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What Is (and Isn’t) Literature?

By Steven Moore.

Jeffery R. Di Leo, The End of American Literature: Essays from the Late Age of Print (Texas A&M University Press, 2019)

Jeffery R. Di Leo, ed. American Literature as World Literature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018)

Like the Devil, Jeffrey R. Di Leo is a busy man.[1] In addition to teaching at the University of Houston-Victoria and editing the bimonthly American Book Review, he publishes a new book every year or so. In his latest two, he offers two seemingly opposing views of American literature: one on its achievement of international status, and one on its impending demise.

The elder of the two is an edited volume on American literature as world literature. In his introduction, Di Leo states that he doesn’t mean this in the obvious, unobjectionable sense that American novels are read throughout the world, sometimes in the original as well as in translation, and that they have an international status and influence far beyond that of, say, Estonian literature. He tells us he means “world,” “American,”  and “literature” in a more complicated way, which I have several problems with, particularly with his indiscriminate use of the word “literature.” But rather than start this review on a combative note, let me first describe some of the more satisfying contributions to this volume before circling back to the unsatisfying introduction, and Di Leo’s own provocatively titled essay, “Who Needs American Literature?” (What follows is drive-by criticism that can’t do justice to the complexity of these essays.)

Until about thirty years ago, “world literature” simply meant creative writing produced outside the U.S., Europe, and the British Commonwealth, an oceanic body of writing ignored by most First World literary critics then. (I was mocked by my fellow grad students at Rutgers in 1980s—in verse in a student publication, no less—for suggesting we should also be studying works outside the Anglo-American-European nexus, such as The Tale of Genji.) Christian Moraru’s essay in the middle of this book is a head-spinning introduction to the bewildering array of post-1980s theories and disagreements about “world literature,” the “lexicon of worldliness fast accumulating around our subject,” and America’s place in this borderless literary space. He also emphasizes the critic’s need to catch up with the “alternative cartography” mapped by writers since the fall of the Berlin Wall: “The map unfolded by the literary imagination, the map of imagined America, is one thing; the territory under internationally recognized US administration . . . is quite another” (136). Put another way (and italicized by Moraru for emphasis), “Much like economy proper, literary economy is less and less coextensive with territory” (137).[2]

Paul Giles likewise notes how contentious the term “world literature” has been ever since Goethe used it in the early nineteenth century—he was among the first Europeans to appreciate Chinese novels, which had been around since the seventh century—then moves on to a fine analysis of worldliness in Henry James’s The Tragic Muse and of his relationship to world-traveler Robert Louis Stevenson, richly supported with biographical details. Along similar lines, Jonathan Aracs explores some of the implications of American world literature (and the history of the concept of “world literature”) before applying them to Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy (2008–15). Aracs also reminds us of perhaps the stupidest remark ever to be issued from the Nobel Prize committee: “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough [true dat] and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” (150).

Lawrence Buell notes that European critics a century ago underestimated America’s influence on world literature, just as today some critics overestimate it. Taking on “the anti-imperialistic project of demystifying the imposition of (Euro-American) power via its representative cultural/expressive forms on the rest of the world” (50), Buell notes that the U.S. is an importer as well as an exporter of literary forms. He discusses the influence of Japanese haiku on American writers ever since Pound and the Imagists discovered the genre a century ago, and conversely how even earlier Whitman’s “long-lined incremental descriptivism” was taken up by a variety of Spanish and Portuguese poets. He thus “offers an important corrective against overreliance on such explanatory factors as cultural nationalism and cultural capital” (59) for American literature’s worldwide presence today. (Whitman is also the subject of Gabriel Rockhill’s essay, which is only tangentially concerned with the subject of this book.)

In his lively, freewheeling essay, Aaron Jaffe first notes how a migrant’s view of a country deflates a nation’s view of itself, registers his uncertainty about the assigned topic—“it is not clear at all that literature and American and world are in any way compatible concepts” (195)—then explores these concepts by way of the unusual writings of philosopher and media theorist Vilém Flusser (1920–91), for “he belongs to a famous generation of literary drift—from the old world to the new, into the speculative space of Theory” (195).[3] After a digression on the discredited Paul de Man, Jaffe concludes, “American World Literature functions as a matrix for something like data-base biography whereas the Flusserian method works like a projector of experience and experiment” (203), but you’ll have to read the essay to see what he means by that.

