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In Defense of Difficulty

A phony populism is denying Americans the joys of serious thought.
Robert Maynard Hutchins difficulty

It is a commonplace to bemoan the vanishing of serious criticism in our popular culture. The past, it is said, was a golden age. More than 25 years ago, Russell Jacoby put it sharply in The Last Intellectuals, when he decried the disappearance of the “public intellectual” since the heyday of the fevered debates over politics and literature that broke out among Depression-era students in the cafeteria at New York’s City College. Much had gone awry: “A public that once snapped up pamphlets by Thomas Paine or stood for hours listening to Abraham Lincoln debate Stephen Douglas hardly exists; its span of attention shrinks as its fondness for television increases.”

The rising price of real estate was also to blame, for it had led to the gentrification of America’s bohemian enclaves, like Greenwich Village in New York and North Beach in San Francisco, spawning grounds for generations of disaffected intellectuals and artists, who now could no longer afford independence. Jacoby’s verdict was harsh and sweeping: “The eclipse of these urban living areas completes the eclipse of the cultural space.”

Universities, too, were at fault. They had colonized critics by holding careers hostage to academic specialization, requiring them to master the arcane tongues of ever-narrower disciplines, forcing them to forsake a larger public. Compared to the Arcadian past, the present, in this view, was a wasteland.

It didn’t have to be this way. In the postwar era, a vast project of cultural uplift sought to bring the best that had been thought and said to the wider public. Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago and Mortimer J. Adler were among its more prominent avatars. This effort, which tried to deepen literacy under the sign of the “middlebrow,” and thus to strengthen the idea that an informed citizenry was indispensable for a healthy democracy, was, for a time, hugely successful. The general level of cultural sophistication rose as a growing middle class shed its provincialism in exchange for a certain worldliness that was one legacy of American triumphalism and ambition after World War II. College enrollment boomed, and the percentage of Americans attending the performing arts rose dramatically. Regional stage and opera companies blossomed, new concert halls were built, and interest in the arts was widespread. TV hosts Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and Dick Cavett frequently featured serious writers as guests. Paperback publishers made classic works of history, literature, and criticism available to ordinary readers whose appetite for such works seemed insatiable.

Mass circulation newspapers and magazines, too, expanded their coverage of books, movies, music, dance, and theater. Criticism was no longer confined to such small but influential journals of opinion as Partisan Review, The Nation, and The New Republic. Esquire embraced the irascible Dwight Macdonald as its movie critic, despite his well-known contempt for “middlebrow” culture. The New Yorker threw a lifeline to Pauline Kael, rescuing her from the ghetto of film quarterlies and the art houses of Berkeley. Strong critics like David Riesman, Daniel Bell, and Leslie Fiedler, among others, would write with insight and pugilistic zeal books that often found enough readers to propel their works onto bestseller lists. Intellectuals such as Susan Sontag were featured in the glossy pages of magazines like Vogue. Her controversial “Notes on Camp,” first published in 1964 in Partisan Review, exploded into public view when Time championed her work. Eggheads were suddenly sexy, almost on a par with star athletes and Hollywood celebrities. Gore Vidal was a regular on Johnny Carson. William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” hosted vigorous debates that often were models of how to think, how to argue, and, at their best, told us that ideas mattered.

As Scott Timberg, a former arts reporter for the Los Angeles Times, puts it in his recent book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, the idea, embraced by increasing numbers of Americans, was that

drama, poetry, music, and art were not just a way to pass the time, or advertise one’s might, but a path to truth and enlightenment. At its best, this was what the middlebrow consensus promised. Middlebrow said that culture was accessible to a wide strat[um] of society, that people needed some but not much training to appreciate it, that there was a canon worth knowing, that art was not the same as entertainment, that the study of the liberal arts deepens you, and that those who make, assess, and disseminate the arts were somehow valuable for our society regardless of their impact on GDP.

