These days literary scholars are preoccupied with ‘what you want to make of a text’, mostly dismissing ‘what it wants to make of itself’ and ignoring ‘what it wants to make of you’.

It’s 1990 and I am in a Joyce seminar in grad school, and we students (there’s about 15 of us) are supposed to run the class: the Prof regularly chimes in, but we are collectively in charge of conducting the two-hour seminar and every other week we are expected to take on a chapter of Ulysses and teach it to the others. Usually this involves linking it up with its sources, chasing down its allusions, etc. etc., and then patiently taking the class through a “close reading” of the chapter. Our goal is to make our assigned chapter of the book come alive for the class, so that the other students leave the room having experienced it in a way that is richer than if they had just read it on their own. Most of us take the instructions to heart: we are supposed to try to crawl inside the text, be the best explicator of it that we can be (part midwife, part advocate, but always the most sensitive, most judicious and patient of readers), and to shepherd the book before the class in good faith, not because authors are gods or because the text is a timelessly perfect “well-wrought urn” or transcendent work of art, but simply because by signing up for the course we have signalled that we value what Joyce has to say, and because Ulysses is really the only thing in the room that we all have in common: after all, we have not come here to discuss Irish politics, James Joyce’s upbringing, or continental modernism.

Of course, we are expected to bring up Irish politics, Joyce’s biography or aesthetic theory IF that happens to serve the novel, if it does justice to Ulysses itself: the professor is training us to be university English teachers, and expects us to be conversant with and to be able to apply all manner of tools that will help our students understand the book that has been assigned for any given week. For the purposes of pedagogy, context is the handmaiden to the work at hand, and not the other way around.

Inevitably, however, one of our fellow apprentices ignores all of this advice and gives a 30 min talk about how Ulysses unconsciously represents something about what French philosopher Louis Althusser called the “Ideological State Apparatus”. The upshot is that we leave the room not having learned or discussed anything about that particular chapter of Ulysses. We don’t even learn all that much about the Althusser’s thinking, as our fellow student has assumed that we are as conversant with it as he is. He has written a paper on Althusser in modern culture and Ulysses was just one text among many that shows how these works of alleged “art” merely reflect the ideology of the time and place in which they are created.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing this kind of paper: texts signify far more than their authors intend, and it can be quite enlightening (as well as, in an academic kind of way, entertaining) to bring literary texts into collision with other discourses. In fact, today, most young grad students in English are  expected to make explicit the theoretical “lens” that they will be applying to the authors that their dissertations will be dealing with: there is no easy way to “go back” to literary narratives in isolation from psychological, sociological,  historical and political ones.

And yet this is exactly what Daniel Green’s enlightening new book, Behind The Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, has come to tell us: literary criticism needs to be rescued, both from the confines of academic criticism (where literature is increasingly seen, by its more vulgar practitioners, as tertiary to this-or-that “ism”, as an epiphenomenon of ideology), and from the book review industry (which, in the shifting of its focus to meh, to middle-of-the-road “product”—all too often the reheated, easily digested regurgitations of  bland fare that everyone else is producing, faithful followings of recipes for how to write a novel circa 1885—puts everything about the author except for his or her writing front-and-centre). Instead, it is time to bring the focus back to the literary work itself, and to the interpretive possibilities inherent in taking the formal dexterity of the text seriously for a change.

In this, Green hearkens back to what was called “The New Criticism” of the 1940s, a loose collection of critics who rejected the philological, historical-biographical and moral approaches to literature that preceded them, and whose guiding tenet was “close reading” —paying careful attention to the formal elements of the literary text (especially poetry, which made New Criticism such an appealing pedagogical tool for the secondary and undergraduate classroom), with the aim of elucidating the thematic and linguistic ambiguities that were inseparable from the work’s unique formal characteristics: style was inseparable from content, these critics felt, and it was time for historical and biographical criticism (which had relegated style to being little more than a ‘purse carrier’ for content) to be shown the door.

