Monday, May 23, 2011

Harold Bloom: Grumpy Old Literary Man

Most casual fiction readers, I'd be willing to wager, know delightfully little about critic and Yale professor Harold Bloom. Part of me wishes I fell into that category, too — it would've saved me a lot of money buying books like Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, Genius, and The Western Canon (all of which are still unread) to make myself feel smart.

But part of me is glad I stumbled across him as a bright-eyed reader several years ago. He is, after all, widely recognized as our foremost literary critic. He's also the ultimate literary snob — which in some respects is a good thing, as he makes sure we don't forget about his favorite American writers like Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. And dude also loves his Shakespeare, and the more often Shakespeare is "publicized," the better, I say. But his snobiness can certainly rub casual readers the wrong way, since he often only makes non-nerdy-literary-journal-headlines when he's complaining about something.

Two examples: In 2003, when the National Book Foundation gave Stephen King its annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Bloom wrote a cantankerous op/ed for the Boston Globe titled "Dumbing Down American Readers" in which he called King an "immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis" and expostulated that if King is the criterion for distinguished, perhaps the Nobel for Literature should go to J.K. Rowling. Ouch. And speaking of Rowling, a few years before that he'd written that Rowling's "prose style, heavy on cliche, makes no demands upon her readers." Like 12-year-olds are putting aside The Sorcerer's Stone and thinking, "Man, I wish this book was a tad more literary."

Because we're such stupid readers with horribly short attention spans now, Bloom is famous for being one of the first to begin making the case that the novel (at least in the form he likes) is dying. That was one of the themes of the one book of his I have read, How To Read and Why. While the book is more a chance for Bloom to tell you about why he reads and what he likes, there are a few interesting take-aways. He spends a lot of time talking about how important irony is — in fact, Bloom makes the argument that it may be the single most important component of good literature. That's a notion I can get behind. Looking for irony and identifying the specifics regarding how characters change throughout a novel (in reading, another technique of major import for Bloom) have really informed how I've read novels after reading Bloom's book. And it's helped me read more intelligently, catch more subtleties and arrive at the end of a novel with a better understanding of what a novelist was trying to accomplish. That's to say, I'd highly recommend How To Read and Why for any reader.

I bring this up now because Bloom just published another book (titled The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life), which he calls his "virtual swan song," as quoted in a rather academic, rather lengthy article by NY Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus. I'll be honest, I could care less about Bloom making his name taking on New Criticism, etc., etc. Unless you're a literary criticism grad student or a total and utter dork, this stuff is as dull as the day is long. But what is interesting about him, and the point of the post really, is just to share what I know about Bloom, and to point out what an enduring — and, frankly, important — literary figure Bloom is. And that it's sad that he's winding down his career. If you've read him, chances are you either love or hate him, but you definitely have an opinion about him.

What's yours? Which Bloom books (or articles) have you read? What'd you think and why?


  1. I feel the same way about Bloom;I read How to Read and Why and attempted to tackle his big Shakespeare book back in the day.

    However,as much as I admire his intelligence,
    Bloom does go out of his way to be snarky towards those he feels are unworthy and is not always female friendly either.

    He griped about Doris Lessing winning the Nobel for Literature in 2007,calling it a PC pick and dismissing her as a "fourth rate" writer of science fiction. Granted,I haven't read any Lessing but know enough about the reputation of her works to at least give her the respect that she deserves. Not cool,Harold!

  2. The game changed. Writing changed, reading changed and publishing sure did changed because of that. I have read that paper he wrote on King and it seems to me that the old man is cranky because he cannot understand how the game is played now. The academy is not the yardstick of good taste anymore. Sales are.

    This is a problematic in itself, but the academy had an aesthetic that was almost as formatted as the commercial one. More complex yes, but it followed a narrow pattern. His buddy Philip Roth might just be the very example of that. He doesn't say much about King. His complains are empty. For me, SK is a hit-and-miss. He's overproducing big time but he's writing gems here and there. His complains are based on no evidence or comparison. I'm sure King will be remembered in the trail of Poe and Lovecraft, even if his style is different. Lovecraft was called a hack writer back in the days too.

