How Literary Critics Think

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why (2000), James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008), Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980), which he proposed to subtitle “How to be a Good Reader,” are all books about how critics think. Oxford University Press has announced John Sutherland’s “How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts,” due out in March, 2011. We’ve put our order in, never tiring of the How books; in fact, we’re thinking of writing our own: How Literary Critics Think. Of course, slim chance, for as Laura Miller discusses in a Salon interview with Louis Bayard (“Who Killed the Literary Critic,” May 22, 2008), “at a certain point there’s nothing left to dismantle.” Bayard observes “So the only critics left to evaluate most contemporary fiction are journalists, ranging in seriousness from someone like Wood to your average newspaper freelancer who mostly delivers plot summary. There are no critical movements evident today.” Blogging certainly doesn’t count; in any case, Laura says, “I’m not really a reader of blogs.” Sure, and professional literary critics probably don’t watch television, either. Yet Barnard notes that he’s “learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.”

Ah, but what about the How school of literary criticism? The how of something is the scientific part. Nabokov puts it this way: “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter…To the storyteller we turn for entertainment…to the teacher…for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts….” And to the enchanter we go “…to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.” This last part Nabokov calls “the intuition of science.” Can literature be taught as a science? Certainly it can, and it may be the only way to teach it. Northrop Frye, in his instructive and influential essay “The Archetypes of Literature,” said, “Art, like nature, is the subject of a systematic study, and has to be distinguished from the study itself, which is criticism. It is therefore impossible to ‘learn literature’: one learns about it in a certain way, but what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature. Similarly, the difficulty often felt in ‘teaching literature’ arises from the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism is all that can be directly taught.”

Yes, but that bit about nature: Nabokov says, “Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives…The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.” So the professional critic clues us in on which writers are the most deceitful?

The reader speaks, ignoring the sign “Silence in the Library,” and the amateur spirit in literary criticism is born. Why kill this amateur spirit? Because ( more agreement between Miller and Bayard) “talent is inequitably distributed in all art forms… great critics are even rarer than great novelists or poets, and I wonder if that’s because criticism itself is held in such low esteem…McDonald mentions that one of academia’s last havens for evaluative criticism has been the creative-writing class, and he suggests that universities should offer more in the way of ‘creative criticism’ classes, teaching the craft of interpreting other people’s works. All the same, I’m skeptical this would reverse the current state of affairs. People will only value literary criticism to the extent they value literature.”

Any true experience of reading literature is an experience that calls for a reflective response, and this response can be made without a conscious understanding of how figurative language and connotative meanings (and the often resulting ambiguity) inform how literature works. We might even argue that the less conscious one is of how these things work, the more primal the reading experience. Yet one can see the merging of the effects of literature on cultural, societal, and individual development (of course these effects might also be considered only a reflection of changes already occurring in culture, society, and the individual, changes that become, in turn, the subject of literature – note the latest effort to change Twain’s Huck Finn). In any case, literature as cultural value is key to the interest of adult readers, which is why if we want to read Langston Hughes in a book (since we can’t very well still read him in a newspaper), we will end up wanting to know something about the Harlem Renaissance.

Reading literature can be a perplexing experience. We want to understand the meaning of a story, poem, or play, and when we don’t “get it,” we feel disappointed. But the idea that a work of literature “means” something is part of the problem. Flannery O’Connor once put this problem this way: “…something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students [readers], the story becomes simply a problem to be solved….” Rene Char put the problem this way: “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” Yet, we can learn to ask the right questions of literature, questions that don’t scare the bird off, and we can through the discussion of these questions discover how literature works. That’s what the general interest reader wants after the reflective response, the discovery of how literature works, for that discovery enables more enjoyable reading and helps us better understand the influence of literature on culture, society, and the individual.

Sister Mary Annette and Shakespeare’s Ambiguous Advice

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”: Sister Mary Annette read Hamlet to our 8th grade class, and since Polonius’s advice had the imprimatur of both Sister and Shakespeare, we took it to be infallible. Sister’s point, if not Polonius’s, was that we would all wind up friendless, friends dropping like flies as we evolved into our self-centered young adult lives, this being the way of the world, and thus if we were lucky enough to hatch a true friend, we should latch on to them. But who wants to be grappled with a hoop of steel? One grapples an antagonist, but one’s friend?

