What is to become of literature, one wonders, seeing everywhere one goes, whether taking a walk in a park or a seat in a plane, people with their eyes on their smartphones, their minds absorbed in some amusing scene that has gone viral and, should you happen to come across a bookshop that’s still open, there will probably be more cobwebs than eyes on the books and a lonely cashier passing the time scanning the worldwide web.
At the same time, mainstream publishers have long abandoned poetry and submit new novels to the test of book club gossip to check not a work’s literary quality, but its potential for profit. In the meanwhile, creative writing workshops at universities, community colleges and online schools are turning out thousands of graduates with the dream of best-seller fame, very few of them caring for literary quality, provided they have concocted a sellable product.
I was drawn to these reflections when two of my own creative writing students from some 30 years ago contacted me with the progress of their work, one sending me half a dozen magazines in which her work had been published. I had never heard of these magazines; they were of the type of which dozens come out every month, often launched by a group of young writers anxious for an audience for their work, with many appearing only online.
Reading these magazines, it was heartening to see a few encouragingly good poems, though scarcely any poet attempted formal experimentation. Few understand that the general belief that the idea inspiring the poet would be compromised by needing to conform to some formal constraint is a mistaken one; on the contrary, the necessity to concentrate on the structure of the language demanded by a constraining form sometimes leads to the poet hitting upon a striking phrase or a brilliant image that makes the poem a memorable one.
And it was clear that the majority of the poets had read little other than the trendy names of their generation, whose simplistic approach they echoed. As for the fiction writers whose stories appear in these magazines, the majority of them are given to gossiping banality told in a journalistic prose. Whatever happened to literature?
The second former student who contacted me wrote to say he was starting a small publishing house with the idea of keeping works of high literary quality in print. Since graduating, he had worked for the Dalkey Archive Press — the publishing house that, for four decades, had assembled a formidable list of the best contemporary literature, including important original works in translation that would otherwise have remained unknown to English-language readers.
During these decades, when the mainstream publishers had come to prefer a memoir by a scandal-mongering politician, ghostwritten by a journalist, to fulfil the clichéd expectations of the illiterate population, to a new work by a serious writer, it had been the small presses that had bravely stepped in to support the latter.
One such publisher was North Point Press in San Francisco, which rescued several very fine writers in the 1980s from mainstream neglect, among them Gina Berriault and Gilbert Sorrentino — far superior to their American contemporaries such as Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, both of negligible literary quality raised to a phoney eminence by literary politics.
More importantly, North Point brought back into print one of the best world writers of the century, the Austrian Hermann Broch (1886-1951), reprinting two of his works translated from the original German in the 1940s: The Sleepwalkers and the masterpiece, The Death of Virgil, which should be as universally known as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
A note about Broch for the curious reader: the very complex prose of his first work, The Sleepwalkers trilogy, brilliantly translated by Edwin and Willa Muir — who brought Franz Kafka to the English-reading public — alerts the attentive reader that here is an eminent writer.
From the first volume, ‘The Romantic’, set in the late 19th century, it is clear that, while there is a surface content centred on Joachim von Pasenow, an outwardly dutiful son of the landowning aristocracy who is obliged to suppress inclinations objectionable to his class, the intensity of Broch’s language is pointing to a deeper ontological level. His mastery over his prose, with its vivid appeal to the senses, is such that even the reader interested only in the surface story will remain thoroughly absorbed to the end, while the intellectually attentive reader will be drawn by the intricate language to become simultaneously immersed in its philosophical dimension, which is precisely the quality that distinguishes a novel as a work of art.
As for The Death of Virgil, a work as beautifully composed as a symphony, with language playing enchanting rhythms in one’s imagination, the sentences plunging the reader into the metaphysical serenity beginning to lift the last dark clouds from the dying poet’s vision, it is writing that makes critical analysis redundant; all we can do is to read and remain silent.
Beyond preserving a writer such as Broch, North Point Press went to the trouble of introducing other distinguished writers who would otherwise have remained unknown, such as the wonderful Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa. But by the end of the 20th century, the technological revolution had begun to change reading habits, an increasing audience preferring to stare at some amusing gossip doing the social media rounds on their phones than at even a few pages of the serious literature a publisher such as North Point struggled to keep in print.
Given this reality, it’s not surprising to hear the older generation moaning about the loss of the good old days. The truth, however, is that there has been generational change throughout history, only ours looks like a global devourer of artistic refinement. Which is why it’s so heartening to hear my old student’s plan to launch a new publishing house in the tradition of North Point and the Dalkey Archive, providing us with fresh evidence that there is always some eager soul in the younger generation dedicated to preserving a higher class of values.
The columnist is a literary critic, Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas and author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions
Veronica and the Góngora Passion
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 13th, 2021