Targeting the Philistines: The Diversion of Literature and Disease of Criticism

How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts arrived, but is somewhat disappointing. By John Sutherland, retired from University College London, the book is a commercial cut and paste job. But that’s OK; it’s actually a bit of fun, its structure designed as if for on-line consumption, a mosaic approach combining linear language with magazine layout. The only thing missing might be JPEG photo inserts or cartoon drawings. It is pedantic while attempting to appeal to the anti-pedantic in its use of sarcasm, but the rib-poking, jargoned-filled references might create a confusing tone. We are unsure what the author’s attitude toward his subject is, but picture a historic, bronze statue in an old city park. None of the current locals can name or explain the statue. The statue is covered with graffiti equally obscure. And there’s Sutherland, standing on a soapbox like a street corner preacher, explaining to passersby how bronze statues are made. No one is listening, but that’s of no importance, because the age of statues has ended.

Written using a desktop publishing platform, the page layouts contain text boxes, multiple font sizes and styles, and copious but short references but no consistent citation method. A timeline across the bottom of the first pages of each chapter is interesting. There is a glossary, which is useful, but, as it turns out, it’s a glossary to a glossary, for that’s what the book is, a glossary, each chapter devoted to a single literary concept, though most are arguably little more than literary terms that are each reduced to a single, pithy takeaway statement called in the text “the condensed idea.” There are two Jeopardy-like quizzes, with answers following the glossary, textbook style.

The book is not about how literature works, but about how literary criticism works. The note-like introduction offers an apology. Eliot and Lawrence help support the deferential claim that criticism should be left to those who create literature. “What would one not give for Shakespeare’s view on his own drama?,” Sutherland asks. This is silly, for if we want to know Shakespeare’s view on his own drama, all we need do is read Shakespeare’s drama. It’s a Uriah Heepian humility Sutherland invokes, but the attitude explains why critics like Harold Bloom and James Wood might be more effective. Wood’s recent book, How Fiction Works, is literature compared to Sutherland’s book, and there’s irony in the comparable titles, Sutherland apparently cribbing an idea from Wood. But the ideas are not new, and the critics are passing them back and forth wrapped in different packaging.

A comparison between Sutherland and Wood illustrates two very different approaches. For example, Sutherland uses Robinson Crusoe’s “two shoes that were not fellows” to explain what he calls “Solidity of Specification” (the title of chapter 29, and by which he means, simply put, attention to detail; but he gets the term, he tells us, from Henry James, and comments that it’s the only time James uses the term in all of his writing – yes, because Henry James wasn’t in the business of writing text books, of creating terms that would find a home in the Canon of the Glossary). But Wood has already referenced the same two shoes Crusoe finds on the beach. But Wood does so indirectly, by quoting at length J. M. Coetzee’s discussion of the Defoe Crusoe shoe passage in Elizabeth Costello, a work of fiction. Wood’s book is deeper, for he immerses the reader in the discussion, while what we get in Sutherland is primarily definitions, terms, pithy sayings, stand alone quotes. One senses a complex love for literature from Wood and Bloom, even as the expression of that love exposes them to the occasional purple pathos, while Sutherland, who values Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as the best poem ever, may like the idea of literature more than literature itself. Literature can be a diversion or a disease; the criticism will follow suit.

At the end of Sutherland, we have to listen to yet another eulogy for the book. All is not well in the literary world. The philistines are crowding at the gate, and there’s a multitude of them. There is too much to read, most of it inferior work. Paper is disappearing; the book in your hands is as dead as a doornail. Perhaps the philistines are the target market for How Literature Works, but literature is not dead, while talking about it appears also to be a pastime still alive and kicking.

How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts, by John Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 205 pages, $14.95, paperback.