.

Saunders tentatively concludes that when American intellectuals, even those who had gone along with the cultural Cold War, turned against Johnson over Vietnam, he ordered the plug to be pulled on the operation, judging that “‘liberals, intellectuals, Communists—they’re all the same.'” The CIA’s cultural activities were exposed in a California-based radical magazine called Ramparts, and later reported in the New York Times. But Saunders implies that the Agency could probably have squashed Ramparts‘s reporting or at least effectively replied to it. But they did not; they allowed their own exposure, perhaps out of a sense that the cultural Cold War had run its course. If this is true, it makes the radical magazine’s exposure of liberal intellectuals’ collaboration with the CIA itself an instrument of the Agency’s will, a familiar hall-of-mirrors effect from spy thrillers: is there anything the CIA doesn’t control?

This problem of mirroring is the thesis, ultimately, of Saunders’s book. She writes of the irony in combatting totalitarianism by exercising (or participating in) in the state’s total control over intellectual and artistic life. American and British writers and artists, in trying to fight the Soviet Union, became far too much its counterpart. This comes out, for instance, in passages where Saunders records how the Agency attempted to quash art that reflected too negatively on the U.S., recalling nothing so much as the strictures of socialist realism:

Echoing Sidney Hook’s complaints of 1949 that Southern writers reinforced negative perceptions of America, with their “novels of social protest and revolt” and “American degeneracy and inanity,” the American Committee now resolved to “steer clear of incestuous Southerners. Their work gives an exceedingly partial and psychologically colored account of our manners and morals.” […] Sales of books by Caldwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Richard Wright…slumped in this period.

Near the conclusion of the book, Saunders suggests that collaboration with state power, even in an ostensibly good political cause, is an abdication of the intellectual’s responsibility to tell the truth:

[E]thics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s states of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another in the hope of achieving a particular result. That should have been the job of politicians. The task of the intellectual should have been to expose the politician’s economy with the truth, his parsimonious distribution of fact, his defense of the status quo.

Furthermore, in a preface to the 2013 edition, Saunders offers an argument against any excessive political conviction, any use of propaganda:

My sympathies are with Voltaire, who argued that anyone who is certain ought to be certified. I believe that Milan Kundera’s “wisdom of uncertainty” is a touchstone for intellectual inquiry. The Cultural Cold War could be described as a polemic against conviction (which can be distinguished from faith or belief or values) and the strategies used to mobilize one conviction against another. In the highly politicized context of the cultural cold war, this refusal to take sides was designated, pejoratively, as relativism or neutralism. It was not a position or sensibility tolerated by either side—both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to undermining the case for neutralism, and in the theater of operations which is the focus of this book, Western Europe, that campaign devolved from very similar tactics.

The Cultural Cold War, then, argues for a rather unfashionable thesis: the autonomy of art and intellect from politics. The authority of artists and intellectuals to scrutinize and criticize their societies is based on their disinterested distance from its governing institutions. This distance is a modern phenomenon and is ever in danger of being compromised. The idea that artists do not exist to serve the church, the state, or any other collective or constituency hardly existed before the 19th century, though there are hints of it in Greek literature’s famous moments of even-handedness (The Persians, for instance) or in Shakespeare’s constitutive ambiguities.

Materially, the distance of intellectuals from power can rarely be total, especially today when so many of us are gathered under the aegis of the university. (I myself am paid in part with taxpayer funds.) Nevertheless, we give up this ideal of artistic and intellectual independence, the true meaning of “cultural freedom” betrayed in practice by the Cold Warriors, at the risk of relinquishing whatever social power we still have.

Saunders’s old-fashioned idealism, like the blurbs on the back of the book from Edward Said and Lewis Lapham, wistfully calls to mind an  “ideological formation” (to use the comrades’ jargon) that scarcely exists in this country any longer, a non-communist left worth supporting—non-communist not because it represents Cold War managerial liberalism (the “snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and union officials” Saunders quotes William S. Burroughs as denouncing) but because its exponents were civil and cultural libertarians.

And what of today? What intellectual and artistic organs are being moved as we speak by the hidden hand of the deep state? I suppose we all have our suspicions, and “none” would be an absurdly naive answer. But who knows for sure? I imagine we’ll learn more about what is really going on right now in about 30-50 years. In the meantime, to get an idea of how paranoid you should be, you should read The Cultural Cold War.


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Literary Fiction: To Self-Publish or Not?

If American literature had been left wholly in the hands of established publishers—Ticknor and Fields, for instance—Longfellow might have remained our greatest poet. But Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, had Leaves of Grass printed, at his own expense, in 1855—he even set most of the type himself. Likewise, if Virginia Woolf had continued to rely on her half-brother (and erstwhile molester) Gerald Duckworth to disseminate her fiction through his established publishing house, she might have continued the fine Forsterean realism of her early novels rather than revolutionizing modern literature with Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s OwnThe Waves, and more, all published by the Hogarth Press, so named for Hogarth House, the private residence where the Woolfs literally kept their own printing press in the dining room. Like Whitman, Woolf often set her own type, and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, contributed cover illustrations.


