Thursday, September 22, 2011

The death of literature and how to stop it

If you are not rendered functionally illiterate by being subjected to incompetent reading instruction in American elementary schools and you are not rendered disinterested in books altogether in high school where vocational training and driver's ed are just as high a priority as literature, then you will probably end up in college, where what an author actually says in a book is less important than the ideology you bring to reading it. Here is the Atlantic Wire giving a brief synopsis of the whole mess:
For hundreds of years, people read books for plot, character, action and nice turns-of-phrase. Then, in the 1970s literary theory emerged on American campuses, and suddenly that wing in the English department faculty lounge--the one reserved for the professors whose classes never had a wait list, the ones who knew too much of academia, and too little of life and books--had to tell students they were reading wrong. As The Atlantic's Scott Stossel wrote in 1996, professors at the time were offering up just about "any esoteric ism" you could think of to support reading a book not as a book, but as a coded text (always a text) dealing with the semester's most provocative social issues. Eventually, people graduated and could return to reading books like normal. It was all very silly, and by the end of 20th century, the backlash had begun against criticism "disconnected from life" and academia's "love affair with reducing literature to ideas, to the author's or reader's intention or ideology," argued Lindsay Waters in The Chronicle of Higher Education back in 2005.
Meanwhile, over at the Millions, which another link at the Atlantic Wire brings us to, there is a list of five books to bone up on exactly what is up with literary criticism these days, and give us books about the postmodernist ideologies that rule the higher education roost. But there is little in this list in the way of an actual cure.

I would suggest several books and resources of my own to inoculate yourself against the literary nonsense:

At War with the Word, by R. V. Young: This book is an excellent account of the origins and philosophy behind various kinds of postmodernist literary criticism and champions the (old) New Criticism of Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Alan Tate, W. K. Wimsatt, and others, who, although their school at times caricatured itself, were largely on target.

From Plato to Postmodernism, by Louis Markos: This is actually a tape/mp3/DVD series put out by The Teaching Company. It is an excellent introduction to the history of literary criticism. Markos points out that Northrop Frye was the last of the logocentric literary critics and after that, it is all been downhill. I have listed to this series several times and look forward to doing so again.

The Meaning of Shakespeare, by Harold Goddard: This collection of commentaries on the plays of Shakespeare is a great work in its own right. I have sought wisdom in it many times and always found it. Published posthumously, Goddard's observations on Shakespeare will give you an insight into the Bard that you can take back to the text like a light to illuminate the mysteries of the greatest writer in English.

All the literary criticism T. S. Eliot ever wrote: Eliot shocked the literary establishment who, after ruling the world of poetry for several decades with poems like" The Wasteland" and "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock," then mostly gave up poetry and began writing literary criticism that was, despite the modernism of his poetic style, highly traditional. This of course was a scandal to the Philistines of the literary world--as good intellectual thinking usually is.

All the literary criticism G. K. Chesterton ever wrote: Chesterton is now getting his due as a Dickens critic. But his literary observations in Heretics, and A Handful of Authors (as well as all the literary criticism that is strewn throughout his other works) is so stunning and insightful, you will need someone to awake you from your exalted state after reading them.

All the literary criticism Alfred Kazin ever wrote: I discovered Kazin when I read his introduction to Moby Dick, one of the greatest pieces of criticism ever written. It's what got me interested in Melville again, for which I am manifestly grateful. Kazin was one of the last traditionalists writing about literature for a popular audience.

All the literary criticism Harold Bloom ever wrote: Bloom is a controversial figure, partly because he attended the birth of the postmodernist literary criticism and partly because he often inserts Fruedianism into his commentary. It also doesn't help that his writings on the Bible assume some of the sillier versions of higher criticism. But that doesn't stop Bloom's work from being among the most cogent and interesting commentary on literature ever written. His books Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, The Western Canon, and The Visionary Company, are among the greatest books on books ever written. He may have a number of intellectual quirks, but he is still treats literature like it should be treated.

All the literary criticism Mark Van Doren ever wrote: Mark Van Doren was the father of rather more famous (or infamous son) Charles Van Doren who was implicated in the cheating scandal on the TV game show "Twenty One." That, of course, has little substantively to do with Mark. The elder Van Doren's book Shakespeare is one of the best works of criticism on that great playwright ever written, and his The Noble Voice, a set of ten commentaries on the great epic poems is simply outstanding.

There are other great ones, of course. The older critics are just as relevant today: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and, of course, Samuel Johnson (particularly his various commentary on Shakespeare and his Lives of the Poets). 20th century writers on literature like Hugh Kenner, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More (the two most widely known of the New Humanists), as well as Lionel Trilling, Wayne C. Booth, M. H. Abrams, F. R. Leavis, and H. L. Mencken. Then there are the New Critics like Alan Tate, John Crowe Ransom, R. P. Blackmur, and Cleanth Brooks. Some of these writers can, however, be hard to read, unlike the ones mentioned in previous paragraphs.

And who can forget George Steiner's Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?; A. C. Bradley's great Shakespearean Tragedy; Northrup Frye's Fearful Symmetry; and C. S. Lewis' essay, "Satan," concerning Milton's Paradise Lost?

Even some of the postmodernists, as many times as they get it wrong, are worth reading. Nietszche's The Birth of Tragedy, Terry Eagleton's After Theory, and the writings of Slovaj Žižek are well worth reading, and postmodernists such as Stanley Fish, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Foucault have insights that you can benefit from as long as you are well grounded in the older, greater critics.

Do yourself a favor and pick up an older edition of Criticism: The Major Statements and Critiques and Essays in Criticism. They are widely available used. Also A Handbook to Literature, by C. Hugh Holman (again, an older edition, unadulterated by the postmodernist plague is better, although there will be less on more contemporary writing--in fact, it's a good idea to have both an older and more recent editions like I have) is the best literary reference ever written.

1 comment:

Michael O said...

I've got problems with literary theory myself, but how so, so dumb is the author over at the Atlantic if he thinks literary theory began in the 70s?