So what if culture was increasingly just another product to be bought and sold, used and discarded, like so many tubes of toothpaste? Even Los Angeles, long derided as a cultural desert, would by the turn of the century boast a flourishing and internationally respected opera company, a thriving archipelago of museums with world-class collections, and dozens of bookstores selling in some years more books per capita than were sold in the greater New York area. The middlebrow’s triumph was all but assured.

The arrival of the Internet by century’s end promised to make that victory complete. As the Wall Street Journal reported in a front-page story in 1998, America was “increasingly wealthy, worldly, and wired.” Notions of elitism and snobbery seemed to be collapsing upon the palpable catholicity of a public whose curiosities were ever more diverse and eclectic and whose ability to satisfy them had suddenly and miraculously expanded. We stood, it appeared, on the verge of a munificent new world—a world in which technology was rapidly democratizing the means of cultural production while providing an easy way for millions of ordinary citizens, previously excluded from the precincts of the higher conversation, to join the dialogue. The digital revolution was predicted to empower those authors whose writings had been marginalized, shut out of mainstream publishing, to overthrow the old monastic self-selecting order of cultural gatekeepers (meaning professional critics). Thus would critical faculties be sharpened and democratized. Digital platforms would crack open the cloistered and solipsistic world of academe, bypass the old presses and performing-arts spaces, and unleash a new era of cultural commerce. With smart machines there would be smarter people.

Harvard’s Robert Darnton, a sober and learned historian of reading and the book, agreed. He argued that the implications for writing and reading, for publishing and bookselling—indeed, for cultural literacy and criticism itself—were profound. For, as he gushed in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, we now had the ability to make “all book learning available to all people, or at least those privileged enough to have access to the World Wide Web. It promises to be the ultimate stage in the democratization of knowledge set in motion by the invention of writing, the codex, movable type, and the Internet.” In this view, echoed by innumerable worshippers of the New Information Age, we were living at one of history’s hinge moments, a great evolutionary leap in the human mind. And, in truth, it was hard not to believe that we had arrived at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in history had more good literature and cultural works been available at such low cost to so many. The future was radiant.

Others, such as the critics Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, were more skeptical. They worried that whatever advantages might accrue to consumers and the culture at large from the emergence of such behemoths as Amazon, not only would proven methods of cultural production and distribution be made obsolete, but we were in danger of being enrolled, whether we liked it or not, in an overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture that, as numerous studies have shown, renders serious reading and cultural criticism increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and sustained argument. Indeed, they feared that the digital tsunami now engulfing us may even signal an irrevocable trivialization of the word. Or, at the least, a sense that the enterprise of making distinctions between bad, good, and best was a mug’s game that had no place in a democracy that worships at the altar of mass appeal and counts its receipts at the almighty box office.


Karl Kraus, the acerbic fin-de-siecle Viennese critic, once remarked that no nation’s literature could properly be judged by examining its geniuses, since genius always eludes explanation. A better metric is the second-rate, which is to say, the popular literature and art that makes up the bulk of what people consume. The truly extraordinary defy taxonomy. More fruitful by far would be to map the ecosystem of the less talented for whom craft and tenacity and ambition are no insult. By that measure, postwar America’s middlebrow culture, a culture whose achievements often mistook the second-rate for top-tier work—see, for example, the novels of Herbert Gold, Herman Wouk, James Michener, Edna Ferber, Irving Stone, and John Steinbeck, to name a few—appears almost to have been a golden age. Or, as Timberg says, a silver age, at the least. What is missing today is a cultural ecology that permits the second-rate to fail upwards.

That failure is a body blow against the broader culture.  The world that had once permitted such efforts to flourish is gone. Today, America’s traditional organs of popular criticism—newspapers, magazines, journals of opinion—have been all but overwhelmed by the digital onslaught: their circulations plummeting, their confidence eroded, their survival in doubt. Newspaper review sections in particular have suffered: jobs have been slashed, and cultural coverage vastly diminished. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post have abandoned their stand-alone book sections, leaving the New York Times as the only major American newspaper still publishing a significant separate section devoted to reviewing books.

