Journalists vs. Academia: The Case of William Deresiewicz and Lawrence Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel

Everybody seems to have a problem with academics these days.  We’ve known for a long time that the American right hates us for our intellectual elitism and armchair radicalism, but now the mainstream left-leaning media has also acquired a taste for the game.  A number of recent articles and op-eds in newspapers and magazines like The New York Times, Slate, and The Atlantic have taken humanities professors to task for everything from their “tin-eared arrogance” (Ron Rosenbaum) to their “bat-shit analysis” (Rebecca Schuman), for being “too sociological” (editors of N+1) and for not paying enough attention to contemporary society (Nicholas Kristoff).  We are condemned for our tenured loafers (overpaid and underworked) and our part-time laborers (overworked and underpaid).  Though the reasons vary according to the author and publication, the verdict remains: professional academics are the worst.

In the age of the adjunct professor, questioning the politics and economics of higher education in the United States has become increasingly necessary.  But what differentiates these particular pieces is that they take aim primarily at academics themselves rather than their institutions.  As the American academy has entered into a post-recession crisis it shows few signs of recovering from, those of us who have chosen to enter “the profession” must not only deal with the shark tank of the job market but also with a growing public perception that we have little to say to the world outside the ivory tower.  This is less a complaint than a call to action.  We need to transform our institutions.  But we also need to do a better job of explaining ourselves.

the novel a biography schmidt cover

The latest attack on academia cuts all the more deeply since it comes from an ex-academic, William Deresiewicz, who spent more than a decade as professor of English literature at Yale University before leaving to become an independent writer and essayist.  In a review essay in the June issue of The Atlantic, Deresiewicz unflatteringly compares Lawrence Buell’s scholarly work The Dream of the Great American Novel (Harvard/Belknap, 2014) with the poet-critic Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography (Harvard/Belknap, 2014).  After pointedly offering up Buell’s book as an object lesson in “what is wrong with academic criticism,” Deresiewicz proceeds to exhaustively list Buell’s crimes against the humanities.  Buell can’t write a sentence without lapsing into academic jargon, bows to the “contemporary critical hymnal,” refuses to make aesthetic choices about whether novels are good or bad, and worst of all, seems not to understand that novel-reading is first and foremost an activity of pleasure.  Deresiewicz concludes with the blandly conciliatory remark that both Schmidt and Buell “differently reveal” the “importance” of the “novel’s future,” but he does little else to conceal his disdain for Buell’s “ambitious” project.

The recent debate about Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel, one of the most widely reviewed works of literary scholarship of the past few years, is a telling indicator of how polarized mainstream and academic writers have become.  Shortly after the book’s release, the writer-journalist Michael Kimmage denounced it in the New Republic as “hermetic in its intellectual culture, hermetic in its political purview, hermetic in its dedication to the duller aspects of scholarship,” while in the far more scholarly LA Review of Books, Fordham professor Jordan Stein praised it in almost the exact opposite terms as a “masterful study” exemplifying a new trend of literary scholarship written with “great style.”  To Deriesiwicz and Kimmage, The Dream of the Great American Novel is pure capitulation to the “reigning ideologies” of academia.  For Stein, it stands out as an exception to these same academic norms, “model[ing] a version of literary history absent any strong sense of critique. The book gets to 465 pages without villains, without moralism, without much attention to wrongdoing or indignation at injustice.”


So what gives?  How can journalists and academics have such seemingly irreconcilable views about what literary scholarship should be?  While Deresiewicz, Kimmage, and company portray the split as a falling away from a golden age of criticism when academics said what they believed and said it well, I will make the case here that their idea of “good writing” rests on a series of dubious assumptions.  Not only do I think that they misunderstand the principles of academic criticism. I also think they hold highly suspect beliefs about what journalism and literature are and should be.

