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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary history / criticism

What is American Literature ?

Ilan Stavans

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To purchase What is American Literature ?

Title: What is American Literature ?
Author: Ilan Stavans
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2022
Length: 183 pages
Availability: What is American Literature ? - US
What is American Literature ? - UK
What is American Literature ? - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Oxford University Press

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Our Assessment:

B : impassioned; wide-ranging

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Irish Times . 17/2/2022 John Self
TLS . 11/3/2022 Alicia Rix

  From the Reviews:
  • "For all its forceful opinions, however, the book is unsettlingly breezy. (...) This vagueness is not helped by floating phrases, missing words and a staggering number of typos (...) (I)n his own writing he too often sacrifices precision for enthusiasm" - Alicia Rix, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       What is American Literature ? is a very personal consideration of that question. In his Preface, Ilan Stavans notes:

     These meditations, therefore, are an introduction to American literature. Obviously, all introductions are biased. Mine is a kind of autobiography of my reading habits.
       Having read widely, and speaking also from his long experience as a teacher -- i.e. in constant dialogue also with a younger generation of readers --, his study is wide-ranging; noting that he is: "interested in literature as a window to life" he also places a great deal of emphasis on context -- historical as well present-day. While focused on its literature, his study is also an examination of 'Americanness' more broadly -- informed also by his perspective as an immigrant. What is American Literature ? is also very much of the moment -- the Preface is dated 28 November 2020, which is presumably when the work was, for all intents and purposes, finished -- with Stavans still reckoning with (the just defeated in the presidential election) Donald Trump while uncertainty about the COVID-pandemic and all its consequences was at its height (as he writes from a point where: "The promise of a federally approved vaccine is on the horizon but still appears remote. Will it work ?" etc.). Stavans' (dark, if nevertheless also hopeful) view of the state of the nation is also suggested by how he chooses to round off this study, with an Epilogue in which he imagines: "a new American literature that comes about after the Second American Civil War (2023-7)". (An early (2017) version of this Epilogue-piece can be found here.)
       Wide-ranging, Stavans' study is also free-wheeling -- spinning sometimes far afield. So also there are quite a few footnotes which stretch, in fine print, over more than a page -- not uninteresting digressions, but, in this form, disruptive ones. (As someone who is generally not bothered by -- and indeed a big fan of -- extensive footnoting, even I would counsel: if your tangent-in-the-form-of-a-footnote takes up more than a full page it really probably should have been worked, in some form, into the text proper.)
       Stavans acknowledges (or warns) in the Preface that:
While the assembly of authors might at times feel ad hoc and even dizzying, the organizing logic of each section is based on stream of consciousness.
       All in all, this works reasonably well. While focused on many of the expected classics -- Twain, Melville, Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Faulkner -- Stavans moves easily and comfortably far beyond them as well. Though selective -- quite a few very prominent writers, especially more contemporary ones, don't rate a mention -- there's enough here to support his various arguments. So also he ranges even to YA literature, from Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys to The Hunger Games
       Stavans addresses many of the broad-stroke generalizations about America, from its insistent national 'exceptionalism' and its emphasis on individualism to the common theme of journeys ("Everyone is on a journey in America since America itself is a journey"), the embrace of youth and novelty, and a pervasive anti-intellectualism ("the nation thrives in being fervently anti-intellectual"). Much is treated very quickly, but it's an engaging and often thought-provoking tour through the United States' literature and history (notably, the many aspects of that history which it hasn't not fully dealt with, and the consequences thereof).
       Stavans' discussion also goes beyond the literary in considering books as commercial goods. He expresses considerable doubts about their future in this form: "In my view, we are witnessing the end of 'the book era'". Among the more intriguing observations he offers is:
     Should books be sold ? I frequently ask people this question, in part because I want to inform myself but also because I am ambivalent. I love books. I live and die by them. But I find myself buying fewer and fewer. And I know I am not the only one. The book industry is in crisis.
       Arguably, of course, the book industry seems to have always been in crisis ..... As to its current crises, perhaps Stavans is right when he mourns: "The age of reading is in eclipse" -- but some of the numbers he relies on are certainly wrong. One unattributed claim he makes is:
It is said that the average American reads one book a year. Yes, one single book a year !
       Anecdotal evidence ('it is said') is not evidence; polls are far from reliable, either, but at least offer a bit more to go on, and the most recent Pew report, based on a 25 January to 8 February 2021 survey, found:
Americans read an average (mean) of roughly 14 books during the previous 12 months and the typical (median) American read five books in that period, according to the survey.
       This is actually up from the 2016 report, where the mean was twelve books and the median four .....
       Stavans is the publisher of the excellent Restless Books, so he clearly has some familiarity with the business side of literature. Nevertheless, is it really true that: "One of the most attractive, fastest growing items in the digital publishing industry today is the 'single'. Singles are quick reads of between five thousand and thirty thousand words". They were certainly, initially, hot -- or at least seen as 'the future' (e.g.) -- but feel more flash in the pan today, yet another niche but not significantly more. (Some of Stavans examples are also a bit out of touch: the one "electronic-only venture" he names among innovative publishers he thinks "deserve attention" is Frisch & Co., which was taken over by Canelo in 2016, and seems to have long been entirely subsumed by them.)
       He helpfully (?) does offer some ideas about how else to make money with books, such as discussing at some length the idea of including advertisements in books (which, of course, isn't an entirely new idea, but doesn't ever seem to have brought in the big (or even a reasonable amount of) money).
       From translation to the consequences of the auto-correct-feature, Stavans does offer a variety of interesting observations -- not least that: "our ABC seems to have changed dramatically before our very eyes", Stavans noting that:
     Digital technology has made that sequence obsolete. Proof of it is the awkwardness with which the average teenager experiences a printed dictionary.
       There are many interesting observations here -- though, again, in his free-wheeling approach argument is only limitedly built up and insights tend to be more strewn about. It's almost typical that, for example, when he does address the idea of 'the great American novel' he slips his own book-of-choice -- Moby-Dick -- in in a (not too lengthy ...) footnote:
This, in my opinion, is truly "the great American novel." In its transatlantic reach and encyclopedic ambition, it is also "the great Latin American novel,"
       (Elsewhere, he also parenthetically notes: "to me this is perhaps the best Latin American novel ever written outside of Spanish, though it certainly isn't the only one in that terrain".)
       The writing in What is American Literature ? is passionate -- not least in its indictment of Trump and what he wrought -- and it reads well and is certainly engaging, but it's also very loose, especially in its arguments (with some odd digressive exceptions). What is American Literature ? is all over the place, for both better and worse -- though tending more towards the latter. A more solid build-up might ultimately have served it better than the 'stream of consciousness'-approach that repeatedly floods by too quickly.