In this (to be clear), Green is not arguing that we merely retreat to some by-gone mode of interpretation (his PhD dissertation, after all, employed the work of post-structuralist Jacques Derrida, so he definitely knows his way around “pure theory”). He is merely suggesting that it is perhaps time for a corrective, that we read a novel for the sake of reading the novel before we hammer away at it with our pet cultural theories, and that we don’t get as quite so caught up in the biography and personality of the author as the publicity industry might have us do. If we return to consider the formal elements of the text with due seriousness, Green maintains, then perhaps we might once again treat formally experimental fiction with more respect than it currently receives from the so-called “literary” fiction world. [My own pet theory (ok, hunch) about this involves both the move towards the up-sized and relatively upscale “trade” paperback format and the industry’s increasing reliance on literary prize culture from the late 1980s onward: just look at the lists of prize-winners from the last 20 years and count how many books would qualify as stylistically “experimental”—but that’s an argument for another day.]

Green’s book is divided into three sections: one that sets out what he feels to be are the important (and perhaps underappreciated) critical issues of recent literary history, another where he focuses on individual critics who, in his eyes, largely fail (by reducing literature to some narrow confine or other) in their approaches to literature, and a final section on those critics whose work celebrates in one way or another the relative autonomy of literature.  The structure of this book seems to appropriately underline his main thesis: it is not that the literary work is wholly autonomous of all other influences, but that for various reasons criticism has come to dramatically underplay, undervalue or deny the existence of any autonomy that the novel might once have assumed that it at least partially had.

In the introduction to the book, Green makes a number of polemical points that, again, are meant to redress current critical failings:

  • Literature “is worth taking seriously for its own sake”
  • The experience of reading is hardly less important than its abstract “meaning”
  • You can’t criticize what you don’t dive deeply into
  • What you are diving into is a complex deployment of/structuring of language
  • Experimental fiction’s innovations with language constantly challenge the critic to play “catch-up”

These are important points, and Green takes pains that we understand him: he is not suggesting that we abandon scholarship, but that we understand that the critic and scholar serve different functions, and that we need to be reminded of the deep importance of the cultural function of the critic: while scholars connect our knowledge of the text to other discourses and contexts, critics discuss and analyse the text on its own terms, with the aim of explicating how it is put together and of evaluating how well it does what it is trying to do. Sometimes (as with the case of Harold Bloom) these two functions go hand-in-glove, sometimes not, but we should never forget why we read novels in the first place: because they give us an experience that only novels can give us. They are not histories or biographies or potted sociologies (though they can contain elements of all of those things). When they are done well they are, rather, tightly structured linguistic experiences that challenge our understanding of what language itself can do: it can tell a story, inquire about the nature of history, society and humanity itself, but it can do all of that while being something else again. Green does not go into detail, as it is criticism and not fiction that is the chief concern of his book, but I suspect he would agree with me in this: over the past while (20- 30-something years?), such formally innovative fiction has played an increasingly diminished role in our literary culture, and we are all the poorer for it.

The first section of the book Green is devoted to expanding upon the aforementioned points via discussions of a number of critics who have informed his own practice. Green is remarkably fair-minded in his assessment of what he perceives to be these writers’ strengths and weaknesses: practicing the kind of critical-yet-sympathetic close reading that he preaches, he is indeed the ideal pedagogue that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review: since many of the objects of his analysis in this section (Ron Silliman, Johanna Drucker and Richard Kostelantz) were new to me, I appreciated the many nuances Green teases out their bodies of work. For example, while he does not seem to share Silliman’s Marxist view of literature (that it should ultimately be the “servant” of “social reform”), he appreciates how Silliman places language at the forefront of the literary experience, and does not reduce it to “crudely propagandistic […] polemic”.  The effect of Green’s rather gracious, judicious approach makes me want to go out and pick up Silliman’s, Drucker’s and Kostelantz’s books and read them myself—surely just the kind of thing the author intends that good criticism should always aim to do!

The second part of Beyond The Blurb delves into critics whose perspective comes up seriously short, in Green’s assessment. These include James Wood (who seeks to arrest literary experimentation and to sanction it to pursue only the mode of psychological realism), Christopher Hitchens (who reduces art to political “content”),  Morris Dickstein (who ultimately sees authors as mouthpieces of their times), Hershel Parker (who “believes that literary criticism cannot proceed  [… without] a reliable knowledge of the writer’s circumstances”), and Joseph Conte (who is an example of the kind of academic critic of postmodern fiction who reduces the work to a matter of theme). Again, what is striking about each of these chapters is how fair-minded Green is to each of the authors under his analysis: none of them are dismissed out of hand, and much in them is to be found worthy of praise.  I would like to briefly focus upon Green’s analysis of one of them in particular, however, as I share Green’s assessment that this critic has had an outsized and “particularly pernicious influence upon contemporary criticism”. That critic is James Wood.