But before I go on to say why I think Deresiewicz misleads in his approach to academic criticism, literary journalism, and novels themselves, it’s worth saying that I sympathize with some of his views.  From what I’ve read of Schmidt’s thousand-plus page “biography” of the novel, I agree that it is lively and engaging.  I agree that the extent to which exaggerated notions of political correctness currently dictate academic writing is a problem.  And I agree–couldn’t agree more–that academics need to do a better job of writing for a broader audience.  But these are precisely the reasons I find Deresiewicz’s lack of generosity toward Buell so frustrating. The irony is that The Dream of the Great American Novel is one of the few recent works of literary scholarship that makes a good faith effort to court a non-academic audience.  And aside from a few exceptions Deresiewicz eagerly pounces upon, it is a very readable book, one that possesses the rare academic virtue of seeking to elucidate rather than obscure its intellectual premises.  Deresiewicz may not share Buell’s “academic” views about literature, but that doesn’t mean that these views are either inherently wrong or fatally abstruse.  I believe that Deresiewicz’s comments reflect far more on a particular strain of anti-academic thinking among literary journalists than it does on Buell’s book itself.

There’s no need to exaggerate the journalist-academic divide.  Academics continue to write for established literary reviews from The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books to newer publications from N+1 to this one, and clearly not all literary journalists and independent writers share Deresiewicz and company’s tout court dismissal of academic scholarship.  Schmidt himself is an exemplary poet-professor with the ability to speak to both the general public and a specialist audience.  But it does appear that in these times of crisis, the antagonisms between the mainstream media and academia are getting worse rather than better.  So in the spirit, not necessarily of bridging the divide, but at least making it more visible, I want to set out a few principles about contemporary academic literary scholarship that seem to me worth defending, even if we need to make a greater effort to communicate them to a wider audience.  I’ll try to make them lively and keep them jargon-free.

1.  Academic writing has rules, just like journalism has rules.

If you watch footage of the basketball player Julius Erving from the 1970’s and early 1980’s, you will see shots and moves that no other player had done before him, high-flying stuff that changed the way basketball was played.  But you will never see Dr. J dunk a football.  Clearly this isn’t because he couldn’t have done it.  It’s because the point of the game of basketball is to score with a basketball, not a football.  Just like any meaningful activity we engage in, including sports, academic writing has codes and expectations and is carried out within certain limits.  When Deresiewicz complains that Buell calls “witnesses” to support his points about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he appears to be questioning the need for scholars to lean on the interpretations of others to make their own arguments.  This might be fair enough for a piece of literary journalism, which places a premium on spontaneous insights and the mot juste.  But one of the rules of academic scholarship is that you cite the evidence of others, because, at least in theory, scholarship is a collective enterprise that builds on the cumulative work of many different people.  Of course, the rules of citation, like any other written or unwritten rules, can be modified or broken.  But even those ruptures tend to follow certain patterns and to exist within a defined range.  To return to the sports analogy, it’s absurd to fault Dr. J for never having attempted to dunk a football in a basketball game.  It makes equally little sense to demand of Buell that his scholarly book be non-scholarly.

And let’s be honest.  Newspapers and magazines also have written and unwritten rules, governing everything from paragraph length to diction, and (like academic journals) they have editors and publishers to enforce them.  One of the unwritten rules of a certain genre of mainstream literary journalism is a reflexive anti-intellectual skepticism about academic writing.  The current attacks on scholarly pedantry are no less rote or ideological than the genuflections to the “reigning ideologies” of theory they so relentlessly criticize.  Ideally we should aspire to modify the conventions of our respective fields and the rules of engagement between them, not to act as if those rules and conventions don’t exist.

2.  Literature also has rules.

Deresiewicz’s major point about the novel, which echoes Henry James’s famous definition of the genre as a “baggy monster,” is that everything fits within it: “its very looseness, its lack of rules and notorious difficulty of definition, is the secret of its strength. What is a novel? Almost anything that writers have attempted to convince us that it might be.”  This is awesome!  I have a thousand-page manuscript at home.  Maybe we can exchange a few emails and then you’ll like…maybe, um…publish it?

