Pedagogy, Evaluation, and What We Look for in ‘the’ Novel

(cross-posted to The Valve)

Recent threads at The Reading Experience (including this acrimonious one launched by Dan’s blunt denunciation of Dostoevsky’s “cheap tricks” and “unrelenting tedium”) have had me thinking (again, and see also these posts) about the problem of literary evaluation. In The Death of the Critic, Ronan McDonald declared that “The first step in reviving [the critic] is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. . . . [I]f criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative.” As I’ve said before, I’m skeptical about this idea that aesthetic evaluation is the obvious fix for whatever ails academic criticism at the present time:

Once you’ve acknowledged the ‘problematics’ of literary judgment, how then are you supposed to answer what [McDonald] proposes is the common reader’s key question (“Is this book … worth my attention and my time?”)? For what it’s worth, I think most academic critics would in fact be quite happy to answer that question about any book, but first we would all want to develop the question further (along the lines I laid out here, for instance).

This time around, I’m particularly thinking about whether, or how far, my work as a teacher has committed me, not to relativism (which is where some people assume my reservations about ‘literary merit’ lead me) but to a kind of pluralism by which it’s not comparative measures of ‘worth’ that matter but seeking out the measures that fit the particular case. One of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms–trying to understand how to read it so that it best fulfills its own potential. This means not holding it up to a particular, preconceived standard of excellence (“good novels do this“), whether that standard is formal or ideological. Now, depending on the occasion, there may be a second phase in which you move back from internally-generated norms and question them against external ideas; often, in teaching, this kind of questioning arises just from moving to the next book on the syllabus and discovering that its norms differ widely from–and thus, implicitly or explicitly, challenge–the ones we’ve just left behind (reading North and South right after Hard Times, or Jane Eyre soon after Pride and Prejudice, for instance, will certainly have this effect). But it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre. It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.

Here’s another excerpt from a book I’m reviewing, itself written with a pedagogical purpose, that illustrates what I mean by “seeking the measures the fit the particular case.” The authors have just argued that the “complexity” in Jane Eyre is limited to Jane herself, and that as characters get further “removed from Jane’s immediate concerns,” they become increasingly “flat and stereotypical”; the extreme example is Bertha Mason, whose representation is marked by “familiar, and often virulent, national and racial stereotypes.” The authors note that the novel “has been justifiably criticized for its reliance on these stereotypes.” Though they acknowledge the grounds for these criticisms, they go on to rule them out of order:

Their use in the novel . . . is part of a larger pattern of flattening out the social world beyond the circle of Jane’s own immediate concerns. Jane Eyre, in other words, is simply not the place to look for compelling social portraiture or profound insight into social relations–any more than, say, Scott is the place to look for compelling psychological depth. (74)

In other words, objecting to Bronte’s ‘flattening out,’ even of Bertha, is a category mistake: it’s not the kind of novel in which Bertha gets her own ‘complexity,’ but rather is the kind of novel in which Jane’s complex interiority is (nearly) all that matters.

One thing I find thought-provoking about that particular example is that (quite deliberately, I think) it sets two approaches against each other, one that reads from the inside out (setting interpretive limits based on the work’s nature, as it were), the other that brings a template of expectations to the novel and applies it as a test (a great deal of recent academic criticism could be seen as pursuing this latter course). So far at least, in this book (again, one with an overt pedagogical mission), the former approach is promoted and, as it happens, the novels defended against detractors. In the chapter on Scott, for instance, the authors cite Henry James’s famous criticism that “the centre of the subject is empty and the development pushed off, all round, toward the frame.” The authors reject James’s metaphor, which prioritizes and thus seeks “the portrait of an individual”:

But what if the subject Scott wishes to paint is not an individual human being, but instead . . . the way individuals interface with society and history? What if he wishes to reveal human nature, not from the skin in [as, they reasonably imply, James prefers], but from the skin out? then what James calls the “frame” . . . might bge more important than the individual. (37)

James’s theory of the novel, in other words, results in an inappropriate reading. I haven’t reached the chapter on Trollope yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised (or it wouldn’t be out of place) to find a similar objection to James’s dislike of Trollope’s narrative intrusions. In his 1883 retrospective on Trollope, James protested against his “little slaps at credulity”:

As a narrator of fictitious events he is nowhere; to insert into his attempt a backbone of logic, he must relate events that are assumed to be real. This assumption permeates, animates all the work of the most solid story-tellers; we need only mention . . . the magnificent historical tone of Balzac, who would as soon have thought of admitting to the reader that he was deceiving him, as Garrick or John Kemble would have thought of pulling off his disguise in front of the footlights.

