I call it the Yeats effect, and sometimes the Chekhov effect or the Elizabeth Bishop or Philip Larkin or Alice Munro effect. To me it represents a standard of literary quality that is widely, even universally, agreed upon. One hears Dickens faulted for his sentimentality, Ezra Pound for his politics, Thomas Pynchon for his obscurity, and more than a few people dislike the work of Ann Beattie, Jorie Graham, and John Ashbery, but just about everybody loves Yeats’s poems and Chekhov’s stories, and the work of Larkin, Bishop, and Munro. Their writing transcends taste and epitomizes quality, unlike other art that some people like and some people don’t, with the diversity of opinion increasing the more recent the work in question.
What is quality? Even though we keep seeking it on the basis of someone else’s promise, most of us agree that it is rarely what anyone says it is, no matter how confident the proclaimer sounds: the new unknown poet is probably not, as the older known poet gushes on the back of the debut collection, the equal of the young Auden or Plath, nor is his or her work likely to be ”searing,” “heartbreaking,” or “luminous” to everyone who samples it. Referring to epic novels admired as much for their length as their artistry, Adam Gopnik writes that “Nothing is more American than our will to make the enormous do the work of the excellent.” Too often we elevate the merely good in the same way. After a few disappointments, readers start expecting that most praise will turn out to be exaggerated, though it’s also common to inflate quality in hindsight. Donald Hall writes that if one believes the literary nostalgists, “poetry was always in good shape twenty or thirty years ago; now it has always gone to hell.”
When I think of artistic quality I think of art that surprises, delights, moves, and edifies me, and has done so for a long time. I often experience at least one of these effects, but my bookshelves and iPod are full of transient pleasures that either lost their charm after a few reads or listens, or briefly appealed to my taste or sensibility at the time. Had Richard Price’s publisher asked me when I was sixteen to contribute a blurb to Price’s first novel The Wanderers, which sparked my interest in both reading and writing in high school, I would have expressed my reverence for the book’s streetwise characters and language. Returning to it forty years later, I can still see what inspired my younger self in Price’s prose, but no longer find it so brilliant.
Over a recent vacation I read all the novels cited by the New York Times Book Review on its list of the ten best books of 2014. The editors base their selections on hundreds of reviewed books, winnowed down in discussion. It didn’t surprise me to find two of the novels unmemorable—the list was less a stamp of literary quality than a group opinion, an aggregate of the tastes of supposedly discriminating readers. I have been misled by other people’s taste too many times to count on anyone’s version of quality except my own. Influential commentators like those at the Times may even overlook quality because they must opine immediately, whereas quality often requires time to manifest itself. The Irish poet and publisher Peter Fallon calls this short-term literary hoopla “fireworks as against the slow burn of poetry, and I would rather take my heat from the slow burn.”
In some cases, however, current opinion like the Times’s can keep a work eligible for posterity, bringing attention to a book whose quality might be missed or forgotten. When Henry Roth’s novel Call It Sleep was republished in paperback in 1964 after being out of print for thirty years, Irving Howe called it “a neglected masterpiece” on the front page of the Times Book Review, resurrecting its reputation. Philip Larkin did the same for Barbara Pym when he nominated her as the most underrated writer of the twentieth century, prompting an American publisher to reissue all of her novels. In general, “what’s good is what lasts” is a trustworthy mantra for screening quality, though it reduces the practice of appraisal to waiting. No point evaluating anything new—let’s see how it holds up. Not only does this take some of the fun out of reading, looking, and listening, it lumps great contemporary art in with all contemporary art, a logjam edging downstream toward the future.
It mystifies me that we can concur about the quality of Yeats effect artists, but vary so much in our opinions of other, particularly newer art. I listen to a weekly podcast in which two hosts play new songs preceded by effusive introductions. I like keeping up with the new releases, but rarely share the hosts’ views. Typically, they rave about a song, then play it, and I think, ”How could you possibly like this song, with its non-existent melody and insipid lyrics.” And yet they frequently cite the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Joni Mitchell as their touchstones for quality. How can we be in such agreement about Simon and Garfunkel and in such disagreement about new music? How could a former poetry editor of The New Yorker and I both have held Elizabeth Bishop in high esteem, yet felt so differently about the many New Yorker poems from that era that I gave up on after the first stanza?
