Age of idiots

There is a moment in Waiting for the Barbarians when Daniel Mendelsohn notes in passing that the etymological root of the term ‘idiot’ is the Greek idiotês, meaning a private person. It is related to idios, from which we also derive the word ‘idiom’. A true idiot, in other words, is ‘someone who acts in public as if they were still in private’.

Mendelsohn makes this observation in an essay on the subject of memoirs called ‘But Enough About Me’, the title of which alludes to an old joke about self-centredness (the omitted punchline is ‘what do you think about me?’), and it is merely an aside. But it crystallises his concerns. The concept of ‘autobiography’ is a relatively recent invention: the word only came into common usage in the nineteenth century. As Mendelsohn points out, however, confessional writing has a long history. Its modern secular manifestations can be traced back to Rousseau’s Confessions (1782-1789), and beyond that to a religious tradition of personal testimonies, originating in the fourth century writings of St Augustine, in which the author claims to have overthrown a life of waywardness and arrived at a state of spiritual redemption.

Yet the proliferation of memoirs in recent years, argues Mendelsohn, also needs to be understood in the context of the unprecedented technological transformation that is defining our historical moment. The current obsession with the testimonies of the self – and he cites the obvious examples of reality television, talk shows and, of course, the deluge of self-exposure that has been enabled by the internet – has created a situation in which the public sphere is swamped with the opinions, idle thoughts, revelations, commentaries, reviews and diaristic ramblings of anyone and everyone. This is clearly indicative of a great hunger both to create and consume personalised narratives, an instinctive desire to connect. But as Mendelsohn points out, one of the consequences of this compulsion has been an erosion of the distinction between our public and private selves. Thanks to the advent of social media, in particular, many person-to-person communications are also public performances. This phenomenon has been normalised with astonishing swiftness. As the fifty-something David Shields remarks in How Literature Saved My Life, ‘everyone I know under thirty has remarkably little notion of privacy.’ We are living in an age of idiots, in the etymologically precise sense of the word.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Mendelsohn’s essay is that, almost inevitably, it takes on something of a self-reflexive quality, and not only because he is himself a memoirist who is conscious of the genre’s unreliability and its sparring relationship with its literary sibling and rival, the novel – or even because, having carefully delineated the issues that make the writing and reading of autobiographies such a fraught business, he rounds out his critical analysis with a personal anecdote.

To the extent that ‘something has shifted, profoundly, in the way we think about our selves in relation to the world around us’, this shift has come to influence the way in which criticism is understood. In doing so, it has thrown the role of the professional critic into question. Mendelsohn makes this point explicitly in an essay he published in the New Yorker in August 2012 (too late to be included in Waiting for the Barbarians) titled ‘A Critic’s Manifesto’, in which he refers to his earlier argument about the controversies generated by phony memoirs – and, specifically, to his suggestion that it is ‘hard not to think that a lot of the outrage directed at writers and publishers lately represents a displacement of a large and genuinely new cultural anxiety, about our ability to filter or control the plethora of unreliable narratives coming at us from all directions’. Recent anxieties about the health of the critical culture, he proposes, may also be ‘a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger and to what uses it is properly put.’

There is a contentious aspect to Mendelsohn’s argument (which I will come to in a moment), but the uncertain status of the individual judgement is very much the crux of the matter. Criticism is an intellectual activity grounded in personal responsiveness. It is often noted in articles about the function of criticism – and Mendelsohn’s is no exception – that the word is derived from the Greek kritikos, meaning ‘to judge’. Yet as Samuel Johnson observed, judgement is forced on us by experience – that is, it is not merely an effusion of the will or a projection of the self’s idiosyncratic tastes. It is the product of a process of interaction, a consequence of one’s engagement with the world; it involves a negotiation with things other than our selves, with ideas other than our own.