James Wood maintains that the job of fiction is to enable the reader to “see the self”:

For Wood, the opportunity to access the “mind” of a fictional character is the primary reward of reading, the representation of a mind at work the principal goal of fiction writing. Wood’s account of “how fiction works” is prescriptive, not descriptive: he wants to convince his common readers that the way of reading he presents is the one proper way of reading and that the kind of fiction that most directly satisfies the specified readerly requirements is the only kind really worthy of our attention.

The kind of writing that is worth our attention turns out, of course, to be psychological realism: verisimilitude in the representation of the individual mind—as exemplified in the work of his idol, Henry James and his third person innovation, the “free indirect style”, in which the narrator inhabits the point of view of the main character and the reader thereby gets to “go along for the ride” in their experience of the world, to and thereby experience the feeling of empathy for the protagonist’s position. In fact, this describes much of what already passes for “literary” fiction today, and Wood would have it no other way. Wood is remarkably hostile to one form of fiction in particular: what he terms “Hysterical Realism”, and I would have liked to have seen Green make more out of this particular animosity of Wood’s. By “Hysterical Realism” Wood means any novel that attempts to grapple with larger, societal issues and which strays too far from the interior “life” of the individual. Novelists as varied as Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon are labeled derisively as “the bastard step-children of Charles Dickens”, in that they bring to the novel both a wider lens and an interest in playing with form and language as a means to get readers to think rather than feel: think not merely about the life and mind of the individual, but also about said individual’s alleged “individuality”. But Wood would prefer that the novel not examine this, nor its conventional function in society, nor how such unexamined assumptions prop up the larger structures that govern many of our experiences of the world and which, in turn, create, sustain and are sustained by concepts like “individuality”.

In other words, though the novel can be and do many different things, Wood would have it merely do one, highly specific thing:

He doesn’t want to let fiction be fiction. Instead, he asks that it provide some combination of psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction, and assumes that novelists are in some way qualified to offer these services. He abjures them to avoid “aestheticism” (too much art) and to be instead respectful of “life”. As he puts it in his book’s conclusion: “The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional

But —to be clear— “life” in this view somehow does not include history, politics, economics, philosophy or sociology: for Wood, those lie outside the novel’s intended scope. Contrast this with Milan Kundera’s lone commandment: that the novel forge new exploratory paths into that limitless territory he calls “human nature”, which sounds analogous to Wood’s project except that Kundera leaves in “human nature” all that Wood has taken out of “life”: history, philosophy, etc. etc. For Kundera, the novel is capable of subsuming all other disciplines, but is incapable of letting itself be confined to any one mode, let alone that of psychological realism. Indeed, the novel’s lone source of immorality would be to re-tread steps that have already been taken, to attempt no new exploration.  I digress into Kundera to explicitly make a point that Green (because in this book his focus is on the critic and not so much the novelist) leaves somewhat implicit:  in boxing fiction into a narrow conception of “the real” Wood reduces its scope to, Green maintains, “the comedy of manners […] psychological depth and ‘tragicomic stoicism'”.

Green has much else to say on Wood, of course (and, typically, he also finds almost as much to praise as to criticise), but Wood’s central and most pernicious idea can be summed up in what Green calls his “assumption that fiction is valuable because it helps us understand human behaviour at its source in mental processes”: in other words, fiction is most valuable when it least calls attention to itself as fiction, when its prose gives us a sense of a transparent connection to another psyche. But prose is manifestly not a transparent conduit into the psyche of another: prose is a collection of words on the page. It isn’t merely that, of course, but the case of James Wood is emblematic of those critics and readers who wish that novels didn’t call quite so much attention to themselves, that they weren’t so…novelistic, so verbally playful, perturbed, restless and bothered. They wish that such novels weren’t so “contrived”, so patently replete with what they might call “ornament”, but which is, for the reader of experimental fiction anyway, the good stuff. Batting their eyes blankly at such an assertion, James Wood and his ilk would surely respond, as if novelistic experimentation was akin to performing the role of “that wretched, rash, intruding fool” Polonius, and, with the impatience of Queen Gertrude, chide him to provide “more matter, with less art”.