Robert L. Caserio provides a useful survey of transnational impulses in American literature, beginning with George Washington Cable and Henry James and culminating in the world-trotting fiction of William T. Vollmann. Caserio notes that only one of his Last Stories and Other Stories (2014) is set in the U.S., but The Atlas (1996) is the best example of what Caserio calls Vollmann’s “adventurous transnationalism.” He could be the poster boy for American World Literature.

Daniel T. O’Hara moves from transnationalism to transhumanism in a careful reading of James Baldwin’s last published novel, Just Above My Head (1979), which he regards as “a preemptive critique of the very thesis of this [Di Leo’s] collection, namely, that American Literature can be read as world literature and world literature can be appropriated in translation in an expanded American World Literature curriculum without losing what is critical to understanding any literature, its language, and that language’s historical culture” (252). So there’s no consensus on the topic in this book, but only a fool would expect thirteen critics to agree on anything. (The perfect title was right there, with apologies to Stevens: Thirteen Ways of Looking at American Literature as World Literature.)

Emily Apter begins with a brief summary of her understanding of American World Literature, but by sleight of hand changes that topic into an essay on what she’s really interested in: House of Cards mostly, and some other “political serials.” First she describes such serials as “literate,” then says they “have supplanted or become literature for audiences worldwide. It is now a truism to say that TV serials are the new lit”—reducing “literature” to a single syllable—then dispenses with it entirely by admitting that these serials are “a rather unique medium (rather than literary genre)” (107-8). Poof! Literature has vanished, and we’re treated instead to the merits of a television program—which may rely on a written script, and a “literate” one at that, but is still a TV program, a visual art form, not literature. A painting isn’t a work of literature in the connotative sense of the word, even though a representational one may have a kind of narrative to it. It’s a painting. A “political serial” is a TV show, not literature, and while this “unique medium” might share properties with stage drama, which is indeed literature (though House of Cards would never have become popular if published only in script form), this essay would be more at home in a book on film and/or media criticism. (Having never seen House of Cards—I despise politicians too deeply—I can’t evaluate her analysis of it, though it sounds smart and is well supported with historical materials.)

Di Leo would probably disagree that political serials aren’t literature—after all, he accepted Apter’s essay for the volume—which brings me to my principal objection to his introduction: his use of the word “literature.” Di Leo contrasts an “emaciated” concept of literature, “limited only to short stories, novels, poems, plays, and essays,” to the “robust” one (which he embraces) found in Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America (2009), which fattens up emaciated literature with “maps, histories, and travel diaries, sermons and religious tracts, public speeches and private letters, political polemics, addresses, and debates, Supreme Court decisions, literary histories and criticism, folk songs, magazines, dramatic performances, the blues, philosophy, paintings and monuments, museums, book clubs, photographs, comic strips and comic books, country music, films, radio, rock and roll, cartoons, musicals, and hip-hop” (2). By this reckoning, even Donald Trump’s tweets qualify as literature, Hemingwayesque by his own estimation.[4] If literature can be defined as an imaginative, verbal work achieved via calculated verbal techniques—which bulks up “emaciated” literature without spilling over into obesity—then some but not all of these genres would qualify. Rap lyrics make creative use of language, as does greeting-card verse, both of which observe poetic meter and rhyme. Capital-L Literature isn’t a country club seeking to keep out the riff-raff, but there has to be an aesthetic, imaginative element at work beyond writing carefully. And etymologically, shouldn’t literature be limited at least to written documents? (“Letters” is an antiquated synonym for literature.) If so, what are maps, paintings, monuments, and other things doing here? Their book even includes an essay on prize-fighting—in a book with Literary History in the title.

Yes, all the world’s a text (fashion shows, wrestling matches, TV ads, etc.) and can be analyzed with the same tools used on novels and poems, but that doesn’t make all such “texts” literature. And yes, “literature” can technically be used for any printed matter, even Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets and investment prospectuses, but such stuff should be distinguished from “literary” literature, as happens in one of my favorite passages from William Gaddis’s novel J R. After Gaddis carefully plants a few appearances of “literature” as investment material, a teenage hippie chick going through another character’s business-related mail flips out at the misuse of the word:

—Yes it’s the, they send out this literature to their stockholders to keep . . . [he says]

—Literature? I mean like you call this literature man? [she says]

—No no I don’t they do it’s all, it’s quarterly reports and . . .