Why did Shakespeare feed so much seemingly sage advice to the mouths of fops or bumbling fools? There’s an argument over Polonius – was he shrewd or foolish? But when it comes to the play, as Harold Bloom observes, “It is very difficult to generalize about Hamlet, because every observation will have to admit its opposite” (409).

Perhaps our aversion to grappling hooks explains our independence. And here’s another piece of Polonius advice, and where would today’s bankers and the stimulus package be if we adhered to it?: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” This Polonius pearl is often repeated without the character’s explanation: “For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” The stimulus package is the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the banker king. It’s not clear that Polonius follows his own advice, for “Give thy thoughts no tongue” he ignores, though he does “Give every man thy ear”; in fact, that’s his undoing.

Though our 8th grade long preceded Facebook, perhaps Sister foreshadowed Facebook’s hoops. She also read to us that year A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield (her favorite Copperfield characters were Mr. Micawber and Mr. Dick, whose optimistic and practical advice always found an appropriate place in our classroom), so we had more on our minds than old Polonius. Alas, we cannot befriend Mary Annette now in this Facebook, but she knew, as did Shelly, that “We look before and after, And pine for what is not.” Of Facebook, she surely would remind us of the closing of Act III, scene iii, that “Words without thoughts never to Heaven go,” and who would know better than a murderous king?

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why

Harold Bloom prefers his literature neat, and not served with a twist. Adverse to literary criticism that substitutes a doctrinaire reading for the actual text, Bloom’s approach to reading is summed up in his epigraph, from the Wallace Stevens poem “The House was Quiet and the World was Calm”: “The reader became the book; and summer night / Was like the conscious being of the book.” 

Bloom’s book on reading consists of a short introduction, which sets the stage for the kind of reading he prefers, followed by sections devoted to short stories, poems, novels, plays, more novels, and an epilogue.

Bloom’s favorite writers are Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. But it’s Francis Bacon who provides the prose equivalent for Stevens’s poem: “Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.”

Bloom augments Bacon: “I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and for considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.”

Bloom hopes to inspire an “authentic reader.” Yet, “It is not the function of reading to cheer us up, or to console us prematurely.” 

“You are more than an ideology,” Bloom says.

“Chekhov and Beckett were the kindest human beings,” Bloom says. Reading Bloom, here and elsewhere, one wants to add his name to the list of the kindest readers, writers, and teachers.

Bloom, H. (2000). How to read and why. New York: Scribner.

Virginia Woolf’s uncommon reader

Virginia Woolf was not a common reader, not a common woman, not a common person at all. Yet we like her description of a common reader, defining as it does the utility player-fan, driven by “common sense,” and “uncorrupted by literary prejudices,” and so “differs from the critic and the scholar,” in that “he reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.” Thus free from the confines of convention, he approaches reading with “affection, laughter, and argument,” and if he is “hasty, inaccurate, and superficial,” that is because he moves on “without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure.”

Woolf was a common reader within her circle, her community, but her experience does not define a common reader nowadays.

The discussion brings us now to the downside of reading, the “Martin Eden” experience, the Jack London experience, the blue-collar kid who discovers reading, books, adventures of the vicarious. But he will never feel comfortable in a Bloomsbury circle, made up, after all, of a non-working class. So he tries to drop back into the group waiting for waves at 42nd Street, for he has read, not too much, but too well, as Bloom says of Hamlet’s thinking. Of course, our common reader is no Hamlet, no T. S. Eliot, nor was meant to be, an attendant, perhaps, waiting, as Beckett said, which brings us, “commodius vicus,” to the reading crisis:

     Is there a crisis if new readers are reading not so much as so well?

     Is there a reading crisis among common readers? 

     But who, nowadays or ever, is or was this common reader?

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925.

A common reader

Throughout his “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” Harold Bloom riffs on the falling from academic favor his aesthetic critical view. The riffs underscore his concerns for the deterioration of education. Yet he insists there’s still a common reader out there who cares: “Common readers, and thankfully we still possess them, rarely can read Dante; yet they can read and attend Shakespeare” (p. 3).