In the first essay in the final section collectively titled  “Critical Successes”, Green explores one of Susan Sontag’s concerns: “break[ing] down the opposition between style and content, as “style is the real substance of art, content its outer decoration, the enticement to the reader’s attention that allows the ‘experience’ of art that style enables.” I am not sure if Green would go so far as to agree with her wholeheartedly in this, but he is definitely sounding the need for a corrective, as “academic criticism has gone in precisely the opposite direction, dismissing form altogether” in favour of the kind of theoretical tub-thumping that is illustrated at the beginning of this essay.  In fact, Green does come pretty close to championing art-for-art’s sake in his analysis of some of Sontag’s deficiencies, as he states that “the function of a work art is to be itself. It doesn’t engage in ‘training’ for anything other than subsequent, perhaps more ‘educated’ experiences of art.” I get that:  art, if it is to escape the label of being “propaganda” cannot be “useful” in any direct way.  The novel primarily “belong[s] to the world of experience” and not to the world of utility, of ethics, or of any other master. Yet, as Joseph Brodsky once said, “art is the mother of ethics and not the other way round”: that is, while art cannot be reduced to a function (that is indeed what “philistines” want to do to it—Green hits the nail on the head there), it is an experience that can inspire ethical thinking, political thinking, etc. Art not only takes us outside of ourselves, it can (some kinds of art, anyway) take us back to the real world and re-configure it for us, sometimes. I am thinking of the aforementioned, so-called “hysterical realism”, of the novels that James Wood so decries and about which Green does not have much to say in this particular volume: when the novel itself deploys style in a way that aims at unsettling its own content (and, thereby, unsettling our received ideas, our own social/political/historical “content”), it is providing a kind of solution to the form/content problem that avoids ending up privileging one pole or the other in that binary.

In any case, Green is out to make a different kind of point: more “art-does-what-only-art-can-do” than “art-for-art’s-sake”. By this I mean that, except by paying close attention to the manifold nuances of which the artist’s form (in the present case, language) is at times capable, we are like schoolchildren stumbling around reluctantly in nature on an involuntary school hike: not knowing what to look for, we don’t take the time to look; it all seems to come across as a bit of a blur, what’s the point? The point, Green says, is ambiguity, what Sontag calls “silences”. They are “ineffable, but real” and the artist’s use of language attempts to make them temporarily, provisionally present for us in some way. Yet they are ineffable not because they are mystical or transcendent, but because we have not found a way to name them yet (or have not taken the time to, have passed by them as in a blur).  These are, in another context, what Harold Bloom calls “intricate evasions that nevertheless bud and bloom”.

The other critics discussed in this final section of the book were, again, mostly new to me.  Having come from an academic background that was somewhat deficient in formalist thought, it provides the perfect introduction to contemporary critics who provide a pragmatic path forward from the style/content impasse. One of these is novelist/critic/academic S.D. Chrostokowa, whose 2015 book critical work Matches is employs a restless, aphoristic novelistic approach to criticism that is mirror-imaged in her 2009 essayistic novel Permission, all part of a “dialectical” approach to writing that places the pairs of imagination/reason and inspiration/reflection all on the same plane —and a down-to-earth one at that, where art neither takes second place to scholarship nor is placed on some spuriously lofty pedestal above us: “now that you have lost your faith in [capital-L!!] Literature”, she writes, “[…]you can believe in writing”.

