06 April 2005

The April of the Dean

Saul Bellow has died. I suppose that means it's time for some reflection on the state of American literature, or at least on the American publishing of American literature. Bellow is one of seven Americans to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, a proportion that is perhaps slightly—but not a lot—lower than it should be. In the last quarter of a century, the Prize Committee has too often awarded the prize for what was written about rather than what was written. Curiously, three of the seven have been archly Jewish, imbuing their works with an almost stereotypable "New York sense of humor."

In any event, perhaps this will spare us Tom Wolfe for a couple of days, although I expect that his ego won't allow him to refrain from placing a self-aggrandizing essay on his relationship with Bellow's works in some major print outlet. It will, however, allow me to comment on the shameful difference between the way American publishing has treated the two. The one wrote serious fiction, for serious people, and got treated like a joke. Of course, that's probably par for the course; most American source of serious fiction are consolidating and reducing their output. (I will not comment on the irony of that item appearing where it did, considering that the NYTBR has steadily reduced its coverage of fiction in the last five years—and the current editor wants to cut it more—except to note it.)

Perhaps, though, that's a sick sort of democracy in action. Bellow never stooped to providing easy answers to the hard questions raised in his books. That, however, seems to be what the publishing industry seems to think we want. Put another way, I don't read in order to turn my brain off; that, however, seems to be the only constant in what the publishing industry proclaims as its greatest successes.