—This reduced fully distributed shares outstanding by sixteen percent which had the effect after imputed interest on like you call that literature man I mean I call it bullshit . . .[5]

I’m with her. Down the street from where I live is a sign in front of an apartment complex that reads NO SOLICITING OR DISTRIBUTION OF LITERATURE. (They release the hounds every time I try to give away copies of J R.) I fear Marcus, Sollers, and Di Leo would welcome such “literature” as further examples of American literature, and perhaps even the sign itself.

They seem to be updating that inane 1970 song “Everything Is Beautiful,” as if to say “everything is literature in its own way.” If everything is beautiful, beauty loses its distinctiveness as a category; sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but every beholder distinguishes beauty from ordinariness and ugliness. Words lose their meaning when used too indiscriminately, when applied too recklessly to too many concepts, and literary critics, of all people (after creative writers), should know that.

The main problem with calling any cultural practice or object “literature” is that literal literary literature—those imaginative works of verbal art carefully, sometimes painfully, crafted by authors—can get lost in the shuffle. For example, I know of more than a dozen Americans who published interesting novels before 1800, but only one is discussed in A New Literary History of America (Charles Brockden Brown). No room for the others because space was given instead to various political documents and personal letters of the period.[6] And don’t get me started on all the omissions in their section on modern American literature. Their book should have been entitled A New Cultural History of America, which would be an honest description of its contents; only about half of it deals with literature per se—meaning per the everyday, connotative sense of the word.

As the editor of American Book Review, Di Leo knows better than most how easily worthy authors can be overlooked: that journal is devoted to covering interesting but nonmainstream literary works, most from small and university presses, that tend to be ignored by the review media. But the other problem with spreading the literature net too far is that it can skew one’s understanding of literary (not cultural) history. Taking his cue from Marcus and Sollers, Di Leo not only describes the sixteenth-century travel accounts of European explorers of America as “significant works in the present-day canon of American literature,” but argues that this “literature”—his word—“shared many of the concerns and texts traditionally reserved only for world literature” (3–4). But there’s nothing literary about Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacíon (1542), which Di Leo discusses at length and nominates as one of the earliest works of American world literature. It’s a valuable work of ethnology and anthropology, but Cabeza de Vaca simply wrote down what happened to him and his men; he didn’t sweat over fashioning an imaginative work of art per literary aesthetics as understood in his era. If anyone had told him he had composed a work of literature, he would have laughed; literatura to him would have meant poetry, classical drama, and possibly the chivalric romances that would later enchant Don Quixote, not a travel diary. The earliest work of American literature would be a Native American myth, chant, or trickster tale—that is, something creative and imaginative—not a nonfiction report by a European.[7]

Di Leo admits “there are also the challenges of reading texts that are not standard fare American literature. . . . But what is to be done with something like the commission for Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle by the King of France or the accounts of de La Salle’s journey by Henri de Tonty and others?” (7). Leave them to the historians, and read an imaginative, aesthetic work of literature about him instead, like John Vernon’s 1986 novel La Salle.

Di Leo expands on these issues in his other contribution to the book, “Who Needs American Literature?: From Emerson to Marcus and Sollors.” He argues that the September 11 attacks changed everything: they put an end to American exceptionalism (proposed in a sense by Emerson in 1837 in his “American Scholar” speech), began the erosion of international respect for the U.S.—speeded up by the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, and sent into warp drive by the Trump Administration—and even signified the end of American literature! That’s not literally true, of course—he would explain at greater length what he means by that fake news in his next book—and he concludes by again praising the Marcus/Sollers anthology as the kind of “literary history” our country now deserves.


The End of American Literature is a far more interesting and satisfying volume, for it leaves the rarified realm of academic criticism for a nuts-and-bolts overview of how books—not idealized “texts”—operate in the real world. It consists mostly of the editorials Di Leo has written for the American Book Review over the last five years, the first thing I usually read as an on-again off-again subscriber. In these he uses his insider knowledge of the book industry to explore how “the book world is shifting from a print-dominated one to a digitally dominated one” (ix), a cause for lament, in his view, rather than celebration:

If there is one feeling that is common within the late age of print, it is that something might be ending—not that something is beginning. At the macrolevel, it can be seen in our prognostications about capitalism, democracy, and America. But though the essays herein draw on these broader changes, they focus on some of the more microlevel endings: the end of the book, literature, and theory—and our responses to them. [⁋] All three—books, literature, and theory—are going through a period now where many see their best days as behind them. (xi)

I share that feeling, though Di Leo is too portentous about this. “American literature” won’t literally end until the last American scrawls something creative on a surface; physical books are as popular as ever, despite the rivalry of ebooks; and if theory is really ending, I’ll throw a farewell party for its demise. (I belong to that minority that always regarded continental theory as a faddish aberration from legitimate lit crit.[8]) Di Leo is smart enough to recognize the many advantages of digital culture, but I suspect most readers over forty will agree that something is indeed ending, not simply shifting.