       Though my naturel is that of the tiresome pedant I mostly try, as best I can, to keep that in check in these reviews, but I can't quite here. As Alicia Rix noted in her review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement (11 March 2022), the copy-editing of this volume left something to be desired. Among the "staggering number of typos" she found, her example of a quote from Kerouac is particularly on point: the quote, from On the Road ends: "I was suddenly left with nothing in my hands but a handful of crazy stars", with Stavans then commenting: "Those crazy starts are the currency needed for Americans to constantly refashion themselves"; as Rix notes: 'stars' or 'starts', it makes a difference. (Kerouac famously did write, as quoted, 'stars', and presumably that is also what Stavans meant; still, probably not all readers recognize the quote, or (are willing to) bother to Google it to check.)
       I would also note that the Index is ... not good. Most remarkably, aside from a variety of typos (including perennial favorite 'Edgar Allen Poe', as well as 'Luisa May Alcott', and with 'Augusto Roa Bastos' also getting an entry under 'Augusto Rosa Bastos' (and that separated just by one entry from the correct spelling, i.e. sticking out like a very sore thumb)), the Index seems almost designed to prove one of Stavans' points: that the kids don't know the alphabetical order any longer. Yes, there are several entries here which are not in alphabetical order (on the second letter, not the first -- making them more insidious), e.g.:
Shapiro, James 103, 166
Skolnik, Rebecca 157
Shaw, George Bernard xiv, 85
       If teenagers have trouble using a dictionary, as Stavans claims, they'll be even more flummoxed by this .....
       The Index does get the basics right -- page references to everything mentioned -- but it has clearly been done by someone with no feel for indexing, just earnestly listing every mention of each term and name -- leading also to amusing bits such as the entries:
Selfies (also cellfies and sellfies) 131n
Sellfies (also cellfies and selfies) 131n
       The Index also holds one curious mystery: in his ostensibly-written-in-2031 Epilogue, Stavans' (character, Robert Chang Lee) writes: "Neither Trump nor Pence, Castro, or Piltowsky are the cause of our cosmic tragedy". While the others are familiar contemporaries, 'Piltowsky' appears to be a figure Stavans invented -- and this is his only mention of him. Impressively, then, in the Index the character gets a full name: 'Jeremy S. Piltowsky'. (I can find no trace of a person so or similarly named; a Google search brings up all of one result -- this book (though soon there will be two, when this review is indexed by Google).) I guess it's good to see that Stavans gave enough thought to even such a completely incidental character that he gave him a first name, even if he never used it in the text-proper -- and it's amusing to see he passed the information on to the indexer.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 March 2022

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What is American Literature ?: Reviews: Ilan Stavans: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ilan Stavans teaches at Amherst. He was born in 1961.

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© 2022 the complete review

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