Strictly speaking, your novel can be whatever your health, talent, or imagination will allow it to be.  The scraps of paper (or computer screens) are there.  But just writing a novel doesn’t guarantee that people will publish it, let alone read it.  Many important fields of literary criticism over the past half century, from structuralism and narratology to Marxist theory, have made arguments about the predictable “forms” and “grammars” of literary works produced in particular contexts.  But since we’re outlawing such “reigning ideologies” for the moment, let me tell take a more personal tack.  I know a lot of novelists.  Good novelists.  They are no freer than academics (in fact, some are academics).  They obsessively think about who will be reading them, what other people are writing, when they will have time to write, where they will get published, and how much they need to change a name so the real person will not (or still will) be recognized.  The list goes on and on.  Schmidt understands this, which is why he spends so much time describing the interactive relationship between writers and their audiences.

Deresiewicz, however, does not seem aware of the fact that while The Novel may be almost infinitely elastic, novelists almost always enter the game at a particular time and place.  It strikes me as a willful obfuscation to assert that novels are fundamentally about “the self in society: the modern question” and then to turn around and call out Buell for reading 19th- and 20th-century American novels as “‘interventions’ into this or that political debate—usually, of course, concerning gender, race, or class, as if everyone in history had the same priorities as the English professors of 2014.”  I suspect that Deresiewicz has in mind sentences like the one that Buell uses to introduce William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!: “[Faulkner was] a novelist of the color line operating in the Jim Crow South, hesitant to portray African Americans from the inside, even while supercharging his fiction with white fantasies about blacks…”  Yet while the sentence undoubtedly focuses on race, it’s difficult to find in the quote either the deliberate anachronism or the critical myopia that Deresiewicz attributes to Buell. That Faulkner was a Southern novelist during the Jim Crow era is less an interpretation than a statement of information, and the plot of Absalom, Absalom! does indeed revolves around the refusal of a white Southern planter to recognize his part-black son.  Would Deresiewicz suggest that Buell has merely projected the race anxieties of contemporary academics onto the Jim Crow South?

Deresiewicz’s condemnation of Buell’s “political correctness” fails to acknowledge that a belief that politics and literature are related does not necessarily entail a procrustean inclination to reduce literature to a particular political or social view.  One wonders what exactly Deresiewicz means when he argues that the central question of the modern novel is the self versus society.  Unless you’re reading an Ayn Rand novel–scratch that, especially if you’re reading an Ayn Rand novel–you should understand that the only reason that said self/society binary can exist is if one grants that society has the power to impinge itself on the individual.

I get it, Deresiewicz is sick of all this theoretical nonsense about how there’s no such thing as a stable human subject.  But if the novelist’s whole purpose is, as Deresiewicz states, to “bring both self and world into focus,” how could we possibly understand that self if we don’t also try to make sense of the worldly society within which it was written? Novels have languages and forms and biases and rules precisely because they are written by, about, and for people in the world.

3.  People don’t just read and write for pleasure.

At one point, Deresiewicz politely suggests that Buell should throw his entire project out the window and just feel the love: “Instead of starting with his scripts and themes, Buell should have started here: with the passions that make people read—and write—in the first place.”  Can’t Buell just “own[] up to his own pleasures” and tell us he likes reading the books he’s studying.  Reading and writing are fundamentally about doing what we love, aren’t they?  Aren’t they?

Deresiewicz’s criticism of Buell’s passionless prose is, as he well knows, a rehashing of a very common argument in the history of aesthetics that holds that literature’s primary function is to produce pleasure and emotion in the reader.  Associated mainly with the anti-moralizing thrust of the “art for art’s sake” movement of the nineteenth century, the belief that good art can be gauged by its ability to move us goes all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics, which argued that the pity and fear we experience while watching a tragedy or reading a novel has a “cathartic” or therapeutic value.  This theory of why we’re often drawn to fiction and narrative over the straightforward presentation of fact remains powerful, but it’s not the only one out there. The nineteenth-century French novelist Balzac, one of the protagonists of Deresiewicz’s (and Schmidt’s) account, wrote that the novel was the “private history of the nation,” a phrase that reappears as an epigraph to the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa’s mid-twentieth-century masterpiece Conversations in the Cathedral.  As Buell points out, the rise of the novel coincides with the rise of the modern nation-state, when collective identities as well as territorial borders increasingly congealed around a sense of belonging to a specific country.  In this view, novels are not simply opposed to history and politics but complementarity to it, often detailing the way that private passions and public living intersect.

