Russell Bennetts, editor extraordinaire (Berfrois, Queen Mob’s Tea House), interviews the Prince of the Toads for his popular series “Poets Online Talking About Coffee.” Head on over for a cup and check it out.
Below: “The Dance Lesson,” 32 x 64, oil paint and oil pastel over acrylic:
Hermione Lee’s recent Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life occasioned a number of reviews in the usual places. Most touched on the questions of how did Penelope do it (the uncanny way she cleans up the mess by throwing out the novelistic clutter extraneous to her enriched needs, leaving almost every sentient sentence embering in its own mystery), and when did Penelope do it (she did not write and publish her first novel until around age 60). Writing and publishing a novel are two different activities. Writing one at any age seems unremarkable; publishing one, at any age, may be. Readers often gawk and might wonder if Penelope was a so-called “late bloomer.” But the flower seduced into blooming too early may come to regret a late frost. In any case, there is little evidence that Penelope was a late bloomer. Her writing seems set in her past. The novels are reflections, reconsiderations of experience, of a life rooted in the mutation and gestation of failure. Failure, like slapstick, can be funny in a way success can never be, but only a writer bloomed wise (rather than, say, embittered) from omission will get this. Slapstick, too, is found where the waves of success (swells that break in a timely manner) dissipate on the strand of a listless audience.
The narrator of a Penelope novel, always in third person, tells only what she wants to when she’s good and ready, often slipping very close to first person in what James Wood calls “free indirect style,” but might pull back and mention a year, not all that useful a piece of information, actually, considering 1960 aboard a barge on the Thames hardly suggests an environment the same as 1960 up from the Strand at El Porto, except that later it might help explain a question of whether or not television was invented yet or were the characters too poor or too bohemian to own one, and one begins to see the ship of one’s own home going down in a domestic storm just as easily on 44th in El Porto as on the Thames in London. Domestic themes are at once both universal and local; what matters is both what is said and how it is said. One doesn’t navigate one’s way through domestic turmoil following some staid rubric or outline; one lives through the hullabaloo and just maybe survives alone to tell the tale. And you must tell it as it happened, full of confusion and doubt about what might come next, wind always full in the sails, or might have happened, if someone, anyone, had their hand, even once in a while, on the tiller.
Of the reviews of Lee’s Life I reviewed, I’ll only mention a few: Caleb Crain in Harpers, “Her Struggle: The reticence of Penelope Fitzgerald” (which I saw note of on his blog but had to renew my lapsed subscription to Harpers to see, only to be thwarted by a six week delay before my first issue arrived, which by then was the next month’s; no matter, by then, impatient, I was able to read Caleb’s review on-line, having gained re-admittance via subscription to go behind the Harper’s pay wall – you need a hand stamp); James Wood in The New Yorker, “Late Bloom”; Alexander Chee in Slate, “The Lady Vanished”; and Levi Stahl, on I’ve Been Reading Lately, “Penelope Fitzgerald’s notebooks.” I mention Caleb’s review because he waited until 46 to write and publish his first novel (following a novella published in n+1 and a number of non-fiction works, including articles, book, and blog); is Caleb a late bloomer? Of course not, but it’s interesting that the setting of Caleb’s Necessary Errors, like most of Penelope’s, occurs decades ahead of its writing and publication. Doesn’t wine aged twenty years taste different from the day it was bottled? Some writers are everblooming. Alexander Chee mentions not just the idea of the late bloomer but recounts the actual critical reaction to Penelope’s success that at the time combined skepticism with derision, as if to have arrived late and wearing a housedress provided adequate support for the claim unprolific oldster can’t write or she would have by now. And Levi Stahl’s review is interesting because it references an earlier review he wrote of Penelope’s The Afterlife, a collection of her non-fiction articles, and on the strength of his review, I picked up a copy and quickly saw that this whole late blooming explanation of anything is a dodge. The clue to understanding Penelope might have something to do with knowledge of patience, as this comment, from Bridget Read’s Paris Review “How She Knows,” explains:
“It is vital to emphasize that Fitzgerald’s novels were not achieved in spite of her domestic life; they were borne directly out of it. Her work is radical in that it suggests that, in fact, a feminine experience, a liminal experience, might be better equipped than a male one to address the contradictions of human existence taken up by the greatest literature.”
Levi Stahl’s review was of Penelope’s notebooks, and he quotes Penelope saying:
“I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.”
It’s possible that Penelope’s testimony, expressed in her novels, belies even her most perceptive reviewers: did she not feel herself, during all those years of veritable single motherhood and low rung jobs thanks in large part to the miscreant missing husband – did she never feel neither beat nor no direction home?