The kind of writing that we can believe in, Green teaches us, is writing that doesn’t allow us believe in it for too very long, or at least with too much fervour, complacency or chauvinism. For Green believes that (post-)modernism and its American incarnation in particular has something of value to teach the world, not in its content, but in the way that it worries over how it represents (re-presents) the world to us. It is writing that calls attention to its own processes of signification, of meaning-making, because it wants us to be as hesitant and tentative about the ultimate contingency and lack of stability of its own pronouncements as it is. If (as in his chapter on William Gass) it concerns a sense of “well-wrought” particulars contributing to a work’s collective beauty that has “stood the test of time”, beauty that asks us not to project ourselves onto it but to “immerse” ourselves in its “rhythms […] arrangements and figurations”, then with the critic David Winters the process of reading is an “infinite” one, never “fully fathomed”. This is not because the literary text is a timeless work of transcendent genius, but because there is something in its formal composition that refuses to be immediately declarative: quoting David Winter on Robert Musil, Green maintains that

theory can provide a valuable perspective on the implications and entanglements of such literature, but it can’t subsume it […] “There is something about[…] The Man Without Qualities that seems to resist conclusive criticism. Something not so much unfinished as uniquely continuous: infinite. The reason the novel is unlike anything else you’ve ever read is because it goes on reading itself when you’re finished reading it.”

This idea that great writers have the chops (the skill, technē—know-how, not inspired genius) to compose works that resist analytical reduction means that we readers and critics should learn the value of “subtracting” ourselves from our reality for a time, so that (at least while performing the act of reading) we have the opportunity to imaginatively leave ourselves behind and to have an “aesthetic experience” before we start reflecting analytically upon that experience. By this Green means not “some kind of mystical trance” but a form of “recreation” (as in re-creation) of the artist’s “conceptual and expressive moves.”  If this seems like it is getting pretty close to discerning the author’s true “intention”,  I nevertheless take Green’s point: adopting a stance of Kantian disinterestedness (whereby who we are and what we want is imaginatively set aside so that we might more fully encounter a work of art) is a valuable skill that scholars do not exercise nearly enough, as we often desire that works of art speak to our rather narrow concerns or confirm our prejudices, or else we attempt to read great books “deconstructively”, looking for hidden “aporias” or blindnesses. But if we read (say) Dickens only to discover that this conflicted, 19C bourgeois reformer could not escape his class or patriarchal positions, do we not lose something thereby, namely, any positive reason (the verbal dexterity, the caustic wit, the social concerns that are inseparable from the ability to animate a scene…) for reading Dickens in the first place?

Just in case you think that that last paragraph was a dig at academia and its often “reductive” approach to reading literature, Green makes a case for how academic criticism might more profitably (for the reader, anyway) proceed in his examination of the work of Michael Gorra, who in his book on Henry James, Portrait of a Novel follows a path of “critical eclecticism”, perspicaciously choosing the critical apparatus according to the needs of the novel in question (Portrait of a Lady) rather than according to any pre-existing philosophical, ideological or political commitments. The critic in this sense functions more like a nimble artist even if he also has to wear the hat of the exhaustively meticulous accountant: Gorra’s successful academic manoeuvre was to both definitively  “situate” the novel in its context while at the same time “doing justice to the novel’s [internal] complexity”. In the service of the novel, the eclectic critic neither places it on a transhistorical pedestal, not sweeps it into the dustbin of history, but faithfully relates how the novel speaks to and of the world (and is spoken by the world), while still, most fundamentally, speaking itself.

n.b. This is something I myself tried to do in my own academic writing on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, whose mysterious transfiguring of late 20C capitalism tugged at my imagination for almost fifteen years before I set down to write about it. When one day I read a history of political philosophy by Ellen Meiksins Wood, I suddenly knew that I had a tool that could help me elucidate Pynchon’s literary text in an enlightening and yet faithful manner: for Wood’s thought complement’s Pynchon’s rather than subsumes it, illuminates it in a way that never exhausts it. We read and re-read great fiction, after all, because it is written in a manner that meaning is never quite circumscribed. Vineland tugs at me still, ten years on from the time when I wrote about it: no one can exhaust it!