The theme of Buell’s book, the hundred-and-fifty-year obsession in the United States with the idea of the “Great American Novel,” clearly takes its cue from this second, more geopolitically informed framework for understanding the history and function of the novel.  But here again, Deresewicz’s distinction between motivating passions and literary themes is misleading.  As both readers and writers, we generally have passions about something.  Henry James, we might say, was passionate about culture clash, just as Edith Wharton was passionate about class distinction and status anxiety. When William Dean Howells wrote to James after the publication of Daisy Miller that Boston society was divided into pro- and anti-Daisy Miller factions, he was referring not only to whether people “liked” or “disliked” the book but to whether they were compelled by its portrait of the brassy American girl in Europe.  Literary desires are social and political as much as they are individual.  Or as Buell puts it in the specific context of the American novels that “romance” the country’s major regional and racial divides, “Novels in which the interpersonal story dominates risk short-circuiting [] social complexities.  Personal relationships are only one constituent of a sociopolitical order.”  Even those stories that appeal most to our need for escape usually end up telling us more rather than less about the present state (and State) of things.  If you don’t believe me, read or watch The Hunger Games.

To engage social, political, and/or historical themes is not to avoid the aesthetic.  It is to understand that our passion to read and write books is one of many passions we have, and that to chain our desire to the purely literary is an act of confinement rather than an act of liberation.

4.  A literary canon is never just a literary canon.

The Argentine short story writer and essayist Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that “a classic is not a book that necessarily possesses this or that quality; it is a book that generations of men, prompted by various reasons, read with prior enthusiasm and mysterious loyalty.” Alongside T.S. Eliot, Borges was one of the earliest authors to recognize that “great literature” depends as much on how literary works are read as on how they are written.  The “prior enthusiasm” and “mysterious loyalty” we feel when starting a novel we deem important is literally the work of generations, since only the laborious task of keeping such books alive can rescue them from oblivion.  For Borges, the literary canon was a process of selection rather than a storehouse of great texts.  Borges was particularly interested in how some writers that appealed to his own personal taste, like the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, had not become part of the canon of world literature, in the way that Quevedo’s fellow Golden Age writer Miguel de Cervantes had.  In a famous remark that served as a warning as much as a prediction, he insisted that Shakespeare himself would eventually fall into the historical dustbin.  According to Borges, greatness is never secure from the passage of time.  As writers and readers we are constantly reinventing our relation to tradition.

Borges’s reference to the shapers of literary canons as “generations of men” was not merely an instance of the grammatical use of the masculine to represent the universal.  Already in the 1920’s, Virginia Woolf had argued that the house of fiction, like the real-life seigniorial mansions on which the literary metaphor was founded, had largely been designed and owned by men.  In “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf imagines the impossible obstacles Shakespeare would have faced had he been a she–a Judith rather than a William–without either the means or autonomy to create her masterworks.  Ever since Woolf’s groundbreaking essay, a powerful strain of feminist criticism has focused on the material and cultural tools that male writers have used to keep women and minority writers at the margins.  Yet one of the most powerful aspects of Buell’s book, which relies on a growing body of scholarship, is the extent to which he demonstrates that the American literary canon got more rather than less democratic over much of the twentieth century.  We tend to view the “culture wars” of the late eighties and nineties as the period in which non-white-male-authors finally broke into the American canon.  But although there is some truth to that narrative, Buell suggests that race and gender exclusion got worse before it got better.  Before the drastic “winnowing” of the history of the American novel during the mid-century decades from 1930-1960 to “selected masterworks by a few practitioners: Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and a handful of others,” female novelists like Willa Cather and Katherine Anne Porter were widely read and critically acclaimed, and works by Harlem Renaissance novelists such as Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay appeared side by side with those of their white contemporaries.  It has become increasingly clear that these writers were not so much discovered by the “revisionist” academics of the sixties and seventies as they were reintegrated into an American literary history they helped to create.

