When I was in college, at the end of the last century, the prevailing school of literary interpretation was called “New Historicism.” The foundational assumption of this approach was that artworks were primarily of value insofar as they could offer us insight into the context and conditions of their historical production. The point of literary scholarship was to “unmask” these conditions—to show, for instance, how Mark Twain had unwittingly reinscribed the racist assumptions of his time, even as he attempted to expose them. It went without saying, on this theory, that literature was a conduit neither of timeless truths nor of trustworthy passions. Indeed our professors made it clear that, the more powerful of an imaginative experience a work delivered, the more important it was to learn to view it with skepticism and detachment. At best, and with the correct theoretical tools, what had been valorized as the height of literary culture in the past might offer us an unintended insight into what really mattered: politics, history, the shadow life of power.
I can still remember when, at the end of one of the departmental survey classes—our teachers having delivered a lecture on New Historicism as the culminating achievement of twentieth-century literary criticism—a student stood up in the back of the room. Nearly giving way to what seemed to me at the time (but not now) an embarrassing overflow of emotion, she accused the professors of “hating” literature. We had become English majors in the first place, she went on, not because novels and poems told us interesting things about history or politics but because they made us feel less alone, captivated us with their beauty, helped us to better know ourselves and the world. The professors, as far as I can remember, responded politely: after all, the student was only a sophomore. She would learn.
It is no secret that in contemporary America there are many people who hardly read at all, and then another sizable group who, though they keep up with news, sports and the latest fads in self-care or technology, have little interest in serious fiction, poetry or literary commentary. It would be wrong to say such people hate literature, for one has to care about something to truly hate it. What my classmate in the survey course had precociously recognized was that we were being introduced to a phenomenon both subtler and more sinister than the neglect or ignorance of literature. Our professors had a great deal invested in novels and poems; and it was probably even the case that, at some point, they had loved them. But they had convinced themselves that to justify the “study” of literature it was necessary to immunize themselves against this love, and within the profession the highest status went to those for whom admiration and attachment had most fully morphed into their opposites. Their hatred of literature manifested itself in their embrace of theories and methods that downgraded and instrumentalized literary experience, in their moralistic condemnation of the literary works they judged ideologically unsound, and in their attempt to pass on to their students their suspicion of literature’s most powerful imaginative effects.
The lesson was not a new one. Going back to Plato—perhaps the first hater of literature on record—philosophers and religious authorities have attacked art for the same reasons our professors taught us to deconstruct and distrust it: because it is unpredictable, unreasonable and often inconsistent with their preferred politics or morality. It was also a lesson that was destined, in the years that followed, to seep off campus. Even as New Historicism fell out of fashion in literary studies—along with the broader postmodern notion of “critique” that had produced it—the students it had trained were taking up positions in the public intellectual magazines and book reviews, where they now preside over the gradual disappearance of a distinctively literary mode of criticism: a criticism, that is, that attends to matters of form, style and character, that takes aesthetic experience seriously, and that appreciates the emotions inspired by an artwork as fully as, and as constitutive of, its politics. To the extent that this disappearance has gone unremarked, it is because the hatred of literature, though it remains almost unheard of among the general reading public, has become the default mode in the upper reaches of our literary culture. As was the case in my college survey course, the highest honors go to the most eloquent haters.
Perhaps no figure better illustrates the style and stakes of the hatred of literature, as it has filtered from academia into contemporary literary culture, than the American author Ben Lerner. Lerner, recently described in the New York Times as “the most talented writer of his generation,” was known for advertising his suspicion of aesthetic experience even before he published a book called The Hatred of Poetry in 2016. “I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art,” says Adam Gordon, the college-age narrator of Lerner’s 2011 debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station, upon encountering a man crying before a painting at a museum in Madrid, “and I had trouble believing that anyone had. … I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life.’”
The sentiment, bizarre as it may seem coming from someone who has chosen literature as a vocation, struck a chord with many in Lerner’s generation. “A lot of my contemporaries recognized themselves in those lines,” writes the fellow Gen X novelist and critic Garth Risk Hallberg, who suggests that Lerner had captured “an exhaustion with the old iconography, a hunger to break through to the disenchanted real.”
