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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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A Reader Writes on Writing on Reading

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

As regular readers will know, in my daily research I undergo something of a continual crisis of confidence, as I try to work out why literary studies is worth pursuing, in comparison to sciences which seem to produce so many technological and social benefits beyond the internal logic of their research. Several of my posts and essays have explored the "value" of literary criticism, and of doing a literature PhD, and one of my regular moans is that literary criticism is often intended to reach a limited spectrum of readers. So it was with a mixture of delight and deflation that I found one of my pieces receiving the following comment from a reader, Vincent, who blogs at A Wayfarer's Notes:
I was interested to see your piece on The Secret Agent, as I wrote one today on my blog, specifically not as literary criticism, for reasons which I summarise therein:

"Literary criticism, if I am not mistaken, analyses texts as objects with intrinsic qualities. I don’t take that view. Texts are nothing without the reader, who alone constructs the meaning. They are dishes served up to a person, preferably hungry, on a particular occasion. By this, my book-reviewing is a subcategory of memoir-writing. Here’s my bit of cooking for you, my reader. I have to guess your taste in spices for I don't know you that well."

I did literature at university but it was before the days of this new criticism, so I wasn't trained in it at all. I therefore have no idea as to what it's for, other than to keep academics busy.

The Secret Agent is subtitled "A Simple Tale" and while it is of course permissible for any individual to extract from it material to support any thesis which appeals to them, it would make more sense in my view if they took complete ownership of it, for example to start with a "claimer" (as opposed to a disclaimer) saying "I read this novel as one generally reads a novel, that is for fun and not work; and these are the thoughts which inspired in me personally. These are the things which I consider are most important to say about it."

I would also consider it perfectly valid to try and guess, from evidence available, why the author wrote what he did and so forth.

I have come across many essays in a similar style to yours on Conrad, when I used to contribute articles in a literary review on John Cowper Powys, but I have never had the chance to ask anyone "Why?"

Naturally, if I was a university student today, and asked to write such essays, I should, especially if young, just do it, as a rite of passage, the necessary if painful price of earning my degree.

But I am not young any more. I am not in thrall to the approval of academics, though I have children and grandchildren who will be embarking on their journey through the universities in due course.

I once was employed to edit some essays of students at the local college in the Crafts department, about ceramics, tapestry and the like. They used this same style, which I take to have emanated from some post-modernist general criticism. OK, it is academically fashionable. Perhaps if you train as a nurse nowadays you have to learn it too, for any essays you may have to write.

But still I don't know why.

If ever you feel inclined to respond I should be most grateful and enlightened. I'm pretty sure it is my ignorance which makes me so sceptical. I'm going to read some more of your work in case it throws any light.

With best wishes & thanks for your generous display of original web pages
Naturally, I could not let these comments pass without response, but happily I think my email - dashed off in the space of an hour - has provided my strongest and simplest articulation yet of the value of literary criticism. For this reason, I reproduce it below.

I am not sure if you read about V.S. Naipaul's comments the other week, but he argued - in his typically subtle way - that all literature departments should be shut down and its professors go and work on buses, whilst universities get on with teaching practical science. If you are questioning "what literary criticism is for, other than to keep academics busy," then you are not the only one. And I have asked similar questions myself in the context of my literature PhD (see links below).

Actually, though, Naipaul is being thoroughly naive of his literary history. Who was it who showed us how English literature was ignoring postcolonial writers like himself? Precisely the literature departments (e.g. Edward Said). Likewise, 1960s feminism was bound up with rediscovering a feminine style of writing (Simone de Beauvoir, Elaine Showalter, Susan Sontag), and again it was through and from literature departments that the politics of 1960s feminism originated. Likewise, if you agree that language is central to all the activities of all aspects of culture - from politics, to computer games, to film, to science - then literature departments have a key role to play in understanding and interpreting how we make ourselves understood by other people, and how groups of people (such as men, or scientists) write in a particular way to the exclusion or inclusion of other groups (such as women, or laypeople). In my own specific field, which involves analysing the way in which scientific ideas are understood by scientists and transmitted to culture, literature departments have been central and these things do matter: it's surely significant in judging, say, the ethics of current stem cell research that we understand through a reading of Frankenstein and the historical conditions in which it was produced that reactions to new life sciences tend to be similar across the ages; thus a knee jerk, tabloid reaction today that demonises stem cell scientists is only to be expected.

If you agree with Naipaul, it appears OK to turn million pound telescopes to the heavens as if we'll see a cure for cancer etched upon the cosmos, but not a valid activity to turn the tools of literary criticism to examine the words in novels, poetry, film etc, as if language has, after all the human effort that goes into its making, no point beyond its immediate meaning. I am not a romantic believing in ars gratia artis or knowledge for the sake of knowledge; as a left winger, I have to be also a pragmatist and admit that literary criticism in the university, paid for by the taxpayer, ought to justify its own existence and hence why it deserves funding rather than that new hospital. But that utilitarian principle - which Naipaul holds in extremis - does not mean I think literary criticism has no value at all.

Rather, the value of literary criticism lies in exploring the contexts around a text, the frameworks in which the novel or poem was originally produced: history, philosophy, politics, science etc. By doing this, such a form of criticism can help us to understand about ourselves, evaluate how "good" or "bad" our current society is - and you pointed out the obvious connection between Conrad's novel and the war on terror. My essay was admittedly more esoteric than this, in that it was about how the changing Victorian notions of time and relativity could affect Conrad's literary style. This may have been a prosaic piece, but if you agree in principle that it is worth being interested in novels because they show us connections across time (e.g. in notions of "terror"), then you ought to allow some room for studies such as my essay. If you agree that it is worth understanding history if nothing else but for the sake of it, because it is (was) there, then understanding literary sty
le can offer a route into this sort of knowledge.

