Article « By Cozzens Possessed « Commentary Magazine (Dwight MacDonald)
In the Novel of Resignation, the highest reach of enlightenment is to realize how awful the System is and yet to accept it on its own terms. Because otherwise there wouldn’t be any System. Marquand invented the genre, Sloan Wilson carried it on in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and Herman Wouk formulated it most unmistakably in The Caine Mutiny. Wouk’s moral is that it is better to obey a lunatic, cowardly Captain Queeg, even if the result is disaster, than to follow the sensible advice of an officer of lower grade (who is pictured as a smooth-talking, destructive, cynical, irresponsible conniver — in short, an intellectual) and save the ship. Because otherwise there wouldn’t be any U.S. navy. In short, the conventional world, the System, is confused with Life. And since Life is Like That, it is childish if not worse to insist on something better. This is typically American: either juvenile revolt or the immature acceptance of everything; there is no modulation, no development, merely the blank confrontation of untenable extremes; “maturity” means simply to replace wholesale revolt with wholesale acceptance.
Some part of me is a terrible sucker for scathing reviews of over-hyped books, in big part because such events afford a critic the opportunity to frame a larger cultural discussion around a specific (and often putrid) example.
Dwight MacDonald always had something interesting to say about even the bad books he encountered, and this one — a minor hit from decades past that seems to have mostly vanished from literary and critical memory — inspired him to ball his fists and punch his typewriter in disgust and dismay. He wasn't just upset that the book was bad, but with the way critical standards had devolved to allow such a book to be praised by people he was sure would know better.
The above graf, though, caught my attention apart from almost everything else in the review, because it seems at least as timely as the rest of MacDonald's Cassandriad about falling critical standards. I think the Work of Resignation (as I might call it) has not vanished, but simply changed names and guises, and moved into a different apartment.
Some of this is because formulaic popular fiction works best when complex issues are reduced to binary choices. The inputs for the formula require it; there's no room for nuance and irresolvable complexity in a three-act structure, where a door has to be slammed on the audience at the end lest we run the risk of committing the sin of being ambiguous. Such stories are an everything-or-nothing business, and that makes it easy to create stories for a mass market that are a reflection of the mass mind's own prejudices for easy answers. We should be giving them better questions instead.