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.

Camus and The Myth of Syllabus

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus says, in The Myth of Sisyphus.

So too, one imagines a happy student, book in hand, pushing the syllabus up another class – happy because in the push he writes his own syllabus, for, as Rene Char said, “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.”

“Expression begins where thought ends,” Camus says, reminding us then of Wallace Stevens in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:


Throw away the lights, the definitions,

And say of what you see in the dark…

The blue guitar surprises you.