Sunday, 5 January 2014

X2 + + (-); or my favourite literary critics

Preach it, brother.

I usually stay away from general posts, that is, I prefer to write about concrete books instead of literature and its related topics. But at least once every year I allow myself to ramble about something in freestyle. In previous years I turned to the subject of translation. This time I want to talk about literary criticism.

I know two narratives on literary criticism. According to one, literary criticism before the 20th century was like the Wild West – lawless, unruly, inhabited by rubes; then like a marshal riding into town to enforce the law of the land, the Russian Formalists arrived, armed with quasi-scientific jargon: syuzhet, fabula, ostranenie, rescuing folks from the oppression of amateur, subjectivist, impressionistic, historical, biographical and other unmethodical ways of studying literature. Under the guidance of critics like Viktor Shklovsky and Vladimir Propp, the study of literature would henceforth be professional, systematic, scientific. This is the narrative university students learn in Introduction to Literature.

I first heard the second narrative after university, over dinner with a former classmate; I can no longer recall the exact circumstances, but at some point my friend started expounding his theory that writers also made the best literary critics. It was a simple idea that I had not entertained before, but as I started thinking about it, it began making a lot of sense to me. I was in fact quite receptive to this new imprinting. Although teachers were wary to assign the essays of Borges or Calvino to readers, those were precisely the ones I preferred reading in my spare time; few were the books by academics that I genuinely enjoyed reading at the university, with their dourness and technical rigour that precluded any enthusiasm for the books they were analysing. Many in fact seemed to use literature merely as a backdrop for their petty theories; they had ideas formulated beforehand they wanted to prove, and literature was just there to help them prove it. As I think about this, I’m reminded of Milan Kundera’s books of literary criticism, where he rails against the notion that literature is subservient to philosophy. To the Czech novelist, literature is its own autonomous way of inquiring about the truth. We can see this drive to turn literature into philosophy everywhere; it’s not uncommon at all to brand certain writers as philosophers, even if they neither behaved like philosophers nor showed any interest in philosophy. “I never read the philosophers,” Samuel Beckett once said in an interview; “I don’t understand what they write.” In the same interview he explained that he wrote fiction exactly because the methods of philosophy didn’t allow him to say what he wanted to say. Literature was something else that worked in a different way. Beckett’s distancing of fiction from philosophy finds an echo in Kundera’s oft-repeated motto that the purpose of the novel is to discover “that which the novel alone can discover.” This hasn’t impeded scholars from writing about the ‘philosophy’ of Beckett, and of Franz Kafka, and of Jorge Luis Borges, and of Fernando Pessoa, etc. My impression is that few academics are interested in literature as literature. And whenever I read their books I’m frequently disenchanted by their failure to transmit any adoration for, and devotion to, literature.

This adoration I’ve mostly found in literary criticism from actual practitioners. What poets and novelists lack in abstruse jargon, preconceived ideas and loyalty to schools – Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, Gender Studies, Marxist Studies, Reader-Response Criticism, Psychoanalysis –  they make up for in transmitting enthusiasm for books, in making palpable the joy of reading books. They’re often more laid-back, intimate and anecdotal. And of course they write better.

Pre-20th century literary criticism is usually associated with writing about the life of the author and his historical context, that is, interpretations were conditioned by these factors, approaches which are only problematic for those who resent literature being of a time and springing from a distinct human consciousness with a life trajectory. As it is, many critics at the turn of the 20th century were resentful of their imperfect object of study. Although the death of the author wasn’t officially announced until the late 1960s, rumours about it began circulating decades earlier, beginning with the Russian Formalists who argued that, had Alexander Pushkin never existed, Eugene Onegin would still have been written, by someone, eventually. The life and times of the Russian author were irrelevant to the genesis of that particular novel. Literature is just putting words together, and given enough time sooner or later someone else would combine several strings of words in the exact sequence of what we now call Eugene Onegin. The Formalists couldn’t explain why, given the eternity of time, that event happened between 1825 and 1832, in the Russian language, and to a man called Alexander Pushkin. But that was irrelevant to their purpose, which was to make literary criticism scientific. As a social science, literary criticism was beset by the same difficulties that other social sciences had been dealing with since the Enlightenment.