Following the publication of two more novels, including The Topeka School this past fall, Lerner’s writing continues to be described, with some justification, as a generational touchstone. In the final moments of Topeka School we encounter the same Adam Gordon from Atocha, this time with his wife Natalia and daughter Luna, in the middle of a protest at the ICE offices in New York, a year and a half into the Trump presidency. “It embarrassed me, it always had,” Adam reports, as he waits to be passed the mic so he can become “part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again.” The moment is presented as the culmination of the arc that had begun in that art museum in Atocha, a novel that climaxes with Adam cloistered in his Madrid apartment while protests rage in the streets below. In the intervening 10:04 (2014), set in Manhattan during Occupy Wall Street, an unnamed narrator who might as well be Adam (or Ben) had taken a middle path, going so far as to welcome a protester into his home for dinner and a shower, before abandoning him at Zuccotti Park on his way uptown to the theater.
To the extent that this progression is supposed to be representative of Lerner’s generation’s stutter-step toward political participation, it is worth noting, in the first place, the narrowness of its demographic scope. In reviews, commentators have claimed The Topeka School tells “a story that is emblematic of American life” (Christine Smallwood, Harper’s), and praised its “bold argument” that “the seeds of our contemporary malaise were present in the language games that Adam played as a teenager” (Giles Harvey, the New York Times). In truth it is not at all evident how the story of Adam and his über-progressive parents—both psychoanalysts at a well-regarded Foundation in Topeka—is emblematic of anything besides the trajectory of a neurotic and status-conscious literary liberal. In the blurb accompanying its selection as one of the ten best books of 2019, the Times alleges that “Adam’s faithlessness is now stretched into a symptom of a national crisis of belief.” “Stretched” would be the right word, if only it had been meant to indicate narcissistic projection. Who is undergoing a crisis of belief? The nation? Or the editors of the New York Times Book Review?
But even for the segment of his generation whose political awakening they successfully capture, Lerner’s books reveal a peculiar continuity. Having begun Atocha by lamenting his incapacity to have a profound experience of art, Topeka ends with Lerner’s “tiny public” learning to speak about immigration, “toxic masculinity” and Trump. The swerve from painting to politics is supposed to indicate something about the historical period covered by Lerner’s books, from the ironic detachment of the end-of-history Nineties to the post-Occupy political fervor of the 2010s. Perhaps unwittingly, however, the books also reveal the way in which, for so many in Lerner’s demographic (which is also mine), art and politics have become alternating figures in an abstract and largely stakes-free moral melodrama. The emphasis on “speaking” is to the point. There is a lot of talk about politics in Topeka School, just as there is a lot of talk about art in Atocha: in neither case, though, is it clear what hinges on the choice of language game.
What is clear is that, by the end of The Topeka School, political commitment has emerged as the socially responsible solution—even if it remains elusive to Lerner’s narrator—to artistic disaffection. As for aesthetic commitment, this continues to be viewed as the product of a piteous naïveté, if not something more pernicious. If the man crying in front of the painting at the beginning of Atocha was like my college classmate—a lover of art, unashamed of being overcome by it in public—Lerner’s novels are like my survey course professors: to them, such an eruption of passion is, at best, an opportunity for theoretical education. Many critics have praised Lerner for narrating portions of Topeka School from Adam’s parents’ points of view, after focusing only on his autofictional narrator in the earlier books. But the expanded cast of characters is not accompanied by an enlargement of sensibility or experience. As in the previous books, detachment and skepticism reign supreme. There is no real romance in The Topeka School, hardly any lust (yes, there is a cunnilingus scene, and yes, Lerner does turn it into a meditation on linguistics), no sympathetic depictions of anything approximating religious or artistic conviction. In a flashback, Adam remembers finding a rare respite from self-consciousness in a freestyle rap session with his high school friends, an experience that allows him to “catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of grammar as pure possibility.” But even as he recalls this momentary pleasure, he cultivates a critical distance from it, interrupting the scene to remind us that the freestyling represented “the clearest manifestation of a crisis in white masculinity and its representational regimes”—as if to warn against the destabilizing implications of his brief experiment with an incompletely moralized creativity.