Here, James confidently asserts that there is a right and a wrong way to write fiction–and Trollope is simply making a mistake when he “winks at us and reminds us that he is telling us an arbitrary thing.” But what if Trollope is not trying to write a Jamesian (or Balzacian) novel and failing, but writing a Trollopian novel? (I objected to a similar habit in James Wood’s How Fiction Works, in which at times a teleological theory of the novel seems to me to short-circuit Wood’s readings of fiction that ‘works’ differently than his favourites: ‘”Progress!” he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: “In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot.” But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing?’) If we allow the author what James, in a more pluralistic moment, called his “donnee,” then we have to think about Trollope’s narrator quite differently, in terms of what it “animates.”

Now, I wouldn’t want to say that reading a novel on its own terms should always be the end point of criticism. I think it’s also important to consider that not all novels read on their own terms get more, rather than less, attractive and compelling. Further, there’s lots of room for debate when it comes to defining what those terms are–to return to the Jane Eyre example above, I can certainly imagine someone disagreeing with the dodge that makes Jane’s attitude to Bertha relatively insignificant in terms of the novel’s overall themes or literary strategies. The starting point for that discussion, though, would not be “great novels are of X kind; Jane Eyre is not of that kind; therefore Jane Eyre is not a great novel.” Not least because no two novels are the same (including among nineteenth-century “realist” novels, often the straw examples for ‘smug moderns’ in the blogosphere), that discussion seems, inevitably, to lead nowhere.

Suppose, however, that you take the attitude sometimes expressed by Dan Green in his posts, and certainly expressed by some of his commenters–that philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are unimportant (even undesirable) in the novel, or at least far less significant than aesthetic effects. Then suppose you read a novel in which philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are extremely important: Middlemarch, for instance, or to take an example in which the form and aesthetics are far less impressive, Mary Barton. (I think the assumption that we have aesthetic experiences that aren’t bound up in what, for shorthand, I’ll call the ideas of a novel is highly problematic, but I’ll set that aside for now.) A reader committed to McDonald’s “aesthetic evaluation” might well reject these novels as poor examples of the genre. But it could be argued that such a reader is simply making a category mistake (as James is with Scott or Trollope) and thus doing a bad job of reading (and thus evaluating) the books. As a teacher, I would not let such a mistake alone but would instruct the student who faulted Gaskell, for intance, for sentimentality, to consider the kind of book she’s writing–the purposes she has for her novel–and then how the form and artistic strategies of the novel serve those purposes. My purpose would not be to coerce the student into liking Mary Barton, but to help him or her achieve an appreciation of Gaskell’s accomplishment–an understanding of what the book is and does. That, to me, would be the basis of any responsible literary criticism. Even on aesthetic grounds, I would want to take into account the contingency of different standards, too, and to consider whether our affective response to something like John Barton’s death isn’t also a matter of art.

I’m not altogether sure where I am going with these ruminations. I guess I’m wondering about the relationship between what I’m calling the “pedagogical” habit of trying to find the best reading tools, the right measures, for any given example, and other critical strategies or purposes. How typical is this pluralistic approach, among teachers or among readers? Is there a way in which such an approach really does disable evaluation? Or is it the means for an informed evaluation? Does evaluation inevitably imply prescription about what “the” novel should do, or what readers should prefer? What are the limits of the kind of sympathetic, ‘from the inside out’ reading strategies promoted by Case and Shaw’s book (which I find wholly congenial)?

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