Sunday, November 16, 2008

Excerpts from “Literary Fame in the Time of Flame Wars:
Is the Internet really going to change how literary reputations get made?”
by Adam Kirsch
Full article can be found at


The author had claimed recognition, the critics wanted to deny it—it was as simple and passionate as that. Inadvertently, they had exposed literature for what at bottom it really is—a power struggle.

* * *

According to Hegel, “Self-consciousness exists . . . in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized.’” The infant wants only this, the king and the millionaire take roundabout paths to achieve it; but the writer alone seems able to obtain it immediately. Writers write in order to be recognized. To be recognized as good writers, yes—but that is not enough of a goal to explain the frenzy of literary competition. If writing were simply a skill, demonstrating that one possessed the skill, even in supreme measure, would be as technical and trivial an achievement as something in athletics. It is because writing is a communication of one’s mind and experience—one’s being—that it promises to gratify the original desire of spirit: to have one’s being confirmed by having it acknowledged by others. Writing makes others the mirror of the self.


Why, after all, should writing well—an aesthetic achievement—be the price of being recognized, a universal human need? Why shouldn’t a writer who simply expresses that need as clearly and urgently as possible be rewarded with the recognition he demands—regardless of whether he has created a beautiful linguistic object? Isn’t there something trivial, even monstrous, about a system that makes artistic gifts—which are randomly, amorally distributed—the only means by which recognition can be purchased?

The economic metaphor is not accidental. As far back as we can see, the economics of literary fame have been based on scarcity: there is not enough recognition to go around, so every human being’s just claim cannot be met. Beauty is the currency, as arbitrary as gold or paper, in which recognition is bought and sold. We grant great writers the dignity of having really been, the posthumous recognition that we call immortality, because they please us with their arrangements of words. Because of how well they wrote, we remember not just their works but their letters, travels, illnesses, aspirations—we feel with and for them. But we do this as irrationally as the peahen rewards the peacock with the biggest tail feathers, which have nothing intrinsically to do with reproductive fitness.

If the scarcity of recognition is a symptom of the world’s fallenness, then literary ambition is a form of complicity with fallenness. In other words, it is a sin. Because there is not enough money in the world, people steal; because there is not enough power, people do violence; because there is not enough recognition, they make art.


Now I chime in. I found the above through C. Dale Young's blog, and I thought I was going to find it absurd, but when I went to the Poetry site, I found it to be more than that. I found it to be deeply depressing.

OK, so there we are. Yippie. The above that I quoted was from the opening of the essay. It goes on to take some shots at the Internet, and make various points, but what I’m mostly interested in is this opening, where I find myself wanting to argue with his foundations.

Is literature at its bottom really a power struggle? A struggle to be recognized? Is this why you write (if you’re a writer)? Is this why I write? Is it all just an exercise in ego? Does writing really make others a “mirror” of oneself? I don’t like that. I don’t write to make anyone a mirror of me, with undertones of morality and economics...

I believe in the arts as a gift economy, apart from, and quite a distance from, “buying” and “morality.”

And, by the way, are skills exhibited in athletics trivial? And then, isn’t all of life trivial in the long run?

Is our appreciation of poetry (of art) irrational? And if so, is it as irrational as (and in the same way as) the sex drives of peahens?

And does this mean a fallen world? Fallen from what? As a metaphor I find that one pretty far off the mark.

Aargh. I sound like a crazy person ranting in the streets to myself right now. I don’t mean to sound that way. I mean to recognize that art calls us to our best selves. The part of ourselves that imagines past our futility. Past the limitations of reputation and position.

I find that when I’m talking to my friends about what they love in poetry and in art, that is how they approach, with wonder and agreement. It’s not all a game of ego gratification and minor professional recognition. I’ve been writing poetry and believing poetry this way for a very long time. If I were reading it and writing it for such stupid, minor rewards, and in the economy that Kirsch described above, then I believe I would be a fool. We would all be petty, small, fools. Please agree with me.

Rant over. Apologies extended.

PS. My hero of the day is Wanda Sykes. Some things are larger than we are. And call us to be better.


At 11/16/2008 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

power struggle——

maybe he's channeling this:

from Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (1975), page 120:

[Humboldt always said] that poetry was one of the frantic professions in which success depends on the opinion you hold of yourself. Think well of yourself, and you win. Lose self-esteem, and you're finished. For this reason a persecution complex develops, because people who don't think well of you are killing you. Knowing this, or sensing it, critics and intellectuals had you. Like it or not you were dragged into a power struggle.

At 11/16/2008 5:34 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Sure sounds like it. So perhaps I can then read the Kirsch as satire?

Maybe he should get together with Addonizio and edit an anthology . . .

At 11/17/2008 4:06 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Well, the Internet stuff definitely isn't satire--it's a longtime bugbear of Kirsch's, and he's written at least one other embarrassing article attacking literary blogs. If I recall correctly, Kirsch is even younger than I am (or within a year the other way), which makes this all the more sad.

At 11/17/2008 4:19 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Ick. Well, I promise not to flame him. But it is such a misfire of his energy and desire.

At 11/18/2008 5:26 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

Hegel also said that because existence and non existence are indistinguishable from each other upon close examination, we are left with the state of "becoming."

This is the dialectic of how history is made. Our consciousness is a continual progression, not a state of being.

There is no one point any of us can, for this reason, highlight as the exact moment we were writers. We cannot point to one moment not being writers and the next moment being writers. We can say we are writers now, but over time, that thesis will be changed by confronting new learning and new levels of skill. We may very well look back and say, "It was foolish to consider myself a writer back in 2008."

Self consciousness may exist, but it is constantly on the move.

At 11/25/2008 7:08 PM, Blogger Daniel Pritchard said...

I understood Kirsh to mean that the central aspect of wanting to be "a writer," (that is, literary ambition: the sin, as he refers to it) is at heart a desire for recognition. This psychological approach attempts to find the roots of the desire to write; to express one's self publicly in verse or prose. Though he might be off the mark, he is hardly the first person to consider it (as the Saul Bellow quote indicates). When one thinks of "awe" and "wonder" in the context the working mind (instead of the soul, say), one perceives a type of recognition (as in Lacan, maybe). I'm not defending the analysis – although I believe that ambition may be exactly the sin of vanity that this type of recognition mirrors – only the coherence and depth of the thought process.


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