In her brief against the self-publishing of literary fiction, Ros Barber claims, “Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego.” I do know what she means. Self-publishing’s reputation as the preserve of cranks and pornographers is not exactly undeserved. There are problems with exalting the gatekeepers, however. Literary history offers many examples—I have given two in the above paragraph—of gatekeepers’ inability to recognize merit, either because of a too-cautious focus on supposed profitability or an excessive concern for outmoded notions of decorum. I have heard people lament that Ulysses could not be published today in the profit-driven and experiment-averse marketplace. But Ulysses was not able to be “published” the first time around either, in the sense of its being supported by a mainstream or respectable American or British press; it was printed by Paris bookseller Sylvia Beach and advertised to prospective consumers by individual subscription on a model not unlike today’s Patreon-funded art and literature.

Success in the literary—or any other—mainstream generally depends on playing by certain rules, all of them contingent, some of them more dubious than others. While I think it is juvenile to advocate “break[ing] every rule,” to quote Carole Maso (as if there would be some virtue in running stop signs!), I think that in art, where originality or at least vitality is prized, we do want an outside perspective on these fabricated rules of ours from time to time. That is where ego comes in. Like it or not, the writers we admire for their boldness and originality, their perennially urgent voices, were not shy, retiring, modest types.

LoG1856(frontis&title)_tif“Well and good,” I imagine the reply, “but you are not Walt Whitman.” No, and neither was Walt Whitman when he was hand-setting the type of his dirty free verse in a print shop in 1855: he was a nobody journalist whose idea of literature was not shared by the regnant literati, even though it would be shared—which nobody, including him, knew at the time—by the succeeding century.

Fortune favors the bold. So does misfortune, of course, but without boldness, you’ll never find out which is to be your lot.

Self-publishing today is not extremely bold. There is no type to set, no large lead letter forms to haul across an ink-stained shop floor, though in my experience you will have to endure a long night’s struggle with the maddening tab settings in MS Word. To self-publish literary fiction, though, which is to say fiction meant to be formally complex and intellectually ambitious as well as entertaining or beautiful, is a gamble. You risk associating yourself in the eyes of your social superiors in an economy of prestige with conspiracy theorists and smut-peddlers. Your self-published work is not something you would put, if you are in academia, on your CV (though I’m not sure how publishing your own work is really all that much more disreputable than having it published by your friends in whatever hip coterie you happen to belong to; but I digress). Self-publishing in any event bespeaks a certain arrogance, but unfortunately this world so discourages most human effort that without arrogance very little would ever get done, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary.

Portraits_and_Ashes_Cover_for_KindleRos Barber, writing in the British context, puts it well when she says that if you are a self-publisher, “You can forget Hay Festival and the Booker.” Reader, I’ve forgotten them already, but literary fiction does have one self-publishing success story, one Martian to boast of in prestige if not sales, in Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity. De La Pava, a devoted public defender, had an advantage I do not: a day job unconnected with literature and a consequent indifference to traditional forms of literary success. He only wanted to get the word out. Even though I probably care in my heart of hearts for the Booker more than he does, I have decided that I too just want my book in the world, on my own terms if on no one else’s. Watch this space.

David Markson, Vanishing Point

Vanishing PointVanishing Point by David Markson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, someday I will get around to the author’s masterpiece, Wittgenstein’s Mistress—as well as to those other books that are listed with wry self-reference in this book: “Wittgenstein’s Vienna. Wittgenstein’s Nephew. Wittgenstein’s Poker. Wittgenstein’s Ladder.” Until then, I have read this, my second of Markson’s late quartet of assemblage-novels; this is the third in the series, and I am so far reading them backwards.

These books belong to what we might call “the fun avant-garde.” Like the works of Borges and Calvino, Anne Carson and César Aira, they imply a whole raft of theoretical verbiage on the slippage of signification, the inadequacy of representation, the fallacies of plot and character, and all the rest of it, but are nevertheless so pleasurable to read—often more pleasurable than conventional fictions—that the implied museum tags spelling out the works’ conceptual premises come to seem irrelevant.

Markson’s late “novels” are collections of facts, generally focusing on the lives of artists, with occasional interpolations by the fictive compiler. They are not mere lists, however. Motifs emerge, patterns form, and a portrait of the arranger coalesces from the tiny marks of each fact-freighted sentence in a kind of informational pointilism. While Markson seems to have worked only with notecards and a typewriter, these fictions nevertheless feel like very Internet-era artworks, recreating the experience of “the stream”—a cascade of disparate but interrelated bits and bytes of narrative and controversy from which it is difficult to turn away, difficult to turn to narratives and arguments in patiently logical sequence, or to more languorous and meditative aesthetic experiences. That Markson did not use computers at all, and even died before “the stream” reached its present force and flow, suggests that “artist’s intuition” deserves to be proverbial.