The reason so much of the present glut of literary commentary is unworthy of the name criticism is that it takes the form of assertion rather than analysis. It shrinks the expansive notion of judgement to mere personal evaluation. It associates the act of criticism with the moment at which the sentence is passed and the gavel comes down, rather than with the prior – and much more important – process of scrutinising the evidence, assessing it in the light of an accumulated body of knowledge, and developing an argument. Treated in this peremptory way, a literary work becomes a lifeless object toward which the reader adopts an attitude (I liked it; I didn’t like it; it was beautifully written; the scene with the chihuahua didn’t really work for me; it was inspiring; the ending was depressing; I identified with that character, but not with that one). And it is precisely because such judgements – personally validating though they may be – are no more than personal that they are essentially worthless, for they are at once arbitrary and incontrovertible. If I happen not to ‘identify’ with Elizabeth Bennet or Huckleberry Finn, who are you to tell me I’m wrong?

There is an encompassing point here. Since the practice of criticism, in its modern public manifestations at least, is entangled with the problem of individual authority, the challenge for the critic is, one might say, how to cultivate a credible idiom without becoming an idiot. This is why criticism is a perennial subject of contention, why anxieties about the state of criticism can often seem to be manifestations of anxieties about the democratisation of culture. As Mendelsohn suggests, the assumption that there is something inherently validating, redemptive even, about the act of self-expression tends to obscure criticism’s intellectual imperatives. But it also indicates why the authority of criticism is constantly collapsing and needing to be rebuilt. The subjective, contingent, pragmatic aspect of criticism makes it easy to identify its inadequacies, its limitations, its presumptions, its failures of judgement. And because its conclusions are provisional and its authority is rhetorical, it can be difficult to come up with a theoretical justification for criticism that does not sound at least a little bit snooty, even if it is not necessarily undemocratic. Mendelsohn’s contention that there exists a class of ‘true critics’ who ‘should be practicing it’ is an appeal to the notions of aptitude and expertise. These are not controversial in themselves, but they cannot help but seem a bit haughty when applied to a commonplace activity, such as reading a novel or watching a film, that would not appear to require any special knowledge or technical ability.

The most convincing argument for the value of criticism is not theoretical at all; it is a genre that tends to justify itself in practice. To read Mendelsohn, a Classics scholar, bringing his depth of knowledge to bear on subjects from James Cameron’s Hollywood blockbuster Avatar (2009) to Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho in If Not, Winter (2002), or to read James Wood’s attentive and appreciative essays on modern fiction, is to encounter writers engaging with creative works in a way that bears little relation to the superficial chatter that so often passes for cultural commentary. Almost all of the articles collected in Waiting for the Barbarians and Wood’s The Fun Stuff and Other Essays are reviews written for a handful of venerable upmarket publications – New York Review of Books, New Republic, London Review of Books, New Yorker – but in their scope and ambition they resemble the insipid yet pervasive notion of a ‘review’ in much the same way (to make a Terry Eagleton-ish point) as a Bruce Springsteen concert resembles someone singing an off-key version of ‘Born to Run’ in a karaoke bar.

None of this is to suggest that the level of accomplishment on display in the critical essays of Wood and Mendelsohn is only possible in the upper echelons of professional literary journalism – though it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the resources and the accumulated cultural capital of the New Yorker and the London Review of Books bolstering one’s work. Nor does it suggest that the line between amateur enthusiasts and qualified professional critics is one that can or should be strictly policed. But it does suggest that Mendelsohn’s distinction between true criticism and mere effusion might be sustainable on generic grounds. Wood is a textual critic, whose readings are based around his consideration of the finer points of an author’s style; Mendelsohn is more the critic-about-town, as comfortable writing about Broadway shows and Mad Men as he is analysing the novels of Stendhal and Alan Hollinghurst. But for both critics, a review is assumed to be the occasion for a larger discussion, in which evaluative judgements are less important than the elaboration of the reasoning behind those judgements: its generic allegiance is ultimately to the exploratory spirit of the essay. Regardless of whether one agrees with their arguments, one comes away from their writing with an enlarged sense of the work under consideration.

Both critics have their recognisable preoccupations. Sexuality, both as a shaper of character and as a social issue, is a recurring theme in Mendelsohn’s criticism, and his Classical education tends to make him alert to a work’s mythical and archetypal resonances, which he often weaves into wider cultural arguments; Wood – an escapee from a strict religious upbringing – is drawn to theological issues and has argued that modern fiction has an inherently secular quality. Yet their similarities are as telling as their differences. They belong to a centuries-old tradition of public criticism, of which both are conscious, and to a significant extent the journalistic imperatives of their task dictates the form of their essays. The ambiguity of their cultural position is, in a sense, embodied in the genre itself, and finds its tangible manifestation in their familiar style. Indeed, a good part of their authority as critics is derived from their mastery of an urbane manner that combines a conversational tone, erudition lightly worn, and a knack for identifying and explicating a telling detail.

