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The Emperor’s Tailors: Lit-Crit as Orientalism

In “A Reader’s Manifesto” (August, 2001 Atlantic Monthly), his briefly infamous attack on the American literary establishment, B. R. Myers made the argument that gatekeepers of that establishment (university professors, literary critics, reviewers) define for the rest of us what is and what is not literature according to a narrow, ideologically-driven view that has nothing to do with the traditional meaning of the word, and they do so with an arrogant contempt for the common reader.

I say “briefly infamous” because Myers’s essay was itself attacked from every quarter with a vehemence that seemed all out of proportion to what those same critics insisted was the author’s insignificance and lack of credentials. They even accused him of being insufficiently Reader's_Manifesto_coverAmerican, and at least one noted establishment figure refused to ride the same elevator with Myers. But then he was assigned to oblivion, the most effective way to silence dissent.

The article received a more sympathetic hearing in the U.K. and Australia. Reading the reactions there, one gets the sense that it provided a refreshing gust of truth that the lit-crit establishment in those places dared not express on their own. I noticed, for instance that following the publication of “A Reader’s Manifesto” the Man Booker Prize in Britain announced that future nominees would be selected partly with an eye toward reader accessibility. The American penchant for post-modern French theory probably never struck as deep in the UK, and some must have resented having to follow an American lead unquestioningly.

My reading of what Myers says in his essay — as well as in his short book of the same name from which the article was extracted (A Reader’s Manifesto, Melville House 2002) — boils down to this: The evaluation of fiction writing has been hijacked by an ideology that defines literature in a way that has nothing to do with traditional values like engaging characters, interesting plot or even simple entertainment. In fact, any writing that celebrates these elements is categorized as sub-literary or “genre.” The result of this hijacking has been the canonization of a mediocrity lavishly praised for what anyone with common sense would regard as obscurity, wordiness, and plain old-fashioned dullness.

But you couldn’t read the attacks on either Myers’s argument or his person without wondering not whether his attackers were wrong or right but what could be the reason for so much anger. True, he was questioning the fundamentals of the establishment’s esthetic, but he was doing so in a reasonable way. Why the campaign to discredit him personally? Why the attempt to question his nationality? Why the refusal of one of the better of their bunch, Michael Dirda, to even address the issues Myers raised, or apparently even to read his article?

These people had to have felt deeply threatened to react that way — threatened the way a religious fundamentalist feels threatened by a creed or life style that seems to flaunt the basic tenets of their faith. Myers seemed beyond the kind of fraternal dialogue they could accord to one of their own who had strayed into the foothills of heresy. He was Moloch, the Evil One — and a threat to their bread and butter, to boot. To allow him a legitimate voice was to open an artery in a closed system they had spent decades stitching together. Closed systems, whether physical like our bodies or social like the Soviet Union or the Catholic church, cannot sustain that kind of breach. A great deal of inward pressure is required to maintain them. Any insult is like sticking a pin into a balloon. The lit-crits knew this intuitively. So they closed ranks as instinctively and as shamelessly as bishops do around pederast priests, assuring themselves, if any doubts arose, they were doing so for the good of literature, not just to maintain their control.

I also got some insight into the reasons for the violence of the establishment’s reaction to Myers’s article from a recent reading of the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, a genealogy of the West’s appropriation of everything Eastern not just physically but as the West’s intellectual “creation.” It is Said’s contention that the Orient/East exists only as a resource and cultural archive for the West, and it’s hard not to see theEdward_Said same kind of attitude at work in the American attitude toward indigenous foreign fiction. We are willing enough to read Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs and any number of Spanish-speaking authors as long as their characters have an American connection and the landscape of their native lands is presented as appropriately exotic but easily accessible, the way our travel books make accessible the touristy landmarks and back-alley bargain spots of the dark continents beyond Coney Island and the Golden Gate. Africa—black Africa — in this respect, is virtually off the map, with rare exceptions. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is taught universally in our schools from elementary through graduate school. But the title of that novel indicates what kind of reader it has in mind, and the text itself, while worthy, is the work of a university man who has read his Iliad and his Shakespeare. Had he told his story, an historical novel of pre-colonial village life, without those Western literary frames of reference, would he still be at the top of the academic reading lists? Would he even be published in the West?

What we do not admit is the kind of fiction, even fiction written in English, that must be taken on its own terms where its references are largely intra-cultural– though very little fiction written in any language anymore entirely escapes some intrusion of Western culture, and probably takes it for granted. I am not talking about entering into exotic mentalities akin to the mysteries of deep Sufism. Said’s Orientalists assume that in the East—and the same can be said largely about Africa or Latin America—there is no there there until the Western mind and sensibility gives it form and context. Nothing, consequently, is be taken on its own terms, and no attempt is made to experience it that way, because the East is by definition without form, chaotic, lawless, excessive, crying out for the West to organize and dominate it.

A hundred years ago Western artists discovered traditional African art and, after giving it a European medium and theory, presented it as their own, probably without realizing they were merely imitating because until they presented it to Europe on their canvases it did not, in effect, exist. Western composers have been lifting Arabic themes and stories at least since the time of Mozart. Western science is builtOrientalism_Book on the back of an Islamic science that flourished when the capitals of Europe were still mud huts. The Renaissance grew out of the rediscovery of a Greek culture that had been preserved in the East by both Islamic and Christian scholars. Today’s American Neo-Con ideology of a world made over in the image of the United States, or as an imitative vassal thereof, was not born in the mind of a University of Chicago neo-Platonist professor. It belongs to a tradition that used virtually the same words and ideas two hundred years ago when Napoleon’s army “liberated” Egypt. The same ideological imperatives continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, propping up the colonial adventures of Europe and eventually spawning the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Paul Wolfowitz & Co. are just echoes of this same intensely chauvinistic tradition.

I was not surprised by the existence of this tradition as Said describes it, but I was amazed by its strength and respectability. In this light the excesses of fascism and Nazism make perfect sense, given the acceptance that was for so long accorded ideas of cultural superiority and the “racial” conclusions that follow. Authors like Nietzsche are frequently blamed, but the intellectual discourse was solidly in place by the time he came along. Both the British and the French established the East—everything from North Africa to China and, later, Africa—as areas of the world that existed culturally only in the deep past, if at all. In the present, they are like the primitive earth, void and without form, savage, irrational, incapable of self-government. The living people in those parts of the world were seen—and largely still are viewed–as degenerate as their cultures, without the European virtues of logical thought and self-restraint. There is no hope for them except through a benevolent European domination or, now, an American one.

The lit-crits see the world the same way. Literature does not exist until they recognize it as such, whether it’s a domestic product that does not conform to their literary ideology or foreign work that is the organic result of forces beyond the control of Western ideologues. Bush’s wars and the lit-crit’s imperial parochialism are of a piece. You are either with us or against us, good or evil, literature or “genre.” We all are losers in either case, except perhaps for the very rich who become even richer by war and the expropriation of foreign resources, but even they as human beings ultimately have to be impoverished by the narrow range of our cultural spectrum.