Almost every conversation these days on the future of book reviewing—and, by implication, on the role of the NBCC—focuses on the collapse of print journalism. This is a serious matter. Yet there is another less visible crisis that is equally important, yet I rarely hear it discussed.
I am referring to the marginalization of the university as a center for serious discussion about books. This, to my mind, is even more destructive than the decline in newspaper book reviews.
When I was a college student in the 1970s, English was the most popular major on campus. Literary critics had not yet embraced the tenuous and jargon-laden “discourse” that would, at best, isolate them from the non-academic world or, at worst, make them a positive laughing stock. When critics such Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson wrote about books, they were also addressing a broader public and bigger issues than the “deconstruction” of a “text.” Professional literary criticism today, in contrast, is almost unreadable, and is disconnected from the contemporary culture at large. The result: a college student who wants to understand broader issues about personal responsibility and the complexities of the world is more likely to focus on the social studies. And we are surprised that these same individuals don’t read novels after they graduate?
To my mind, this is a root cause of the general decline in literary culture around us, and deserves to be as much a focus of our attention as the cutbacks in print journalism. I know that, for my own part, the gap created by this abandonment of literature for theory has been a major motivator for my own efforts to write about important books in a jargon-free, non-academic manner on the web.