By “microlevel” Di Leo means a wide range of things: publishers’ catalogs (which have mostly shifted from print to digital, to his disappointment), book reviewing, print-on-demand, bookstores vs. online shopping, self-publishing (which he guardedly views as a plus), blurbs and book covers, author–editor relationships, Google’s ambitious scanning program, various facets of Amazon, open source vs. peer-reviewed scholarship, letters vs. email, translations, print technology (including 3D printers), book-collecting and libraries, corporate vs. independent publishing, and the overuse of the word “crisis” in reports on higher education. While most readers may be aware of some if not all of these matters, it is useful, for theorists especially, to be reminded that literature is created, edited, and marketed by flesh-and-blood people, that books are not contextless “texts” but paper-and-ink-and-glue objects—even ebook readers possess materiality—and are still (if decreasingly) sold in bricks-and-mortar stores by more flesh-and-blood people, and function as units in a cutthroat neoliberal economy.

Also included are a half-dozen book reviews, not all of which portend the end of American literature, but which are positive models of the art of book-reviewing. These, as well as the editorials, are written in a refreshingly nonacademic style, with playful references to rock songs strewn throughout. The book ends not with an index—a regrettable omission—but with an afterword by one of my favorite writers, Steve Tomasula, who sums up the volume better than I can.

A more accurate, if duller, title for this collection would be The Shift in American Book Culture, for few of the things Di Leo discusses are actually ending, aside from snail mail and maybe old-fashioned editors like Maxwell Perkins, who is mentioned several times, though they still exist. Di Leo is very harsh on the posthumous publication of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, dismissing it in several places as a disgusting cash-grab, but he doesn’t mention the Perkinsian role Michael Pietsch played in Wallace’s later career, admirably recounted in a new book by Tim Groenland.[9] While standalone book-review supplements to newspapers have largely disappeared, book-reviewing hasn’t; it has merely migrated to a myriad of online sites. Book chains have declined but are still around, and independent bookstores keep opening. And despite laments (and a few celebrations) for the “death of theory,” Di Leo argues that while the days of “high theory” may be over, it is actually undergoing a “renaissance,” as Vincent Leitch suggests in Literary Theory in the 21st Century: Theory Renaissance (2014), which Di Leo discusses with approval.

One thing that perhaps has ended for some is the cachet of “literary” fiction, which brings us back to that contentious term. In an eye-opening essay on the scammier aspects of self-publishing, Di Leo notes that many DIY authors

believe that there is no difference between publishing a novel with FSG [Farrar, Straus and Giroux] and iUniverse. But how can that be? Strange as it may sound, for many, the difference between FSG and iUniverse is similar to the difference between Heinz baked beans and the store brand. Though the labels may be different, the products—baked beans—are essentially the same. Both come in cans and both contain beans. [⁋] From this perspective, quality is a secondary matter to a more primary material logic: just as all beans are beans, so too are all books books. (133)

The big NYC publishers share that “material logic”:

The corporate publishing machine is geared toward low risk and high sales. The handmaiden to corporate publishing is not the perfumed hand of aesthetics or the golden arm of literature, rather it is the calculating brain of the marketing and accounting departments. . . . [⁋] Publishing for Penguin Random House is first and foremost about selling books and making a profit for the global publishing corporation, not about the longevity of literature. (136)

Note the two appearances of “literature” in this passage, by which Di Leo clearly means the kind of books written by Williams Gaddis and Gass (mentioned later on the same page), not the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink concept used by the editors of A New Literary History of America. What’s ending in some quarters of book culture is the distinction between literature and commercial fiction, literary authors and paraliterary amateurs, which is all the more reason to preserve the purity, however old-fashioned, of that grand old term. Di Leo makes the same case for using “crisis” more carefully: “Maybe I’m being too sensitive to the power of words and am old-fashioned when it comes to semantics, but dubbing something a ‘crisis’ indicates that it is truly a ‘turning point’” (142); similarly, one should reserve the word “literature” for creative works that truly deserve that accolade. He argues later that corporate publishers “have turned literary value into nothing more than market success—one wherein aesthetics are merely a subset of neoliberal values” (163), and I’m wary of critics who have granted literary value to such things as “maps, histories, and travel diaries, sermons and religious tracts, public speeches and private letters, political polemics, addresses, and debates, Supreme Court decisions,” etc. (see above for complete list). The unwillingness of corporate publishers to distinguish between literature and commercial writing not only robs promising literary authors of the material advantages of publication by one of the NY houses, but also imposes unrealistic sales goals on those lucky enough to have gained a foothold there, as when Pantheon decided to pull the plug on Mark Z. Danielewski’s exuberantly literary serial novel The Familiar after only five volumes (of a projected 27) due to poor sales.