Such sections, of course, were always few. Only a handful of America’s papers ever deemed book coverage important enough to dedicate an entire Sunday section to it. Now even that handful is threatened with extinction, and thus is a widespread cultural illiteracy abetted, for at their best the editors of those sections tried to establish the idea that serious criticism was possible in a mass culture. In the 19th century, Margaret Fuller, literary editor of the New York Tribune and the country’s first full-time book reviewer, understood this well. She saw books as “a medium for viewing all humanity, a core around which all knowledge, all experience, all science, all the ideal as well as all the practical in our nature could gather.” She sought, she said, to tell “the whole truth, as well as nothing but the truth.”

The arrival of the Internet has proved no panacea. The vast canvas afforded by the Internet has done little to encourage thoughtful and serious criticism. Mostly it has provided a vast Democracy Wall on which any crackpot can post his or her manifesto. Bloggers bloviate and insults abound. Discourse coarsens. Information is abundant, wisdom scarce. It is a striking irony, as Leon Wieseltier has noted, that with the arrival of the Internet, “a medium of communication with no limitations of physical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words.” The Internet, he said, is the first means of communication invented by humankind that privileges one’s first thoughts as one’s best thoughts. And he rightly observed that if “value is a function of scarcity,” then “what is most scarce in our culture is long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers.” Time is required to think through difficult questions. Patience is a condition of genuine intellection. The thinking mind, the creating mind, said Wieseltier, should not be rushed. “And where the mind is rushed and made frenetic, neither thought nor creativity will ensue. What you will most likely get is conformity and banality. Writing is not typed talking.”

The fundamental idea at stake in the criticism of culture generally is the self-image of society: how it reasons with itself, describes itself, imagines itself. Nothing in the excitements made possible by the digital revolution banishes the need for the rigor such self-reckoning requires. It is, as Wieseltier says, the obligation of cultural criticism to bear down on what matters.


Where is such criticism to be found today? We inhabit a remarkably arid cultural landscape, especially when compared with the ambitions of postwar America, ambitions which, to be sure, were often mocked by some of the country’s more prominent intellectuals. Yes, Dwight Macdonald famously excoriated the enfeeblements of “mass cult and midcult,” and Irving Howe regretted “This Age of Conformity,” but from today’s perspective, when we look back at the offerings of the Book-of-the-Month Club and projects such as the Great Books of the Western World, their scorn looks misplaced. The fact that their complaints circulated widely in the very midcult worlds Macdonald condemned was proof that trenchant criticism had found a place within the organs of mass culture. One is almost tempted to say that the middlebrow culture of yesteryear was a high-water mark.

The reality, of course, was never as rosy as much of it looks in retrospect. Cultural criticism in most American newspapers, even at its best, was almost always confined to a ghetto. You were lucky at most papers to get a column or a half-page devoted to arts and culture. Editors encouraged reporters, reviewers, and critics to win readers and improve circulation by pandering to the faux populism of the marketplace. Only the review that might immediately be understood by the greatest number of readers would be permitted to see the light of day. Anything else smacked of “elitism”—a sin to be avoided at almost any cost.

This was a coarse and pernicious notion, one that lay at the center of the country’s longstanding anti-intellectual tradition. From the start of the republic, Americans have had a profoundly ambivalent relationship to class and culture, as Richard Hofstadter famously observed. He was neither the first nor the last to notice this self-inflicted wound. As even the vastly popular science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov understood, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

The effort to insinuate more serious standards into the instruments of mass culture was always difficult, even when a rising middle class made possible the notion of increasing cultural sophistication. A single story from the near-decade I served as literary editor of the Los Angeles Times tells the tale:

In 1997, Penguin announced that it would publish a volume of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s selected writings. Years ago, Carlos Fuentes had told me of this remarkable 17th-century Mexican nun and poet. I had never heard of her. Nor was I alone. Much of her work had yet to be translated into English, even some 300 years after her death. It was, Fuentes said, a scandal, as if Shakespeare had still to be translated into Spanish. The whole of Spanish literature owed a debt to her genius. Thus I decided that an anthology of her writings, newly translated by the excellent Margaret Sayers Peden and published under the imprimatur of Penguin Classics, ought to be treated as news. After all, about a quarter of the readers of the Los Angeles Times had Latino roots.

