The Establishment and the Novel
No end in sight, the misrepresentations roll on. Before we take up these next dozen, let’s consider the relationship between liberatory lit and the establishment in more detail. Despite some contrary gestures and rhetoric, despite the exalted hopes of Flaubert, “often held to be the quintessential chronicler of nothingness,” modernist and other establishment works do not lack meaning, far from it. On the contrary, such works are full of meaning, but establishment minds are naively well schooled or otherwise sense or know it is safest for their own status quo positions, and therefore preferable, and therefore all but inevitable, that in such a powerful form as the novel, meaning be not too liberatory, lest some establishment superior find excuse to filter out, censor, bar any modern liberatory perpetrator, for much besides “obscenity” or “lewdness.”
Random-type blurring “modernist” techniques are great for camouflaging, giving plausible deniability to any unsanctioned versions of reality, except that typically the camouflage and deniability become the thing itself (unstable purview meld is one of the more convenient ways to bollix, to entirely gut whatever one might be taken to mean – sometimes even no matter how devoted the puzzle decoder; fiction as academic or abstract game). Victorian novels typically toed establishment lines too, but, especially, with the rise of corporate demands in this age of power propaganda have grown the imperatives of “nothingness.” Wholesale banking system illegitimacy and fraud is “nothingness.” Criminal invasions of sovereign countries are “nothingness.” Retrograde misrepresentation-laden criticism is “nothingness” – which is all an assertion of blindness, by way of what is falsely claimed to be ideology-and-propaganda-free art. It’s withdrawal, disengagement, a repudiation of crucial artistic prerogative and responsibility, no less. How more to emphasize the calamity? As a shame? As a betrayal of art and life? It’s fiction gutted.
Wood propounds an “aesthetic” of pursuing “the real, which is at the bottom of [his] inquiries,” in How Fiction Works and his criticism generally. Yet he botches reality time and again. During the Cold War the CIA went to great lengths and expense to mold the “seemingly apolitical” normative quality of art in the US and abroad and met with no little success that resonates today through corporations and universities, society and culture. The CIA merely picked up on and encouraged a strain that had been established earlier: “modernism,” the writing needed, encouraged, and employed, just as the mid-century abstract impressionist movement in painting was funded and driven by the CIA – art of “nothing” used to counter the engaged art rising from the ashes of World Wars I and II. As scholar James Petras notes perceptively in “The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited” (1999), an indispensable review of Frances Stoner Saunder’s limited though useful book “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters”:
The CIA and its cultural organizations were able to profoundly shape the postwar view of art. Many prestigious writers, poets, artists, and musicians proclaimed their independence from politics and declared their belief in art for art’s sake. The dogma of the free artist or intellectual, as someone disconnected from political engagement, gained ascendancy and is pervasive to this day…. The issue is not that today’s intellectuals or artists may or may not take a progressive position on this or that issue. The problem is the pervasive belief among writers and artists that anti-imperialist social and political expressions should not appear in their music, paintings, and serious writing if they want their work to be considered of substantial artistic merit.
Of course there has always been status quo work. It reaches one of its peak expressions in art about nothing much beyond endless interior vistas, basically of the private sphere, escorted by equally tranched criticism. Where again are the explicit antiwar novels about “the supreme international crime”? Many another sort of urgent novel has been destroyed in its cradle on these grounds. Much preferred by the establishment is Flaubert, his sort of work, for as Wood notes, “no novelist fetishized the poetry of ‘the sentence’ in the same way, no novelist pushed to such an extreme the potential alienation of form and content (Flaubert longed to write what he called a ‘book about nothing’).” Something of the underlying ideal today, fiction about not too much. “And no novelist before Flaubert reflected as self-consciously on questions of technique. With Flaubert, literature” rather than too threatening life “became ‘essentially problematic,’ as one scholar put it.” A great game. The supreme puzzle. The establishment dream – story neutered, destroyed – fiction drowned in the great Flaubertian spring.