The social status of artists is Vanishing Point‘s main preoccupation. Again and again, the novel lists the indignities suffered by artists and thinkers (and sometimes also scientists and athletes), badly remunerated and insulted during their lives, often not born to the upper classes but to illiterate workers or impoverished peasants or enslaved people, then celebrated once they are dead by hypocritical institutions:

Dostoievsky wrote The Eternal Husband in Dresden.
And had to borrow the money to mail it to his publisher in St. Petersburg.

Two years earlier, while writing The Idiot:
They demand from me artistic finish, the purity of poetry, and they point to Turgenev and Goncharov. Let them take a look at the conditions under which I work.

Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread.

If this were all, it would be awfully self-serving. And there is another strain in the book, a focus on the Holocaust and slavery and misogyny and the present depredations of political Islam, which perhaps might represent the author’s (whether Markson’s or his fictional surrogate’s) attempt to ally artists with the victims of oppression. Sightings of The Wandering Jew recur throughout the book, suggesting an alliance of the artist with this figure (a hallmark of modernism, as readers of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood will recall).

However, the work is saved from self-celebration by a third vein of facts, representing artists and intellectuals at their notorious worst: Schopenhauer making misogynistic pronouncements and Degas painting misogynistic pictures, Chopin and Dostoevsky spouting anti-Semitic slurs, Chaucer settling a rape case and Milton abusing his daughters, Heidegger and Hamsun praising Hitler, Burroughs living as a phony radical on family money and Marx enjoying bourgeois comforts and hypocrisies without having ever seen the inside of factory; and artist after artist after artist hurling the most base insults at their peers (sickly, ugly, impotent; bum, pig, toad, etc.).

In a way, the novel champions artists by recording every aspect of their frailty and vulnerability, including their moral weaknesses and political misdeeds. So fragile, so miserably human, so in need of more support. But also, this salacious gossip, delivered with these novels’ prevailing deadpan tone of drolly surprised terseness, simply makes Markson all the more entertaining. It is hard to overstate how much more of a page-turner Vanishing Point is than some kind of door-stopping fantasy would be; and it is blessedly short too:

A good book is twice as good if it is short.
Said Baltasar Gracián.

In one respect, Vanishing Point is more traditional than it appears: it really does have a protagonist and a plot. A set of scattered reflections about “Author”—left like breadcrumb clues through the forest of information, presumably by Author himself—reveal that we are reading a collage assembled by an aged writer as he slowly succumbs to some kind of degenerative neurological disease terminating in dementia, the “vanishing point” of the novel’s title. Like Eliot’s or Woolf’s or Beckett’s work, Markson’s is less ideological than are the theorists about the inadequacy of language and representation: these potentially dry and arid post-Niezschean philosophies become occasions for the deepest pathos. The minimal tools and maximal restrictions of this sort of fiction make its elementary narrative—”I can’t go on. I must go on,” “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” not to mention “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”—almost more moving because readers have to discover the story for themselves. And, in tracing the patterns in the information that Author has assembled, we discover his character just as it is about to be lost in the haze of illness and death. What comes through is his resentment at his neglect, but also his amusement at his faults; his anger at violence and exploitation, and his awareness of his complicity in them. It is a final self-portrait of a dying artist, created under great duress. Vanishing Point summons the most advanced technique on behalf of the most old-fashioned heroism.

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On the Survival of Writers’ Reputations

Ted Gioia, introducing his reconsideration of John Fowles:

Here’s the truest test. Wait until ten years after their death, and see if anyone still talks about their books.

You need a decade for the hype to dissipate, for the eulogies to fade from readers’ memories. Class reading lists have now been updated. The old book reviewers have been replaced. No publicist or agent is working the room. The chatter at fashionable cocktail parties has moved on to other books. Only a great author can still hold readers after a decade’s absence.

And what does this measure tell us? Well, Saul Bellow (died in 2005) has clearly fallen from grace. Even a centenary celebration and publication of the first volume of a major biography couldn’t hide the defensive tone of Bellow’s advocates. When Bellow’s name is mentioned nowadays, it is as often to dismiss or criticize as to praise. I question the fairness of this turn-of-events—I rank Bellow as one of finest authors of his generation—but can’t deny that his reputation has taken a huge hit.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut (died 2007) will certainly survive the ten-year-test. He is not only read and quoted, but is still treated as an iconic figure of the counterculture.