I asked Octavio Paz, Mexico’s greatest living poet and critic, to contribute a lengthy essay on Sor Juana. When he agreed, I felt I had gotten something worth playing big on the front page of the Book Review. But when I showed my superiors the color proof of the cover, I was met with incomprehension. Sor Juana who? A nun who’d been dead for almost half a millennium? Had I taken complete leave of my senses? Couldn’t I find something by someone living who might be better known to our many subscribers, say, the latest thriller from James Patterson?

Dispirited, I trundled up to the paper’s executive dining room to brood upon the wisdom of my decision. When Alberto Gonzalez, the paper’s longtime Mexican-American waiter, appeared to take my order, seeing the proof before me, he exhaled audibly and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” “You’ve heard of her?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “Every school child in Mexico knows her poems. I still remember my parents taking me as a boy to visit her convent, now a museum. I know many of her poems by heart.” At which point, in a mellifluous Spanish, he began to recite several verses. So much for my minders, I thought; I’m going to trust Alberto on this one. marapr-issuethumb

After Paz’s paean appeared in the Sunday edition, many people wrote to praise the Book Review for at last recognizing the cultural heritage of a substantial segment of the paper’s readers. Their response suggested, at least to me, that the best way to connect with readers was to give them the news that stays news. In the end, it hardly mattered. In the summer of 2009, four years after I left, the Tribune Company, which had bought the Times for more than $8 billion, shuttered the Review. The staff was mostly sacked.

Today such an ambition seems absurdly quixotic. Perhaps it always was. After all, the very idea of cultural and intellectual discrimination is regularly attacked for the sin of “snark,” and notions of authority and expertise are everywhere under siege. Richard Schickel, the longtime film critic for Time magazine, writing in a 2007 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, objected to the “hairy-chested populism” that increasingly dominates and enfeebles what passes for cultural commentary. “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity,” he insisted. “It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinion of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.” Sure, he seemed to be saying, let a hundred million opinions bloom; but let’s also acknowledge the truth that not all opinions are equal. In these matters, I, like Schickel, am a Leninist: Better fewer, but better.

The necessity of literary hygiene as a way of keeping a culture honest and astute is in danger of being forgotten. Too few remember William Hazlitt’s essay on “the pleasure of hating.” Hazlitt complained that “the reputation of some books is raw and unaired,” and rightly saw that “the popularity of the most successful writers operates to wean us from them, by the cant and fuss that is made about them, by hearing their names everlastingly repeated, and by the number of ignorant and indiscriminate admirers they draw after them.”  Today what is needed, more than ever, is what Wieseltier has called “the higher spleen.”

A good recent example is Francine Prose’s lacerating takedown of Donna Tartt’s bestselling and widely admired novel, The Goldfinch, or the late Christopher Hitchens’s mighty evisceration of Henry Kissinger. Or, in an earlier period, Susan Sontag’s salutary critique of Leni Riefenstahl’s fascist aesthetics at a time when her Nazi past had been largely forgotten. None of these critics banished difficulty or avoided complexity of thought; on the contrary, they tried hard to think seriously and deeply, to express themselves with vigor and clarity, without shirking the moral obligation to treat readers as adults. They understood the necessity of making distinctions between the good, the bad, and the ugly. Doing so, they knew, was a critic’s highest calling.