The above is underscored, finally, in Green’s discussion of the critic Richard Poirier’s oeuvre, on whose 1966 book A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature it is well worth quoting our guide extensively :

A World Elsewhere makes it clear that American literature has long been characterized by a preoccupation with the processes of representation and specifically with the limitations of language as a medium of representation, features generally associated with postmodernism and assumed to be a phenomenon of more recent literary history. Such a view of American literary history was implicitly unsettling to the prevailing approach to the study of American literature, which emphasized literature as a reflection of American history, often embodying “themes” said to be the obsession of American writers in their encounter with history and culture. But Poirier in A World Elsewhere tells us that most of the canonical American writers distrust the very mechanisms available to poets and fiction writers that would render experience adequately, and if anything they aspire to such a way that they manage to escape history […] I took Poirier’s claims even a little farther, arguing that the self-reflexivity of metafiction, in directing the reader’s attention to the artifice of language […] ask[s] the reader to regard language not as the transparent medium for the invocation of a created “world” at all but as fiction’s primary source of interest, the irreducible substance of the reading experience.

Now as unconcerned as Green is in this book with the politics of fiction I would maintain his ideas are more than a propos for writers and critics of a political bent, and that if it remains possible for novels and novelists to concern themselves with politics and history, then Green’s claims remain nevertheless cogent—nay, essential: for the novel can add little to the worlds of politics and history themselves if the novel’s primary relationship with them is through such “transparent” representation. Politics and history can carry on quite very well without the novel if all that the novel is doing is giving clearly-rendered examples of how politics and history make an impact upon the lives of individuals. That’s what we have journalism for. No, the novel’s (even the political and historical novel’s) chief concern needs to be with its own artifice, with the problems inherent in the process of representation. In worrying about its own inherited, formal clichés, the mechanisms of artifice whereby the novel attempts to hold up the mirror to the age, as it were, the novel just might continue to be of assistance in helping us readers worry about the aspects of social and political reality (those clichés of everyday life) that our betters would rather keep hidden from view. The novel’s chief weapon in this is “troping” or figuration, “the turning of language in new or surprising ways  that allow the writer (and the reader) to avoid being trapped in established usages and forms”—and, I would add, in established, historical institutions and in political practices that custom and habit have given the gloss of the ‘natural’. The novelist’s job is to deprive us of those habits of mind and clichés of custom, and only by (with Poirier’s Emerson) fearing “‘being caught or fixed in a meaning’ or ‘state of conformity'” to language can novelists hope to provide the reader with any trustworthy avenue back to the real. Poirier calls this “linguistic skepticism”, and Green maintains that it was woven intimately of Emerson and (William) James’s all-American philosophical pragmatism:

Writers in this tradition are especially aware of the contingency of language, its unavoidable immersion in past practices and ultimately its insufficiency as a medium for establishing the final truth of things. They understand that, in Poirier’s words, the “proper activity” of all writers is “essentially a poetic one. It is to make sure that language is kept in a state of continuous troping, turning, transforming, transfiguring…” The act of writing is thus alive with the attempt to “stabilize certain feelings and attitudes,”  but the attempt itself provides the only stability, and it will be of course “turned” by subsequent attempts, the transfiguration it accomplishes achieving, in Robert Frost’s famous words, only a “momentary stay against confusion.”

That attempt is the writer’s job. The critic-reader’s job is complementary, and no less essential:

“Reading  is nothing if not personal,” [Poirier] wrote in an especially Emersonian mode in [1992’s] Poetry and Pragmatism. “It ought to get down ultimately to a struggle between what you want to make of a text and what it wants to make of itself and you.” These days literary scholars are preoccupied with “what do you want to make of the text,” mostly dismissing “what it wants wo make of you.” […] Poirier return[s] us to the significance implicit in the reading experience itself, where the reader’s struggle to make the most of the text mirror’s the writer’s struggle to allow language to make what sense it can.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the title of Daniel Green’s blog (where you will find many insightful and carefully-rendered articles similar to those found in his book) is The Reading  Experience. As I said before, one of the great things about reading Beyond The Blurb (which, if you value literature I strongly recommend that you do) is the useful overview it gives you of L20C formalist criticism: if you haven’t read a particular book that he is discussing, Green shepherds you towards knowing enough about it to make an informed decision about its merits and its deficiencies. If on the other hand you have already read it, he likewise gives you the sense that you have just paid it an appreciative, somewhat more immersive second visit, with a sensitive and self-effacing guide to point out things you might have missed the first time through. For with Green the book in question is what matters most, not its critic, which is, I feel, as it should be.