A Few More Notes on the Dearth of Great Works

Over the last two years I have written a few pieces on the flagging vitality of American intellectual life. This week Ross Douthat wrote up a response to these pieces. It has prompted a few thoughts.

1. In the comment thread for “Where Have All the Great Works Gone?” a common objection to the premise was raised several times: isn’t the problem simply that there are now too many books? The logic here is easy enough to grasp: when Tolstoy was at his height, the world of Russian fiction was much smaller than the world of American letters today. In Tolstoy’s day a major work made waves. But now that small pond has grown into a vast ocean; if a Tolstoy was to write in today’s choppy waters, his novel could only make a few ripples before sinking out of sight.

This is obviously more true the further back in time you go. Chaucer is remembered as the father of English literature because there really are no other 14th century contenders for the title. After a few million novels have been published, however, it is hard for anything new to stand out. But I doubt this logic really works as well as my readers think it does: on the one hand, book sales still follow a pareto distribution (“0.25% of [nonfiction books] account for 50% of the sales“), and single books (say, Black Swan or How to be an Anti-Racist) regularly become household names. This is true even for fiction, though there the winning works of 21st century fiction have been almost entirely been a part of the “YA” genre. 

On the flipside, there were still hundreds of thousands of books being published every year in the early 20th century, but that did not stop the creation of “great works” then. If this argument is correct we should see the production of “great works” peter off as time moved forward. But the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th were arguably some of the most intellectually vital in Western history.

However, there is more sophisticated version of this argument, one that has more validity to it. Sean Manning–who blogs at Books and Swords–made this point to me in an email discussion we had on the piece. He writes:

Don’t forget about the power of exponential growth.  The number of works published on ancient Persia [his academic specialty] has been increasing at about 5%/year since 1945 (and it was increasing a few percent a year in the interwar period).  It was just plain possible for a polyglot to read the important books in more fields in 1900 than in 2000.  This force affects other areas of culture too: in the 1950s you could just about know all the rock music, or science-fiction novels, or fine-art photography, or what have you, that was being produced in your region. By the 21st century that was impossible.

From this perspective, the important thing about the rising number of books published is not that it becomes ever more difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, but that it becomes ever more difficult to cross between fields and write something of interest to multiple domains of inquiry. This is a good point, and it gels with Douthat’s speculations on the same question. 

2. Here is Douthat:

My own favored explanation, in The Decadent Society, is adapted from Robert Nisbet’s arguments about how cultural golden ages hold traditional and novel forces in creative tension: The problem, as I see it, is that this tension snapped during the revolutions of the 1960s, when the Baby Boomers (and the pre-Boomer innovators they followed) were too culturally triumphant and their elders put up too little resistance, such that the fruitful tension between innovation and tradition gave way to confusion, mediocrity, sterility.

I may be over-influenced here by the Catholic experience, where I think the story definitely applies. As R.R. Reno argued in a 2007 survey of the so-called “heroic generation” in Catholic theology, the great theologians of the Vatican II era displayed their brilliance in their critique of the old Thomism, but then the old system precipitously collapsed and subsequent generation lacked the grounding required to be genuinely creatively in their turn, or eventually even to understand what made the 1960s generation so significant in the first place….

 I think this frame applies more widely, to various intellectual worlds beyond theology, where certain forms of creative deconstruction went so far as to make it difficult to find one’s way back to the foundations required for new forms of creativity. Certainly that seems the point of a figure like Jordan Peterson: It’s not as a systematizer or the prophet of a new philosophy that he’s earned his fame, but as popularizer of old ideas, telling and explicating stories (the Bible! Shakespeare!) and drawing moral lessons from the before-times that would have been foundational to educated people not so long ago. Likewise with the Catholic post-liberals, or the Marx reclamation project on the left. It’s a reaching-backward to the world before the 1960s revolution, a recovery that isn’t on its own sufficient to make the escape from repetition but might be the necessary first step.