During the cold war, the US establishment required its own Flaubert figure to try to control literature and naturally gravitated toward Henry James. When the highly accomplished and leading progressive literary critic, Maxwell Geismar, challenged the very quality and reigning adoration of Henry James’ fiction, he was silenced, and rather prominently in one instance, on national TV by two high level functionaries of the CIA, representing the interests of the corporate state rather than the populace. The two men who played a key role: William vanden Heuval and Irving Kristol – the former a “protégé” of the “father” of the CIA and the latter the CIA flack and “father” of neoconservatism who several years earlier had passed on his position as editor of Commentary magazine to Normon Podhoretz (a student of leading establishment lit critic Lionel Trilling, who was a sort of forerunner of James Wood). When William vanden Heuvel (father of the current editor/publisher of The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel) tag-teamed with Irving Kristol (the father of current prominent Fox TV political pundit and New York Times columnist Bill Kristol, also editor of the Washington DC based political magazine, The Weekly Standard) – when these central figures of the political establishment hastened to appear on national TV over four decades ago to attack directly to the face of the silenced progressive literary critic Maxwell Geismar, on the occasion of the publication of Geismar’s book of criticism about Henry James (“a primary Cold War literary figure”), Kristol and vanden Heuvel, two exemplars of the status quo, serving retrograde state interests, executed a prominent role in destroying Geismar’s accomplished literary career and ending his run on a national literary television show, Books on Trial (“or something similar,” in Geismar’s recollection). Geismar posits William vanden Heuvel as “a rich, cultivated, charming, and liberal member of the upper echelons of the CIA [who] had a large hand in embroiling [the US] in Vietnam,” while Irving Kristol “as it later turned out was almost always affiliated with many State Department or CIA literary projects in editing, publishing, and the academic world…a hired hand of the establishment.”
From where does the public space for status quo favorites arise, the fleets of ostensibly disengaged critics (though in de facto service of the very public status quo), all the refined minions, sophisticated apologists, odious smear artists and hacks, Orwellian liars? Obviously there are plenty of institutional roots, less obviously including the CIA – which helped set the ideological line for literature decades ago, a line heavily followed and affirmed by the ongoing establishment – all the continual defensive claims to the contrary that enable the essentially status quo liberal establishment (let alone conservative and reactionary elements) to view itself as something other than a blight, whatever else it might be. We can turn to the silenced progressive critic for a better understanding of the establishment literature tradition which endures today. Maxwell Geismar details the ideological reality that still today shapes and underlies the establishment, aside from some partial and modest reformations:
What was the real truth, the true historical dimension, of the Cold War? As I said in opening this Introduction, a new group of Cold War historians have been giving us a whole new set of impressions, which, alas, most of those who lived through the period, and are so certain of their convictions, will not even bother to read and to think about. For if they did…the Schlesingers, the Galbraiths, the Kristols, the Max Lerners, the Trillings, the Bells, the Rahvs, the Kazins, the Irving Howes: all these outstanding, upstanding figures of our political-cultural scene today…they would have to admit both their own illusions for the last twenty years, and the fact that they have deliberately deluded their readers about the historical facts of our period. Since it was they who fastened the Cold War noose around all our necks, how can we expect them to remove it? – even though, as in the cases of Mary McCarthy and Dwight MacDonald, and the estimable New York Review of Books, they have bowed a little to the changing winds of fashion today. Due to student protests at base, and student confrontations on Cold War issues, Professors Bell and Trilling have indeed moved on from Columbia to Harvard