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Memo to a Colleague

By (May 1, 2011) One Comment


To: Marjorie Garber

From: Rohan Maitzen

Subject: The Use and Abuse of Literature (We should talk about this title: does it accurately represent your most important idea?)


I’m glad to have a chance to give you some feedback on this draft of your ms. I agree that you still have work to do, but this version shows real promise. For starters, you give a good account of ways the meaning of “literature” has varied over time: as you say, today’s answer to the question “What isn’t literature?” will almost certainly “not suit the circumstances of tomorrow—or perhaps of yesterday,” and your discussion of the “fluctuating critical fortunes of Donne’s poetry” nicely illustrates this point. Your overview of developments in literary criticism is also predictably capable; your comments on the “culture wars” that broke out in the late 1980s are appropriately scathing about the “shoddiness” of attacks on literary academics for their incorporation of new theories and methodologies into their work. Both of these sections will be useful for readers who are not already familiar with versions of these stories from other recent books such as Rónán McDonald’s The Death of the Critic or, closer to home, your Harvard colleague Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas.

There’s a risk, though, that your summaries will bore readers who have been over this territory before, as you offer no new perspective of your own, so one general piece of advice I have is that you should spend some time really considering your audience. If (as I suspect) you want The Use and Abuse of Literature (or whatever your final title is) to be a powerful intervention into public discourse—a manifesto, if you will—then it needs to be significantly more concise, as well as more cogent and direct in its original arguments. Done right, it could reach a wide audience but still excite our academic colleagues as well. I think we all feel a bit beleaguered these days: between the incessant proclamations about a ‘crisis of the humanities’ and the distressingly widespread misapprehension that the STEM subjects suffice to create an educated citizenry ready to ‘win the future,’ there’s a lot of negative attention on us, and I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing that someone who commands attention the way you do would put out a compelling defense of the works we love and the work we do. I’m genuinely glad, therefore, to see this project in the works. I particularly appreciate the sincerity and energy of your attempt to defend literature and literary study without submitting either to the service of narrowly utilitarian models of value. That said, I don’t think you have quite made your case yet. Here are some more detailed comments that I hope will be helpful as you move through the next stage of your revisions.

Thesis & Argument: Overall, this draft still feels loose
and unfocused. A major problem is your unwillingness to define literature even as you purport to defend it. The clearest statement I could find is this one: “literature is a status rather than a quality. To say that a text or a body of work is literature means that it is regarded, studied, read, and analyzed in a literary way.” But if you really believe this, you can hardly argue that Stanley Fish’s creation
of a “poem” from his class list was no more than a “pedagogical stunt” that “did not make the names on the blackboard literature.” As you report, his students found “religious allegories, symbols, doctrines, and holy puns, as well as an underlying structure”: in other words, they “analyzed [it] in a literary way.” Your first formulation, like Fish’s reader-response theory, puts all the emphasis on reception and none on the text’s intrinsic properties, as if you don’t care about what you call a text’s “putative quality.” But you do discriminate among texts, else why
do you rule out Fish’s found poetry—or call the results of the Harris poll on America’s favorite books “dispiriting” for the absence of “what used to be known as ‘canonical literature’”? These lurking inconsistencies are never resolved.

You are caught, I think, in the tension many of us feel between our theoretical commitment to an inclusive approach to literature (some aspects of which you discuss in your chapter on the literary ‘canon’) and our deep appreciation for the aesthetic and intellectual richness of certain texts. As professionals, we have learned that this appreciation is itself conditioned by ideas about what “literature” is and how to measure its greatness. You celebrate close reading and lament a tendency (of which you give no specific examples, which is a problem) for “the historical fact [to take] precedence over the literary work.” However, close reading works best—as you glancingly acknowledge when you tie it to Archibald MacLeish’s lines “A poem should not mean / But be”—on texts that are verbally complex, ambiguous, and densely metaphorical, rather than ones that work through affect, exposition, even didacticism, texts that address philosophical arguments or social problems rather than turning inward towards language. You praise “the rich allusiveness, deep ambivalence, and powerful slipperiness that is language in action,” but once we acknowledge that different standards are also important—once we admit that, say, Elizabeth Gaskell, Felicia Hemans, or Walter Scott (none of whom are particularly ambivalent or slippery) deserve our critical attention as much as Herbert and Donne—we also need to accept other standards, other ways to appreciate and measure a text’s significance. Ironically, when you abandon your relativism about what literature is, your anxiety about its reductive “uses” leads you to define it so narrowly that writers who don’t think literature is “useless,” who use it themselves for clear and potent purposes (what about Pope, or Dickens?) might seem to be ruled out—or against. Pace Keats, not all poets embrace ‘negative capability,’ and Henry James is hardly the last word on the relationship between morality and the novel.