    I loathe guys like him, who are elitist and turn others away from reading. I didn't know him . Thanks for the introduction Greg. I'll check out his book

  3. "The academy" is a myth. And "the academy had an aesthetic that was almost as formatted as the commercial one. More complex yes, but it followed a narrow pattern." is a hugely ignorant statement.

    Anyway, I have my own issues with old Harold, but on the whole I'm glad we've had him around as long as we have. If having a deep understanding of literature and a passion for promoting the best of the literary arts and a disdain for commericalism as a substitute for beauty and depth is elitism, then America needs more elitists.

  4. Yeah, well I'm curious to hear your thoughts about my ignorance Scott. Enlighten me. I just got out of a six years of academic literature and all I got were favorites, fashionable currents and literary trends. Writers like Gombrowicz, Sartre and Zorn kept cycling all the time, because they were easier to pick apart from a deconstructionist point of view.

    Of course you look brilliant picking apart a novel by themes and social relevance in a given context, but your novel is going to stay on the shelves. The academy is there and it's not adapting. I stand by my point.

  5. Ben: What is the "narrow pattern" followed by Dickens, Shakespeare, Borges, Byatt, O'Connor, Melville, Woolf, Sartre, Kafka, Tolstoy, Oates, McCarthy, Dostoyevski, Donne, Carey, Greene, Rushdie, Hemingway, Lawrence, Roth, Davis, Grass, Carver, Gaddis, Chekhov, Nabokov and Austen?

    Also, "six years of academic literature" is not an argument. I also wonder how there can be "literary trends" taught in the academy while at the same time "the academy is there and it's not adapting." Also, "easier to pick apart" than what? "Easier to pick apart from a deconstructionist point of view" than from what other point(s) of view? Easier how? You've not made a point; you've only made assertions.

  6. @lady T - I kind of dig his snarkiness, to be honest with you - but you're right, he does have a tendency to crush underfoot all that which he does not consider worthy. I remember about the Doris Lessing griping, too - to be fair, I also griped about that, since no one had ever heard of her, and it meant another year Philip Roth got hosed. ;)

    @Ben, Scott - Interesting conversation. Keep it sophisticated!

  7. You didn't make a point either. You only name dropped. Let me clarify my position. I come from a comparative literature background and I have never read so many horrible novels, based on the sole fact that their conformed to an analysis made by an abstract system of thoughts. Most writers that you're naming there, I read them by myself and I would put most of them out of my argument. You're not academic because you're literary. It's not synonymous.

    What I'm getting at is that TERRIBLE novels were canonized by the academy for the sole purpose that they were conceptually really rich. And to me, the definition of a good , "universal" novel (even if I don't like the term) is a story that struck a nerve with humanity. That represent something within all of us. Not very scientific I know, but literature is an art, first and foremost.

    Take for example "The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis" by Jose Saramago. What a terrible novel. Who can understand anything about what's going on if he didn't read the entire works of Pessoa first? What a terrible, elitist way to write literature. The only way you can "enjoy" this novel is to pick it apart, read Pessoa, read about the relationships in between Portugal and Brazil in that given time and mow it through the post-colonialism grinder. How universal is that?

    Maybe I wasn't made for academic literature, but what makes a novel "academic" at least from a comparative literature background is channeled through narrow fields of interest.

  8. Name-dropping? I was asking a clarifying question. Which you dodged.

    You read some books at university that you didn't understand, and therefore the academy trades only in obscure, narrow literature? Saramago is "terrible" because you didn't have the background to immediately appreciate it? Because Saramago didn't write simplistically enough for you, he's an elitist? If you personally don't like a novel, it's not universal? Shame on your professors for exposing you to things you don't understand and aren't "universal." What's education coming to?

    The list of names I supplied (which list is missing such others as Balzac, Joyce, Proust and too many to add) is a list of authors who are still taught "in the academy." A list of authors whose works have stood the test of time because they have a demonstrable universal meaning and appeal. Are you saying that all works taught "in the academy" follow a "narrow pattern," or just some works? I'm still waiting to hear what that "narrow pattern" is. If you mean that works are taught according to specific critical theories by individual professors, then your criticism might be better aimed at the structure of specialized pedagogy rather than at books and authors. If "Jane Eyre" is taught by a deconstructionist, does that make "Jane Eyre" a deconstructionist bit of academic literature? What of Henry Miller as taught by a proponent of feminist literary theory? Et cetera. I'm just not following your argument at all, I'm afraid.