University – but after Harvard what? Mr. Trilling has even ‘resigned’ from contemporary literature, saying at long last that he does not understand it – but only after he led the attack for twenty years on such figures as the historian Vernon Parrington, the novelist Dreiser, the short-story writer Sherwood Anderson, and other such figures of our literary history. And only after the Columbia University English Department had taken the lead in setting up Henry James as ‘Receiver’ in what amounted to the bankruptcy of our national literature. The Cold War Liberals, historians, critics and so-called sociologists, also clustered around a set of prestigious literary magazines like Partisan Review, The New Leader, Encounter of London, Der Monat of Berlin, [also Kenyon Review and “many others”; Peter Matthiesson helped start the Paris Review as “a young CIA recruit…and used it as his cover”], which had in effect set the tone and the values of the ‘Free World’ culture. When it was revealed, about two years ago, that these leading cultural publications and organizations (the various Congresses and Committees for ‘Cultural Freedom’), as well as some student organizations and big unions of the AFL-CIO, were in fact being financed and controlled by Central Intelligence Agency – the game was up… – (1969) Maxwell Geismar, “Introduction,” New Masses: An Anthology of the Rebel Thirties (Ed. Joseph North)
The “game was up” for some individuals, but not for the establishment as whole, as has been documented in detail. The game had long since been up for Trilling’s fiction, and doesn’t look of much promise in Wood’s fiction, and preoccupations. As historian Michael Kimmage notes astutely in an essay on Trilling’s recently discovered abandoned second novel: Trilling is clearly “one in a long line of sensitive American novelists, eager to write a masterpiece out of American material and destroyed by the culture that is his subject.” Trilling like Wood is a special case though, for as Geismar points out, Trilling was a prominent part of the culture beyond fiction that helped lead the repressive charge. It’s more fitting than ironic, I suppose, that it led to the burial of Trilling’s own aspirations in fiction. It was Leon Wieseltier (the hatcheter of Baker’s antiwar novel Checkpoint) who introduced a recent large collection of Trilling’s essays. The Trillings of past and present, such as today’s star critic, James Wood stand shoulder-to-shoulder with establishmentarians like the liberal vanden Heuvels and the neoconservative Kristols in defending Henry James as grand author, in particular against some of the views of past prominent critic Edmund Wilson. Because Wood describes some of Wilson’s views on Henry James as “a scandal” and “barbarous,” he would no doubt also deplore or dismiss Geismar’s book of criticism: Henry James and the Jacobites (1963).
Wood’s critical concerns in a sense unite the dominant strands of literary fiction (at least) of the past 200 years – Victorianism and modernism – some of their main preoccupations as well as limited pre and post incarnations. Yet his criticism is ultimately very narrow, and often unreal, as noted. “James Wood’s How Fiction Works sometimes misses the plot” – the lead into Chris Tayler’s Guardian review of HFW: “Novel Tour Guide.” Tayler: “Good novelists, Wood says shrewdly, often use the kinds of metaphor that the communities they’re writing about would produce. His own similes and metaphors…tend to summon up leisured late-Victorian travellers” – meanwhile his “personal great tradition is a modernist one.” Wood respects some of the literary standards of the Victorians and values mainly the modernists – two of the status quo bastions of contemporary fiction. Both the Victorians and the modernists (moreso, it seems to me) fail the most liberatory tendencies in writing, “postmodernists” also. If we are to refer back to find regeneration in writing, far better to light upon Victor Hugo’s work than that of Flaubert, or the work of Jonathan Swift than that of Joyce, or the latter work of Tolstoy (Ivan Ilych, Hadji Murad) than that of Dostoevsky. For now, much dominant literature looks, as if to fetish and icon, to the (partly manufactured) example of Flaubert for both his Victorian and “modern” qualities, for his literary criticism, often as expressed in letters, and for fear (originally, at least) of the far more towering example of Victor Hugo, at his most influential and liberatory.