Though Di Leo doesn’t mention it, Danielewski’s project illuminates his essay on what he calls “televised ‘serial’ or ‘visual’ novel[s]” such as The Sopranos, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad. Like Emily Apter in the earlier book, he notes that while they were on the air several cultural critics felt that such series were supplanting the literary novel. “Who, they ask, is going to step up and make the novel ‘great again’ at a time when television is attracting increasing viewership and aspiring in its own writing to levels of excellence that rival those of the novel?” (9). Danielewski is who. Speaking to NPR in 2015 of his work in progress, he said, “I began to see that it was a much much larger work, and probably impossible to conceive had it not been for the sudden efflorescence of great television. Looking at the five seasons of The Wire or the wild speculations of Battlestar Galactica. Certainly Mad Men, certainly The Sopranos, certainly Breaking Bad. These visual novels that have come into our living rooms and bedrooms and they tell a story in much greater detail and with much greater patience.”[10] The Familiar is a stunning achievement, visually as well as verbally, but the fact that it was canceled after the equivalent of one season doesn’t bode well for similar attempts to rival televised serials, or for ambitious literary daring in the corporate publishing world.

In his essay on blurbs, Di Leo notes that “book critics are well aware that their comments could end up on a book jacket and many write their commentary to include lines that may serve this purpose . . .” (102). I wouldn’t offer one for American Literature as World Literature, but (quote) The End of American Literature is an attractively written overview of the many ways book culture in America has changed over the last thirty years. As an experienced editor/critic/professor, Di Leo is uniquely positioned to provide an insider’s view of the book industry and to intelligently assess the implications of these momentous changes, some for the better, some for the worse, with plenty of facts and figures to back up his assessments. Anyone interested in the fate of the book in the 21st century will profit from reading this compelling book (unquote).

[1] A reference to David Foster Wallace’s story “The Devil Is a Busy Man” (1999),  not an implication that Dr. Di Leo tempts good Christians off the straight path of righteousness.
[2] And not just in America. Swiss critic Pia Reinacher noted in 2003 that  “contemporary Swiss writers could no longer be distinguished from German ones, and that their concerns were now global rather than Helvetic” (quoted in Karin Baumgartner and Monika Shafi, eds., Anxious Journeys: Twenty-first-century Travel Writing in German [Lake Placid, NY: Camden House, 2019], 109).
[3] How unusual? His History of the Devil (1965), Jaffe says, “is at once a philosophical fable and a kind of theoretical novel about the principle of history, told via the seven deadly sins, and the injunction to move beyond the impasses of ontology into methodological layers of a multiply-stratified present” (196). Among Flusser’s other works is Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, with a Report by the Institut Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste (2002), with the vampire squid as the controlling metaphor.
[4] See https://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/gop-primaries/260949-trump-says-hes-the-hemingway-of-twitter.
[5] William Gaddis, J R (NY: Knopf, 1975), 556. By the way, Gaddis is mentioned in this book (p. 210) but the indexer didn’t deem him worthy of inclusion there.
[6] If interested in the others, see my The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600–1800 (NY: Bloomsbury, 2013), 903–44.
[7] Or, if you want to extend “America” further southward, it would be a Mesoamerican graphic novel like the Popol Vuh: see my The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600 (NY: Continuum, 2010),  391–98.
[8] At one point Di Leo quotes critic Marjorie Perloff admitting in 2013 “[I] have increasingly come to feel that the mystification endemic in Deconstruction was a dead end” (147).
[9] The Art of Editing: Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).
[10] https://www.npr.org/2015/05/10/404917355/danielewski-returns-with-a-long-sideways-look-at-the-familiar


Steven Moore is the author of a two-volume survey of world literature entitled The Novel: An Alternative History. He has also written extensively on modern literature, and for years was managing editor of Dalkey Archive Press/Review of Contemporary Fiction. His new book, Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes, is forthcoming from Zerogram Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 6th, 2020.