Wood is an interesting example of the way a critic can come to occupy an influential yet contentious cultural position, for there is a sense in which he is encumbered by the success of his early criticism. Throughout the late-1990s and early-2000s, he established a reputation as a tough and forthright critic, largely on the strength of a series of essays in which he took issue with the postmodern novel in some of its brashest manifestations. The term he coined to describe this bombastic style of fiction – ‘hysterical realism’ – gained wide currency. His critique touched a nerve, in part, because it delineated a set of formal issues that raised timely questions about the contemporary novel’s artistic purpose and cultural significance. Yet it also encouraged the widespread but inaccurate view that Wood was asserting, in a rather prescriptive fashion, that a version of traditional realist practice was the proper business of the novel, and that he was dismissing other fictional modes and genres out of hand. That he pursued his arguments with conviction and a certain rhetorical flair – his description of Salman Rushdie’s Fury (2001) as ‘a novel that exhausts negative superlatives’ comes to mind – made them seem even more provocative. There remain sections of the American literary establishment that refuse to forgive the upstart Englishman for his criticisms of such revered writers as Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.

The Fun Stuff would seem to be, in part, an attempt to live down the notoriety he gained as a result of his critique of hysterical realism, or at very least to counter some of the misperceptions of his work. Unlike his earlier books of literary criticism, it is offered as a miscellany, without any overt thesis or unifying theme. It includes essays on works of speculative fiction, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), and considerations of an eclectic array of authors, including W.G. Sebald, Lydia Davis, Geoff Dyer and Laszlo Krasznahorkai. There would also seem to be, as a counterweight to some of the aesthetic and stylistic concerns foregrounded in his earlier books, a subtle emphasis on the cultural dimension of Wood’s criticism – most notably in closely argued articles on V.S. Naipaul (memorably encapsulated as a writer with ‘a conservative vision but radical eyesight’), Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2009), which Wood interprets as a postcolonial novel, and in a superb essay that examines George Orwell’s complicated and conflicted attitude to class.

The most striking departure is the title essay on The Who’s original drummer, Keith Moon. Yet the subject is not as incongruous as it first appears, and not only because Wood is compelled to draw literary analogies when discussing Moon’s flamboyantly untamed style. The theme of the essay is freedom, which Wood identifies as the essence of Moon’s musicianship, and freedom is an important but often overlooked theme in his criticism. Much of the traction in Wood’s literary analyses is derived from his resistance to the teleological impositions of fiction, his strong sense of the interplay in writing between potentially limitless creativity and formal constraints. In celebrating the way the drummer’s manic playing derives its unique power from the sense that it is undisciplined and spontaneous, Wood posits an ideal that reflects on his own writing and possibly even his career, on the discipline and formality that the uncommon job of professional literary critic imposes. Moon’s drumming, he writes, ‘is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.’

Wood has been accused of being limited and somewhat old-fashioned for his focus on ‘literary’ concerns – style, metaphor, character, mimesis, and so on. This is true to an extent, though the charge is somewhat unfair (he is a literary critic, after all). But to appreciate the virtues of his method one has only to consider the alternative offered in David Shields’s How Literature Saved My Life. Shields made a splash a few years ago with Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), a collage of quotations that developed an argument against the conventions of fictional writing. The book proposed, in essence, that writers should abandon the contrivances of the traditional novel. Rather than imagining worlds, populating them with unreal people and inventing artificial plots, they should be pursuing the sense of immediacy and connection that can often be found in essays and memoirs. The ‘reality’ venerated in Shield’s argument was, in other words, not so much ontological as expressive.

The combination of criticism and memoir in How Literature Saved My Life is an attempt to put into practice the ideas Shields pieced together in Reality Hunger. It is a hybrid work: an assemblage of anecdotes, observations and fragmented arguments, interspersed with his responses to various art works – books, films, music – that have meant something to him.

