Literary criticism for readers -- not academics

Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing, by Joseph Epstein. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 411 pp. $17.95. It might be said that we live in an Age of Criticism. More literary criticism is being written than ever before. On the other hand, less of it is being read than ever before. This is because so much of the criticism being published today has more to do with the requirements of academic life than with literature.

But there are still a few critics, both in and out of the universities, who are inspired by a love of literature rather than a hope of tenure. Instead of trying to cow the reader with opaque prose, they write clearly, even gracefully. Instead of an elaborate theoretical apparatus, they rely on a few touchstones and basic principles, along with instinct and common sense.

They are, in other words, the heirs of Addison and Johnson, Hazlitt and Arnold. They once would have been called men of letters, but that term has fallen into disuse, if not disrepute. But it is hard to think of a better one to describe the more versatile sort of critic such as, for instance, Joseph Epstein. He is an essayist, editor of The American Scholar, teacher of literature at Northwestern University, and author of ``Plausible Prejudices.'' (The title comes from H. L. Mencken's definition of criticism as prejudice made plausible.)

In a more settled literary period, I imagine Mr. Epstein would be content to spend his time writing his familiar essays and occasional appreciations of favorite writers. There is one pure appreciation here, of A. J. Liebling, and several embattled appreciations in which the author defends writers (such as John Dos Passos and James Gould Cozzens) against what he regards as critical injustice. There are fine essays on language and, appropriately, on writing essays.

But about half the essays are attempts to deflate contemporary reputations. For as Epstein cogently argues in an essay called ``The Literary Life Today,'' we are going through a period of rampant cultural inflation. In some periods, the critic's task is to smooth the way for new writers. But, as Epstein says in his introduction, the present age requires ``critics who function rather more like sheriffs, who stand ready to apprehend delinquent writers. Without consciously setting out to do so, I seem . . . to have become such a sheriff.''

So he has. But, in a way, this is even odder than Henry Kissinger's description of himself as a lone gunman. Epstein doesn't have the severe, dogmatic manner of a literary policeman. His prose is as imperturbably urbane as that of Max Beerbohm, one of his literary models. Unlike Bryan Griffin, from whose shrill polemics he distances himself in the essay ``It's Only Culture,'' Epstein brings in his delinquents with finesse and wit.

Epstein's usual procedure is to go carefully through a writer's work, noting strengths and weaknesses, giving credit where it is due, making his way gradually toward its moral center. What he looks for there is an appreciation of, and an engagement with, life in all its complexity and diversity. This is a quality he calls ``gravity,'' which ``derives from a serious mind, unencumbered by the clich'es of the day, at work on serious matters.'' What he finds there, in contemporary literature, is mostly the clich'es of the day.

Specifically, he finds political clich'es (Robert Stone, E. L. Doctorow, Gabriel Garci'a M'arquez), passivity and fatalism (Anne Beattie, Renata Adler, Joan Didion), sex obsession (Mailer et al.), self-obsession (Roth et al.), or not much of anything except a desire to write (John Updike). In most of these writers, he also finds things to praise -- style, observation, invention, characterization -- but he concludes that their purely literary virtues aren't enough.

Compared with the major writers of the past (or even some of the minor ones), there is, he believes, something narrow or hollow about these writers, a lack of intellectual curiosity and spiritual vitality. Most contemporary novelists and their reviewers have succumbed to a fashion mentality, he says: ``Of clear distinctions, of questions of good and bad, of how things really are, the fashionable mind could hardly care less. It never asks of itself, what do I really think, . . . but instead, what ought I to think, what can I get away with appearing to believe?''

Readers will undoubtedly disagree with some of Epstein's conclusions about particular writers. But it is hard to disagree with his bleak assessment of our literary climate. The evidence of cultural inflation can be acquired at any newsstand. What makes these mostly pessimistic essays palatable and plausible, though, is that they are triumphs of style and wit.

L. S. Klepp is a free-lance writer living in New York City.

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