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"To The Editor" by Amy Bellette


To the Editor:

There was a time when intelligent people used literature to think. That time is coming to an end. During the decades of the Cold War, in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, it was the serious writers who were expelled from literature; now, in America, it is literature that has been expelled as a serious influence on how life is perceived. The predominant uses to which literature is now put in the culture pages of the enlightened newspapers and in university English departments are so destructively at odds with the aims of imaginative writing, as well as with the rewards that literature affords an openminded reader, that it would be better if literature were no longer put to any public use.

Your paper's cultural journalism—the more of it there is, the worse it gets. As soon as one enters into the ideological simplifications and biographical reductivism of cultural journalism, the essence of the artifact is lost. Your cultural journalism is tabloid gossip disguised as an interest in "the arts," and everything that it touches is contracted into what it is not. Who is the celebrity, what is the price, what is the scandal? What transgression has the writer committed, and not against the exigencies of literary aesthetics but against his or her daughter, son, mother, father, spouse, lover, friend, publisher, or pet? Without the least idea of what is innately transgressive about the literary imagination, cultural journalism is ever mindful of phony ethical issues: "Does the writer have the right to blahblahblah?" It is hypersensitive to the invasion of privacy perpetrated by literature over the millennia, while maniacally dedicated to exposing in print, unfictionalized, whose privacy has been invaded and how. One is struck by the regard cultural journalists have for the barriers of privacy when it comes to the novel.

Hemingway's early stories are set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, so your cultural journalist goes to the Upper Peninsula and finds out the names of the locals who are said to have been models for the characters in the early stories. Surprise of surprises, they or their descendants feel badly served by Ernest Hemingway. These feelings, unwarranted or childish or downright imaginary as they may be, are taken more seriously than the fiction because they're easier for your cultural journalist to talk about than the fiction. The integrity of the journalist's informant is never questioned—only the integrity of the writer. The writer works alone for years on end, stakes his or her everything on the writing, pores over every sentence sixty-two times, and yet is without any sort of overriding literary consciousness, understanding, or goal. Everything the writer builds, meticulously, phrase by phrase and detail by detail, is a ruse and a lie. The writer is without literary motive. Any interest in depicting reality is nil. The writer's guiding motives are always personal and generally low.

And this knowledge comes as a comfort, for it turns out that not only are these writers not superior to the rest of us, as they pretend to be—they are worse than the rest of us. Those terrible geniuses!

The way in which serious fiction eludes paraphrase and description—hence requiring thought—is a nuisance to your cultural journalist. Only its imagined sources are to be taken seriously, only that fiction, the lazy journalist's fiction. The original nature of the imagination in those early Hemingway stories (an imagination that in a handful of pages transformed the short story and American prose) is incomprehensible to your cultural journalist, whose own writing turns our honest English words into nonsense. If you told a cultural journalist, "Look inward at the story only," he wouldn't have a thing to say. Imagination? There is no imagination. Literature? There is no literature. There are only these people whose feelings are hurt because of what Hemingway did to them. Did Hemingway have the right . . . ? Does any author have the right . . . ? Sensationalist cultural vandalism masquerading as a responsible newspaper's devotion to "the arts."

If I had something like Stalin's power, I would not squander it on silencing the imaginative writers. I would silence those who write about the imaginative writers. I'd forbid all public discussion of literature in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly periodicals. I'd forbid all instruction in literature in every grade school, high school, college, and university in the country. I'd outlaw reading groups and Internet book chatter, and police the bookstores to be certain that no clerk ever spoke to a customer about a book and that the customers did not dare to speak to one another. I'd leave the readers alone with the books, to make of them what they would on their own. I'd do this for as many centuries as are required to detoxify the society of your poisonous nonsense.

Amy Bellette (/ E.I. Lonoff / Nathan Zuckerman / Philip Roth)




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