Yeats wrote of a generation that felt “more passion in our enmities than in our loves.” Joseph Epstein doesn’t quite convince us of the passion in his enmities, but he certainly gets a lot of fun out of them; more fun, I believe, than out of his loves, which seem blurry.
Editor of The American Scholar, Epstein writes about literature for a number of other publications, notably Commentary and the New Criterion. They inhabit what is known as the New Right, and so, I suppose, does Epstein. At times, he manages to button up with the best of that buttoned-up crowd, but there is considerable laughter at work and the buttons keep popping off.
His mother never raised him to be a critic, belonging to the generation and neighborhood that held that if you couldn’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. But a critic he turned out to be, a shrewd, outspoken and often wrong-headed one.
In this latest collection of essays, he is once again the Sword of Justice against literary liberalism, trendiness and all the main currents of the past decades. He calls himself a sheriff whose job is to head off writers at the pass. The sword doesn’t hold quite steady, though; there is too much disarming wit and sneaky fair-mindedness at work. He looses off terrible volleys, but shoots more to startle than to kill.
The theme, or ostensible theme, for “Plausible Prejudices” is enunciated by Epstein as follows: “American writing itself has never seemed less important and more lost than it does now.” I say “ostensible theme”; in fact, it is a set of colors that Epstein pins to his helmet so as to obtain the maximum possible amount of combat in the literary jousts that he so plainly enjoys.
Some of the essays, in fact, devote more energy to the literary wars than to the literature. Epstein denounces a politics that he claims favors liberal and left-wing writers at the expense of conservatives. When under full battle steam, he tends to treat writers in terms of how they are treated; he will have at Updike or Renata Adler or Joan Didion for the inflated quality of the reviews they get or a pretentious pose in a publicity shot.
He can be ferocious with other critics. As to the writers themselves, there is an odd and winning disparity between the war cries he broadcasts into the air, as it were, and the sensitivity he demonstrates to the work of those of whom, theoretically speaking, he disapproves.
Epstein comes close, in fact, to a marvelously unreasonable formula. The writers he dislikes, he dislikes. The writers he likes, he dislikes--for not writing better. He is ferocious with Philip Roth’s solipsistic sexual bravura. “Roth can describe sex as easily as Dickens could describe London, though the views Dickens offers are more interesting.”
He is almost equally, and, to my mind, much more obtusely hard on Updike. He can be funny about some of the writers’ stylistic flourishes: “In Updike, there is always time to type out a bit of tapestry.” But he pretty well ignores the achievement of “Couples” and the Rabbit trilogy, treating them largely in terms of sexual display. He seizes on one of Updike’s weakest books--"Marry Me"--to make a general case. “Why would a novelist write such a book?” He demands; which is like asking, “Why would a playwright write ‘Titus Andronicus’ ?”
But more usually, with Adler, Didion, Ann Beattie, Robert Stone, his stand against liberal trendiness is undermined by his appreciation for the writers’ talents and strengths. They are spoiled, he more or less argues, because they fall short at some point, but he has transmitted his pleasure too convincingly for the demure to have much weight. “He is, in the strict sense of the word, marvelous,” he writes of the left-leaning Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “The pity is that he is not better.” Mt. Aconcagua is high, in otherwords; the pity is that it is not higher.
There is some absurdity in this, yet, it is an absurdity I rather like. Epstein’s love of battle continually comes up against a sensitive and honest critical mind. He is cantankerous and outrageous, sometimes, but he is not usually mean, and he scolds John Simon, his fellow Tory, for “free-floating nastiness” and adds that “he is the sort of writer who, when one finds oneself agreeing with him, makes one instantly want to reconsider one’s own position.”
In fact, for all of Epstein’s wit and high spirits, you wonder at times what he is defending. It is clear what he is attacking. He is against hype, pretentiousness and knee-jerk liberalism. He is also, quite rightly, against critical inflation--the kind of thing that regularly discovers a new masterpiece every four weeks.
(He is probably unfair here. Part of the function of daily and weekly reviewers is to command attention, to jump up and down, shouting “Stop a minute” amid the distractions of dailiness and the tendency of publishers to remainder books if they don’t catch fire after three months. Without earlier raves, Garcia Marquez might well not have survived long enough on the American book-selling scene for Epstein to be able to consider whether or not he was great as well as marvelous.)
But, what remains after all of Epstein’s targets are targeted? Who has been unfairly savaged by the liberal cabal? He mentions James Gould Cozzens and the later, conservative John Dos Passos. Yet, when he comes to deal with their work, his sensibility forces him to concede that Dos Passos’ later work was mediocre and to give a decidedly mixed analysis of Cozzens. He tries to like Van Wyck Brooks for the liberal attacks upon him, but he doesn’t really manage.
Epstein’s ideological dislikes are scintillating. His ideological enthusiasms are non-contagious. One wonders where his real enthusiasm is.
For contention, clearly. For literature, also clearly. And more clearly still, for a delight in writing with wit and revelry.