I do not agree that ten years is enough to assess a whole authorial reputation—often writers become classics when they are discovered to have something their grandchildren or great-grandchildren need, a need their parents never felt. Shakespeare was admired, with qualifications, in the eighteenth century, but canonized and even worshipped by the Romantics. If I had to guess, I would say that in the long run, the difficult and unpleasant moralist Saul Bellow—who wrote some of the greatest English prose of his century and whose occasional or even structural ugliness came from a genuine, besmirching engagement with the real—will live on while a more historically local and facilely correct-thinking figure such as Vonnegut (not that I have ever been able to read him) will eventually fade. As Auden famously wrote in his elegy for Yeats,

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives,
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

Auden eventually cancelled these stanzas from his elegy, finding them too politically smug, too full of self-righteous leftism. But, by reminding progressive readers that the reactionaries Kipling, Claudel, and Yeats are superb writers, they make an internal critique of self-righteous leftism and are valuable as such in the present. We cannot be reminded too much, if we are writers or literary critics, that politics fades but literature remains. No matter how many times I read the information, I can never remember if Dante was a Guelph or a Ghibelline. Maybe in a thousand years no one will be able to recall whether Bellow was a feminist or an anti-feminist! If that shocks you, think how shocked Dante would be that we are not at all touched by his partisanship but think only of his imagery.

(There is, of course, the nearly Chestertonian paradox that a political or religious passion seems to produce greater literature than does a merely art-for-art’s-sake posture—the religiously reactionary Dostoevsky and the politically progressive George Eliot are grander figures than the aesthetes Pater and Wilde, and, for that matter, the dangerously irrationalist Yeats is better than the sweetly reasonable Auden—but that is a topic for another day. I touched on it in this piece on Cynthia Ozick’s essays.)

By the way, Gioia makes a convincing case for John Fowles; I plan at least to read The French Lieutenant’s Woman someday. (Almost certainly before I get to Paul Claudel.) I do recall my father once telling me that, sucked in by the Fowles hype in the 1970s, he stayed up all night to read The Magus and still had no idea what it was about in the morning! But that is paying the novel a compliment in my book, given that Pater’s “addition of strangeness to beauty” remains my literary ideal.

Don’ts for Journals, Editors, and Agents

No doubt due to the creeping horrors of the slush pile—agrammatical erotica, all-caps conspiracy theories, and suchlike—every journal, editor, and agent in the literary land has published a list of don’ts for writers who want to submit their work. However “we’re-all-in-this-together” such lists are meant to sound, they generally have a scolding school-like tone, either in officious (“this is for your own good”) or smarmy (“I’m your badass best friend”) modes. Again, perfectly understandable, if occasionally annoying.

Because of the political imbalances involved in the concept of “literary citizenship”—publishers are the government and writers are the people (and readers, perhaps, are the chimerical foreign menace justifying the government’s policies)—few writers have ventured a list of submission don’ts for journals, editors, and agents. I think it is a risk worth taking, though, in the name of fair play. The absence of such a list is one I am qualified to fill, since I have been submitting endlessly for the last four years and have in that time mentally compiled a list of petty grievances. So here is that petty little list—take heed, my literary lords and masters!


1. DON’T charge submission fees. If you can’t afford to run a literary journal or a small press, then do not start one.

2. DON’T request all sorts of particular submission requirements or make writers fill out forms on your website. Be realistic: we are all submitting to a lot of places and therefore have our cover letters and manuscripts ready to go. We don’t need to waste  time distributing our cover letters over some weird survey-style form on your site. Just use email or Submittable like everybody else.

3. DON’T get so hung up on formatting at the submission stage. As long as writers have adopted a reasonable approximation of the traditional MS. format and haven’t typed their stuff in wingdings, you should be able to read it. If you accept the work, then you can be picky—and writers, grateful to be published, will almost certainly oblige.

4. DON’T demand that writers read your journal, the titles you publish, or the authors you represent, and don’t guilt-trip writers for their inevitable failure to do so. The literary landscape is far too expansive (and expensive) for this even to be possible. I would need another lifetime to read the work published by journals or publishers I have submitted to in the last half-decade, though I always read the publications of those who have actually accepted my material. Just be clear about the genres you want in your submission guidelines and trust that writers will take an interest in your “brand” after you offer them the opportunity to become a part of it—not before.

5. DON’T get too creative in your “what we would like to see” paragraph. Submission guidelines should not be a blank canvas for your lyrical or extreme language: “We want stories that will tear out our beating hearts and hold them, steaming and dripping, before our fascinated, appalled eyes” etc. If you list authors you like, try to make the list thematically or stylistically or generically coherent and not just an assemblage of figures everybody knows to be important. Finally, for God’s sake, remember that you are involved in literature: don’t be like the one agent I came across who said she was seeking “The Wire or Breaking Bad, only as a book.”

6. DON’T require exclusivity. Just accept simultaneous submissions. You can make demands on writers’ time when you are compensating them for the fulfillment of said demands.

7. DON’T spam writers’ email or social networks for the rest of time just because they submitted to you once. At best, your messages will end up going straight to the spam folder (or being ignored on Facebook); at worst, you will enrage or demoralize writers you rejected three years ago by sending them announcement after announcement about readings that take place in repurposed warehouses in cities they do not live in.