Upon publication of Les Misérables in 1862, that worldwide renowned and liberatory example of what a novel could be, establishment retrenching commenced with a vengeance, and continues to this day, with Flaubertian style obsession the nearest-at-hand, most useful literary countercourse available – then modernism – then a sort of formal criticism, politically charged – then the “realisms” and absurdisms “…traumatized … puerile … hysterical” … miasmic … intimatist – then the convolutions and misrepresentations of James Wood and the establishment. Retrenching began immediately in literary, social, and political realms all, upon publication of Les Misérables. As Hugo notes, “‘The newspapers which support the old world say, “It’s hideous, infamous, odious, execrable, abominable, grotesque, repulsive, shapeless, monstrous, horrendous, etc.” Democratic and friendly papers answer, “No, it’s not bad.”‘” Robb adds, “Mme Hugo, who was in Paris giving interviews, tried to persuade Hugo’s spineless allies to support the book and invited them to dinner; but Gautier had flu, Janin had ‘an attack of gout’, and George Sand excused herself on the grounds that she always over-ate when she was invited out….” Further:
…Perrot de Chezelles [a public prosecutor], in an ‘Examination of Les Misérables’, defended the excellence of a State which persecuted convicts even after their release, and derided the notion that poverty and ignorance had anything to do with crime…. The State was trying to clear its name. The Emperor and Empress performed some public acts of charity and brought philanthropy back into fashion. There was a sudden surge of official interest in penal legislation, the industrial exploitation of women, the care of orphans, and the education of the poor. From his rock in the English Channel, Victor Hugo…[exiled] had set the parliamentary agenda for 1862
– as he had set out to, in many ways. Flaubert described Les Misérables as “infantile,” containing “neither truth nor greatness,” showing “the fall of a God,” his erstwhile icon. In reality, Flaubert and the rest never escaped Hugo’s shadow, in more ways than one.
Robb notes that Flaubert, greatly inspired by Hugo’s poetry, Châtiments, wrote Hugo an “admiring pastiche” in 1853 including this bit of rhapsody: “‘Your poetry entered my body like my nurse’s milk.’ That same evening, before the stylistic effect had worn off,” continues Robb:
Flaubert sketched one of the great passages of modern prose fiction – the Comices Agricoles scene in Madame Bovary, where the pillars of rural French society pontificate among the animals and the dung. The resonances of Flaubert’s realism – a conscious blend of [two works by Hugo] Notre-Dame de Paris and Napoléon-le-Petit – go some way to explaining the political decision to prosecute Madame Bovary in 1857.
This is the side of Flaubert we don’t hear much about from Wood and other fixtures. This engaging and instructive, pointed scene likely brought the establishment crashing down on Flaubert, teaching its own lesson. One may become quite “modernist” in blurring meaning and belittling political agency to avoid having that lesson taught again. Might even force one to be ever more innovative and obedient to avoid future prosecution. Regardless, Flaubert is an accomplished and valuable artist, despite many drawbacks, as modernist and otherwise. Unfortunately his work is falsely and excessively elevated, and is used to falsely demean vital liberatory alternatives, including Hugo’s example not least (written in part in exile) an exercise that Flaubert himself sometimes participated in. Hugo’s intellectual and quality artistic accomplishment dwarfs that of Flaubert. Meanwhile, Hugo’s aesthetic qualities and achievements are at least equivalent to those of Flaubert, and in my view considerably greater. The schools (and the rest of the lit establishment) typically pass along a sort of doubly ignorant alternative view. A lot of writers can hope to match Flaubert’s achievements in literature. Virtually none can hope to match what Hugo accomplished in literature, let alone otherwise.
While advances have been made in literature in modernism, as in the contemporary novel – especially in the multicultural expansion – other basic and vast liberatory realms have been blocked, ignored, denounced, more-or-less wholesale in some ways. A more accomplished liberatory fiction – more fully human, with quality aesthetic and popular resonance – has been refused, buried, though not entirely. The establishment, typically denying it is partisan and ideologically orthodox to a severe degree, misrepresents itself and reality all the while, and writes against much that is urgent and liberatory in lit. The loss is to life and art both – to all manner of well-being, to aesthetics and imagination, to experience itself. The loss is to enlightenment ideals of liberty, justice, equality. The loss is to a greater art. The loss is to our greater humanity.