 One might be able to combine the two arguments as so: previous eras of ‘creativity’ were possible because intellectuals of the past had a common canon to react to. This canon stretched across many disciplines (the loss of which forces intellectuals down into intellectual silos that grow too quickly to climb out of) and stretched across normal divides of time and culture. That last one is important. Past cultures lived by values and concepts wildly different than one’s own. An education in past minds always has a subversive element to it.

This blog is in many ways an attempt at the project Douthat has outlined here. In my case, much of what I am trying to “recover” are works and ways of thought that never were part of the American tradition. Thus my essays about Ibn Khaldun’s asabiyah or the wisdom of imperial Chinese poetry. One way out of the postmodern doldrums might be a 21st century Renaissance. Where Renaissance thinkers incorporated lost Greek works into their culture, injecting their intellectual life with a shot of alien values and ideas, we might do the same with the best of Asia’s great civilizations. Like the products of Greek thought elevated in the Renaissance, the great debates of, say, the Song Dynasty, are integrated in a coherent fashion. They are strange, but sensible. They have a structure and depth of their own, even if it is utterly different from our own. Perhaps that mix is exactly what we need today. 

3. With all that said, I still like my original musings for what went wrong. Here was one of my points:

The professionalization of intellectual pursuit is another problem. Melville would never have written Moby Dick if he had spent years enrolled in an MFA program instead of spending years at sea. Men and women who in past ages would have observed humanity up close (or at least who would have been forced through a broad but rigorous education in classics) instead cloister themselves in ivory towers. Their intellectual energy is channeled into ever more specialized academic fields and cautiously climbing a bureaucratic and over-managed academic ladder. Could that social scene ever produce a great work?  

Douthat begins his reaction to my piece by reflecting on the spate of reviews that have followed a new biography of Philip Roth. “In the sheer energy and delight of the Roth reviews,” says he, “you can feel a cultural pulse that contemporary fiction rarely stirs.” I have never been able to stomach more than a few chapters of Roth myself. I will cheerfully admit that I have never been able to finish one of his novels. One of the reviews Douthat highlights explains exactly why this is so:

The dominant literary style in America is careerism. This is neither a judgment nor a slur. For decades it has simply been the case that novelists, story writers, even poets have had to devote themselves to managing their careers as much as to writing their books. Institutional jockeying, posturing in profiles and Q&As, roving in-person readership cultivation, social-media fan-mongering, coming off as a good literary citizen among one’s peers—some balance of these elements is now part of every young author’s life. It’s a matter of necessity and survival, above and beyond the usual dealings with editors, agents, and Hollywood big shots. The ways writers used to mythologize themselves have either expired or been discarded as toxic. In the old gallery there were patrician men of letters (Howells, Eliot), abolitionists (Stowe), adventurers (Melville, London, Hemingway), madmen (Poe), shamans (Whitman), aristocrat expatriates (James), bohemian expatriates (Stein, Baldwin, Bishop), playboy expatriates (Fitzgerald), denizens of café society (Wharton), romantic provincials (Cather, Thomas Wolfe), small-town chroniclers (Anderson), country squires (Faulkner), suburban squires (Cheever, Updike), vagabonds (Algren), cranks (Pound), drunks (West, Agee, Berryman), dandies (Capote, Tom Wolfe), decadents (Barnes), butterfly-chasing foreigners (Nabokov), cracked aristocrats (Lowell), recluses of uncertain eccentricity (Salinger, Pynchon, DeLillo), committed radicals (Steinbeck, Rexroth, Wright, Hammett, Hellman, Paley), disabused radicals (Ellison, Mary McCarthy), radicals turned celebrities (Mailer, Sontag), activist women of letters (Morrison), alienated children of immigrants (Bellow), neo-cowboys (Cormac McCarthy), hipsters (Kerouac), junkies (Burroughs), and hippies (Ginsberg). In the end there is only the careerist, the professional writer who is first, last, and only a professional writer. The original and so far ultimate careerist in American literature was Philip Roth.