I am reminded here of Daisy from Penelope’s The Gate of Angels. Maybe Daisy wasn’t born defeated, but loss came nevertheless, which perhaps makes things even worse, for if one is not born defeated, one may not have the skills necessary for sane survival (wit and sense of humor, irony, empathy, honesty, ability to pack quickly and travel light) yet Daisy, in so many ways, never seems either defeated or lost. Even when she is actually lost, as in without a map, she manages to find a way out of that lostness. And of course the lone woman going astray into the for-males-only cloistered arena of Fred’s college is hilarious with irony. Daisy, for her obvious suffering, is existentially happy, the most telling characteristic of her personality, upon her like a birthmark, that she finds it easier to give than to take, to provide for than to ask from.
This sense of being born lost, though, surely is gender neutral, but to find oneself lost with children in tow is a condition most often reserved for women. Reading Penelope, I am reminded of both Stevie Smith and Clarice Lispector, Stevie for humor, Clarice for a style of omission, and both for a hold on the occult. While I was reading The Bookshop, which employs a poltergeist, coincidentally Susan informed me a squirrel had taken up residence in an eve recently slightly opened by ice damage to a fascia board of our old house. I argued, since we had not actually seen the squirrel, that it could be a poltergeist. But Susan said, no, because the squirrel only made noise in the early morning, just before dawn, whereas a poltergeist prefers the hour just after you’ve fallen asleep.
What else characterizes the style of Penelope’s short novels? The narrator often comments on the behavior of characters as if there are three parties at play at once: the character, the narrator, and the author. While to some readers, this may seem like a loose grip on point of view, it’s actually a way of condensing and rotating observation, like with a kaleidoscope. The action is close in, the distant details of world news obviously irrelevant. The focus is on detail – if things seem vague, it’s not for lack of detail, description, or dialog that reveals character. Character as Chaplinesque cog, subject to naturalistic randomness. Free indirect style, with the narrator making evaluative, reflective, and analytical comments, as if claims made may indeed be challenged, though of course there will be no reply. Still, almost everything continually on the go, or on the move, coming, as it were, as surprise. But isn’t that the nature of the domestic, which cannot be domesticated?
So, I’ve read so far, of Penelope novels, in this order, as they came up in library queue: Offshore, my favorite I suppose for its setting of water and boats and mix of characters major and minor as well as the unexpected turns; At Freddie’s, again, a mix of young and old characters, age sometimes having little to do with maturity, and Freddie’s is how all schools should work; The Bookshop, atmosphere so strong you can smell the water and the books and hear the poltergeist and the cash machine; The Golden Child, bit of a mystery this one, though they all contain something of that genre; The Gate of Angels, again, while the plot is dated in a specific time zone, it hardly seems relevant in the sense the characters and their predicaments could be playing out even as we read. And I’m opened now to Human Voices. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I started Innocence, but did not finish it. I had read about a third of it when I nonetheless had to admit that I couldn’t get my ear around it. I think something of the “historical novel” angle and too much of the fairy tale got in my way. Maybe I’ll go back to it some day. It’s often I pick up an old favorite book and wonder, how did I ever find this enjoyable? Likewise, I might pick up a book I long ago was unable to get into, and wonder, how could I not have appreciated this? Maybe I’ll have to wait until I turn 60, a late blooming reader. Meantime, I’ve also put Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald in the queue.
The audience appeared waving umbrellas from drinking happy hour beer, or hurrying from work or dropping off the kid, driving in from the aloof burb or sliding down from the hep pad on the hill, making a splash, alighting from cab or bus amid the rush. Coming from everywhere, the audience began to cohere.
The audience entered the hall dressed to its drollest: dressed in red down gown, hair whiffed and coifed like a pastry croissant, smelling of perfumes; dressed in jet-black tuxedo, in tight shoes and diminished socks, with small bottle of whiskey packed discreetly in coat pocket, hair polished with floor wax; dressed in polka dot shift over silver flats; dressed in loose corduroy and plaid flannel; dressed in pressed denim pants over soft loafers or heavy boots. In any case, dressed: dressed to the nines, dressed to the gills, dressed to kill or to be killed, dressed like a cat or a pig, dressed and de-dressed and redressed, but not to digress.
The audience performed a wave. The swell rose from the back rows and swept forward down the aisles, rising and falling until it broke upon the stage. The audience pulled at its hair, feet patting the flowered floor. The audience was absorbed in felt. The audience was loosely packed, like popcorn, knee-to-knee, and bounced up and down in its box.