Of course you may not agree. If you are a Naipaul, and think that universities (and the accumulation of human knowledge they represent) should just be producing applied sciences, then OK, lets do away with literature departments...and telescopes. And if we ever do live in that brave new world, I may just have to overdose on soma.

So I hope that this makes the case for my sort of essay, beyond it being (originally) the "painful rite of passage" of having to pass an exam (and, incidentally, English Lit students are among the most employable graduates around, so clearly literature departments are doing something right, given the quality of the students who emerge from the other side of its mill).

And now comes the twist. As I understand your email your problem, and the issue I do have with literary criticism myself, is not whether literary criticism is valid given the innate human desire to produce knowledge, and to understand the linguistic terms in which knowledge is produced and expressed, but the way in which that practice is carried out - its style.

You suggest that your piece on your blog - which I liked very much - was written "specifically not as literary criticism." But if not literary criticism, then what on earth was it? It certainly wasn't a mathematical appraisal of the number of words in The Secret Agent. It was, rather, an attempt to elucidate what to you seemed to be some of the key themes and interesting characters of the novel, comparing its urban themes to the maritime ones of Nostromo, and your placing the novel in an aesthetic rank along with his other works (e.g. his later writing is better than his earlier). It was critical in that you picked out some aspects and excluded others from your focus. It was literary, in that it studied literature, and was in its own way creative (a sort of memoir-writing). But your style of literary criticism (if you will allow me to varnish it as "literary criticism") is very much sympathetic, appreciative of the novel in question, self-reflexive in describing your own reactions to Conrad's work. In a word, your literary criticism embodies...passion.

It is passion which is lacking from contemporary literary criticism, including, I admit, my own. In an attempt to position itself alongside the sciences in the university - given the existence of views such as Naipaul's that the sciences alone have social value - literary criticism has systematically developed a more elevated, jargonistic manner; it has adopted some of the conventions of scientific writing, such as analysing the text from the perspective in the passive, third person. Thus, it writes "the text says this in such a way" rather than the (your) first person "I read this in such a way."

So here we find ourselves in a funny position. We hardcore literary critics admire novels for their historical transmutability, their ability to embody multiple themes simultaneously; the way they revealingly say different or similar things to different people. But we analyse them in a way that - as you observe - does away with the reader and constructs an artificially objective perspective which implies that "the text says this," definitively. Should we then produce a "claimer" which admits that we have complete ownership of the text, in spite of apparently arguing for the texts as objects with intrinsic qualities?

Well, herein lies the second problem to emerge from literary criticism's current style. If you were to read lots of contemporary literary criticism and theory, or if you were based at a university, you would not need a "claimer" to know full well that personal opinion still counts; that we all appreciate the aesthetic qualities of particular works and play authors off against each other; that in literary journals and monographs debates about the meanings of particular works bounce furiously around; that postmodern literary theorists dispute the possibility of there being a final meaning in any text, and propose that meaning is in a sense constructed by the reader, depending on their gender, race, age etc.

But if you haven't read lots of contemporary literary theory or criticism to allow you to realise this - I don't blame you!

Especially in the latter postmodern guises, it's hard, littered with jargon, full of dense and often turgid prose, clever references to other philosophers or theorists no one else has ever heard of. Sadly, then, what emerges is the impression you have got. That "texts are objects with intrinsic qualities"; that these intrinsic qualities rather than the passionate reader "construct the meaning." As a PhD student, I'm still very much trying to find my voice in this scenario. I am totally confident that I have (like all literary critics) something worth saying by placing novels and their language in a broader human context. The question is what tone I can adopt to say this message.

Have I got to succumb to the occlusive, difficult style of much current literary theory in order to get ahead in the university? Or can I find a way to be accessible, without "dumbing down" the intellectual content of what I've got to say?

At this point, I'm not sure it is possible to reconcile these competing needs within the academic context. What it is possible to do is to "do the police in different voices" (to cite T.S. Eliot, a great critic, great poet, who was accused in his own time of being irrelevant). Hence the blog is one of my most powerful outlets, because here I can write in a fluent way that expresses passion, but also points towards some of the more specialised elements of my discipline. Meanwhile, whilst some look down upon publications such as the Guardian Review or London Review of Books, most of our best critics write there (and, incidentally, many of the best critics happen to also be literary authors e.g. A.S. Byatt, John Lanchester, Tom Paulin). I would jump at the opportunity to contribute to any of these pages, alongside writing for academic journals (you don't happen to have their phone number, do you?!). I also engage heavily in interdisciplinary work, particularly explaining the language and history of science to scientists themselves, who have rarely reflected on the issue but who are always interested when described to them sympathetically.

It is sympathy for the reader, and a lack of passion in the writing, that leads to accusations that literary criticism lacks validity in the current culture. But - young and idealistic as I am - I do not see that this means we should give up on an activity which is as old as literature itself (think Aristotle's Poetics).

I hope this diatribe and polemic has not put you off reading more on The Pequod, or of letting me know how you feel about my arguments and about literary criticism now. If you do respond, I'd be grateful; and if you want some more existing material that I have written on this issue, then the following selection may be of interest:

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Posted by Alistair at 11:36 am


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