    Also, "TERRIBLE novels were canonized by the academy for the sole purpose that they were conceptually really rich" is so fucked up that I don't know where to start. What, in your opinion, is the purpose of higher education? What makes you think such a thing as "academic literature" even exists? Did Saramago write so that his books could be taught in comparative literature classes? Did Melville? Did Sartre? Did Homer? Did Woolf?

    Blogger refuses to let me log in. Darn you, blogger! -Scott Bailey

  9. Whatever man, I gave you one example and you're weaving around it. Maybe you didn't read "The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis" but it's just an example. It's a story built from a character that exist in another writer that not that much people know about. Telling a story that few non-Portugese, non-Brazilian and non-Pessoa fans can relate too. Is it elitist? Oh hell yes. Is it the proper of Saramago? No. He wrote Blindness and Death With Interruptions, which I have read on my own, outside the classrooms. Those stories spoke a language I could actually understand.

    What I meant by narrow pattern, maybe I expressed myself wrong there, but they are books selected for a particular reasons that, according to me is an illusion of aesthetic. I haven't read Jane Eyre or The Great Gatsby or The Old Man And The Sea in college. I read them on my own and actually enjoyed them. I read Gombrowicz, Sartre, Calderon de la Barca and Pirandello.

    To me, the academic posterity is not an aesthetic criteria. You're right on the point that I have a narrow vision of what is actually thought. I have discovered Yukio Mishima and Harukmi Muakami in school among others. But this all comes to the fact that I believe Harold Bloom is a dying dinosaur and that commercial literature is a necessary evil. It's democratizing the process.

  10. Like anyone who sticks their neck out for an unpopular idea, Bloom has taken his shots. Still, I'm a fan. He reads passionately and with an eye toward the grand sweep of literature. He is not a great theorist but he once was an amazing reader of literature (less so after he became famous enough to have anything he wrote published.)

    He also wrote criticism accessible to the interested layperson--a claim not many literary academics can make. He may well be the last truly scholarly public intellectual of literature (James Wood is a great critic, but not real scholar), so "attention must be paid seems applicable here).

  11. I admit that I didn't understand many of the references in "The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis" but that doesn't make Saramago an elitist. I have had much the same experience reading Borges or Gunter Grass or Umberto Eco. If Saramago is an elitist, then he's writing for an elite audience who are familiar with his themes and historical background. None of that is a fault with his book. You might consider that the inadequacy of your reading experience is not Mr Saramago's fault. You as a "non-Portugese, non-Brazilian and non-Pessoa fan" don't understand the references and therefore the book is elitist because it's not so free of substance as to be immediately graspable in full by you (and in extension, you claim, by everyone else).

    But whatever. We're not even communicating; we're talking past each other and that's boring. I have no idea what phrases like "academic posterity is not an aesthetic criteria" are even supposed to mean. You admit that you have no idea who Harold Bloom is (six years studying literature and you never read Bloom?) yet after seeing one brief interview you're willing to pass judgment on him and paint him and "the academy" with the same brush.

    And again Blogger won't let me log in. -Scott Bailey

  12. Despite his sometimes Paleolithic perspectives, I think Bloom has his value. Did I have my disagreements with The Western Canon? Of course, but passion can make a dissenting opinion worth reading. Even if you think he's a blowhard, a Harold Bloom is good for those of us already in the game of literary theory: he stokes the fires of the conversations we thrive on.
    But what about the uninitiated? If an increasingly bitter gatekeeper of taste like Bloom is still recognized as the quintessential literary critic, it does little to dispel the notion that appreciating books is a game only for the patched elbow crowd.

  13. The Anxiety of Influence is Bloom's most influential work, right? I'm not as familiar with his work as I would like to be, but generally I get the sense that The Anxiety of Influence is pretty outdated now and that not as many people seem to take him as seriously as they used to.