The audience yawned. The audience fidgeted. The audience teared. The audience popped bonbons and sucked jujubes. The audience cheered. The audience hissed. The audience levitated. The audience milled. The audience was blindfolded and applauded by the players. The audience walked out. The audience considered what fun to yearn through the years the discerning one.
The audience abandoned its mess. The audience crawled beneath seats, searching for lost touches. The audience stuck wet purple platitudes under seats. The audience retreated patiently without panic up the slow aisles. The audience left behind a coin purse of cough drops, a pair of plastic reading glasses, an empty bottle of whiskey, a set of earphones, a Moleskine pocket notebook full of lists, a psychedelic scarf, a citizenship test study guide, and a paisley golf umbrella.
The audience walked out into a breezy evening on the neon avenue, and a few unpopped kernels fell from wrinkled lapels. The audience went this way and that, for cigarettes or toilets, for coffee or cocktails, whistled for a taxi or waited for a bus, climbed into a cold bed or gave the babysitter a ride home.
The audience disagreed with the critic’s review in the morning blog. The audience told the coworker all about what was worn the night before. The audience the following weekend was unable to remember. The audience slept through the off-season, dreaming of animated spring costumes, of walking through the park, watching for peacocks, down to the theatre, the marquee illuminating the wet pavement, the hot buttery popcorn freshly popped. The audience awoke and wanted more.
Every person alive has a story, but some don’t have voices. But there are many ways to tell a story, and stories can be told without words. Still, for the story to emerge, the storyteller must develop some kind of voice, allowing others access to their text – again, even if the text is without words. But some persons with voices remain unaware of their story, even as their story is read or enjoyed or devoured and repeated by others. Still others may be aware of their stories and have voices but choose not to share. Can all these stories be told, and who will tell these stories, using what voice?
I am moved this morning to tell this story as a consequence of a Twitter “interaction”: “Well, about Coelho, what can we say?” For I had re-tweeted a tweet calling attention to a Guardian Books post quoting the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho: “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.” The same article refers to a previous Guardian article, an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who said: “You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.”
I think part of Roddy’s point, in the context of the interview, was to bemoan all the attention Joyce has received over the years, possibly to the neglect of other Irish writers just as deserving of readers’ attention. But both Coelho’s and Doyle’s criticism of Ulysses is grounded in their literary values – they think that for a literary work to have value, the reader should be moved, changed, brought to tears or laughter, that we should leave the theatre wanting to change our lives or somebody else’s life. For a story to be good, the Coelho-Doyle argument goes, the voice must be immediately recognizable, accessible, and force feelings to surface in the audience. And since Ulysses, for most readers, probably doesn’t do that, it’s not a good book, and since it’s nevertheless received so much recognition and so many writers have tried to use Joyce’s voice, it’s been harmful because it’s diminished the development of other voices, voices that might have reached readers and transformed their lives.
I’m reminded of the barbershop on Center Street in El Segundo, where I once dropped in to get a haircut. It was a one chair shop, and someone else was in the chair, so I had to wait, and while I waited, I listened in on what amounted to a lesson in art criticism. The barber had hung on the wall a painting of a mountain lake. “And I have a photograph of that very spot,” the barber said. “And if I hang both of them side by side, I defy you to tell me which one is the photograph and which one is the painting.”
Frank Delaney, whose novel The Last Storyteller, just out in February, I reviewed back on Feb. 27, was featured in a Trib Local interview this morning, and what he had to say about blogging, I want to celebrate, “fur and feathers” and all. One of the questions asked of Delaney was, “How strong is the pulse of literary fiction, criticism and serious examination of literature in the 21st century? Who are today’s shining literary lights?”
Delaney replied: “Great question! People have been saying for generations, ‘Oh, the novel is dead.’ Well, it ain’t – nor is that wonderful American invention, creative nonfiction, nor is biography, nor is political writing. And as well as the books, the commentariat is alive and well. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that it’s healthier than ever, because we now have this wonderful new creature, the Literary Blogger. I’m a massive fan of this gorgeous animal, with all its fur and feathers – for a number of reasons. My main complaint about the general direction of literary criticism over the last century has been – and Joyce is a case in point – that it tended, in its lofty tone and often impenetrable language (not to mention occasional vendetta behavior), to be antidemocratic, to keep certain areas of literature to itself, whereas my own passion is for as many people as possible to be reading as widely as possible. The Literary Bloggers have no axes to grind, they’re not protecting their reputations, they don’t fear being sneered at by other critics, they’re reading what they want to read, writing what they want to write, and they don’t want to keep what they enjoy to themselves. They want to share. They want to expand the constituency of reading. They want to hail and applaud good writing. To my mind this is a very significant development – uneven, I grant, here and there, but, dammit, not as uneven as the generations of formal literary critics, and the blogging intention is so good and so worthy of loud vocal support that you can call it truly a new and, to my mind, incomparably welcome development in the world of reading and writing.”
