A Terry Teachout Reader

Terry Teachout, critic, blogger, and probably much else besides, has collected his pieces in A Terry Teachout Reader, a compendium of critical wisdom that is a pleasure, though only about 20% seriously interested me. He also observes the larger culture in a way narrower critics can or do not and doesn’t assume the merit of what he writes about. Best of all, he has sensibility. This includes respect and acknowledgment of high culture while still paying attention to low culture and a voracious appetite for everything significant between without losing sight the cultural top rising above the detritus, even interesting or worthy detritus.

He’s not an elitist, but he also isn’t going to take silly music or TV or, yes, books, seriously, and culture is ultimately about people more than ideas. One of his best essays discussed the Book of the Month club and showed how important it was the cultural conversation of its time—a kind of Oprah’s book club for an era without good bookstores in every down. In this case, something many writers would consider mundane, like book distribution, affected how people responded to books and how books got sold. It’s fashionable to bemoan the loss of independent bookstores, but one time there simply weren’t many good bookstores within a reasonable radius of a large percentage of the population, and now, thanks for Barnes & Noble, there are. The company serves a purpose, as Teachout reminds us, and he also respected the Book of the Month Club for the way it exposed ordinary people to unusual books. Sure, it picked plenty of duds and was the object of much condescension from the literati of the time. But it was better than nothing. Jonathan Franzen’s tizzy with Oprah has the same sentiment underlying it, as does the lit blogosphere’s distaste for the New York Times Book Review. Mass culture and group experience matters, if for no other reason than authors need to eat and people who are readers are often much more interesting than people who watch reality TV. It would be a boring world without someone to share your latest find with, and a duller world for many of those who wouldn’t otherwise read.

I perceive all this because Teachout’s writing reflects his underlying beliefs, and he has mastered the plain style of Robertson Davies or George Orwell, thus offering knowledge in the clearest and most precise language possible. I’d like to think I eschew needless complexity to the extent teacher does, but then I find myself writing words like “eschew” inappropriately, and sometimes those words slip into the blog.

Despite my general admiration for Teachout, I skipped some pieces, just as I might not like everything at a buffet. While I share many of his convictions, the pieces on books and larger American culture captivated me, but I skimmed most of the music pieces and anything relating to dance. I like music and listen to everything except country, but I have no technical knowledge about music or ability to criticize it beyond very basic likes and dislikes.

Some passages make me rethink much of what I’ve thought. In my own unpublished fiction—perhaps, as I fear, unpublished for a reason—I commit some of the sins Teachout observes in others: I don’t care for or about religion and have trouble making my way out of what Teachout, quoting a literary scholar named Joan Acocella, calls “the boundaries of the sex plot.” I’d never considered sex plots in those terms, save from a few essays pointing out that the marriage plot engine has been exhausted, or how they drive so much great literature, just as murders drive so many contemporary pop novels. The sex/murder dynamic is so intertwined that decoupling a plot from either is hard, at least with realism. Tolkien does it, as do many fantasy and science fiction writers, but among realist writers I’ve read Robertson Davies and Graham Greene (in some novels) do it best. Is that because writers are obsessed with sex, or readers are, or humans are? I’m not sure the answer, but it is striking how few novels in the Random House 100 Best Novels have sex as their driving plot. Again, this artifact may come from the selection committee, the literary tastemakers, something genuine, or something else. I can only ask because Teachout helped me pose the questions I couldn’t have formulated before.

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