8. DON’T forget to conduct the editorial part of the transaction reasonably. I have had journals not edit my work at all nor even invite me to give it a last look before publication; I have had journals make changes without consulting me first. Both of these practices are bad. Good practice: read the work you intend to publish, make a list of proposed changes, send them to the writer, and be prepared for a cordial correspondence that may involve substantive discussion over aesthetic choices. (And, if you truly want to publish literature, you might be flexible about your house style: for serious writers, the presence or absence of a comma may be an artistic or even a philosophical matter rather than a simple question to address to the style guide.)

9. DON’T neglect the most important part of the writer/publisher bargain: promotion. If you accept my work, you should be plastering my name all over the Internet, to the best of your ability. If you don’t do so, then I might begin to wonder why I didn’t just put my piece on my blog or self-publish it on Amazon.

10. DON’T blow smoke about “literary community” and the like. We all long ago accepted that most of you can’t or won’t pay us and that all you can offer is a promotional apparatus or a CV line, but please don’t cloak this sad fact in some vacuous rhetoric out of the salutatorian’s graduation speech.

Well, that’s my list. Feel free to add to it in the comments; also, if this gets me expelled permanently from the literary community, please announce that in the comments too!

On Authenticity Considered as a Standard of Literary Value

Tim Parks, whose essays tend to bemuse me, as if he and I were not living in the same universe, nevertheless says much that I agree with and find refreshing in his latest, “In Search of Authenticity.” There he defends authenticity—”Are these real concerns?”—as a standard of literary value. But at the risk of becoming a figure of tedious reasonableness (I am really not), I think Parks is running together several distinct issues: 1. the question of intensity (textual evidence of obsession); 2. the question of ambivalence and ambiguity (textual evidence of conflict); 3. the role of the author in the reading of the text (if we have textual evidence, why do we need biographical evidence?).

But first, let me laud Parks for praising authorial obsession. I have never understood complaints about writers who revisit and rework material. First of all, it is a charge only ever leveled at fiction writers; even poets and filmmakers seem to escape censure, to say nothing of painters. Did anyone ever ask Cézanne, “How many times are you going to paint that fucking fruit?” Theme-and-variation is half the pleasure of art. I have always welcomed new reports from my favorite living authors on their long nights’ struggle with what haunts them: before his retirement, I wanted Philip Roth to tell me even more about the decay of the intelligent male’s body, and now I want Toni Morrison to bring new secrets from the collision of male pride with female will, and I look forward to Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest vision of the buried emotional life, and—since Parks wants to talk about genre fiction too—I wish to see Alan Moore’s newest picture of mastery struggling against chaos.

But obsession cannot really be a qualitative standard, it seems to me. Any old jerk can be obsessed with something without those obsessions issuing in great fiction. I am interested in the obsessions of great writers because they are great writers: they transform their obsessions into a beautiful and fascinating and intelligent experience we both can have. Obsession without aesthetic merit is exhibited throughout the Internet, no doubt in the porn above all.

Parks seems to recognize the above, so he shifts the argument a bit, making the claim that literary greatness is defined as an unresolved or conflictual element manifested within texts. He gives his own examples, and I could use the authors I named above to provide others: is not Alan Moore, for instance, invested at the level of literary form in just the types of airless mastery (think of all those nine-panel grids) that he condemns as fascistic at the level of his works’ political content? and do Toni Morrison’s novels not apologize for and sometimes glamorize abusive and even murderous male figures in a way that would seem to belie those novels’ ostensible feminist commitments? Yes and yes, and that is why their work fascinates more than merely propositional or propagandistic texts ever could. We all want conflicting things, often harmful or unethical things; none of us has discovered the right way to live. Such a defense of textual ambiguity and ambivalence will be derided, I suppose, as Cold War liberalism or bourgeois weakness, but it has a longer and less PC pedigree than that—I am only repeating Nietzsche, himself adapting Schopenhauer, for whom art arrested into momentarily fixed images the primal and roiling flux at the heart of life.

But if conflict internal to the text becomes our qualitative standard, then why does the author have to be brought into it? If we lost the name and biography of Dickens, to use one of Parks’s examples, but retained his novels, we would still have a set of riven meditations on alienation and belonging. That is, those “concerns” would be there on the page to read, even if the author’s biography were unknown. There are great works, on Parks’s terms, without definitely named authors (from the possibly collective Homeric epics to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) as well as great novels that stand more or less alone in their authors’ oeuvres (Wuthering Heights, Invisible Man); and then there is Shakespeare, famously everyone and no one, about whom we do not even know enough to establish beyond doubt his political and religious convictions.