Though it is a small part of your ms overall, your discussion of Radcliffe Hall’s classic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness exemplifies the confusions you run into because you haven’t sorted out your terms or positions better. You ask, “What should we say about the use (use of? there seems to be a word missing here) a work like The Well, which inspired identification, solidarity, strong and varied emotional responses, and political and social debate?” Good question! The Well, you explain, was defended against obscenity charges on the grounds that it treated “a delicate social problem.” By your notions, then, this judgment is either an abuse of literature (because it reduces the work to its social value) or else (contrary to its explicit intent) it proves the book not to be literature after all, because it really is useful. But you have argued that works count as literary if we treat them as such, and you note that The Well “has been much reprinted and has sold well; it is often taught in courses on sexuality, lesbian and gay theory, and feminism”—so it is literature? Yet, you go on, “Few critics have spoken up in admiration of its style,” which suggests it won’t reward close reading or (to follow up on your early invocation of Emily Dickinson), it won’t take off the top of anybody’s head—unless, perhaps, a reader is looking for something besides “style,” or unless we pause to question the aesthetic standards by which Hall is found wanting. So what should we say about The Well of Loneliness? Unfortunately, though you tell us what other people have said, you don’t make a clear argument of your own about the value or the literary status of this example.

Your views are similarly effaced at many key points in the book, an odd and ultimately disabling strategy. You ably rehearse the contests between ‘amateurs’ and ‘professionals’ over the Library of America editions, for instance: on one side there’s Edmund Wilson arguing vigorously for bringing the classics to “ordinary readers” free of academic pedantry; on the other, there’s Gordon Ray of the Modern Language Association defending the scholarly Center for Editions of American Authors against, in his words, “the alarm of amateurs at seeing rigorous professional standards applied to a subject in which they have a vested interest.” (A small point: you describe Wilson as feeling his proposal had been “whisked and dismissed”—is that idiomatic?) The whole debate is indeed a great example of clashing visions of the use or abuse of literature, but your conclusion is singularly bland:

Which is the amateur and which is the professional? Do any of these persons, or any of these institutions, from publishers to universities, love literature? It seems most reasonable to say that they all do, in their fashion. . . . [O]ne thing I’d venture to say is that it never works to accuse someone else of lacking the capacity to love.

Why are you so unwilling to take sides, to resolve the debates you review? Often you rattle off thought-provoking lists of questions that illustrate the complexity and range of the problems you are considering, but it is very frustrating at the end of each of these cascading interrogations to find myself abandoned among the possibilities. I understand that you believe literature is “inexhaustible” and that the goal of literary study is to “ask literary questions,” but even if I accept your assertion that literary questions should be “about the way something means, rather than what it means, or even why” (which I don’t, really)—even if I go along with you about the right questions to ask, I don’t think that lets you off the hook: you still have to answer them. Your answer may not be final, but it should be clear and persuasive: your task as a critic is to offer a point of view, a reading. Further, your task in this book, which is not, strictly speaking, a work of criticism but a treatise, a polemic (a manifesto!), is to make a compelling case for your point of view. To do so in a book about literature as a category and a practice does not violate the open-endedness of literature itself.

Organization: My main concerns here are closely related to what I’ve said above about your thesis and argument. You need to clarify and strengthen your framing arguments and build in more explicit transitions, both between sections and across chapters, so that as you move through your broad array of topics, your reader understands why each of them is included and how each contributes to the development of a unified argument. You should not move on to a new issue, or even to a new example, without providing structural support for your readers. Often, the connections seem at most associative rather than logical. Why is a chapter on love the next step after a chapter on what is or isn’t literature? Shouldn’t the discussion of specialists and generalists in Chapter Two be integrated with your discussion of amateurs and professionals in Chapter Four? Why is it important for your purposes to argue that literature is always contemporary—is there a counter-argument that is part of an attack on the value or relevance of literature, or of literary study? Your chapter “On Truth and Lie in a Literary Sense” (though badly named) turns out to be an interesting investigation into how we draw the line between the literary and the non-literary (though again you walk us through various case studies without offering your own argument about them) but it’s not easy to tell that this why it’s included. Why the chapter “Mixed Metaphors”? Is the long disquisition on literary allusion really integral to your thinking about canonicity? As I read along I could usually, eventually, infer the relevance of each topic, but you shouldn’t leave your reader to guess at the ways they are all connected: they might too easily conclude that you are just rambling.

