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Dead Writers Don’t Go On Booktours

Dan Green writes:

Thus the last person you should probably approach for an informed opinion of contemporary literature would be an English professor. The best you will probably get is someone like Bloom, who is willing to read current writing and take it seriously; at worst you will get outright disdain or condescension.

My response is that a primary function of academics is to keep older works in dialogue with contemporary culture through teaching and publishing. Advocacy is not an academic’s primary purpose; however, that’s what occurs as a result of his backward-looking emphasis. Writers who are alive don’t need our help. Well, they do, but at least they have the legs to hustle around and publish essays and suffer and attract attention. Dead writers, on the other hand, don’t go on many book tours and don’t post too many comments on people’s weblogs (although that may change; see the case of Anton Chekhov) .

A counter trend to what Dan Green says is that academics are always looking for new territory to stake a claim on. When I was dabbling in academia, I was seriously toying with the idea of hitching my academic star to Milan Kundera; at the time nobody was writing about Kundera except the occasional literary book reviewer. Now, Kundera rightfully has a whole legion of critics behind him (although from the 1990’s on, he hasn’t written anything decent–I wonder if there is a connection). Actually I meant that parenthetical remark to be facetious, but now that I think of it, there may in fact be a connection; a living author who attracts critical attention may also be lulled into complacency; yes, obscurity sucks as far as making a living (and getting your ego stroked), but it keeps one focused on producing quality and trying to find a voice that is genuinely interesting.

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