It’s my good fortune to have 10 toes. It’s also my good fortune, although this is more contentious, that the number of Substacks I read doesn’t match the digits on my feet. Every week, I look at the Stacks from Oliver Bateman, Walter Kirn, Lucian K. Truscott IV and Michael Maiello, and, whether or not I agree with the ideas presented, enjoy them very much. Otherwise, I haven’t the inclination to add on more: it’s not a matter of time, for I read everything under the moon during the day, but rather that most of the Substacks I’ve sampled aren’t edited well—the worst are solipsistic to the point of parody—and distract me from say, a long essay in The New Criterion or The Boston Globe’s sports coverage.
I’ve kept a print-out of Maiello’s March 3 “Middlebrow” column on my desk, meaning to make a few comments, for it’s about a subject—fiction—that interests me, more in the past 20 or so years as the quality of magazines and newspapers, those that still exist, has disintegrated, also to the point of parody. Michael reacted to a long, if often tedious, article by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker, “The End Of The English Major,” a lament about the lack of interest among college students to seriously study literature under the tutelage of serious professors. In short: the idea is that such a degree gets you nowhere today in the professional world and, if not born into affluence, racks up a preposterous debt. No axe to grind here: my older son skipped college altogether, preferring to work right away at his craft; my wife and I were taken aback, but then wandered over to the live-and-let-live side of the fence; our younger son was an English major and now works in finance (a field where young adults who can write coherently, and have an imagination, are more in demand than you might believe. Pro bono advice for English majors).
Easily the most interesting snippet in Heller’s earnest article comes from his interview with James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia University. Shapiro—born in 1955, and at Columbia since 1985—who purchased a smartphone just a year ago, despairs that the inquisitive Humanities student has mostly been consigned to yesteryear. He says: “Technology in the last twenty years has changed all of us. How has it changed me? I probably read five novels a month until the two-thousands. If I read one a month now, it’s a lot. That’s not because I’ve lost interest in fiction. It’s because I’m reading a hundred Web sites. I’m listening to podcasts.”
Shapiro, the author of many books, mostly on Shakespeare, undoubtedly has tenure, for if I were a department head at Columbia that admission would be what was once called “a smoking gun” and grounds for at least a stern sit-down, without sherry. If he “hasn’t lost interest in fiction,” why is he wasting time on podcasts and “a hundred” websites, most of which, by any reasonable conclusion, are far less intellectually satisfying than an engaging novel or collection of short stories. Maiello points out this whopper as well, although more sympathetically, commiserating that “books have to compete with everything… in the attention economy.” Michael concludes his column, blessedly shorter than Heller’s treatise—likely, right now, making the round of publishers (again, those that still exist) for a book on the subject, which won’t sell at all—on what strikes me as an odd note.
“Hopefully,” he writes, “the value of a humanities education will become clearer as our society and economy careen into an era of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Somebody will have to keep the soul and nuance of life alive, after all. But for those interested in restoring literature to a vaunted societal spot, the university is not the answer. The answer is better literature. The New Yorker could even help with that!”
Aside from his implied opinion that The New Yorker, once known for its fiction and as a launching pad for notable writers, has itself become compromised, using its far fewer pages to cater to an affluent, liberal reader (and you know what that means), I’m puzzled about his hope for a renewed “value” in a “humanities education” which contradicts his other view that the restoration of literature won’t come from universities. Where, then? The dime stores and bus stations, where people talk of situations?
I can’t answer Michael’s question about where “better literature” is currently incubated, but I’ve read no shortage of fine fiction in the past year. While it’s true some authors self-censor to please nervous publishers, and others (such as George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte) inject heavy-handed political commentary—superfluous anti-Trump jargon—many stylists stay within themselves, to the reader’s benefit. (Britain’s excellent Jonathan Coe is in-between; in his recent Bourneville, a long and riveting examination of a family from the early-20th century to the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, he can’t resist bashing former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.) As I’ve previously written, Fredrik Backman’s The Winners was an extraordinary achievement; on a more modest level, Colin Barrett’s Homesickness bordered on brilliant; and Kevin Wilson’s Now Is Not the Time to Panic, despite a few loose threads and hiccups, was superior to most of the “hundreds” of websites that chew up Professor Shapiro’s time.
A recent spell-binder was Audrey Magee’s 2022 The Colony, a novel set in 1979 on an Irish West Coast island that’s sparsely populated, where visitors are grudgingly tolerated for the income they bring, but not much else. The story begins with a fussy British painter’s summer exile to the island in hopes of regaining whatever mojo he once had. One of the natives, 15-year-old James, who hunts rabbits and fishes for his family, is a precocious artist who at first is glad for the company of Lloyd, the interloper. When the latter not only steals the boy’s ideas, but reneges on a promise to bring James to London, an ugly situation becomes worse.
Magee masterfully intersperses Reuters-like bulletins, set on separate pages, that detail casualties, often gruesome, from “The Troubles”; murders by both the IRA and the Protestant vigilantes/paramilitaries. The Colony is insistent: like unrelenting progression of Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 “White Rabbit,” Magee’s intensity grows with every chapter and ends with a figurative explosion. She’s a wonderful writer—a longtime journalist, this is just her second novel; the first, The Undertaking (2014), written from a German soldier’s point of view during WWII, is something that might not be published today—and I hope The Colony’s characters will shine again in a sequel.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023