When literary critics like Lionel Trilling wrote in the 1950s and ’60s, they wrote for “a readership of people who believed that your taste in literature or your taste in music or your taste in painting actually told people something about your values.” Critics no longer play that role of “moral arbiter,” says Louis Menand, and that’s probably for the best. Still, in Big Think’s interview with Menand, we couldn’t help but asking the Harvard critic to guide us on some of the weightier cultural questions of our day.
We started with a big one: is American literary culture in decline? No, says Menand; expanded access to higher education over the years has created “a whole new literate public” that makes any such verdict dubious. At the same time, it’s hard to tell exactly where we do stand, particularly in relation to that infamous guidepost, “modernism.” And “the idea that there’s such a thing as a national literature that’s somehow uniquely expressive of a national soul” seems to be, for the moment at least, obsolete. (Doesn’t everyone going to see Avatar on the same weekend count?)
Venturing into the political and theoretical thickets of the critic’s profession, we asked Menand whether MFA programs are leaving a permanent stamp on American letters, whether grad students in the humanities are exploited, and whether the emerging cognitive-science approach to literature really is the future of the discipline. For fun, we also asked Menand about the most ridiculous reactions his New Yorker pieces have ever gotten, and learned how picking a fight with a grammarian’s grammar got him called a “wanker.“