Media and Mediums



(“Who Creates the Canon?” Part III.)

EVERYTHING WE EXPERIENCE is processed through one medium or another. Distortions are the norm. National media will cover a local incident day and night– images on every television channel; screaming headlines in every newspaper; the matter discussed by late-night TV comedians, every one– until hysteria peaks and the incident is thought symptomatic of the nation as a whole.

Celebrities are created in similar fashion, their images and reputations blown up by repetition and exaggeration far out of proportion to their talent. Ours is a P.T. Barnum civilization, built through a high magnitude of ballyhoo.

Carny barker

Who builds the reputation of writers?

Big Five publicity departments and Manhattan magazine review sections are only part of it.

The serious reputation is built by literary critics who write for “serious” newspapers or journals. They bring to the task their biases and their parochial viewpoints. They’re expected to meet institutional expectations– not stray too far from the acceptable tastes of the respectable intellectual herd.

The lasting reputation is created by universities, which teach, discuss, and otherwise publicize their approved icons long after their deaths.


The teachable or politically-correct talents comprise the Canon. Henry James is a canonical writer because everyone has said he is for 70-plus years. His biggest patrons during that time have been the most exclusive universities– elite of the elite: Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge. Fitting that they’d choose an upper-class author with whom they can strongly identify.  The work is complex enough to be teachable at the highest levels– professors endlessly searching for “figures in the carpet”– that elusive meaning or symbol which can never quite be found.

America is a huge nation full of vast landscapes and diverse classes and peoples, areas which Henry James never visited, much less wrote about. Even today’s token academic “diversity” is screened through the same filter; the properly correct but also properly elite Harvard/Yale/Oxford/Brown student or professor viewing the world and America through a narrow lens– a reversed telescope. For any authentic Canon, this isn’t good enough.

Our task at the Tournament is to strip away the PR of papers and seminars to ask: How relevant has this writer been to the American civilization? And– Is the work any good?

We take nothing for granted.

(Featured painting: “The Fortune Teller” by Jehan Georges Vibert. Henry James photo by Alice Boughton.)

The Most Privileged Writers in America Are Whining

keith and emily


Why are New York lit-media’s glamor couple, Keith Gessen and Emily Gould– Scott and Zelda without the charisma or talent– always whining?

First we saw Emily Gould in an essay early last year complaining how she spent a $200,000 book advance on a $1,700-a-month Brooklyn apartment and cat expenses.

An inadvertently hilarious tale of arguments with Mom; the health problems of her cat, Ruffles; envy of Lena Dunham; crying at high-priced Broadway plays; and the like. Woe is me!

THIS is the essay which caused lit critic Ed Champion to blow up his mind and career last summer in an 11,000-word rant which called Gould a literary narcissist; prelude to the first of Ed’s two nervous breakdowns.

Or maybe it was Emily Gould’s essay collection, And the Heart Says Whatever.


Now we have Keith Gessen adding to the Insider whine with an essay in the newest issue of his literary journal, n+1. The essay is titled “Brief History of a Small Office.” It chronicles the amazing fact that an intellectual journal written in dense prose and containing a ton of academic jargon per page isn’t swimming in bucks. The attitude is akin to Emily Gould’s: We’re special. Somebody pay for us! (Realities of the market are unacknowledged, because n+1‘s editors are, er, “Marxists.”)

Meanwhile, in just the past few months n+1 magazine has received splashy write-ups in both the New York Times and Washington Post. Merely one of n+1‘s staff of well-bred and well-connected editors, Keith Gessen regularly writes for America’s best-paying magazines. In just the past year, for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and New York magazine, among other outlets. Things couldn’t conceivably be better for these folks.

Keith Gessen and Company are apologists for Big Five publishing as well as recipients of its largesse. Yet it’s not enough! Maybe things aren’t quite as cushy in the posh New York literary world as we’ve been told.