One possibility is that these selectors have to lower their standards when they turn from true quality to new quality. If they measure everything against the best, they’ll find everything wanting, and have no material for a podcast or a weekly magazine. Also, the newer a work of art, the more taste comes into play. One applies taste to Yeats’s poems, but also consciously affirms, and even feels pressured to affirm, the verdict that previous readers, particularly critics, teachers, and anthologists, have already pronounced. With new work, the verdict is undecided, so taste matters more. That’s where the Yeats effect proves valuable, providing amodel of quality beyond the reach of taste, keeping contemporary approval or disapproval from feeling too conclusive by reminding us, “You know what you consider truly good, so how does this compare?”
Not that we should condemn all art that falls short of the best—enforcing such an ideal would exclude much that we would enjoy or profit from. In a clip from their TV show “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies,” the critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert argue the relative merits of the Disney film Benji and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Siskel mocks Ebert’s affection for Benji, saying the film doesn’t even belong in the same conversation with Kubrick’s, to which Ebert retorts that it’s not a question of comparison, but of context. He would no more compare the two films than measure a beach novel against Middlemarch. Ebert acknowledges Benji’s inferiority to Full Metal Jacket, but still loves both and doesn’t mind the aesthetic contradiction that implies. Siskel can only abide one rating system for cinematic art, by which only Full Metal Jacket can be deemed great, while Benji has to be something else.
The saying “quality will out” means that good art will eventually supplant inferior art no matter how much the latter is favored by contemporary tastes. I’m curious how this process works, both in elevating certain works over time and in establishing consensus. In his biography of Yeats, Norman Jeffares writes that shortly after publication of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” a critic wrote to the poet faulting its last stanza. Having first read “Sailing to Byzantium” in an anthology in eighth grade, then studied it in high school and college, I assumed that it had always been revered. When and how did it change from a new poem on tryout with readers, received ambivalently by at least one, into a jewel of Yeats’s oeuvre with one of literature’s most famous endings?
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
In some cases the path to literary canonization may begin when one teacher, then another and another, on their own initiatives and based on their own opinions, introduce the work to their students. I have noticed this phenomenon over the twenty years that I have been teaching high school English. Each year I check the summer reading lists of other schools to see what books their teachers are assigning. Starting in the late 1990s, Tim O’Brien’s story collection The Things They Carried started showing up on these lists, and has since become ubiquitous, joining The Great Gatsby, Beloved, and Elie Wiesel’s Night as required reading for highschoolers. I love the idea of this route to recognition, a kind of grassroots uprising, the tortoise of quality lumbering behind the hare of hype that sprints ahead of new literature, desperate to make its reputation.
Thirty-five years ago I heard the poet Stanley Plumly read Robert Hass’s poem ”Heroic Simile” during a craft talk at the Bread Loaf writers conference. Few in the audience knew the poem, which had just appeared in Hass’s book Praise, and there were sighs of pleasure when Plumly finished. Rapturous responses aren’t uncommon at poetry readings, often having more to do with a poem’s or performance’s melodrama than with its quality, but over the years “Heroic Simile” has continued to be regarded—at least among readers that I know—as one of the best poems in one of the best poetry books of the last half of the 20th Century. Yet a young MFA student of my acquaintance read Praise for an assignment and didn’t care for it, sending me further back in time to Bishop or Larkin to find a poet that everyone, including that student, loves.
We have all cited taste to defend our opinion of art, often against someone more erudite or articulate than ourselves. After all, it’s hard to win even a well-reasoned case for quality if a person stubbornly professes to dislike something. But falling back on taste can make readers lazy about defining quality—if the latter is always subjective, then it can vary from work to work, mood to mood, and incorporate biases that have nothing to do with it, “the usual narcissism of small differences” in film critic A.O. Scott’s phrase. These can include predispositions that increase or decrease our receptivity to what we see, hear, or read.
For example, I’m more likely to seek and find merit in a friend’s poem than in a stranger’s, and to read more hopefully or skeptically poets whose previous work has impressed or bored me, respectively. The poet’s age, reputation, or subject matter may also color my judgment, but has nothing to do with quality, which is absolute. Or is it? Does art possess a fixed quality that awaits discovery, or are there as many versions as there are appraisers, even unbiased ones? It often appears so, though the universal respect for, say, Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” or certain poems by Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Anna Akhmatova, William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, James Wright, and Seamus Heaney suggest that a few paragons exist.
One way to identify these is through criticism, with the critic proving a work’s quality by educating or even creating a reader’s taste. Recently my wife recommended to me the novel Stoner, by John Williams, which had been republished after forty years out of print. She and I trade books all the time with varying success and honest reactions, so I felt no expectations or pressure to agree with her about Stoner. Intrigued by the book’s history, I refrained from reading anything about it in advance—no cover blurbs, Amazon customer comments, or reviews of either the old or new edition. I wanted to locate my estimate of its quality between the indifference that caused it to go out of print and the enthusiasm that brought it back.
