The bio at the bottom of Joseph Epstein’s latest diatribe about the rottenness of modern culture reads, “Joseph Epstein has been writing for Commentary for 57 years.” While this is clearly meant to sound valedictory, it strikes a discordant note, coming as it does at the close of a piece from the May 2020 issue of the vaunted American journal in which Epstein returns to a well he’s drunk from a few times too many in recent years, a well that contains water gone stale and putrid.
Those familiar with Epstein’s oeuvre will find his latest absolutely unsurprising. A noted curmudgeon and arch conservative (his bylines include the stalwart right-wing paper the Washington Examiner) Epstein was booted as editor of The American Scholar by, in his words, “academics who had an investment in feminism, black history, and gay and lesbian studies.” The former editor goes on to say that he “mostly treated these subjects in The American Scholar by ignoring them.”
This admission is telling, given his argument in “What Happened to the Novel?” (Which repeats, not incidentally, elements of his argument in the title essay of his 2018 collection The Ideal of Culture.) The crux of that argument is that western culture has been denuded and desiccated as a result of the general public turning its collective back on the towering literature of the western canon. “We have no modern Balzac, no Stendhal, no John Dos Passos, novelists who created characters ranging across the social spectrum, along the way giving one a feeling for a great city or the fate of a nation,” Epstein writes. “Novelists of an earlier time had a godlike mastery over vast stretches of knowledge, experience, intimate life that has long been missing.”
Hyperbole aside, there is something to be noted about the list of novelists from an earlier time that Eptstein enumerates (a list that also includes Melville, James, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dreiser ( ! ), Turgenev, and Conrad). The arguments about the historical hegemony of European culture resulting in a canon composed largely of dead white men are equally stale, yet it is difficult to ignore Epstein’s conceptual blinders here, given that they are the very things that lead him to endorse Joseph Bottum’s thesis that there have not been many novels of “world-historical” importance since 1975.
Though Bottum – whose book, The Decline of the Novel, is Epstein’s nominal focus – bemoans the deterioration of what he views as the major art form of the “Protestant West,” he is nevertheless able to find certain novels of the past half-century or so relevant or worthwhile. Epstein chastises Bottum for calling Michael Chabon “a major novelist” and cavils with the assessment of Shusako Endo’s novel Silence, which he judges to be lacklustre.
“If you admire fiction and consider it at its best richer than philosophy and novelists as the true historians of the present, but, like me, find yourself easily resisting contemporary novels, the reason, I believe, is that recent novels no longer do many of the things that once made them so glorious,” Epstein writes. “They want a certain weight, gravity, seriousness that has marked the best fiction over the centuries. They have turned away from telling grand stories issuing onto great themes.”
This is well trod ground. It is also indicative of an unacknowledged prejudice: the idea that “grand stories issuing onto great themes” must necessarily be confined to the kinds of stories and themes those authors Epstein professes to admire dealt with. Were this perspective to be broadened, one might discover a novel like Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is at least as polyphonic and multivalent as any novel to appear in the past two decades. It is also understood that “grand stories” and “great themes” are code for “masculine”: though Epstein numbers Willa Cather as his choice for greatest American writer of the 20th century, the number of women writers he champions is slim. It is doubtful, for example, that he would find his desired “great themes” of politics, war, the grandeur of love and life and death in a work such as Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, though they are indisputably there should one care to look.
And perhaps that is the crux of the issue. Epstein tips his hand in his latest piece with a telling admission: “I keep a list of the books I read, and the past hundred of these books include novels by Denis Diderot, Heinrich Heine, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, and Vasily Grossman, but no novel written after 1990.” He believes the contemporary novel to be in decline while also claiming not to have read widely much of what has been published in recent years. Granted, a portion of that reading would perforce cover all that Black history, feminism, and LGBTQ writing that he professed to have ignored at The American Scholar. Were he to give some of this writing a chance, he might be pleasantly surprised by what he finds.
Then again, probably not. As Hans Rollmann points out in a perceptive review of The Ideal of Culture, arguments that insist on the centrality of the western canon as the be all and end all of literary greatness are most frequently a veil for a politics of exclusion. The western canon developed because a period of global colonization allowed British, French, Russian, and American thought and culture to take root at the expense of other work and other cultures. A newly globalized, connected world has allowed for the excavation of writing from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere that has equal claim to validity.
“It’s bewildering why advocates of ‘high culture’ seem overwhelmingly concerned with protecting the privileged status of European-derived cultural works,” Rollmann writes. “The far greater and more exciting project for advocates of high culture, one would think, would be to celebrate our hopefully more enlightened age by broadening the scope of the canons with which they were raised, and embracing all the tremendously varied expressions of high culture that exist in the world.”
Epstein would no doubt argue that such a position is the product of political correctness gone mad rather than a plea for critics to expand their literary horizons. Which is too bad, because literature should not be a zero-sum game: admitting the worth of novelists such as Marlon James, Lucy Ellmann, Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami, Chigozi Obioma, and others does not mean we can no longer read and appreciate the great European and American writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. But it does mean we acknowledge that they are not the only game in town. They never were.
In the final analysis, Epstein isn’t interested in novels that address the way we live now. He wants novels that focus on the way we lived then. His is a reclamation project of nostalgia for a cultural period that has passed and that isn’t coming back, no matter how many paeans to the good old days are expended in the pages of conservative leaning journals.
Epstein is correct to assess a diminution in the value of the novel’s centrality to contemporary culture: that was inevitable. We live in an image-besotted age; Instagram, streaming services, binge television, and advertising have a clutch-lock on modern society, and it is worthwhile to interrogate how this shift in cultural preferences affects our ability or inclination to appreciate great art, or even to recognize it when we see it. But if critics like Epstein would deign to descend from their ivory towers and take a look around, they might be edified by what they discover.