In an era of sinking readership, closing bookstores, the disappearance of newspapers, and Google making us stupid, who cares about book reviews? The book review is the grownup version of the book report, the nefarious writing assignment where students first learn to plagiarize. Publishing is in a hard market, as they say in the insurance trade (rates up, coverage down), but book reviews have softened, a bummer for the pros, happily for the amateurs. We tried our hand at a book review the other day, having read the book with a review in mind, The Last Storyteller, by Frank Delaney.
Reading with writing in mind changes the act of reading, for we are no longer Salinger’s coveted general interest reader, who reads and runs sans comment. We loiter in the margins, jotting down questions we’d like to ask the author. We’re going to have to say something about what we read, or say something about how we felt while we were reading, but putting into words how we feel about a book is like putting on a tie, and we drift away from the text, ignoring the general book review rubric, if there is one.
The book review is as good a place as any to begin to think about purposeful writing. Writing with a purpose implies an audience, and if one is to stand before an audience, particularly a hostile (or perhaps worse, an indifferent) group, with any hope of persuading, some strategic plan might prove useful. To some, writing with a purpose might take all the fun out of the sails.
Ah, but what’s the purpose of the average book review – to wrestle the writer to the ground? A book reviewer might think like a reporter, an investigative reporter, even a detective of sorts, trying to solve, not a crime, but a puzzle, perhaps. Some readers don’t like puzzles. Puzzles can make one feel stupid, and, as Rene Char said, “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” But how much worse for the bird when what the reviewer wants to do is shoot her from the tree with a slingshot?
A brief summary of one aspect of contemporary book reviewing may be found in an SF Gate article by Heidi Benson (untitled, on-line version, July, 2003). I’m familiar with The Believer book reviewing philosophy she describes, having been a Believer subscriber since almost its inception, but I’d not heard of Dale Peck, quoted by Heidi as an example of a snarking, negative reviewer, so I read Peck’s review (referenced by Heidi) of Rick Moody (Moody I’ve read only in The Believer – I’ve not read his novels), which begins, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” and continues, later, “I mean to say only that he [Rick Moody] is a bad writer. But bad writing has consequences.”
But, in part, it’s those consequences that Peck’s review is about, not Moody. Though Peck does a professional job of explicating samples of Moody’s prose, what he really wants to argue is that the modern novel as developed by the later James Joyce and company is responsible for what Peck sees as today’s literary mess (exemplified by Moody). In short, I assumed, Peck values realism, maybe naturalism, and for a good reason: he thinks literature could be more instrumental in solving contemporary problems if it were more purposeful and accessible, if, in short, it were more meaningful, if it were about something other than itself. Peck concludes with a vengeful rant against the modern novel, as follows:
“All I’m suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid—just plain stupid—tomes of DeLillo.”
Fine, but I’d never heard of Dale Peck, so I looked up one of his books on Amazon, but I was so appalled, nay, horrified, by the excerpt from the Publishers Weekly review showing on Amazon that I had to shut down my computer and go for a walk. I’m back now, from the walk, but I still can’t believe that the Peck who wrote Body Surfing is the same guy that wrote the New Republic review. And, of course, since I am an actual, real, natural, old-time body surfer, boogie boarder, and surfboarder, I’m more than horrified at Peck’s book, I’m annoyed and disappointed, for he has, literally, defiled the surfing term with his title over that book. (And there’s my review of Peck’s book, which I’ve not read and will not read.)
Still, though, there’s a lesson there too, for the reader and the book reviewer in me (if he’s still there, after all this), for wouldn’t we agree that Stephen King is a terrible romance comedy writer? Of course not, because King doesn’t try to write romantic comedies. But one’s preference for romance comedy doesn’t make Stephen King a bad writer. Nor does my being appalled by the Amazon review make Peck’s book a bad one. We shouldn’t criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be. But if that’s true, then we shouldn’t fault Peck for criticizing Moody’s intentions. But this is where things get hard, for we don’t have time to read everything, so what should we be reading? Some criticism can be helpful. Criticism should help us understand the author’s intentions. And, once that’s done, help us understand how effectively those intentions were carried out. Good writing then becomes that which achieves its objectives, even if we don’t happen to like those objectives. n+1 wrote something up on Peck in April of 2004 which would seem to have put the matter to rest. Once again, of course, I’m way late to the party, and I’m not sure if I’m catching up or falling farther behind.
