The New Republic, for quite a while now, has been a Major League culture magazine supporting a farm team political bureau. The authoritative back of the book lends its stature to young political writers, who lash out from their Beltway cribs. In the late 1990s this arrangement reached its apotheosis. While Martin Peretz, the owner, became the George Steinbrenner of magazine chiefs—impatient with editors, prone to embarrassing pronouncements (on Israel)—and the political writers got brattier, the literary section achieved an unprecedented standing. When the New Republic took a writer down—as it notoriously did with Toni Morrison, Judith Butler, Frank Bidart, Don DeLillo, Elaine Scarry, Colson Whitehead, Kurt Andersen, Sharon Olds, Thomas Pynchon, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Barbara Kingsolver—people noticed. It was the best literary section in the country.
But its method was wholly negative. And, it eventually became clear, indiscriminately so. For the magazine’s regular readers, a kind of repetitive stress injury set in. Some of the best critics were sent to do dirty work on minor figures. Lee Siegel, who commenced with deserving targets, was in a few years’ time trolling the publishers’ mid-lists in search of small fry. (He is now the magazine’s TV critic.) Somehow TNR got the best people and encouraged their worst instincts. Academic experts in their own field were invited in to garrote colleagues they didn’t understand. It was called being a “public intellectual.” So our heroes embarrassed themselves.
Poor James Wood! Now here was a talent—but an odd one, with a narrow, aesthetician’s interests and idiosyncratic tastes. He got crowned the Last Critic. The magazine’s chief writer on fiction since 1996, he became a man of whom it could be said, as Hemingway said of Mencken, “so many young men get their likes and dislikes from him. ” They liked his swift, impacted style, to be sure (it was perfect for online reading), but also, perhaps, his ready assimilation to the youth culture’s mode retro. His lodestars were invariant, Coleridge and Hazlitt, Tolstoy and Flaubert—not just because they were on his school reading list, but because Wood seemed to want to be his own grandfather. In the company of other critics who wrote with such seriousness, at such length, in such old-fashioned terms, he would have been less burdened with the essentially parodic character of his enterprise. But there was no one else, or they were reviewing movies. His only way out was the hit-piece, to which Wood alone brought dignity. He came on with sword and dirk, a courtly eviscerator: to see him stab a writer’s flaws was a Roman delight. The one author he really championed and helped canonize was Sebald, whose deadpan pessimism pastiched a 19th century Gothic style no actual writer ever practiced. Yet it was instantly recognizable as a style we long for from the past, like Wood’s own—the silhouette of an intellectual world that was once rumored to exist.
What happened? They had all come to fight for civilization, and instead they fouled it up. Perhaps it’s like this: You can go through the defense of taste and come out the other side, as if you jumped out the kitchen window into the alley dumpster. There is a kind of fake refinement that turns into a vulgarity baser than any other. It doesn’t come from saying the worst, it comes from deciding what other people can’t say—and adopting a bullying, innuendoish, dishonest tone in trying to shut them up. A word that turns up in TNR’s literary pieces is “tasteless. ” They use it in the same way you might reprove a toilet joke at the dinner table or around relatives. But with them it takes on moral weight. It’s a very damaging mistake: the idea that sniffing out the tasteless is the same as taste itself. It confuses censoriousness with a faculty of judgment that links the aesthetic to the moral sense.
That was tragedy number one. Tragedy number two was to let authority fill the place of thinking. Leon Wieseltier’s choice of a title for a book of essays by Lionel Trilling, The Moral Responsibility to be Intelligent, summed up the outlook. (The quotation belongs originally to John Erskine, but Trilling used it and it could very well have been his own—do recall, in your nostalgia for the fifties intellectuals, that lugubrious funereal tone.) The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. An attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them. Thought adds something new to the world; simply intelligence wields hardened truth like a bludgeon. Thinking is tiring, we commiserate. And TNR contributors are nothing if not intelligent. But to spill so much blood saying the same thing, over and over.
And this was the real explanation for the shrill-whistled traffic cops on the political side: they were learning their technique from the literary bullies in the back of the book. When, in the wake of September 11, the Notebook section instituted its “Idiot Watch, ” a feature worthy of Rush Limbaugh, in which critics of American foreign policy had words pulled out of context and ridiculed, it seemed natural because it was a standard gambit of book reviews. Then they became warmongers of the nastiest sort—and it was Wieseltier, the literary editor, showed up to argue for war on Charlie Rose.
With the emergence of the ridiculous Dale Peck, the method of Wieseltier’s literary salon reached its reductio ad absurdum. Peck smeared the walls with shit, and bankrupted their authority for all time to come. So many forms of extremism turn into their opposite at the terminal stage. Thus the New Republic‘s supposed brief for dry, austere, high-literary value—manifesting itself for years in a baffled rage against everything new or confusing—led to Peck’s auto-therapeutic wetness (as self-pity is the refuge of bullies) and hatred of classic modernism (which, to philistines, will always be new and confusing).
It didn’t have to be this way: if only they had allowed more positive individuality, cultivated something new, and still kept an old dignified adherence to the Great Tradition, running continuously to them (as they hoped) from the New York Intellectuals, whose ashes were in urns in the TNR vaults if they were anywhere. This was a magazine that began with Edmund Wilson! They went too far, and they flipped. Even they must be tired of themselves. If you pinned a work of art to their nose in their sleep, they would bat it away with the same gesture. The defense of standards became a new vulgarity.
And what can we do, with thirty-six weeks left on our discount subscription? Forget about it. We’re young yet: so we’ll go and be among the young.
To the Café, then, darkened but for the few spots of light by which we try to read. It’s deafening, what with the roar of the espresso machine. (Or is that the pounding in our ears?) One young fellow, in the twilight, is reading a book of some kind. Our heart skips a beat. It’s a literary magazine! No, wait, it’s a grouping of fourteen multi-colored booklets printed in Iceland on sealskin.