There is nothing wrong with literature participating in—or being used as material for—social and political debates: from Ulysses to The Golden Notebook to Beloved, many of the great works of twentieth-century fiction have served as touchstones in cultural conversations. Surely, though, we lose something when this is all we can figure out to do with literature—as any of the authors of those novels would passionately attest. To their credit, Lerner’s novels at least recollect the possibility of aesthetic enchantment, even if they do so from a remote distance. The viral success of two recent short stories published in magazines, Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” and Tony Tulathimutte’s “The Feminist,” gives a more straightforward sense of the way the hatred of literature often manifests itself, in our public discourse, in the simple conflation of fiction and social commentary. (The lack of literary sensibility in these millennial morality tales was a feature rather than a bug: it was what allowed them to generate takes in the same register as the newest fragment of cultural testimony in The Cut.) That language, style and perspective clearly matter to Lerner, however, only makes his distrust of literary experience all the more telling. Not only his turn from aesthetics to politics, but also the suspicious theoretical commentary he embeds at the very heart of his narratives—as one critic has put it, a Lerner novel arrives already armed with “its own critique, and its own defense”—give evidence of just how far the hatred of literature has advanced. No wonder the haters were “cancelling dinner dates” (Joanna Biggs, London Review of Books) when the review copies arrived in the mail; Lerner is their man on the inside.
It was during a period of increasing politicization, and amid a boom for the proselytizers of scientific skepticism in nineteenth-century England, that Samuel Coleridge formulated his idea of “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” The famous phrase—“willing suspension of disbelief”—is easy to misunderstand. It does not mean we should suspend our capacity to think when we engage with artworks, or that we are to imitate children (or our fantasy of children) and pretend not to know the difference between fact and fiction. Coleridge’s emphasis on the “will” indicates his understanding that modern, secular audiences would be more self-conscious than ancient ones, knowing as they did that art did not emanate directly from the divine or a divinely inspired nature. It is also the key to his insight that “profound experience,” under such conditions, would be at least in part the product of cultivated effort. Keats, building on the concept, would later coin the phrase “negative capability” to explain the specifically artistic virtue of being able to exist “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Both poets saw art’s highest potential as being to provide experiences that undermined the prevailing hierarchy of values in modern societies, a hierarchy that privileged detachment, skepticism and the “heresy”—as Coleridge liked to call it—of practical and political expediency.
In his book of literary commentary, The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner posits a very different role for art in modernity, one that turns not on the willing suspension of disbelief, but on our “embarrassment” that poems and novels exist at all. Beginning from the memorable opening words of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”—“I, too, dislike it”—Lerner observes that “the poem is always a record of failure.” He does not mean by this to discourage the reading or writing of poetry; he wants, rather, to show how this failure can become the foundation for a properly self-conscious form of literary appreciation. Indeed, he argues that the greatest poets are the ones able to most powerfully evoke our disappointment at the gap between the transcendental impulse that inspires us to write poetry, and the anticlimax of individual poems, bounded as they are by “the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.”
In spelling out the theory behind his artistic practice, however, Lerner exposes the misunderstanding in the hatred of literature’s disenchanted heart. He confuses the incapacity to suspend disbelief—the unwillingness to enter into the artwork’s imaginative world—for a mark of intellectual sophistication, when, as has always been clear to all but its most embarrassed proponents, it is a mark of imaginative destitution. “I have never been ‘disenchanted’ with language,” says the contemporary poet, critic and non-hater of literature Patricia Lockwood. “Well, except the times a businessman has talked to me.”
Literature, after all, is precisely that which is not bounded by “inflexible laws.” This does not mean it escapes those laws entirely, whether the laws of nature or the lawlike relations that govern our political and social lives. Literature is about life and thus contains everything in it that life contains—including politics, history and certainly disappointment. But when we read something that moves us to tears or laughter, pity or terror, conviction or bewilderment, it is because it reminds us that the “real” is not always disenchanted, our lives not always reducible to the conditions of their possibility. Perhaps we do live in a time, as our greatest poet of disenchantment once described it, of “specialists without spirit, and sensualists without heart.” All the more reason to resist the march toward a literary culture without love.