literary journalism

In the preface to Continuities, a collection of his reviews and essays written for magazines, the late great Frank Kermode makes a strong assertion: “Good literary journalism is valuable and rare…. [T]o dismiss it as irremediably ephemeral, and at the same time to promote the preservation of the average doctoral dissertation, is to fall into what could very well be named ‘the common cant’.”  

One of the essays in the book concerns Edmund Wilson, and in that preface Kermode uses the example of Wilson to illustrate his point:

Wilson can deal justly with other writers without neglecting the meditative movement of his own mind, and he can satisfy, without loss of intellectual integrity, the nonspecialist’s urgent and entirely proper demand for amenity of exposition and fine texture. This is the kind of journalism I call valuable and rare. It is rare not because those who could easily do it have better things to do, but because it is more demanding than most of what passes for scholarship. It calls incessantly for mental activity, fresh information, and civility into the bargain. Of course I agree that they do not always come. 

I’ve written a lot of literary journalism and will continue to do so — for instance, I have an essay-review on Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Crossroads coming out in Harper’s in a couple of months — and I couldn’t agree more with Kermode’s general commendation. Literary journalism is often belittled by academics who haven’t tried to write it and couldn’t write it if they tried. To speak to interested nonspecialists “without loss of intellectual integrity” is an extremely difficult challenge, and while it’s not for me to say whether I have ever managed it, I have certainly made every effort to do so. And that effort seems to me not only worthwhile but often more worthwhile than to publish one more article for a scholarly journal. (Though of course many universities, including my own, don’t recognize the value of such work. My essay on Franzen will not “count” as scholarship because it’s not peer-reviewed.) 

I especially admire Kermode’s list of the desiderata of good literary journalism: “mental activity, fresh information, and civility.”