Who is this common reader? Is he the same reader Salinger dedicated “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters…” to: “…an amateur reader still left in the world – or anybody who just reads and runs…”?

But we love hearing the great Bloom blowing like Lear against the storm, against the “institutional purveyor of literature… happily proclaiming its death” (p. xviii), who lives in “our self-defiled academies” (p. 3), promoting an “arbitrary and ideologically imposed contextualization… – those critics who value theory over the literature itself” (p. 9), Bloom hoping against hope that Shakespeare will survive “the current debasement of our teaching institutions” (p.17), hope based on the “common reader [who] continues to regard Shakespeare’s persons as being more natural than those of all other authors” (p. 52).

Who is this common reader, who has now read not only Shakespeare, but all other authors (excepting Dante), and can compare? Is Bloom’s common reader Bourdieu’s working class, given a cultural transfusion, turning into “petty bourgeois subscribing to the Bolshoi” (An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, p. 82)?

“Anything goes in the current scholarly criticism of Shakespeare” (Bloom, p. 78), but does the common reader also read current scholarly criticism? To whom is Bloom writing, “since deep reading is in decline, and Shakespeare… now vanishes from the schools…” (p. 715)? Indeed, in any case, “It is no longer possible for anyone to read everything of some interest and value that has been published on Shakespeare,” but we have Bloom, who does not “…mistake political and academic fashions for ideas” (p. 716).

And where did Harold Bloom ever run into a common reader? On the Yale campus? Never mind. A common reader still has a chance to meet Harold Bloom, and for that, we are grateful.

Overhearing one’s own writing

In “The Gutenberg Galaxy” (1962), Marshall McLuhan was the first modern blogger. Though published in traditional book form, the structure resembles many of today’s blogs. Norman O. Brown followed suit with “Love’s Body,” in 1966. McLuhan and Brown built their books on a framework of short paragraphs full of quotes, or links, to a cornucopia of sources – both books cite hundreds of references. The writing is often aphoristic, cryptic, anecdotal. The quotes become like comments that propel the blog onward. 

McLuhan suggests that in the medieval world reading was oral. Monks read aloud, even when reading alone, because they had to hear the word in order to process its meaning (p. 115). Reading silently is a developmental skill, and some readers never master the skill of reading directly from eye to memory, but must mouth the words, moving their tongues silently. They read by hearing their own voice.

Brown said, “Our identity is always a case of mistaken identity” (p. 144). What is the identity within our writing? Are there times when the identity within our writing is a case of mistaken identity? 

Harold Bloom, in his portentous but readable book, “Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human,” suggests that Montaigne influenced Shakespeare, but says Montaigne’s essay, “Of Experience,” seems Shakespearean. Bloom’s subject in his final chapter is “foregrounding,” and he draws attention to this characteristic of Montaigne: “Montaigne, like Shakespeare’s greatest characters, changes because he overhears what he himself has said. It is in reading his own text that Montaigne becomes Hamlet’s precursor at representing reality in and by himself” (1998, p. 739). Montaigne wrote what he spoke, like he spoke. In other words, he practiced E. B. White’s “reminder” to “Write in a way that comes naturally” (p. 70). Yet Montaigne said that he spoke differently depending on his environment; he talked differently when conversing in Paris than when in Montaigne. Montaigne’s “principal aim and virtue,” in his writing, was “to be nothing but myself” (p. 113). He said “I speak on paper as I do to the first person I meet” (p. 115). Montaigne avoided affectation by accepting language as alive and therefore always changing: “I reject nothing which is current on the streets of France, for the man who would correct usage by grammar is a simpleton” (p. 113). 

We don’t encourage a writing anarchy; listen, and learn to compare your voice to the voice of others. Overhear your own writing. We don’t want to all sound the same; neither do we want to write the same. We want to write with originality and individuality. We want our voice to be our own, but we want others to be able to listen to our voice easily, without straining to hear. Read your writing aloud. What’s the identity of the speaker? Have someone else read your paper aloud to you. Is your writing true to your natural voice? Does your writing sound natural to you, or does it sound stilted, awkward, falsely academic? Try to overhear.