Posted January 26, 2008on:
Lately, I’ve had a renewed interest in books about literature. Last year it started (and ended) with The Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. What impact that text has had on my reading is unclear. I don’t remember the definition of a sicilian tercet but I have a stronger grip on poetry metres because of Beowulf and other Old English poems. Yes, the formalist chapter probably made the most impact on my poetry readings but less on novels. The theories that the writers most emphatically applied to novels, and about which I did recall a thing or two, were the ones I had little use for — feminist (All that Lacan semiotic vs symbolic, what?), psychoanalysis (still flogging Freud?) — and the others tested my patience so much that I did not complete the relevant chapters (some cultural rebels wanting to analyse literature as one would a chair or a bloody restaurant menu). Mikhail Bakhtin was a flickering glimmer in that land of nonsense but the writers did not spend much time with him and I did not follow up because the libraries either had one or two of his books in translation (and always on loan).
It did not have a chapter on postcolonial criticism but if it did it’s likely I’d have skipped it. No matter, though, since Adrian Hunt’s introduction to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner gave a detailed analysis of how some characters’ use of Scottish dialect not only helped to establish a Scottish identity, individuality, and complexity in opposition to English condescension and simple prejudice but how in certain scenes, it was used to tell entirely different versions or give particular point of views to the same story an English character attempted to analyse. That seemed to feasibly fall within postcolonial theory, as I imagine it, despite the novel’s publication date and Scotland’s present political status.
Claude McKay’s used Jamaican patois far more frequently in Banana Bottom and in a purer form, than Roger Mais did in his novels and Andrew Salkey in A Quality of Violence, which tended to a more creolised English. It made me hesitate when I began to write my post on the McKay because I wondered how difficult the lines would be for a non-Jamaican reader, knowing that people read my blog for recommendations and that my audience isn’t predominantly Caribbean. Did this impede its universality? Yet, there was a glossary in the back, as there was in the Hogg’s, and I’ve become more and more distrustful of this “universal” quality used as a criteria for great literature. Too often I find that it is used to erase the local qualities of non-Western text, probably to save a poor critic/academic from doing more research and forcing students to look beyond Greek archetypes. Anyway, that’s another post.
I was too hard on my feminists. I did appreciate the various theories about whether any female characteristics are inherent (biological) or acquired from socialization, and the argument as to whether there was such a thing as a female text ie novels written by women have certain particularities that would not be produced by a male. I just never think like this when I read a novel and so have no use for it. Jane Elizabeth Lavery’s feminist analysis of Desire and Its Shadow by Ana Clavel made me hastily scan for what information I needed before beating a hasty retreat in the face of Lacan’s mirror stages.
Recently, I noted a brief resurgence in online discussion on why litbloggers supposedly hate James Wood and why they are hopelessly wrong to do so in such an inflammatory, pathetically argued manner. Wood is awesome; their critical skills quail before his awesomeness. I felt I possessed insufficient knowledge (and interest) to judge the matter so I read only to see what others had to say. I had not read much from Wood beyond his London Review of Books contributions which I found persuasive enough that I acquired books by the authors reviewed (Edward St. Aubyn and E.P. Jones) but at no time then did I feel as if I were in the presence of a critical god (or misguided nincompoop).
Nigel Beale led me to Wood’s New Republic review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth which partly acted as a manifesto on hysterical realism, a term which I often came across without having much of a clue about what it referred to. I’m somewhat clearer now. Some authors’ fictions that are identified as magic realism — Thomas Pynchon (oh? had no idea), Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith (for White Teeth) — should be properly called “hysterical realism” because of their inauthenticity and internal disunity. Working in the service of ideas rather than literary expression they throw in a lot of wacky and weird characters in multiple zany stories without making the effort to convince the reader of their plausibility in the novel’s world.
What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character…By and large, these are not stories that could never happen (as, say, a thriller is often something that could never happen); rather, they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them. They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics (obviously, one could be born in an earthquake); they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion.