I found the book unremarkable, and couldn’t see what qualified it for reprinting. Then I read the introduction by the Irish writer John McGahern, who praised its naturalism and plain style. I had noticed these aspects, but felt that if anything they made the book a bit drab and slow. McGahern explained how they gave a revealing picture of the protagonist, period, and locale. In his reading, what had struck me as drab began to seem expressive, even profound, like an Edward Hopper painting studied rather than glanced at. Through his critical acuity and clarity, McGahern illuminated the book’s virtues until I perceived them. He disposed me to like Stoner, but in such a way as to move me further from my taste and closer to quality.
When a literary journal asked a prominent Canadian poet what constitutes a great poem, he named six titles by fellow Canadians, including his wife. He said, “[these] are great poems. There is no explanation as to why or what, there remains only the poem and the realization in the mind of a fine reader that they are in the presence of greatness.” How flimsily subjective this sounds, anointing poems as great on no other qualitative grounds than one’s “fine” reader’s judgment. The English teacher in me wants the poet to use examples and analysis to prove his thesis. The Yeats effect would give him the shared standards he needs. For example, my dictionary defines “great” as “of ability, quality, or eminence considerably above the normal or average.” Most readers would find this an apt characterization of “Sailing to Byzantium.” Do the cited poems also meet this standard? To my ear, Yeats’s music surpasses the blander language and rhythms of at least one of them.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
from “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats
This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.
from “Dark Pines Under Water” by Gwen MacEwen
If more people were required to back up their proclamations of literary greatness, the level of critical discourse would improve and the number of purported masterpieces would decrease to a realistic number. This is what good critics do: they judge art according to principles more rigorous and consensual than mere taste.
I’m as guilty as anyone of using my taste as a criterion for quality; it always surprises me to be reminded that I am not the only authority on what is excellent. Recognizing quality in art is a bit like recognizing it in people—there’s so much subjectivity involved when someone describes someone else as a good guy or wonderful woman. Even traits like kindness, sense of humor, and intelligence can mean different things and matter differently to different people. Similarly, everyone seeks poems that are moving, musical, and memorable, and seems to find them in Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” and Bishop’s “One Art,” but as soon as these criteria are applied elsewhere, especially to new work, the consensus crumbles and subjectivity floods in.
Surely all literary magazine editors covet the moving/musical/memorable trifecta, yet their submission guidelines suggest that they also seek to satisfy their taste. Most of them urge prospective submitters to read the magazine before submitting, in order, according to one, “to see what we like and have published in the past.” A logical request—it’s dispiriting to think of writers blindly submitting to magazines that they haven’t read—but I wonder why editors wouldn’t want their established tastes challenged and their choices varied. Granted, it’s hard to imagine an editor accepting a poem that he or she does not like, but I wonder if always following the path of affinity doesn’t restrict the search for quality as well as originality. One journal addresses this:
While most magazines suggest reading their back issues to get a sense of what they like to publish, we’d suggest reading to get a sense of what we’re having trouble finding—if you notice a style or subject matter that we don’t seem to be publishing, send us that!
-submission guidelines for Rattle
Sometimes when I’m doing my due diligence by reading journals in preparation for sending out my writing, hoping to avoid another rejection slip saying that my work is “not for us” or “not a good fit,” I fantasize about John Berryman preparing to submit a batch of his Dream Songs and bypassing Journal X because the poems in its summer issue don’t resemble his. If Berryman did go ahead and submit, I wonder if Journal X’s editor would find quality in his poems’ differentness or balk at publishing them because they sound unlike what has appeared in those pages previously, or violate the magazine’s stated distaste for persona poems, or elegies, or slang.
When the novels by Roth, Pym and Williams returned to favor after decades of neglect, they hadn’t improved, so their new status must have had to do with perception. Readers either hadn’t discerned their merit or needed to have it validated by writers they respected. But not even a voice as authoritative as Irving Howe’s or Philip Larkin’s or John McGahern’s can confer quality upon a piece of writing, no matter how much time has passed. That power lies with the writer alone, a fact that puts in perspective the pronouncements of reviewers, blurbers, and “best of” list compilers. Given the subjectivity of these arbiters, our near unanimous regard for certain works may be our best measure of what is good, and, for writers, worth aspiring to. Yeats had no guarantee of a Yeats effect, but I bet he thought about it, and that thought fueled his ambition.