In the end, the authenticity Parks seeks—a manifest sign within a novel that conflict remains the essence of existence, and that nothing has been settled or finalized—is to be found in the work of great writers, not in their biographies. Likewise its lack: Parks cites WIlliam Giraldi’s first novel, Busy Monsters, as an inauthentic book, an example of empty virtuosity, a piece of fine writing without urgency. I would not put it quite so strongly, but the judgment is ultimately not wrong. Giraldi’s second novel, however, is a far more formidable affair, not to be casually dismissed: Hold the Dark is a fine and powerful novel by anyone’s standards. Looking at Giraldi’s two novels together will help us see that the two works share themes and concerns—that Giraldi is in fact obsessed with the tensions between a settled and orderly and ethical domestic life, on the one hand, and, on the other, the amoral and even rapacious claims of wildness and nature. But only the second novel treats these themes with the “authenticity” Parks demands. Giraldi’s concerns need concern only him; from the point of view of art, his second novel matters much more than his first because of how beautifully and richly it bodies forth those concerns, so compellingly that they become my own. Focusing on the author’s life rather than the work may in fact be an evasion of art’s ability to make claims on us; we can say, “Well, that is just his concern,” even when the concern has leapt off the page and shown itself in our own lives through fiction’s power to disclose more reality. For instance: I have never read Eugene O’Neill, but he must have been on to something to inspire John Lahr’s rebarbative snideness.

The authenticity of art, then, has little to do with the authenticity of the artist. To confuse the two categories is to invite a moral evaluation of persons rather than an aesthetic evaluation of texts—and I believe that we writers have enough problems (no money, for one) without having to carry that burden too.

Robert D. Richardson, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process

First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative ProcessFirst We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure I got what I was supposed to from this book, even as it is a book that argues for the rights of readers to get whatever they need from their reading. I think it is self-help for writers, less a collection of technical recommendations than a set of inspiring reflections on why we bother and how good it feels when it goes right. Unless you have a soul of steel, such books are necessary from time to time, and this works well in that genre. The quotations from Emerson, which take up much of the text and come as much from obscurer sources (his letters and journals) as from his very famous essays, are gratifyingly eloquent and energetic.

My favorite set of Emersonian reflections concerns the art of reading, or not reading. Emerson believed one could read too much, so that it obscured one’s own insights and sensibilities; he also thought it did not matter much what one read as long as one read it with imaginative insight and intensity. He is sometimes credited with coining the phrase “creative writing,” but he did so in a passage contrasting it with “creative reading,” to the latter’s benefit. Richardson writes:

The logic behind Emerson’s apparent disparaging of reading is the logic of a person who expects his reading to be useful above all. “Do not attempt to be a great reader,” Emerson tells Woodbury. “And read for facts and not only by the bookful. You must know about ownership in facts. What another sees and tells you is not yours, but his.” The reader is take only what really suits him. Emerson tells Woodbury that he ought to “learn to divine books, to feel those that you want without wasting much time over them. Remember you must know only the excellent of all that has been presented. But often a chapter is enough. The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.”

Not scholarly advice (maybe American scholarly advice), but then the history of literature and thought probably bears Emerson out in this. I am often struck by how little the great writers read of even their supposed sources. Joyce barely read Aquinas before getting an aesthetic theory out of him, and Borges’s learning was “literally encyclopedic,” which is to say that he got much of it out of encyclopedias (see here). Even among critics or scholars or philosophers, Emerson’s recommendation may have the ring of truth; I have known distinguished commenters on literary theory and the like who have said things like, I can’t read Heidegger or Adorno means nothing to me, even though they publish professionally on topics in those thinkers’ traditions. Nobody can read everything, and all of us have gathered knowledge and impressions from disparate sources (speaking of Adorno, have I read every word of Minima Moralia?—not at all, and yet I feel I know it). I recall that the aforementioned Borges compared Ulysses to a city, which one may know intimately even though one never visits certain of its streets. It is difficult to imagine two more different thinkers who were also contemporaries, but Schopenhauer curiously agreed with Emerson on this topic; then Nietzsche, who may be regarded as the monstrous offspring of Emerson and Schopenhauer, cheerfully agreed with them both. While the disparagement of reading is slightly dangerous advice for a writer to give—nobody wants to defend ignorance, for one thing, and for another why should writers give readers any more excuses to ignore their works?—it is probably sound.

Richardson provides something more for the reader than Emerson’s edgy metaphysical cheerfulness, however. While this is a very short book and not at all an attempt at historical or social reflection, it indirectly reveals how much of what we take for granted when we discuss creative writing comes straight from Emerson,* from the ethos of his double-sided belief in the practical and the transcendent, or in craft and experience as royal roads to the godhead. So much of the pedagogy of creative writing is summed up in this book as Emerson’s wisdom:

1. the emphasis on the writer as expressive being and the consequent demotion of tradition as a deciding factor in his or her education;

2. the focus on the artistic process rather than the artistic product;

3. the belief that the near-at-hand is more appropriate subject matter than the exotic (i.e., the advice to write about yourself and your times, rather than ancient Egypt or outer space);

4. the aesthetic standard of authenticity, both of the writer’s personal experience and of the work, considered as the unfinished and unfinishable result of an undetermined process;

5. the elevation of the sentence, rather than the paragraph, as the smallest indivisible constituent element of a literary composition;

6. the faith in the writer/reader transaction as a humanistic enterprise of sympathetic exchange;

and probably some I’m forgetting. Whether he meant to or not, Richardson has written an encrypted intellectual history of creative writing as an autonomous discipline, with Emerson as its founder. As such, his book may function as a blessedly brief and suggestive companion to the exhaustive scholarly version, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era—a book I have “read” only in Emersonian glances, but with which Emerson emboldens me to say I am nevertheless quite familiar.