I have read enough boring fiction in my time to have some sympathy for Shields’s impatience with the novel in some of its more conventional manifestations, but in practice How Literature Saved My Life proves to be an extended error of judgement. It is one of those acts of retrospective self-justification that only serves to make things worse. Reality Hunger had an evocative contentiousness that derived from the way its unusual form gave its arguments an ambiguous and self-effacing quality. Shields’s astute appropriation of other writers’ words to contextualise and depersonalise his ideas made them seem paradoxical, in that the book’s call for a new fragmentary literature of directness and authenticity was made via indirect and inauthentic means. The personal gloss to the arguments in How Literature Changed My Life – which, not content merely to reiterate Reality Hunger’s ideas, also recycles chunks of its text – deadens this aspect of Shields’s argument, so that the book becomes merely an apologia, and a smug and indulgent one at that.

Throughout Reality Hunger and How Literature Saved My Life, Shields often returns to the idea that all writing, including critical writing, is a form of autobiography. Stated in this bald way, this is true only in the sense that it is a truism. In effect, the claim expands the concept of autobiography to point where it becomes meaningless. Of course, people who write criticism invariably do so at particular moments in time, in particular states of mind, and bring to their task the usual human mess of obsessions, quirks, prejudices and blind spots. Doubtless critics reveal something of themselves in their work. But if this is sufficient to deem criticism a species of autobiography then the term ‘autobiography’ becomes useless as a generic distinction, for the same can be said about everything else that has ever been written.

Shields does not intend his assertion to be understood in a strict or unqualified sense, but there is a casualness to his conflations that not only obscures the intellectual dimension of the critic’s task, but does so in a way that undermines his own argument. The issue that preoccupies him is more or less the same one that Mendelsohn identifies – that is, the apparent conflict between our instinctive longing for authenticity and intimate connection, and our simultaneous awareness of the inauthenticity of the narratives we encounter on a daily basis. This leads Shields to a consideration of an issue that is also important in Wood’s criticism: how a writer might best negotiate the problems of representation and expression created by the formal self-consciousness that is one of the defining characteristics of modern literature. But one of the reasons Shields’s attempt to triangulate the conflicting impulses of our time is ultimately unsatisfying, despite these shared concerns, is that it inverts the intentions of the other critics. Wood and Mendelsohn sometimes use personal anecdotes to illustrate a point or find a way into their subject, but there is never any doubt that they are primarily interested in the work before them; in How Literature Saved My Life, Shields sets out to enlist criticism into his project of self-revelation, co-opting literature (and some other art forms) in order to tell us about himself. In this, the book is less a demonstration or a justification of his ideas, than a way of presenting them as a fait accompli.

The attempt at triangulation collapses most noticeably when Shields attempts a detailed critical exegesis. Here he is, for example, riffing on a Built to Spill song called ‘Randy Described Eternity’, which he calls

a launching pad for the empty space between your body holding your guts (built to spill onto the pavement) and the vast cavern of forever-land eternity. Doug Martsch manipulates the thin, hollow body inside his electric guitar toward both extinction and monument, marking our inability to hold the dual concepts completely in mind. This isn’t thrill-seeking exploration or death taunt. It’s a slow plod toward guitar inexpressible. No benedictions or apologies, just a few shafts (I can always hope) of illumination. Electric guitar solos simultaneously battle against postmodernity and worship it – feedback jamming the alternating currents into sound sculptures of pain and ecstasy. White-boy field hollers: slow it down, add pedal steel guitar, and you have a country song. Keep the guitar/drums setup, add a light show, and you have the rock existential thing. Martsch doesn’t really close in on death, but hey, his guitar’s alive.

One’s initial thought on reading this passage is that Greil Marcus is perfectly capable of parodying himself, thank you very much. It is drivel, certainly. The important thing to note, however, is the precise nature of its drivelling quality. Not only is the writing clumsy and pretentious (‘a slow plod toward guitar inexpressible’); it is also sloppy (the lumpen tautology of ‘forever-land eternity’) and vague to the point of incoherence (the second sentence is nonsensical, and ‘the rock existential thing’ is what, exactly?). The tone, too, is misjudged. The affected casualness of that final ‘but hey’ tries to undercut the escalating preposterousness, which is so overt by that point that even Shields seems to be aware of it, but all it really does is make the author sound like a dork. This is, it transpires, a characteristic weakness of his prose. Shields is the kind of writer who does not realise that there is no way to use the phrase ‘You and me both, pal’ that is not egregious.

