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Critics and Other Cultural Gatekeepers: Mind the Gate!

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Oh, please! Why must The New York Times devote not one, not two, but three bright spotlights to Nicholson Baker's latest novel, "House of Holes," a work that comes with the pathetic, attention-getting subtitle, "A Book of Raunch"?

See the magazine article, gleefully titled "The Mad Scientist of Smut," by Charles McGrath. See the review by Janet Maslin, wherein she describes the novel as "full-on pornographic." Finally, see the Sunday book section for the front-page treatment, by Sam Lipsyte.

The Times enjoys the mantle of our lead cultural gatekeeper, but for some time it's been tarnishing its own credentials. Critics whose views will last are those who see the forest for the trees, the gold for the dross, but in the present case these critics fix not even on the trees but the rot at its base. Where is the sense of history, of the cycles of civilization, of (do they not hear the alarm bells?) America's present decline? Where is the recognition that a "book of raunch," rather than reflecting a mature and vibrant culture, is symptomatic of one in steep, full-on decline, drunk on its power and narcissism (including Baker's pet vice, sexual titillation)?

I should disclose that there is a personal reason for this protest. Nicholson Baker's early novel "Vox," a critically acclaimed tale of phone sex, formed a central piece of the cultural backdrop in the mid-'90s, when I initiated phone contact with a man under siege in Sarajevo, enabling him to keep going and to survive, with me becoming his "guardian angel." Major conflict arose when I turned our talks into a play: Pointing to "Vox," producers knew for critic-authorized fact that such intense contact had to become sexual, and I was dishonest or in denial if I refused to "develop" the script in this direction. I refused, pointing out that it was precisely poison like "Vox" that made me reach out to Sarajevo in the first place, for nourishment -- to touch the sacred, become a guardian angel, and, nice surprise, create a powerful bond of love, beyond the merely sexual. (I think I was lucky to get the three productions I did.)

Meanwhile, the poison continues to spread, thanks to lax gate-keeping by critics, too many of whom are trying too hard to be hip. Where oh where is the critic brave enough to note that Nicholson Baker is the guy we all know from back in the grades who was the first to talk dirty -- and, refusing to grow up, never got over the thrill?

We who are artists of conscience, heartsick but still working our sword arm, are trying to reverse America's decline, by appealing to (raunch merchants will laugh, serious critics will not) our better angels. And precisely because of conscience, we refuse to imbibe the poison, wrestle the pig; we have more important work, nation- and soul-saving work, to do. We have a Renaissance to accomplish. But first, as with that earlier historical instance, we need to hoist ourselves out of the Dark Ages.

So, this is another appeal to our cultural gatekeepers, at the Times and elsewhere: Stanch the poison, bar the pig, mind the gate -- please.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." Her book of commentary is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character" (www.carlaseaquist.com).