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The Cocktail-Party Test

Joseph Bottum: Who now reads?

Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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"I don’t read fiction,” Billy Hunter proudly told sports reporters this month. “I only read stuff I can learn something from.” What a line, from the head of the NBA Players Association. It’s the kind of thing I used to treasure—except that I’ve begun to realize just how often I hear something similar. “I think of myself as a true reader,” a political activist told me the other day, but it turns out she meant only that she follows a few mystery writers and reads a lot of new books about politics.

Classical painting next to picture of reality television show

As well she ought. Don’t get me wrong—plenty of first-rate nonfiction has been published in recent decades. Plenty of good fiction, as far as that goes. And yet, somehow, novels have disappeared from public-intellectual life. You can read them if you want, but you don’t have to read them to participate in the serious public discourse of America. A friend uses what he calls the cocktail-party test for a new book: Would you be embarrassed to show up at a get-together of writers and public-intellectual types without having read it? And the last novel he can remember for which that was true was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities—from 1987.

Almost 25 years without a public novel, in other words. The modernist novel defined itself with the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 and the completion of Proust’s Recherche du temps perdu in 1927. It found a last peak with Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus in 1947 and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in 1952. By the time Thomas Pynchon brought out Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973, the whole project was clearly coming to an end. And that was pretty much it—not just for the modernists but for the whole idea of the novel. 

Think about that for a moment: The fundamental art of Western civilization for almost two hundred years—the device by which, more than any other, we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves—just doesn’t count for much anymore. Even the hobbyists who read new fiction don’t look to such books for deep explanations of the human condition. And as far as other readers go, some plow their way through science fiction, westerns, Napoleonic naval stories, etc.—the green fields of genre fiction. The rest spend their time with biography: Ron Chernow’s tale of Alexander Hamilton. Rick Brookhiser’s new account of James Madison.

The common move at this point (among conservatives, at least) is to blame the writers. The nation’s novelists, you see, were ruined by the writing-workshop aesthetic that came out of the colleges. They were hurt as well by politics: the mainstreaming of left-wing thought, the sidelining of artists who failed to toe the line. 

It’s a nice thesis, except for the fact that the Académie française didn’t destroy the nineteenth-century novel in France, although it had a stronger influence on a national literature in the 1870s than the American academy ever has. For that matter, leftist politics was far more important to the great writers of the 1930s than to the fading writers of the 1970s.

Besides, novels are hardly the only art to decay. When was the last time you cared about a new opera? Poetry failed the cocktail-party test somewhere around the death of W. H. Auden in 1973. Sculpture got gobbled up by its own theory long before Henry Moore died in 1986. You can be a lively and cultivated guest these days without being able to name a living painter, composer, or playwright you admire.

Personally, I think the cause was a failure of nerve not in art but in metaphysics. If novelists themselves don’t believe there exists a deep structure of morality and manners that can be discerned by the novel, why should readers believe it? Why should they care?

When other nations speak of Western culture, they typically mean nothing more than movies and pop music. Hard to tell them they’re wrong. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that, outside Hollywood and pop music, we haven’t produced a single major—a single world-historical—work of art since about 1975. Maybe since 1950. 

Which is all right, I guess. These things run in cycles, and what goes down may come up. But I was at a conservative conference recently—one of those “In Praise of Western Civilization” things that get called together from time to time—and I must have heard at least three talks demanding that we “defend Western culture” from the vandals within and the Visigoths without. Lord knows, there’s plenty of defending to be done. And yet mostly I found myself thinking, Why, exactly? What culture do you think we have left to defend?

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