When did “difficulty” become suspect in American culture, widely derided as anti-democratic and contemptuously dismissed as evidence of so-called elitism? If a work of art isn’t somehow immediately “understood” or “accessible” by and to large numbers of people, it is often ridiculed as “esoteric,” “obtuse,” or even somehow un-American. We should mark such an argument’s cognitive consequences. A culture filled with smooth and familiar consumptions produces in people rigid mental habits and stultified conceptions. They know what they know, and they expect to find it reinforced when they turn a page or click on a screen. Difficulty annoys them, and, having become accustomed to so much pabulum served up by a pandering and invertebrate media, they experience difficulty not just as “difficult,” but as insult. Struggling to understand, say, Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece The Sound and the Fury or Alain Resnais’s Rubik’s Cube of a movie “Last Year at Marienbad” needn’t be done. The mind may skip trying to solve such cognitive puzzles, even though the truth is they strengthen it as a workout tones the muscles.

Sometimes it feels as if the world is divided into two classes: one very large class spurns difficulty, while the other very much smaller delights in it. There are readers who, when encountering an unfamiliar word, instead of reaching for a dictionary, choose to regard it as a sign of the author’s contempt or pretension, a deliberate refusal to speak in a language ordinary people can understand. Others, encountering the same word, happily seize on it as a chance to learn something new, to broaden their horizons. They eagerly seek a literature that upends assumptions, challenges prejudices, turns them inside out and forces them to see the world through new eyes.

The second group is an endangered species. One reason is that the ambitions of mainstream media that, however fitfully, once sought to expose them to the life of the mind and to the contest of ideas, have themselves shrunk. We have gone from the heyday of television intellection which boasted shows hosted by, among others, David Susskind and David Frost, men that, whatever their self-absorptions, were nonetheless possessed of an admirable highmindedness, to the pygmy sound-bite rants of Sean Hannity and the inanities of clowns like Stephen Colbert. Once upon a time, the ideal of seriousness may not have been a common one, but it was acknowledged as one worth striving for. It didn’t have to do what it has to today, that is, fight for respect, legitimate itself before asserting itself. The class that is allergic to difficulty now feels justified in condemning the other as “elitist” and anti-democratic. The exercise of cultural authority and artistic or literary or aesthetic discrimination is seen as evidence of snobbery, entitlement and privilege lording it over ordinary folks. A perverse populism increasingly deforms our culture, consigning some works of art to a realm somehow more rarified and less accessible to a broad public. Thus is choice constrained and the tyranny of mass appeal deepened in the name of democracy.

Consider, by contrast, Theodor Adorno’s exemplary response to his good friend Gershom Scholem upon receiving Scholem’s translation of the Zohar, the masterpiece of Kabbalah, as mysterious as it is magnificent. In 1939, Adorno, living in exile in New York after fleeing Nazi Germany, wrote Scholem who had long since settled in Jerusalem:

I’m not just being rhetorical when I say that the Zohar translation you sent me gave me more joy than any gift I have received in a long time. Don’t read into this remark anything pretentious, because I am far from claiming to have fully grasped the text. But it’s the kind of thing whose indecipherability is itself an element of the joy I felt in reading it. I think I can say that your introduction has at least given me a topological notion of the Zohar. A bit like someone who goes high into the mountains to spot chamois bucks but fails to see them, because he’s a nearsighted city dweller. After an experienced guide points out the precise spot where the bucks congregate he becomes so thoroughly acquainted with their territory that he thinks he must be able to discover these rare creatures immediately. The summer tourist cannot expect to glean anything more than this from the landscape, which is truly revealed only at the price of a lifetime’s commitment—nothing less.

The ideal of serious enjoyment of what isn’t instantly understood is rare in American life. It is under constant siege. It is the object of scorn from both the left and the right. The pleasures of critical thinking ought not to be seen as belonging to the province of an elite. They are the birthright of every citizen. For such pleasures are at the very heart of literacy, without which democracy itself is dulled. More than ever, we need a defense of the Eros of difficulty.

Steve Wasserman, former literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, is editor-at-large for Yale University Press.

This essay is adapted with permission from his chapter in the forthcoming The State of the American Mind: Sixteen Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism, edited by Adam Bellow and Mark Bauerlein, to be published by Templeton Press in May 2015.