What’s Your Specialty?

I was having a discussion with a friend recently about the American emphasis on specialization. We want — nay, insist upon — specialists, the more credentialed the better. Take the field of literature for

example. Americans expect its novelists — particularly the ones we’ve lavished numerous awards on — to remain novelists at the expense of anything else. Our sense is that big award-winning novelists, rather than waste their literary efforts on mere trifles, should be at home writing the great American novel, and nothing else. For instance, the last thing that our literary culture would expect — or even want — from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is, say, a short comic parody of a novelist she despises or a series of humorous vignettes on cooking or gardening, and were she to publish something along these lines she’d be met with critics who were either indignant that she’d abandoned her “true form” or condescending about her latest “trifle,” or both; no doubt reviewers would betray their ignorance of genre by reminding readers that “it’s no Beloved” (gosh, really?) and more than a few would probably end with something like “let’s hope, in her next outing, Ms. Morrison returns to the form that garnered her an audience in the first place.”

John Updike’s another writer who has suffered, I believe from this emphasis on specialization. Updike’s built a well-recognized and well-rewarded career as a novelist, though I personally find his fiction unreadable to the point of being amazed that others not only read it, but *enjoy* it. And yet: Updike is one of the most gifted essayists and sensitive critics of his generation, and has moments when he is simply without peer as a formalist poet. But: this is not, for the most part, that American audiences want. Nice, uh, “verse,” Mr. Updike, but would you mind going back to writing those novels of yours?

And we don’t just do this to our own writers: we end up “Americanizing” British writers as well. Most Americans think of George Orwell only as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. But without a doubt what he’ll be remembered for are his imminently re-readable essays and journalism. Yet try pointing that out to your average undergrad.”Orwell? Didn’t he write that farm book I read in high school?”

British literary culture, on the other hand, is much different. Not only do they not mind amateur forays into fields that Americans would only allow professionals into, they seem to possess a cultural insistence upon it. Were you to go to your local public library and ask to see a dictionary on music, you would immediately be directed to Grove’s multi-volume Dictionary of Music, kind of like the OED of the music world in that it is *the* music reference work. But its compiler, George Grove, lacked formal musical training; instead, he was an engineer/architect and spent the first part of his life designing and building bridges. H.M.W. Fowler, author of the ur-text of English usage, Fowler’s Modern English Usage didn’t hold a degree in English; he was simply someone passionate about the how “the King’s English” was used. Sometimes passion is all it takes.

Alan Bennett is another contemporary example. Bennett first gained fame as a member of Beyond the Fringe, the review that he co-wrote and acted in along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, which, when it debuted in London in the late ’50s, became a watershed event in the history of British humor (Monty Python’s Flying Circus would have been unthinkable without it). Peter Cook and Dudley Moore took the usual paths out of a successful comic play: Moore of course gained fame in Hollywood, while Peter Cook went on to become the funniest human being who ever lived. Miller’s path towards comic fame is also worth noting for its lack of specialization: what did he study at Cambridge? Medicine. He’s since become one of the most successful producers in British theater. Since Beyond the Fringe, Bennett has written novels and screenplays; book, television, theatrical and movie reviews; acted and directed; and wrote a monthly column in which he was invited to hold forth on whatever grabbed his fancy. Indeed, his lengthy essay on the poet Philip Larkin is more elucidating and entertaining that 90% of the academic essays that have spilled forth on Larkin since his death.

There are a number of other examples: Kingsley Amis began his career as a novelist, and managed to maintain it while producing two collections of poetry and two collections of essays and reviews; he also edited two poetry anthologies (to include the New Oxford Book of Light Verse), worked in genre fiction (a spy novel, a horror novel, and a science fiction novel); wrote the very first critical survey of Science Fiction as a genre, as well one of the most fantastic pieces of criticism ever produced on — you guessed it — the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming, The James Bond Dossier (“Is he in hell or is he in heaven, that damned elusive 007?”).

It’s worth lamenting that an analagous literary culture, tragically, doesn’t exist over here. We’d all be much the better for it.

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