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.

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.