Modern science consolidated itself in the wake of Enlightenment thanks to the development and adherence to the hypothesis/testing method, but also because its many fields of study concerned themselves with a universe that behaved itself under the microscope: rocks, gases, gravity, planetary motion, optics, etc. Since the universe runs on a small set of natural laws, it was easy to apply a scientific method to a universe that always returned the same results. Furthermore, the universe is devoid of will and consciousness. With a handful of laws, it was possible to make sense of most natural phenomena, at least until the 20th century’s discovery of the subatomic world; but these laws remain valid to everyday existence. Natural sciences like astronomy, biology, physics, and chemistry really had it easy. Mathematics dealt with abstract concepts, but any mathematical system just has to be coherent unto itself, it needs not refer to anything in the physical world.

But the social sciences were in a bit of a spot. History, philosophy, economics (which makes a good job of convincing people it’s a real science because it deals in numbers like mathematics; ironically most mathematics deals very little with numbers), sociology, anthropology, psychology, and the humanities in general were left with the hardest things to study in the universe: man, man-made things and human thoughts. Or, to use Isaiah Berlin’s lovely phrase, “the dark mass of factors.” The humanities are a mess of contradictions because humans aren’t inert things that behave predictably like pebbles and planetary orbits. Social sciences can analyse humans and their ideas in an approximate way, make basic extrapolations, but no one’s yet find hard rules for their behaviour, and they never act the way one expects them to, at least not with the certainty of water boiling at 100º C, an outcome no one would bet against.

But even though the social sciences don’t behave like natural sciences, social scientists crave the respect accorded to their cousins. So since the 18th century they’ve been trying to eradicate from their fields anything that smacks of ambiguity and chaos. In short, that means eliminating humans from their studies, as well as emotions, moral values and consciousness, concepts many declare as non-existent anyway. This has given way to abominations like B.F. Skinner’s Behaviourism, an approach to analysing human behaviour without acknowledging the existence of human will, branches of politics (the Realist School) that decry the existence of morality, and economics that puts its trust in invisible hands because, for all the hard data of their charts and diagrams, it can’t accurately know whether or not a new stock market crash will occur tomorrow or one hour from now. Literature wasn’t immune to this desire to be taken seriously, so after Alexander Pushkin was made inconsequential to the creation of Eugene Onegin, Roland Barthes, in 1967, declared the death of the author, as prematurely and smugly as Nietzsche declared the death of God a century before. Killing the author would restrict the analysis to the text. That’s understandable. But it’s rubbish because a text is nothing but a human consciousness in action, it’s not an abstract phenomenon like gravity.

The latest prophet of scientific literary criticism is an Italian called Franco Moretti, who studies literature using concepts like ‘clustering coefficients,’ evolutionary theory and his own array of charts and diagrams, and whose methods are outlined in Distant Reading and Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Moretti goes one step further than his predecessors because he postulates that we don’t even need to read books anymore to study them. So it’s coming full circle: first authors were made irrelevant to the creation of books; now readers can be done away with. In its final mutation, books won’t be necessary at all for the study of literature. Although I doubt any critic will reach the logical conclusion of eliminating critics.

But literary critics infatuated with graphics are nothing new. A few decades ago another Italian, called Umberto Eco, used to be into diagrams, schemata full of trees, arrows pointing at things, bifurcating branches, and tables that resembled equations from mathematical manuals:



His Lector in Fabula (1979), from where I transcribed the above graphic, is 200 pages of this stuff. I think Mr. Eco used to be a very unpleasant, joyless academic. But he got better. Mr. Eco started writing novels, and pretty good ones to boot, and his approach to literary studies changed, improved, became funnier, more intimate, more readable. They became the books a novelist writes to transmit his love for books.