But what can the careerist hope to learn of life? What have they experienced, what have they seen, what wisdom have they gained, that is worth writing about? Intellectuals who have devoted their life to careerist climbing are crimped, stunted beings. They are fine as people, sure, but as observers of the human heart? On Twitter I once called this “21st century America’s Brooklyn writer crisis.” Too many of our “high literature” novelists went straight from a childhood in suburbia to an MFA to some decrepit Brooklyn apartment, having seen nothing of the world. They have spent life interacting with no one except other members of this class of professional naval-gazers. Of course these people don’t matter. They have nothing to say to anyone outside of their own milquetoast milieu. 

Academia is similar: just as careerist, just as cloistered, just as divorced from ‘big questions.’ If intellectual vitality is to return to American life, it is people outside these networks that will restore it.

EDIT (26 March 2021): A reader points to this piece by Musa al-Gharbi, on the source of intersectional ideology in the 1960s and 1970s:

While academics in the social sciences and (especially) humanities are most frequently attributed with the rise of the concepts and approaches listed above – they may be getting way too much credit. In fact, most of the people listed on the chart, who created and established these innovations, were practitioners in fields like psychiatry and law (and occasionally, activists outside the university, such as in the example of the ‘safe zone project’ or with the mainstreaming of ‘trigger warnings.’).

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb explained in Black Swanthis is par for the course: rather than being a font of innovation themselves, academics tend to systematize, rationalize, extrapolate from various innovations that were produced by people outside their field, or outside of academia altogether.

It is the intersections of action and thought where genuinely new ideas are born, not inside the institutions ostensibly created to generate ideas themselves. The incentives inside these institutions do not lend themselves to creativity, nor to ideas with wide application.


 If this post on inter-generational intellectual history caught your interest, you might consider some of my older posts on similar problems: “On Living in the Shadow of the Boomers,” “Longfellow and the Decline of American Poetry,” “A Non-Western Canon: What Would a List of Humanity’s Hundred Greatest Thinkers Look Like?,”  Book Notes: On Strategy, a History,” “On Adding Phrase to the Language.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.


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"Where Renaissance thinkers incorporated lost Greek works into their culture, injecting their intellectual life with a shot of alien values and ideas, we might do the same with the best of Asia's great civilizations."

Didn't this happen to some extent between, say, 1800-1925 when many of these works were translated, especially in Germany? (I wish I has more direct knowledge, but I think of Schopenhauer/Upanishads, Thoreau/Bhagavad Gita, RL Stevenson/Arabian Nights, Pound & Yeats/No theatre, Eliot's Waste Land/Fire Sermon etc).

What became of all that? WWII? End of European imperialism? Edward Said? Everyone now reads less of everything? (As a random spot check, the Penguin Upanishads has 200 Amazon UK reviews to Aeneid's 430, not excessively imbalanced).

The description of the "career author" reminds me of the previous piece you've written about the short shelf lives of modern public intellectuals.


Many of the works were not translated until very recently. We did not get a good translation of Zhu Xi's most important material into English until literally last year. And that guy is the probably the second most important thinker in imperial Chinese history! (Something like the Aquineas of China–if Aquineas was also in charge of choosing what works would go in the Bible, wrote a historical commentary on the last thousand years of history that preceded him, and had his views eventually become the thing that every young man who ever wanted to move up in the world had to spend years memorizing for the sake of a state sponsored exam!)

But with that said, I think what happened was academic specialization. All that stuff got thrown into "Asian studies" of one sort of another. Most fields moved away from "classics" and those that didn't tended to specifically orient themselves around the concept of "Western civilization/canon".

@Tanner Greer : You say "Many of the works were not translated until very recently. We did not get a good translation of Zhu Xi's most important material into English until literally last year. And that guy is the probably the second most important thinker in imperial Chinese history!"
Who would you say is the first ?