The passage fails as an act of critical redescription, but for Shields this is beside the point. It says nothing coherent about the music because it is not really about the music, as such. His interpretation of the song is an allegory of his wider argument in How Literature Saved My Life that the flash of intimate revelation or connection is superior to the kind of understanding that might be gained via applied concentration, that literature should adapt itself to his own short attention span, that art exists to validate his impressions and assuage his existential loneliness. The most important fact about a work thus becomes whether or not it does anything for him, whether it tickles him in just the right spot. When he reads Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) and William T. Vollmann’s Butterfly Stories (1993), for example, the highest praise he can think to give them is that he identifies with the characters. In the case of the luckless Lerner, this total identification is extended to the author, whom Shields claims not to have met but nevertheless anoints his ‘doppelgänger of the next generation’. (The contrast with Wood’s considered essay on Lerner in The Fun Stuff, which pays Leaving the Atocha Station the respect of reading it as a novel, underscores the narcissism of Shields’s bestowing this dubious honour.) One is unsurprised to discover that, in the second half of How Literature Saved My Life, Shields’s critical practice devolves, quite literally, into a list of his favourite books. Critics are sometimes accused, with some justification, of treating their personal preferences as universal principles; it is rare to find a critic who does so explicitly.

Near the end of How Literature Saved My Life, Shields asserts that David Foster Wallace’s accessible essays are superior to his often intense and difficult fictions. Now, just because something is the common wisdom does not necessarily make it wrong. But this is wrong, and the reasons for its wrongness return us to the significance of fiction. Paraphrasing Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses (1922), Shields claims to be a defender of ‘the ineluctable modality of the real’. There are, certainly, many aspects of modern life that we encounter in a disjointed and fragmented way. But reality is nevertheless something we are immersed in, and this is something Wallace tried to convey in his fiction. He suggested that the flood of detail we experience is something from which we must extract meaning, that we live in a realm in which we are compelled to exercise choice and judgement, and that this is often not easy. The thing that Wallace shares with other great novelists – whether nineteenth century realists like Tolstoy and George Eliot, or twentieth century modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf – is a belief in the transformative power of fiction, a belief that art is the enemy of easy yet false affirmations.

Ultimately, it is not guitar solos that ‘simultaneously battle against postmodernity and worship it’; it is Shields himself. And it is a battle he loses. One of the dangers of autobiography is that it exposes the writer to the kind of devastating vivisection of character that Mendelsohn performs of Jonathan Franzen in his essay on the latter’s memoir The Discomfort Zone (2006). The problem with How Literature Saved My Life, however, is not simply that Shields seems altogether too pleased with himself for someone who is claiming to have lived through a dark night of the soul (though far be it for me to cast aspersions on his private experiences); it is that his argument for the primacy of collage, pastiche and fragmentation is, at bottom, by-numbers postmodernism and is consequently vacuous. His argument picks us up only to put us down in exactly the same spot, for it has no intellectual or moral imperatives beyond the validations of the self. In this sense, far from being aesthetically radical, his work is merely symptomatic of the glibbest aspects of the cultural moment, in which attention spans are shattered and audiences seem less interested in art as a transformation of life than they are in a futile search for a self-validating authenticity that ignores art altogether. So, what do you think about me?

Which brings us to the battle-scarred figure of Terry Eagleton. His latest book, How to Read Literature, is a critical primer and a companion volume to his earlier How to Read a Poem (2007). But perhaps its most intriguing feature is its renewed interest of the concept of ‘Literature’ itself. In this, it follows from his previous book, The Event of Literature (2012), in which he draws on one of his key influences, Ludwig Wittgenstein, to argue that a literary work is best understood as a kind of strategic performance.

There would seem to be an interesting reassessment taking place in this late turn in Eagleton’s thinking. The work that transformed him into the academic equivalent of an A-list celebrity, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983; revised 1996) – a hugely successful textbook that introduced a generation of English literature students to the exotic worlds of hermeneutics, semiotics and reader response theory, and the ideas of (among others) Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan – opened with a chapter that surveyed the various attempts that have been made over the years to define the concept of ‘literature’. Eagleton pointed out – rightly, and not without a certain iconoclastic relish – that none of these definitions withstand scrutiny.