Near the end of White Teeth, one of the characters, Irie Jones, has sex with one of the twins, called Millat; but then rushes round to see the other twin, called Magid, to have sex with him only moments after. She becomes pregnant; and she will never know which twin impregnated her. But it is really Smith’s hot plot which has had its way with her.
I’m not sure that I agree with him, partly because I’ve not read the authors under scrutiny and intend to read only one (Pynchon). It certainly pushed me one step closer to Mason & Dixon. I have ever been reluctant to boo a book because it does not contain psychologically realistic characters. I acknowledge that there are books to which such characters help to create a marvellous text, and that though an author may have written his book in such a way that such characters would be necessary to make it convincing (even if he did not think so), I don’t look to it as a standard. The examples he gave made me think that he could be right or he could be wrong. I believe that novels, by nature, must deal with some aspect of human experience but I do not think a great one’s defining aspect should be how well it probes human consciousness as Wood has conveyed it.
(I was not heartened by this post which claims that Wood chastised Tristram Shandy for being too “lively”, which is just…what? Would it be indulging in mean pooterish blogger speak to say that all through that Green’s post I imagined Wood as an old man on his porch, holding Bleak House, waving his crane at the hyperactive novelists writing about talking cheeses, wheezing, “Get off my damn high quality (realistic!) lawn turf, you’re gonna give me a heart attack!”)
There’s also been some discussion on This Space, Jacob Russel’s Barking Dog and The Reading Experience, too, about “realism”: what the word means precisely and whether current literary fashion over favours it. It was spurred in part by James Tata’s series on…perhaps it was realism in 20th century American fiction. (I’m not sure because he doesn’t allow direct linking to his posts and I could find it nowhere on the first page, so I assume he is that rare breed of bloggers who doesn’t like to be linked to.) I found this one more engaging but again I could find no one definition to hold on to, in part because it was debatable (and that some said it was being confused with naturalism, another term I should know more about, especially since I reviewed Kokoro).
Finally, The Wooden Spoon‘s running commentary last year on NBCC members selections for books every critic should read, and Esposito at Conversational Reading who occasionally ruminates on his quest to become a better, more insightful reader by reading critical works about literature and close reading, made me idly consider picking one or two such books for myself. The problem is that when I weigh the choice of reading about fiction vs. reading fiction 99% of the time I chose the latter. Life’s too short! I think. I’ll pick it up as I go along.
Reading a batch of review on J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year forced me to reconsider. A few were very, very bad. Many were bad or depressingly mediocre. Of the 13 I’ve read so far I would only rate three as being worth your time not because you have a polished and refined taste for the highest tiers of literary criticism, dear reader, but because you are likely a living, breathing human being with a brain; a brain active enough that when a stranger tells you that something is bad or good you wonder why she thinks so, and the stranger’s is active enough to explain. It’s a real shame that the reader who isn’t inclined to read 3 or so pages of Hilary Mantel wax on (and on) is left with 750 words of plot summary + I’d give him a free hand job that’s how great it is!/No, no I didn’t really get into it.
I’ll save most of my ire for the assigned piece. One good thing out of the experience, I guess, is that it made me look harder at how I do things. I was not too worried about my blog reviews, but I scurried to reassess my Quarterly Conversation piece, and I am now more committed to doing better at other future submissions if they do turn up. Still, I was appalled enough at what I read that I’m tempted to put up a page entitled “Spot the difference?” in which I’ll place examples of erudite newspaper reviews beside regular ol’ blog ones. My god, if that’s the drivel these people think is acting as a gateway for quality, if that is the processed baby food they’re serving to adults…I don’t know whether to laugh or…
Anyway. This rather long post was supposed to be a kind of introduction for my thoughts on Dorothy Walsh’s Literature and Knowledge, a book in which she seeks to establish what sort of knowledge literary art can provide separate from other art and more pointedly from scientific inquiry. I’ll put up an excerpt and then save the rest for Sunday Salon.