Clive James argues that poets should know the rules before breaking them. “Technique’s Marginal Centrality” (Poetry, January 2012, pp. 326-335) is a very conservative argument, often repeated by those who do know the rules and have come to control the prescriptions, and we find the argument in the criticism of all the arts as well as in the professions. Few exceptions are acknowledged, and those must be geniuses. And yet what these same critics value is hiding the rules, dressing the technique in camouflage. But isn’t this what we call advertising?
Why James sees fit at the end of para 1 to dis the lovely Yoko Ono isn’t clear, but his value goes beyond technique. To prove something simple has lasting value, a simple but beautiful line of Picasso, for example, the critic must work hard at uncovering the camouflage, thus validating the artist’s “expect[ing] to charge you a fortune for it” (326). Whenever we see something simple or even “bland,” but good, James argues, we can be sure the poet has been to school and learned the trade first, before, as E. B. White prescribed, “omitting needless words.”
James uses as one of his proofs the musician, who must learn scales, for example, the rudiments of technique. One problem with the comparison of musicians to poets is that most musicians don’t learn technique to compose, but to play the work of others, who themselves might not be very good musicians, but very effective composers. And musicians need not know much theory to play pieces proficiently, for the theory is embedded in the piece and brought to life through the musician’s technique. Is technique an art? Itzhak Perlman practiced his violin technique while watching television.
James is not talking about the reading of poetry as much as the writing of poetry. He’s not talking to readers of poetry (an increasingly dwindling number), but to writers of poetry (an increasingly increasing number, and James would plainly like to see fewer poems written by fewer poets). James is trying to restore poetry’s value in linguistic skills, prescriptions that he argues are learned then disguised or ignored to create something new. But the new isn’t always pretty to James’s taste.
Consider the Coltrane example. “Ugly on Purpose,” an Open Letters Monthly review (2008), by John G. Rodwan, Jr., of Richard Palmer’s Such Deliberate Disguises: The Art of Philip Larkin, also addresses the issue of the apparent camouflage. Here, the subject is jazz, where musicians like John Coltrane blow dissonance and cacophony at their audience. They can also play otherwise, but their sound is deliberate, however unintelligible the average listener may find it. But here James doesn’t seem to approve of the disguise. Even average listeners require training, experience, or special upbringing to appreciate an art form, popular or other, lowbrow or highbrow, standard or anti-standard. Rodwan says that in his Cultural Amnesia, “Clive James complains of Coltrane ‘subjecting some helpless standard to ritual murder’ and the ‘full, face-freezing, gut-churning hideosity’ of his playing, in which ‘shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals.'” But where James can read through to what’s concealed in poetry, he seems to have missed it in free-jazz. James’s conservative argument will never approve of free form improvisation.
These arguments, that the simple or incomprehensible work of art is rooted in learned, valued, talented apprenticeship, are by now classic responses to the popular criticism of “modern” art, that a monkey could have made it, or a child. Indeed, James barely disguises his acknowledgement of this argument in his opening paragraph, where he discusses the Japanese artist Hokusai, who made a painting, in part, by having chickens, their feet dipped in paint, walk across the paper. So much depends upon a critic justifying technique. I understand that James prefers Ben Webster over John Coltrane; what I don’t understand is why he thinks John Coltrane should sound like Ben Webster (another conservative argument). Should we criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be?
James has more to say, that poets often write too many poems, thus ruining whatever reputation, “name,” they might have earned with their few really good poems. There’s also an interesting discussion of technique suitable to message: “…the argument is the action”; and “…the reasoning is in command of the imagery” (332). But there have been so many successful informal poems, so many successful Duchamps and Rauschenbergs, that “…we must contemplate the possibility that there is such a thing as an informal technique,” but James rejects this notion, for to accept it would suggest that we can write poems while watching television.
James ends his short but full piece with an odd coda of sorts, about a copy of a book owned by Elizabeth Bishop (not one she wrote) in which she jotted notes for a poem, and the book recently was put up for sale, valued by virtue of its being owned and written in by Bishop. Says James, chances are this won’t happen to most poets (no kidding), “but that’s the chance that makes the whole deal more exciting than Grand Slam tennis. Unless you can get beyond yourself, you were never there.” From chickens with paint on their feet walking across an artist’s paper to Grand Slam tennis – I for one am certainly beyond myself at this point. But I don’t quite get James’s conclusion. He seems to be saying that fame is the exciting part, the chance that a poet might become so famous that readers would scrounge for her notes. But fame seems an odd place to want to hide.
How Literature Works: 50 Key Conceptsarrived, 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.
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.