How to Read Literature is not exactly a renunciation of this position, but it is notable for the way that its back-to-basics argument, organised around such reassuringly familiar notions as narrative and character, defends the virtues of what can often seem to be an almost quaintly old-fashioned version of the discipline of literary studies. One of its unexpected charms, in fact, is encountering Eagleton – pugnacious Marxist critic, scourge of tweedy Oxbridge dons (an anthology of his jibes at his academic colleagues would be a hefty volume indeed) – as he enters his dotage and discovers that maybe he does have a few things in common with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch after all.

It is one of life’s crueller fates that, assuming we live long enough, we are all destined to become caricatures of ourselves. Features become more pronounced; habits of expression become compulsive tics; dad jokes become granddad jokes. Eagleton has forged a reputation as that rarest of creatures, a literary theorist with a lively and readable prose style. His ability to illustrate abstruse concepts with humorous asides and snappy analogies, as if he were casually explaining the finer points of Adorno and Marx over a few of pints of lager in the student lounge, has long been one of his trademarks. It is doubtless one of the reasons Literary Theory proved so popular with bewildered undergraduates. But in his recent work the professorial patter is starting to get out of hand.

Here he is in The Event of Literature discussing the way that categories can sometimes have overlapping qualities, as part of a larger argument about the generic indeterminacy of the concept of literature:

How are we to distinguish novels from dreams, given that a dream may be awash with imagery, rife with wordplay, replete with grippingly dramatic events, rich in moral insight, furnished with fascinating characters and powered by a compelling storyline? In one sense, this is rather like wondering whether machines that dispense chocolate bars can think. Do they know that you are in frantic search of a Mars Bar? It is obvious that they do not, just as dreams are obviously not novels, even if both happen to share the same formal qualities. People do not wake up from their novels in panic, or dog-ear their dreams so as to remind themselves how far they have got in them. Even so, a written account of such a dream may display all the qualities we associate with literature, while actually being part of a psychoanalyst’s clinical records.

If someone walked up to you at the bus stop, Eagleton remarks in Literary Theory, and murmured in your ear ‘thou still unravished bride of quietness’, the intensified language would indicate that you were in the presence of the literary. If someone shuffled up to you at the bus stop and started muttering about the lack of sentience in vending machines, you would probably assume they were mad. Eagleton is an extraordinarily prolific writer, who has boasted that he has never suffered from writer’s block. The Event of Literature and How to Read Literature give credence to this claim in numerous passages in which his garrulous style takes on an unfiltered quality, as if he were transcribing an extended exercise in free-association. There are moments in The Event of Literature, in particular, when his lifetime’s reading – and it is extensive – seems to be gushing forth like beer from an unstoppered barrel. The names of famous writers and thinkers are dropped with alacrity, examples are plucked from the air, and no concept is deemed so straightforward that it does not warrant a (frequently redundant) clarifying analogy. How to Read Literature, incidentally, contains what may well be the quintessential Eagletonian sentence: ‘The Great Wall of China resembles the concept of heartache in that neither can peel a banana.’

In the chapter on ‘value’ that concludes How to Read Literature, Eagleton devotes more pages than one might reasonably hope to the argument that Chekhov and Dostoevsky are better fiction writers than John Grisham and Jackie Collins. He proposes that this is true in a way that is not merely subjective. ‘There comes a point,’ he observes analogously, ‘at which not recognising that, say, a certain brand of malt whiskey is of world-class quality means not understanding malt whiskey.’ Yet he also hedges his bets, pointing out that such assessments cannot be considered timeless. Even a writer as bad as William McGonagall – a nineteenth century poetaster who is only remembered at all because his verses were so irredeemably dreadful – might one day, in some ‘far-flung future’, be regarded as a major poet.