There are very good arguments against the pragmatic/transcendental drive toward experience and away from tradition, made by writers as various as T. S. Eliot and Elif Batuman; these writers worry that the process-driven, learning-averse method of writing will issue in compositions of melodramatic banality, which unknowingly repeat cliches and moreover imply an irrationalist identity politics opposed to all forms of order or universalism. There is also a way to reconcile the two positions, as suggested in the works of Harold Bloom as well as his feminist redactors, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar most clearly, all of whom see experience and tradition as dialectical; on this theory, part of the artist’s necessary apprenticeship is the processual experience of wandering in the wilds of tradition. This latter thesis makes the most sense to me; but Emerson’s rhetoric, in its visionary intensity, challenges all my presuppositions. Harold Bloom, by the way, called Emerson “the mind of America.” I doubt that can be true, but this interesting little book does give some evidence for Bloom’s claim.

*And from some of his predecessors and contemporaries too, of course, such as Wordsworth or Thoreau or Whitman.

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In Defense of Emerson: Reading for the Lustres

Before I read Micah Mattix’s Weekly Standard essay in dispraise of Emerson, “Where’s Waldo?” I was curious to see what line of attack would be pursued. Critics on the left commonly assail Emerson for his individualism, for those features of his rhetoric we might call Reaganesque (“Are they my poor?”). But Emerson was a metaphysical radical, a believer that the unity of the world-spirit transpired through the endless flux of the phenomenal world. This belief may be used against the presumed petrifaction of the welfare state, but it also forbids advocacy for hereditary privileges and traditional institutions of all types. Emerson, in fact, would not be opposed to his own demotion from the literary canon, believing that the veneration of old books and dead traditions was an intolerable idolatry and that each age had to speak in its own voice. Would Mattix give us the conservative case against Emerson, something like what we find implied in Poe and Hawthorne?

Not really. Mattix lays out mostly neutral complaints. Emerson is philosophically confused, he charges, imprecise in his use of terms and occasionally banal in his gospel of uplift. The Emerson admirer will reply that he is not merely contradictory but dialectical and synthetic, and that his upbeat sentences are always tempered by recognition of experience’s real pains and travails. Mattix further claims that Emerson was less important within the Transcendental movement than were practical social reformers, more of whom should be added to the Norton Anthology(!), to which I would frankly reply, in the spirit of “Self-Reliance,” Who cares about practical social reform? We’re talking about literature! I am not generally an advocate for neoconservative political policy, so the value for me of neoconservative organs like The Weekly Standard lies in their cultural writers’ general adherence to the common sense, not at all common among my good friends and colleagues on the intellectual left, that undergraduate literary anthologies ought not to be clogged with the writings of practical social reformers.

The closest Mattix gets to any ideological agenda is his scornful observation that the deconstructionists led the Emerson revival of the late twentieth century, when the poetics of Eliot, Pound, and co. were overthrown in English departments to make way for a Romantic restoration, on the theory that the Romantics did not seek in their writings the formal and political closure pursued by the bards of New Criticism. True enough, but what does this prove on its own? Emerson is a romanticist and not a classicist, and deconstruction is romanticist and not classicist, but surely we knew that already.

I want to answer Mattix only because I love Emerson. Not as a philosopher or politician, but as a writer. So I will not argue on ideological grounds that Emerson is right and somebody else is wrong, but rather that his writings give narrative and lyric pleasures, the pleasures of experience made manifest in beautiful or memorable or fit language, which is why he is still read as an artist in prose almost two centuries after his time, while the less literarily gifted members of his circle, whatever their contributions to social life, are not so regarded. Any real classic has to strike the contemporary reader as a contemporary book, one that still speaks; Emerson still addresses me, and I want to make some notes as to how and why.

One of Emerson’s looser recommendations, infuriating to a certain temperament (to me in certain moods), is his advice not to read systematically but rather for insight and pleasure:

I read Proclus, and sometimes Plato, as I might read a dictionary, for a mechanical help to the fancy and the imagination. I read for the lustres, as if one should use a fine picture in a chromatic experiment, for its rich colors. ‘Tis not Proclus, but a piece of nature and fate that I explore. It is a greater joy to see the author’s author, than himself. (“Nominalist and Realist”)

While this is not my general practice, it is how I read Emerson, and how his writing invites us to read it. But for the sake of this defense, I will look closely at one essay, “Circles” (1841), and try to explain what rich colors I gather from it.

