David Brooks and How to Be a Better Person

David Brooks, in “The Sydney Awards: Part I” (New York Times, Dec. 19, 2011), selects the “best magazine essays of the year.” Like the recent Rolling Stone article, “The 101 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” Brooks’s piece is another list; it has become a journalistic genre, the creation of year-end lists. And, as we said in our post on the greatest guitarists, lists are made for argument. But Brooks doesn’t even let us get to his list before starting his argument, to wit: “Anybody interested in being a better person will click the links to these essays in the online version of this column, and read attentively.” We’re all for reading, writing, and critical thinking, and hopeful that the Toads blog illuminates our curiosity, if nothing else, but wish becoming a better person were that easy.

If, as Norman O. Brown argued, “the fall is into language” (Love’s Body, 257), it’s hard to see how more of it is going to help matters. But we were reminded of something else we read this week, Elif Batuman’s “The Sanctuary: The world’s oldest temple and the dawn of civilization” (New Yorker, Dec. 19, 2011). Elif asks a penetrating question, which links us to a previous post on Brooks, coincidentally: have humans improved over time? Elif puts it this way: “Was the human condition ever fundamentally different from the way it is now?” (82 – but it’s behind the New Yorker paywall). Entire belief systems, Elif argues, depend on how we answer questions having to do with human progress. Is it possible that not only are we unable to improve, but we can only get worse? We see some evidence for this, but if we had to choose, we hold with those who think we’re the same as we’ve ever been.

But maybe Brooks is right, and humans simply have not read enough. Who knows, but we doubt it. When it comes to improvement, to becoming a better person, we’re also reminded of the compliment scene in the film “As Good As It Gets” (1997). “You make me want to be a better man,” the human-overdosed Jack Nicholson character, Melvin, tells Carol (Helen Hunt). No more accurate definition of love have we ever read.

Perhaps we reach a point where we are as good as we want to be, and we stop reading and writing, and that’s as good as it gets. But Melvin doesn’t say that Carol makes him a better person, only that she makes him want to be a better person, and we see him struggle. And Brooks doesn’t say that reading does makes us better persons; and maybe what he meant is merely that those interested in self-improvement might find reading helpful.

Something else: Brooks’s article is a bit confusing, also, for what, exactly, are the Sydney awards? They seem to be something of his own making, but we also find the Sydney Hillman awards. There are apparently two Sydneys, then, both with the purpose of providing interested persons links to reading that is as good as it gets.

Follow-up: Brooks wrote his article in two parts. Here’s part two: “The Sydney Awards, Part II” (New York Times, Dec. 22, 2011).

Related: David Brooks and The Plaque of Alienation; or, the Consciousness Bubble

The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress

When did literature become an elitist game? When we started writing? Literature both reflects and influences culture, society, and the individual, but there are many things that reflect our values (what we want; not to be confused with what’s good for us) and influence our thought and action (the automobile; lawns; college), but not everything that reflects and influences our lives is literature. There appears to be an argument afoot, to wit: “I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.” This from Elif Batuman’s review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era, “Get a Real Degree.”

All cultures experience literature, but only an elitist can afford to read purely for fun. What Elif is talking about when she says “literary tradition” is the tradition of literary criticism, which is a kind of self-consciousness about one’s literature. Part of Elif’s complaint is that the programs (code for the MFA writing programs) lack literary tradition and subscribe to an artificial fabrication called creative writing. But as Eliot said in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “It [tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” One gets the feeling that Elif does not consider “creative writing” to be literature, and it may not be, in the same sense that painting by numbers is not art. D. G. Myers seems to agree. Myers values writers not on but in location. Using this rubric, Bukowski, who filled the Los Angeles Basin with alcohol, makes the grade, as would Flannery O’Connor, who filled the South with grace, and Joyce, who filled Dublin with Dubliners, giving them a chance to talk to one another unencumbered by the Church’s program. Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy is another example rooted in place. But people move, and move on.

If, as Buckminster Fuller explained, specialization leads to extinction, where does literary elitism lead? Literature from the “programmes” sounds a little like the physicists’ string theories, which Robert B. Laughlin unraveled for us some time ago: criticizing string theory in his book A Different Universe, Laughlin says “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (p. 215). One problem, as described by Batuman, has to do with the program reverence for what it calls craft. Plumbing is a craft; writing is something else.

Again we find funding the antagonist: “…people on the West Coast work,” Kenneth Rexroth said. “Ginsberg when he came out here, as he said in interviews, was working as a market researcher, which is just a shit job. It’s like being a floorwalker in a dime store. I said, ‘Why don’t you work? How much are you making? Forty-five dollars? You can’t live on forty-five dollars in San Francisco. That’s not money. Why don’t you go to work, get a job?’ Ginsberg said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Ship out…’ You come back with more bread than you know what to do with!’ In the East people don’t think like that” (Meltzer, 1971, p. 12*).

Elif’s London Review of Books review would still be going out with the tide were it not for McGurl’s tardy response in the May 11th Los Angeles Review of Books, “The MFA Octopus: Four Questions About Creative Writing.” But what is elite? The truly elite do not go in for literature; they go where the money is, finance, or health care, or both, which is insurance, and surely if we can agree on anything it’s that there’s no money in literature. The elite that do go in for literature we might call the mal-elite, the black sheep of the elite, for as Jerzy Kosinski said, “Reading novels—serious novels, anyhow—is an experience limited to a very small percentage of the so-called enlightened public. Increasingly, it’s going to be a pursuit for those who seek unusual experiences, moral fetishists perhaps, people of heightened imagination, the troubled pursuers of the ambiguous self” (Kosinski, Paris Review Interview, 1972).

Kosinski was no elitist, nor is Elif’s example of a writer she values, Dave Eggers. His prose is characterized by practical matters; his publication efforts (The Believer, which does not publish fiction, but which has been publishing poetry of late; 826 Valencia) take the word to the street, Samizdat-style. William T. Vollman might be an even better example of the non-elitist, non-programmed writer, engaged in some cross-fertilization of fiction and non-fiction, a new prose for a new time. For the University cannot grant access to literature; it can only grant access to degrees. And the egress of disappearing readers from literature suggests that we must start to look for our literature in unexpected places.


Apr 29, 2013: Seth Abramson at HuffPost: “Contemporary Poetry Reviews.” Intro. continues “Program” discussion.

May 18: Laura Miller simplifies and suggests much ado about nothing. August 22: Daniel Green reviews The Program Era, including an interesting aside: “…another book considering those writers who resisted the migration of literature and the literary vocation into the academy would be an interesting project.” Yes.

15 Nov 2012: Fredric Jameson reviews The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl (Harvard, 466 pp, £14.95, November [2012], ISBN 978 0 674 06209 2) in LRB (subscribe).