  14. @Ape - As usual, you nailed it - he DOES read passionately...and thoroughly. Anyone who reads Paradise Lost at age 13 has my respect. Also, you make a good point about him being the last public intellectual. That's one part sad, one part scary and one part encouraging. But like you, I'm glad he's here to be our literary conscience.

    @Doug - You're right - he definitely stokes the fires of conversation. It's interesting though that some of his favorites (Pynchon, DeLillo) are almost considered "cool" among the non-patched elbow crowd these days. And I do like that he wades into the debate about "stupid" fiction - he's not above the fray, even if he's thumbing his nose at it.

    @IngridLola - I could be wrong, but I actually think he's most known for The Western Cannon (which I haven't read), but which, of any of his work, seems to have inspired the most debate/conversation/hemming and hawing.

  15. Interesting. I heard The Anxiety of Influence mentioned a lot in school because it is a scholarly text - The Western Cannon seems aimed more to a general audience. I think AofI is probably his most influential work in academics and WC most influential outside academics.

    I've always wanted to read his stuff on Judaism and Kabbala.

  16. Ingridlola-

    My experience is the same: ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE is the most read inside the academy, THE WESTERN CANON is most popular book outside of it. If anyone cares, my favorite of his is the small volume he did on HAMLET. I've used it in my teaching several times and always find it interesting, engaging, and accessible. Not bad for scholarly work

  17. Bloom is important enough to read, even if you disagree with him. Sometimes disagreeing with an intelligent critic can help you clarify your own argument.

  18. Sales are the yardstick of good taste in books? Did I really just read that? Was that irony? Was it sarcasm? Grisham, King, Rice, Rowling, Dan Brown are great literature? Literature is a game? There are people in America who don't read because of Harold Bloom? Will Othello murder Desdemona? Will Harry kill Voldemort? Will Carrie get revenge on those who humiliated her? Will Ned escape the Nautilus? Will Ben get his head out of his arse?

    Stay tuned...

  19. Well, let's say a few words. I'm an Eastern European man, scientist by vocation. I've read following Bloom's books: WC, Genius, The Omens of the Millennium, Shakespeare: The Invention ... IMO: a) he's a frequently illuminating reading experience, b) his obsession with Shakespeare is annoying- man cannot write a sentence without smuggling the Bard somehow in, c) his animus against Christianity- he is open enough to admit it- cripples his judgment, as does his unabashed adherence to a private variant of Gnosticism, d) Bloom is essentially soaked in English-language literary culture, so he is not- IMO- a fair judge of numerous French-, German-, Russian- ...language writers: for instance, he constantly deprecates Dostoevsky, Musil, Diderot, Broch, Voltaire, Martin Du Gard, Pushkin, Zola, Max Stirner (the best German literary prose up to the 20th century comes form readable philosophers- Lichtenberg, Stirner, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche,sometimes Marx,..). I don't think he's an elitist; just, my ideas about what's worth reading are different from his- past my 30ies, I stopped reading fiction & poetry (mostly) and switched to essays, philosophy, science, religion & politics. De gustibus ...

  20. And yet he praises Montaigne, Nietzsche, Hugo, Valéry, Tolstoy, Borges, Dante, de Cervantes, etc.

    Regarding 'de gustibus' there is an ironic meaning behind 'As for matters of taste there can be no dispute'. This meaning is exactly the opposite of what the phrase is commonly taken to mean. It strongly suggests that people of fine intellect will find no disagreement on matters of taste; taste rises above the daily toil and transcends opinion. Our Reformation masters implanted the idea in our wee little heads that there can be nothing upon which we are not our own final authority. Questioning authority is great, but upon whose authority does one do so?

  21. The best thing in the book is Bloom's comments on irony. I also found his assertion that--this time--he's not writing polemic to be very funny. Polemic informs his very marrow. His taste in literature is his business; it becomes problematic only when he asserts it's the only great literature out there. (But then, I'm no fan of DeLillo, do enjoy Lessing, and am more eclectic in my 'solitary reading' than ever he would admit valuable).

    Good blog, by the way, even 2+ years after its inscription.

  22. Sorry to say but Harold Bloom was 99.9 % right, on everything he said.