This each-way bet, so characteristic of Eagleton’s critical practice, is of interest less for the equivocation itself than for its demonstration of the essential pointlessness of arguments framed in such terms. Eagleton is right, of course, when he observes that cultural contexts are mutable and we cannot know where people might find literary value in the distant future. Given that this distant future is unknowable, however, there would seem to be no particular reason why we should care. Criticism draws on the past, but it addresses itself to the present; it is also concerned with the future, in the qualified sense that critical arguments about meaning and value, about which art works are worth our attention and what ideas deserve to be overthrown, are inevitably concerned with the possibilities for creative evolution and renewal. It is a rhetorical activity, but one that requires a specific object of inquiry. Thus, it tends to lose its traction and its credibility when it asserts a frame of reference so broad that it loses touch with its immediate imperatives and becomes merely rhetorical. These are the moments when criticism devolves into the tiresome posturing that amounts to little more than the claim that ‘my perspective is bigger than yours’ (or, alternatively, ‘my sensibility is more refined than yours’ or ‘my dedication to the preservation of our precious cultural heritage is nobler than your frivolous indifference’).

One of the deleterious features of the arguments that erupted in the latter decades of the twentieth century over the rise of literary theory was that they often turned on the issue of whether or not ‘literature’ can be said to exist as a stable category, whether it has the kinds of indentifiable qualities that might allow us to say that it has an inherent value. Eagleton remains firmly in the camp that regards any attempt to define literature in essentialist terms as futile. So do I. But it is telling that How to Read Literature – which is a smart, lucid and often entertaining book – should conclude with its facile debating point about McGonagall. It is almost as if Eagleton, a veteran of the theory wars, feels compelled to make it – driven there, it would seem, not only by the tick-tock of his dialectic, but as a direct consequence of the manner in which the argument is framed.

There is a sense in which the generalised question Eagleton asks himself at the beginning of the chapter – ‘What makes a work of literature good, bad or indifferent?’ – is not one that criticism can readily answer. There are too many things, and they often conflict: what proves good in one work may be bad in another. A truth in art, as Oscar Wilde shrewdly observed, is a proposition whose opposite is also true. The appropriate and fruitful question for the critic is: ‘What makes this particular work of literature good, bad or indifferent?’, for this is a question that does not presume an independent or fixed standard of goodness, but seeks to discover merits and flaws in the process of appreciation and interpretation. Rather than seeing criticism as an argument about value, one could just as well see it as the creation or perhaps the discovery of value – see value as the end-point of critical enquiry rather than the initial point of contention. The key point about McGonagall, which Eagleton does not make explicit, is surely that the only way the hapless poetaster might become a major literary figure would be if a reader were to see something in the work, something that everyone else had missed, and then mount a convincing case for its merits. Its meaningfulness would need to be demonstrated. In other words, it would require someone to perform some literary criticism.

The conclusion strikes an odd note because it seems to go against the grain of the valuable and timely aspects of Eagleton’s argument. He begins How to Read Literature with a transcript of a hypothetical but very plausible-sounding university seminar, in which some students are arguing about Wuthering Heights. What is missing from their discussion, he goes on to observe, is any sense that they are examining a novel, as opposed to gossiping about some hot-headed young people they know named Catherine and Heathcliff. ‘The most common mistake students of literature make,’ he argues, ‘is to go straight for what the poem or novel says, setting aside the way that it says it.’ It is not that the students are necessarily wrong to see the characters as representations of human beings; it is that their interpretation lacks a formal awareness, so that ‘the act of reading is a fairly innocent one.’

What is needed, Eagleton suggests, is a rediscovery of critical method, a reassertion of its priority. One of his stated aims in How to Read Literature is ‘to demolish the myth that analysis is the enemy of enjoyment’, and in this he largely succeeds. One of the book’s set pieces is an amusing close reading of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, in which he discovers all sorts of contentious ideas encoded in its seemingly innocuous text. His broad point is that we should not be naive about the potential for any literary work to harbour complicated meanings. The different frames of reference we can apply to a work will influence the process of interpretation and will allow different meanings to come to light. But the implication is also that it is only though critical analysis that we can arrive at those meanings and, in this sense, criticism remains an essential and ongoing cultural activity. For as Northrop Frye once observed, without criticism art is mute.

Read the ‘Age of idiots’ correspondence.


Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, second edition (Blackwell, 1996).
Terry Eagleton, The Event of Literature (Yale University Press, 2012).
Daniel Mendelsohn, ‘A Critic’s Manifesto,’ The New Yorker (28 August 2012).
David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Hamish Hamilton, 2010).