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Notes and Fragments LITERARY STUDIES AND THE REPRESSION OF REPUTATION by John Rodden 6 6T A Thomakesorbreaks a writer's reputation?" asked Esquire during VV the mid-1960s. The editors' answer, titled "The Structure of the Literary Establishment," came in the form of a multicolored "chart of power." Included was "virtually everyone of serious literary consequence ," whether "writer, editor, agent, or simple hipster." The center of power was indicated, noted the editors, by "the hot red blob in the middle," which oozed over the names of the chief literary makers and breakers.1 In 1977 Esquire drove to the heart of the blob, asking a long list of "knowledgeable" writers, academic critics, andjournalists the question, "Which American writers of this century do you consider the most overand under-rated"? Running below the responses across four pages was a sketch of Father Time, busily at work inflating and bursting bubbles bearing the images of various candidates. No consensus was sought, though Dreiser and Willa Cather fared well, and Pound, Eliot, Hemingway , Mailer, and Edmund Wilson less well. The editors acknowledged that their respondents generously volunteered a number of nonAmericans too (and stretched "writers of this century" back to the Venerable Bede), "proving that once you get started on this kind of thing, it's hard to know where to stop." 2 Unfortunately, reflection on the matter seems to stop at the doorstep of literary studies. "Reputation" is one of those subjects that readers, 261 262Philosophy and Literature critics, and scholars love to talk about, but to which serious attention is rarely paid, even by sociologists of literature—and not at all by literary critics. Separate disciplines are devoted to the study ofwealth and power, yet none to honor or reputation, the third chiefcategory ofclass systems and human motivation.3 A few cultural critics have drawn attention to the ways in which the "institution of criticism"—book publishing, book reviewing, literaryjournalism, scholarly criticism—has exerted influence on public literary taste or the profession of literary studies. But their work has typically criticized "the culture industry" or "the literary-industrial complex," rather than addressed the making of authors' and books' reputations.4 Although semesterly reading lists and even whole libraries testify to the exalted reputations of a few canonized authors, a near-total silence has prevailed in the academy on reputation as a literary issue in its own right.5 That such a central dynamic of literary life—in a sense the defining, controlling category for an essentially honorific activity like literature and literary criticism—should go virtually unattended by critics of literature might seem at first glance a professional conspiracy by Esquire's "blob." Yet the academy's neglectof"the problem ofreputation" is hardly due to outright professional collusion, but rather to a joint matter of institutional and historical factors. These have partly to do with the elusiveness of "reputation" as a concept, which has accommodated the more important repressive factors: the academy's preoccupation with literary interpretation and its persistent habit of averting its eyes from its own institutional history. This essay explores the problematics of literary reputation, the essence of which consists in our unrefiective tendency to assume that what is valued is invariably what is also reputed. II Few readers would deny that authors' reputations bear heavily on practices in publishing and literary journalism. Few even question Esquire 's buried point that "reputations get made" through institutional networks which exchange and distribute information. Yet the literary academy has traditionally relegated the subject to the slick magazines and, more recendy, to the sociology of art and occupations, where it has received scant attention and where literary canons are not made.6 On those rare occasions when journals like The American Scholar have taken up literary reputation as an issue, they have politely asked only the first of Esquire's questions (about underrated books and authors), John Rodden263 characterizing their discussion as "the game" ofrediscovering "neglected books." 7 Indeed the topic may well strike a bit too close to home, as observers as opposed in their literary politics as Norman Podhoretz and Richard Kostelanetz seem to agree.8 For elite institutions and star reputations exist in academe and in the literary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 261-271
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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