Emerson writes arresting psychology, by which I mean vivid descriptions of inner states we all know. He is as good at this as any novelist, as good as Tolstoy or George Eliot. In “Circles,” he portrays the evanescence of belief and enthusiasm as we go through life:

The man finishes his story,—how good! how final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo, on the other side rises also a man and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere. Then already is our first speaker not man, but only a first speaker. His only redress is forthwith to draw a circle outside of his antagonist.

Just turn from Emerson to his critics among his contemporaries to see this truth enacted. Read Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse” to watch self-reliance get turned into a sick joke; read Melville’s “Benito Cereno” to see the benign political meliorism of the Boston Brahmin Emersonian progressive, figured in the person of Captain Delano, as an indecent insensibility to the omnipresence of oppression and terror; read Dickinson’s poems for all the wry and mocking doubt of a daughter who questions her earthly and heavenly fathers’ ultimate benevolence. When Emerson has finished his story, other stories circumscribe it.

Our moods do not believe in each other. To-day I am full of thoughts and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world: but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.

This hardly requires comment. My older writings seem written by a stranger. I do not even know any longer the facts I seemed to know when I wrote them. What happened? We are creatures of mood. Is this good or bad? It just is. Emerson’s faith that all things conduce toward unity and the good is more than empty optimism, because it allows him to describe everything in the neutral and nonjudgmental terms we associate with the greatest writers of poetry and fiction, with Shakespeare and Keats and Dostoevsky. In this sense, he contributed to making the essay a literary form that could stand without embarrassment beside the others and do in its own way what they also do: create nuance, ambiguity, dialogue, tension, conflict, and drama.

Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations. The only sin is limitation. As soon as you once come up with a man’s limitations, it is all over with him. Has he talents? has he enterprises? has he knowledge? It boots not. Infinitely alluring and attractive was he to you yesterday, a great hope, a sea to swim in; now, you have found his shores, found it a pond, and you care not if you never see it again.

Here we might raise a moral objection against Emerson’s idealism. Is this not a counsel to various forms of infidelity? Possibly. Part of Emerson’s synthetic philosophy is the reconciliation of opposites. If you believe this, then it is really foolish to run around in search of novelty, because the limit you perceive in another is in your perception and not in the person you behold. On the other hand, feeling that you have come to the end of someone is a real feeling, not to be moralized away, and as a real feeling it deserves literary expression. In passages like this, Emerson gives us more than daily-planner uplift, because he recognizes that all the philosophy in the world cannot make life simple or nice.

Each new step we take in thought reconciles twenty seemingly discordant facts, as expressions of one law. Aristotle and Plato are reckoned the respective heads of two schools. A wise man will see that Aristotle Platonizes. By going one step farther back in thought, discordant opinions are reconciled by being seen to be two extremes of one principle, and we can never go so far back as to preclude a still higher vision.

This is one of the high points of learning, very crisply described. When you understand for the first time that seeming opposites in philosophy or politics or aesthetics share common assumptions that you can contest, thus challenging both opposed ideologies at once—that creates a vertiginous and even addictive (witness the career of Zizek) pleasure in the student. When I was an undergraduate, I understood deconstruction to be an unremitting attack on literary values, including those of the American canon; only later did the above insight, that Romanticism and deconstruction shared several key commitments, come to me in a flash, a flash Emerson depicts so well here as the sudden attainment of a higher perspective.

I might also mention Emerson’s metaphors, which he sees as the essence of writing, since they embody the unifying vision that perceives the spiritual whole behind fragmentary phenomena. Mattix offers some bad or mixed ones; I will give you a good one (two, actually, but adjacent rather than mixed, unless one really is a pedant):

Our culture is the predominance of an idea which draws after it all this train of cities and institutions. Let us rise into another idea; they will disappear. The Greek sculpture is all melted away, as if it had been statues of ice: here and there a solitary figure or fragment remaining, as we see flecks and scraps of snow left in cold dells and mountain clefts in June and July.

If the thesis of Emerson’s essay is true, if life is a series of concentric circles rippling out to infinity without end, then why not leave Emerson behind, as Mattix suggests, and head out for the receding shore without him? Emerson admits the charge:

And thus, O circular philosopher, I hear some reader exclaim, you have arrived at a fine pyrrhonism, at an equivalence and indifferency of all actions, and would fain teach us that if we are true, forsooth, our crimes may be lively stones out of which we shall construct the temple of the true God.

But he also says this:

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

And if the most charged literary language of the past forms an inspiring contrast with the language of the present, then that too will surprise us. Emerson always surprises me; as an old professor of mine says, sometimes he sounds like grandpa, but then he shocks you. Perhaps he sounds like grandpa so he can shock us. A classic is a book from the past that does not seem to belong to the past, that partakes in the endless circular renewal of nature Emerson describes, that flowers again in the spring. For me at least, Emerson is a classic.