There are two books of his that I like from after his novelist period: Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994) and On Literature (2002). From the first I continue to be haunted by a beautiful essay about Gerard de Nerval’s Sylvie and its many uses of French past tenses; even if Eco didn’t abandon his diagrams, the book is more conversational, less abstract, less full of concepts like isotopy, sememes, dynamic and immediate objects, etc. One of the essays uses maps, but an old map of the city of Paris to show how Alexandre Dumas got the streets of Paris wrong in The Three Musketeers. This is Eco going back to the old historical approach. The second book has amongst its many pearls an excellent essay on Ulysses that temporarily suspends my hatred for this detestable novel. A herculean feat. Anyone who makes me temporarily believe Ulysses is a good novel deserves applause. Before Eco was writing for critics; but after becoming a novelist he adopted the informal, dialogical, intuitive jargon-free style that characterises the literary essays of Jorge Luis Borges and Milan Kundera.

I think pre-20th century criticism, in spite of its low reputation, did many things right – it placed emphasis on the author and his time; it didn’t treat literature as an unexplainable phenomenon but as the concrete product of human minds. Although excellent textual analysis emerged during the 20th century, my favourite critics continue to be those who retained the ethos of the previous century, its humility in not letting the critic’s ego overshadow the text. For me the problem of modern critics is that they try to displace the writers as the celebrities of the book world. In the struggle to attract attention, no interpretation or analysis is too absurd or implausible. The Structuralists were boring because of their dry approach to linguistic studies, but the Deconstructionists have made criticism unreadable with murky reasoning, lack of evidence, ignorance of history and for popularising the view that a text can be interpreted in any way one pleases. Eco also got better in this regard. His earliest books preached about the endless interpretations of The Open Work (1962), but after his novelistic metamorphosis occurred he started warning fellow critics of The Limits of Interpretation (1990). I guess when one becomes a novelist, one becomes sensitive to the stupid, far-fetched things critics write about one’s novels.

As you may imagine, I don’t have a lot of patience for the likes of Jacques Derrida, Terry Eagleton, Georg Lukacs, Hans-Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser. That is not to say I don’t have admiration for a handful of critics: Wayne C. Booth, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Roberto Calasso are all serious people to me who are motivated by genuine love for the books they analyse, acting without preconceived notions as far as I can tell. Tsvetan Todorov is also interesting. But my preferences do go to the writers of fiction who dabble in criticism from time to time: Jorge Luis Borges’ many essays scattered across his vast oeuvre – a single sentence on fantasy by him illuminates the genre more than Todorov’s whole book The Fantastic; Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics?; Milan Kundera’s four books: The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, Encounter, and his ability to encapsulate the history of the novel; T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture and his rehabilitation of the Metaphysical poets; Jorge de Sena's seminal studies of Fernando Pessoa and Luiz de Camões; W.G. Sebald’s On The Natural History of Destruction and his hilarious rubbishing of Alfred Andersch; Virginia Woolf's feminist writings; D. H. Lawrence's writings on American literature; Umberto Eco since the 1980s; Mario Vargas Llosa’s book on Victor Hugo; the prefaces of Joseph Conrad to his own work. There are so many to list. These writers, besides producing better writing, know the nuts and bolts of the craft, have an intuitive approach, show a sense of humour, cut through the self-aggrandizement of academics, and build intimate relationships, even if to denigrate, with the books they’re analysing. And when they really love a book, that love glows in every word, and they’re enthusiasm is contagious, and more than likely the reader will feel anxious to go out and buy that book to read it too. That’s the power of their words. That’s why I prefer reading literary criticism by fiction writers.

Anyway, this is my annual ramble.


  1. I really want to read more criticism. There is always the dilemma as to what to do with finite time. That is whether to read the works themselves or criticism.

    I have not read enough to have coherent opinion as to whether I think that there is more value in criticism written by fiction writers themselves or not. I have generally enjoyed it more when it comes from literary figures more. I tend to like explore what artists and great thinkers think about one another.

    1. I have generally enjoyed it more when it comes from literary figures more. I tend to like explore what artists and great thinkers think about one another.

      You should follow your instincts, Brian, they never let you down. If it feels right, it's right. Me, I like them better because they're more gossipy, and sometimes their public spats are hilarious.

  2. Another way to interpret this piece: you prefer literary essays written for a general audience to technical writing intended for a specialized audience. Me too!

    I do not know what references we share in common for this exercise, but maybe take a set of issues of the LRB or NYRB and see how the novelists compare to the professional book reviewers and to the academics.