Writing and Mechanics: Though of course there are no outright errors here in grammar or mechanics, the draft as a whole badly needs editing. I’ve flagged repeated instances of unnecessary qualifications padding what should be strong, clear claims. “Two examples from Virginia Woolf may helpfully complicate this question of love and what it might have to do with the use (or use and abuse) of literature” is a typically evasive statement: are they or aren’t they helpful? does the question of love have something to do with the use of literature? do you mean “use” or “use and abuse” here? Another example: “it’s this word, pastness, that I want to take up for a moment. Clearly, pastness is not the same as the past. It seems to mean something like the flavor of the past.” Seems to mean something like? That’s just sloppy writing! Again and again we get “we might say,” “it could be,” “maybe,” “it seems to be,” “it is probable,” “a few key observations might be made,” even “perhaps it would be clearer to say”: while a lot of this verbal clutter could be fixed with the delete key, the shifty tone strikes me as symptomatic of the incompleteness of your thinking. You’re not quite ready to say exactly what you mean. When you do make bold pronouncements, they are rhetorically striking, rocks in a sea of uncertainty, but on closer inspection, they too prove disappointingly vague: what exactly does the claim “Literature is figure” mean?

For all these problems (which I know you are more than capable of sorting out) there are some exciting moments in the ms. I loved your commentary on Yeats’s “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” for instance:

I said the poem was a sonnet, but a count of the lines will come up one short for the traditional, canonical fourteen-line form. The rhyme scheme is unusual, too: abba cc adda ee a, which means that the poet has inserted two couplets (the verse form that, in the Shakespearean or English sonnet, is the emblem of closure) in the midst of the poem, producing a formal impossibility, a thirteen-line inside-out sonnet. The challenge of the first line, the fascination of what’s difficult, is triumphantly displayed and achieved. At the same time the argument of the poem seems to rue the dailiness of work (“the day’s war with every knave and dolt, / Theatre business, management of men”) in a way that might even be glancing, sidelong, at the quotidian life of that earlier poet-playwright after whom the English sonnet form is named.

Now that’s criticism in action, proof that paying attention in a literary way enhances our experience of the text in front of us. When you explain the way Robert Graves, in “Leaving the Rest Unsaid,” uses his own “careless comma” (not, of course, careless at all) to create “a diacritical revolt” in this “poem about closure, literary, typographical, and mortal,” when you explain that in “closing the poem with a comma as well as with the word comma the poet fulfills the promise of his title by refusing to complete the verse line”—then the two of you together, Graves and Garber, collaborate in taking off the top of my head. More than anything else you say in your nearly 300 pages, these passages speak to me of the exhilarating possibilities of literature, and of the creative and intellectual activity that is criticism.

Maybe, then, instead of trying so hard to tell us about the value of literature and literary study, you should spend more of your book showing us. This strategy would place the focus where you yourself say it should be, not on abstractions or generalizations but on “the living presence of the literary work.” Isn’t it our enthusiasm about that lived experience, about reading, that led us to become English professors in the first place, after all? Sadly, the prevalent view is that our business is to ruin reading for everyone else. I like to think we disprove that daily, in the classroom: some evidence in our favor is that there’s never a shortage of bright, curious students eager to work with us on interpretation, which you rightly call “one of the most exhilarating products of human culture.” Isn’t that, really, your most important idea—that the vast, diverse, open-ended literary conversation is, in all kinds of ways, truly exciting? Why not organize your book around that claim, rather than around the tepid ‘use and abuse’ formula (which, as you note, is itself endlessly used and re-used)? Your new working title could be The Thrill of the Literary. Now, that’s a manifesto.

I look forward to seeing the revised version.

Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs about literature and criticism at Novel Readings.