The History of Prestige: Blanche Knopf and Literary Culture

Prestige is often what we’re talking about when we talk about literature.

Literature, after all, was for a long time understood as that subspecies of writing, per Raymond Williams, “‘substantial’ and ‘important’” enough to merit the name. Determining and debating what counts has always been one of the central activities of literary critics and scholars. Some of the most influential works of literary history published in the last decade, like James English’sThe Economy of Prestige and Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters, have focused their attention squarely on the creation and use of prestige within the literary field.

English and Casanova do not simply accept some vague sense that a work of literature is prestigious, or argue that it should or shouldn’t be, but rather examine how prestige has been conferred or accrued, and what it can accomplish. This approach marks them as part of a species of literary history that can be traced back through the canon wars, histories like Richard Brodhead’s Cultures of Letters, and Pierre Bourdieu’s essays on literature and art, where the investment of an object with “symbolic capital” is never assumed to be inevitable, but is understood as the effect produced by actions taken by players and various forces at work in the “cultural field.” One needn’t subscribe to anything like orthodox Bourdieuianism to acknowledge that institutionalized hierarchies of value, acknowledged or not, continue to play out in virtually every journal article and book review and proposal and pitch.

With this in mind, it would be hard to overstate the importance of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (more…)

The Soviet Mod Squad

May 30, 2016 |

The Yid
Paul Goldberg
2016, pp. 320, $26

Paul Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, may remind many of its readers of the movies of director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, and especially his 2009 World War II film Inglourious Basterds [sic], in which a French-Jewish cinema proprietor and a Jewish-American military squad work together to assassinate Hitler and others. Like that film, Goldberg’s novel begins with a shocking, comic scene of aestheticized violence, and then it proceeds to tell the story of a cadre that assembles with the aim of assassinating Stalin in early 1953. 

Sensible as the comparison might be, The Yid isn’t just Tarantinoism applied to late-Stalinist Russia, though. It’s more like what you might get if you crossed the iconic filmmaker with the novelist Dara Horn, author of The World to Come (2006), among other books.  Horn’s novels, which regularly win Jewish book prizes, delight audiences with how much history they manage to pack in. That makes sense if you know that Horn’s initial ambition, when she set out to become a writer, was magazine journalism. Maybe this helps to explain why Goldberg, who has been a working journalist for 35 years, produced something similar upon turning to fiction: an easy-to-read patchwork of scenes and flashbacks that advance a narrative but also make it possible for him to fold in a few dozen historical tidbits and personalities. (more…)