    A number of the best critics in the U.S. now are academics, and a number of others are professional critics (so not novelists or poets, just critics). But I have little idea of the state of things anywhere else.

    Brian - the only way to really up your game is to read criticism. You need models for your own writing. We all do. We should each have a magazine, at least one magazine. Stay away from that stuff Miguel is complaining about until you are for some reason forced to read it.

    1. Another way to interpret this piece: you prefer literary essays written for a general audience to technical writing intended for a specialized audience.

      That may be a good way of putting it. I certainly prefer the writing that includes readers instead of esoteric, hermetic writing for small groups.

      Considering how differently academics write literary criticism from writers, I wonder, do writers even take their literary criticism seriously? I like to believe they don't.

      Mind you, I think book reviews are a thing apart; they're just a statement on whether something is good or bad, with varying degrees of effort put into articulating the arguments for and against. They're seldom arcane, in my experience. Literary criticism plumbs deeper, to me it goes straight to history, to the wider picture.

  3. The examples you give may be an exception. For sure there are novelists and fiction writers who write adequately but without insight. Just look at the New York Times Book Review (though the books reviewed there are not well selected). I think too much reliance on 'labels' is to blame. And the abuse of literary theory, the way it was used very seriously. Like you, I don't have patience for criticism that is either extremely formal to the point of masochist unreadability or extremely informal (self-congratulatory reader response). I like criticism that balances writing about context (time, place, authorship) and content (style, aesthetics).

    1. Rise, see above: I see literary criticism and book reviewing as two different things. A book review is just a statement on the quality of something to help you decide to buy a book or not.

      Literary criticism digs deeper; book reviewing is specific, if you will, literary criticism is about the foundations, its subject is almost intangible, and it's easier to explain what it is by examples. For me, for instance, when Borges in his famous Kafka essay made the obvious but until then unique observation of how authors in the present can change the way authors in the past are read, I think he was practicing literary criticism, he was revealing something new about what this abstract thing we call literature works. And to think he made it in a 3-page casual article in straightforward language, that's what's even more impressive.

    2. Yayks, I see what you mean. There are (creative) book reviews though that are more than adequate or rudimentary as they deploy elements of literary criticism.

      The Kafka essay was a favorite of mine too.

    3. Certainly, book reviews use literary criticism too, but I prefer them for their conversational style. In the end, a review is trying to get the reader's attention, so it has to be at least entertaining. I fear a lot of literary criticism doesn't have that objective, it circulates inside academic groups and its' like a hermetic language unto itself.

  4. This is where I fear our frame of reference is so different. The best essays in The New Republic, the NYRB, The Hudson Review, and so on, even if nominally labelled "book reviews," are just the kind of criticism you are talking about.

    For James Wood, Ruth Franklin, Christopher Benfey, William Pritchard, and Simon Leys (that's two professional critics and three academics), book reviews are a place where they engage in literary criticism, just as Poe, Woolf and Eliot did. They write essays on literary subjects that are published in magazines. Those essays are rarely just "a statement on whether something is good or bad."

    Do you happen to follow The Little Professor. She is a model literary scholar. Yes, she takes her work seriously. Depending on what you mean by serious. She's pretty funny.

    1. The labels are a bit murky, used interchangeably. I once read a review by James Wood about a book on Thomas More - in one of his books - and it was a fine piece of literary criticism: informative, full of historical and biographical data, and readable.

      I'm not sure I want to read his normative guide on how fiction works, or should work according to him. The reviews aren't kind to it.

      I didn't follow The Little Professor, but now I'm going to start giving her a look.

  5. Via Conversational Reading, here's a recent example of the the social sciences trying to be taken seriously as hard sciences:

  6. Even stranger, that is an example of two hard scientists claiming that the humanities and social sciences will soon be taken as seriously as regular old science. And trying to prove the point by using Google books to see how English verb tenses changed over time.

    It is not clear that they have much idea what scholars in the social sciences and humanities actually do.

    1. What caught my attention is that their method of Big Data sounds a lot like Franco Moretti's 'distant reading' - lots of trust on what they can glean from the extrapolation of huge chunks of stored data. It's appalling to see the humanities head that way.