Deresewicz’s own academic reputation was staked on a book about Jane Austen, so this line of thinking will be nothing new to him. But his review of Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel shows a curious blindness to the way that writers and critics in the United States have so deeply and repeatedly revised their assessments of what and who makes “greatness.”  Here the case is open and shut:

There are a lot of great American novels, and great American authors, that [Buell] hardly deals with at all. Many pages, in the aggregate, are spent on mediocre or forgotten works that fit his paradigms. Hemingway, meanwhile, believe it or not, is mentioned only incidentally. Henry James is represented, in a brief consideration, by a second-level work, The Bostonians. Lolita gets little more than a page, as does Blood Meridian. A whole related run of work is essentially absent: The Naked and the Dead, The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, In Cold Blood, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five. If your first reaction to this list is that all of those are written by white men—if you think that literary criticism is best conducted as a demographic census—then you may just be part of the problem.

Let’s consider this passage without taking Deresiewicz’s bait, treating it as an argument rather than the devil-be-damned dose of truth serum it purports to be.  First, a look at factual errors.  Buell does not only discuss James’s Bostonians.  He devotes a substantial amount of time to James’s Portrait of a Lady in a section on the novels of the American dream, whose main figures–hope you’ve heard of them–are James, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Philip Roth.  The things academics write about these days.  Second, the demonstrative stating of the obvious that is not really obvious.  How could Buell not include Hemingway?  Well, for one reason, aside from a self-proclaimed throwaway novel, The Torrents of Spring, and part of To Have and To Have Not, Hemingway set all of his novels outside of the United States.  He once started a coming-of-age novel about a young boy from the Midwest, Jimmy Breen, but as he wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins, he felt that he had been living in Europe for too long to fully develop a domestic plot.  The novel Hemingway wrote instead?  A Farewell to Arms, which takes place between the Italian front and the Swiss Alps.  Of course, Buell could have decided to devote a bigger role to expatriate fiction, but in a book about how novelists have repeatedly attempted to embody the national spirit, it makes sense that Nabokov, the émigré to the United States, gets more play (nine pages, by my count, not just the one for Lolita) than Hemingway, who spent most of his life writing about other places.

The broader point regarding Deresiewicz’s “universally acknowledged” assumptions about great American literature, however, is that they remain precisely that, assumptions.  Deresiewicz faults Buell for not putting his preferences on the table, but what good are our preferences if they merely reconfirm what we already think we know?  This is the deeply unsettling facet of literary canons: they tend to function as a sort of shorthand for artistic quality, a self-perpetuating guarantee that what you’re reading is great, and it’s great precisely because you’re reading it.  Buell’s decision to pry open the notion of greatness, to speak of the “dream” of the great American novel rather than its realization, is in my eyes the most powerful aspect of the book.  Just as I don’t want my novels starkly delineated into a Manichean universe of good and bad characters, I don’t want my academic scholarship divvied up into the already sorted categories of “great” and “second-level” novels.

5.  We’re in similar boats.  Let’s not overturn them.

It’s no secret that journalism is one of the few professions in direr straits than academia right now.  The conglomeration of traditional print media and the rise of aggregated online journalism have endangered the staff reporter just as the corporatization of academia threatens to drastically reduce the tenured professoriate.  Journalists and academics may be headed toward similar fates of occasional freelancing and ad-hoc adjuncting.  But the solution is not to hate each other.  We can both contribute, in our own ways, to an engaged public sphere.  It is true that the retreat of the radical left into the ivory tower after the collapse of the 1960’s created, as Deresiewicz suggests, a corps of university professors with theoretical axes to grind and only their own fields to swing them in.  But now, for better and for worse, we are back to defending our case before the court of public opinion.  There’s no reason to imply that we’re superior to the task.  But also no reason to believe we’re incapable of it.  Literary scholarship can be both academic and understandable.  Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel is not without its flaws, but then again, neither is Moby Dick.  Once you get over the few instances of twenty-first-century cetology in Buell’s book, you’re in for an intense, intelligent and illuminating read.

Jeffrey Lawrence is a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at Princeton University.  He received his BA in Spanish from Amherst College in 2007.  His work focuses mainly on literature, culture, and social movements in the United States and the Spanish-speaking world.  He is an editor at and contributor to El Roommate: colectivo de lectores, an online journal that reviews contemporary literature in Spanish and Portuguese.