While “modernist” intimacies drip and fall elegantly into Parisian sewers, as it were, while puerile prose bounds typically slaphappy to paralysis, liberatory fiction goes public, blooms progressive and revolutionary in reality and possibility, outing fraud and thuggery, revealing resistance and opportunities for change. Like liberatory fiction, liberatory criticism exposes and advances. It points out that establishment criticism often not only apologizes for the status quo – especially by way of misrepresentations – it does something more and something less, like an oblivious lapdog or conscious functionary whose fangs come out on crucial occasions. Such criticism does more than defend the status quo, it attacks. For example, Wieseltier’s screed about “This scummy little book” or Richard Eder’s Orwellian obloquy in calling antiwar novels categorically “belligerent.” This is shock troop criticism, intended to deter evaluation, examination, production. Wood can seem mild by comparison – some of the most vociferously critiqued writers (Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe) differ variously but offer no threat to Wood’s basic stance. On the other hand, some of Edmund Wilson’s views are tagged in passing as a “scandal” and “barbarous.” The establishment misprises, ignores, or misrepresents much fiction and criticism, when it doesn’t feel compelled to shock trope.
Wood is so relatively prominent that his mass of misrepresentations is especially harmful, though he is also merely one among many in the literature establishment who tread within a relatively narrow and often distorted and repressive range of ideology. Now that his “common reader” book HFW may be widely used in the universities, his work is particularly worth critical examination, not only for necessary debunking but especially to bring to the light of day far more liberatory realities and possibilities in literature, life.
It’s not that nothing can be gained from establishment writing, of course; much can be, especially if one accounts for its oft subservient nature, past and present. While Wood at best cuts through the crap and actually says something of distinction with distinction, it’s too often part and parcel of crucial misrepresentations. Though plenty of establishment writing has its qualities and worthwhile components, much of such writers’ everyday work and would be greater works are “destroyed by the culture that is [their] subject” (and object too), as Kimmage notes in regard to Trilling’s fiction. Such authors participate greatly in the culture’s disfiguration and destruction. Trilling aborted his fiction and debased his criticism. Meanwhile Maxwell Geismar was prescient to see Norman Mailer’s especially influential style as tending to cavort vacantly manic or obtuse, oblivious, away from too revealing depiction of a lot of the most urgent central realities of our time – an early strain of puerility displayed in Advertisements for Myself (1959), and in the up and coming puerile prose of the “black humorists” as Robert Alter notes, several decades before Wood’s coinage and critique of “hysterical realism.”
Status quo fiction is made up partly of self-imposed chains – also establishment approved and enforced. Establishment authors clank and rattle in their bondage, the “hysterical realists” and Flaubertian intimatists and the rest, whether miasmic or fastidious, and otherwise status quo ensconced. The plight of fiction today, in many crucial ways, is a journey arrested, and misrepresented – not unlike the nation itself – not unlike the masses in this country and beyond, people bossed and betrayed by the establishment, by its power, by its literature, its criticism and fiction, its “necessary illusions,” the misrepresentations of naivety, orthodox ideology, or outright fraud. Wood’s ideologically orthodox book, for all its gleanings of purview, bears scant real account of how fiction works, even basically. In its neo-scholastic ramblings, too often newly dull, if not at points also deft, the book distorts “Flaubertian” modernism, even and especially, and fiction in general. Because HFW is an inadvertent ironic account of fiction arrested, aspiring writers would do well to take a few pointers then get free of the reigning culture club and cuffs. Best to eat what the rulers know, excrete the malign, then prepare and share many a far more liberatory moment and work of change.
Footnote  – Additionally, Wood’s view is that Wilson writes with “coercion” in separate essays about Chekhov and Gogol, a “coercion of paraphrase” that “makes the essay on Flaubert dogmatic.” -from “Mr. Literature,” Wood’s review of Lewis Dabney’s book, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature.
Footnote  – See Appendix for more on Hugo and Flaubert.