Arthur Krystal’s This Thing We Call Literature is surprisingly single-focused for a collection of essays. All of the 10 pieces—except one on negative reviews—defends literature with a capital “L” in some way or another. His argument is simple: Some literary works are inherently more valuable than others. As entertaining and as expertly executed as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express may be, it’s no Hamlet. To ignore such a distinction—as many do today—is a “huge mistake.” It replaces an aesthetic category (excellence) with a political one (inclusivity) and will stifle, if it hasn’t already, the development of great writers. Worse, it “is tantamount to an erasure of history.”
Is it really that dire? Maybe, maybe not, though it’s not too difficult to find evidence that we live in a particularly ignorant age gifted at lauding mediocre writers. Serious writers, Krystal notes, will continue to work, as they always do, “in the hope that time will forgive them for writing well.” But Krystal’s main concern is not to chop individual writers down to size and extol others—though he does do some cutting—as much as it is to defend the value of hierarchical thinking with respect to literature. “The prevailing mood,” he writes, “regards hierarchies with suspicion: Who’s to say who is worth reading and who isn’t?” While a willingness to include “formerly disenfranchised artists and writers” in the canon is a good thing, “the fact that writers are all entitled to a fair hearing doesn’t mean that they are equal.”
The opening two essays—the first originally published in Harper’s and the second in The Chronicle of Higher Education—lay the groundwork for the pieces on genre fiction and poetry that follow. We have always made distinctions between great and good writers, and literary and non-literary texts—Shakespeare was a “genius” and the highest form of writing was “poesy”—but the idea of a canon of literary, as opposed to religious, texts is relatively new. It took hold in the late 18th century, in part, as writers (and presses) tried to demonstrate that contemporary poets and playwrights were equal to ancient greats by publishing “Complete Works,” which, given their heft and often ornate covers and spines, were readily purchased by a burgeoning middle class intent on proving it was as refined as the aristocracy.
That the canon had sociological roots, however, doesn’t mean that the aesthetic judgments that established it were wrong. It would be “small-minded, as well as excessive,” Krystal writes, “to claim that commerce alone drove the literary enterprise. The fact that writers and publishers had gelt as well as gilt on their minds does not diminish the role of individual genius in the creation of canonical texts. … Canon formation continued to rely on a credible, if not monolithic, consensus among informed readers.”
Anyone who doesn’t already agree with Krystal might balk at that last line. A “credible … consensus among informed readers”? How about educated white men? Unfortunately, Krystal doesn’t help his case—which I think is almost entirely right, by the way—by often failing to demonstrate in detail how canonical writers are actually better than the minor writers who were forgotten. He does some of this latter in the collection by comparing—somewhat left-footedly—genre fiction to literary fiction (more on that shortly). But in these first two essays, he mostly lists writers and critics or turns to ex cathedra pronouncements—“War and Peace is objectively greater than The War of Words”—which are rarely very satisfying, however correct they may be.
When he does get more specific, things can get a little thorny. Is it true, for example, that great novels “rely more on accuracy of characterization than on the events that their characters react to”? I suppose it depends on what “rely more” and “accuracy” mean. Without further explanation, questions abound: Is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment accurate? Does the novel rely more on characterization than events? How about in classical drama? The Iliad and The Odyssey? Pamela and Jane Eyre?
In “It’s Genre. Not That There’s Anything Wrong with It,” Krystal argues rightly that “it’s not plotting that distinguishes literary from genre fiction”—literary novels can be just as expertly plotted as genre ones—it’s “sensibility,” the novelist’s purpose in writing, and “excellence in writing.” The genre writer is happy with serviceable prose and “stock characters,” he writes. “Great writers,” however, by which Krystal means literary ones, “hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception.” In “A Sad Road to Everything,” he writes that literature asks: “What is the meaning of existence? What are we or the universe doing here?”
Fair enough. The difference between great and good literature is one of truth, complexity, nuance, and style. Is this also the difference between literary and genre fiction? Perhaps, but only if we blindly recast genre fiction as pulp fiction and, in turn, ignore every piece of dry prose published by Northeastern trade presses that sells itself as “literary.” Krystal notes in passing that some fiction that goes by the name “literary” isn’t, but he doesn’t explain why, give examples, or offer even a brief analysis of the failures of literary fiction.
Put another way, Krystal is absolutely right that there is a difference between great and good works and that this difference has something to do with “a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships” and “of literature itself.” But his distinction between “genre” and “literary” muddies the waters, and forces him to make a number of exceptions and invent more terms (like “hybrid”). The fact is that invented categories like “genre” and “literary” make it harder to see reality clearly. In this case, that reality is the merit of individual novels.
Krystal’s personal essay on poetry, though, is a delight. He complains of missing the sound poetry used to make. When he reads contemporary poetry, he writes, “I discern intelligence, shrewdness, irony, humor. I often admire the elliptical shorthand of their phrasing and the precision of their lines. … Yet, in the end, I remain unmoved by it. Because there is no music.”
In his essay on negative reviews, he coyly tells authors not to respond to negative reviews only to take it all back in the end: “My advice is: Get mad and stay mad. Don’t cry, don’t pout, don’t feel helpless. … What the hell, make noise!” He goes on to argue that good negative reviews shouldn’t have “attitude.” Instead, they should “sound just the right note of judicial appraisal and collegial appreciation.”
This is what any author planning to publish a book would say, of course, but Krystal’s right. Most reviews should be collegial. Still, there are times when a thrashing is called for, and reviewers should have the guts do it. Reviews aren’t just a service to readers and an author’s book sales; they are a service to literature and so should separate the wheat from the chaff—by a vigorous shaking if necessary. They should also entertain. Pettiness and spitefulness, of course, are never entertaining. But neither is feigned appreciation.
Krystal is a gifted essayist, and those who have read him over the years will find everything they’ve come to appreciate about his style in This Thing Called Literature—the bold pronouncements, the expertly timed hedge, the fluid prose, and the wide reading. (There’s even an essay on the sadly forgotten Erich Auerbach.) But it’s also a somewhat nostalgic book that pitches its arguments in terms of received categories that in some ways help, but also hurt, our understanding of this thing called literature.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University and edits the literary newsletter Prufrock.