Book Review: This Thing We Call Literature

Aug 31, 2016

If you’ve never had the pleasure – and challenge – of reading the witty, trenchant cultural criticism of Arthur Krystal, who’s been called “the George Clooney of the essay world,” you might start with his new collection, “This Thing We Call Literature.” The Clooney reference fits because Krystal’s prose is confident, seductive. There are 10 essays in this slim volume, but you get more bang for your buck because even the prefatory Author’s Note, as well as an extended Postscript, explore the main theme: Krystal’s battle against merely competent or bad poetry and prose past and present that’s said to be great literature.  

Krystal is no condescending elitist. He knocks not only those who would advance social agendas by way of poetry and fiction but also their pretentious and misguided allies in the academy and media who spout elaborate theories in support of such agendas. Though he admires many genre novels, particularly detective fiction – he draws a line: Elmore Leonard, for example, for all his talent, is no Proust, Tolstoy or Henry James. Give in to the pleasures of commercial fiction – he does – but pick up his challenge to recognize the difference between being entertained and being memorably moved. Good commercial fiction can be fun, but it’s inferior to literary fiction “in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to [the Norse god] Wotan.”

Krystal slyly apologizes for what he calls “judicious repetition” from essay to essay, but the reader is thankful: though “This Thing We Call Literature” is conversational, the references that inform Krystal’s “agitations” and “reflections” cut such a wide and heady swath through the Western intellectual tradition that a reader at times may feel intimidated. But as Krystal himself might say, so what, read on: a commitment to the serious or high minded need not rule out humor, charm, self-deprecation, which he has.

His screed is against the loss of literary standards; against those for whom craft and discipline seem to matter less than “sharing” their feelings. To judge from book sales, syllabi and reviews, it may be too late for Great Literature to reclaim the place it once had, but Krystal will not go gently into that good night. Meanwhile, as the final essay notes, “interesting” ideas no longer flow from the humanities. Explorations about Art, Beauty, Morality are becoming the province of the biological and cognitive sciences, truths related to the brain, not the mind or heart.

The last line of “This Thing We Call Literature” which alludes to the famous last line of “The Great Gatsby,” is apt: “So we push on, faces pressed against the screen, carried relentlessly into a future where readers who remember what literature once meant must wonder – Is this the best we can do?” In his cynical heart Arthur Krystal hopes not. He misses being “besotted” by literary genius and the “ecstasy” that comes from reading great verse or novels in solitude, parts of which we unbiddingly memorize because their rhythms get in our blood, their wisdom into our souls.