Friday, February 16, 2007

Lit Critters

Mike Beverluis links to an article by Sarah Vine about a book about how to talk about books you haven’t read.

Well, zut alors! A distinguished French literary professor has become a surprise bestselling author by writing a book explaining how to wax intellectual about tomes that you have never actually read.

...Obviously I haven’t read Mr Baynard’s book; but it is in the spirit of his oeuvre that I shall proceed to write about it anyway. The first thing to say about Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus ( How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read) is what a wonderfully French concept this is. The French take great pride in their intellectual patrimony, considering themselves to be pretty much the inventors of most forms of high art, something that irritates other nations, especially the Italians, a great deal.

Not just the French. Orrin Judd, for example, takes great pride in writing reviews of books he hasn’t read.

In fact, Orrin personifies an interesting trend. The blogospheric zeitgeist, an unprecedented democratisation of intellectual life, of commentary and punditry, has buried the phenomenon of Literary Criticism (and also what used sometimes to be called ‘Lit & Soc’) .

Lit Crit was dominant in the pre-internet cultural media of magazines and newspaper arts sections. Now it can only be spotted in academia. Literature itself hasn’t been buried of course, far from it. Instead, what we have is the overwhelming proliferation of the individual book review. The 100-word Amazon summary announcing either that this floated my boat or it didn’t, and that for people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like. There’s no New Historicism, Post-Feminism or Decontructionism on Amazon. A professor could contribute an epic post-structuralist critique on The Da Vinci Code, but finally all that matters is the number of stars she awards it, and her vote is worth no more than the 12 year old whose review consists of “Well kewl”.

The 21st century has grown out of Lit Crit. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I went to study English literature at university because I thought I would get to read good books and write down what I thought they were about. Imagine my horror when it turned out I actually had to read rubbish books about what somebody thought about what somebody thought about what somebody had said about a good book. I ditched English at the first opportunity, a decision for which I am eternally grateful because it has allowed me to continue enjoying good books.

But despite the decline of Lit Crit, one poisonous influence remains. Vine spoils her piece with this old chestnut:

Bayard himself confesses to never having finished Ulysses, by James Joyce. Personally, I have a theory that there is a very good chance that Joyce himself didn’t even finish writing the book, since I have never actually met anyone who has read the thing cover to cover.

It is one of those self-perpetuating cultural myths that Ulysses is impossible to read. But objectively, Ulysses really is not a difficult book. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a difficult book to understand. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a difficult book to read.

The reason people think Ulysses is a difficult book is that the Lit Critters have put it atop such a towering pedestal of Lit Crit bullsh*t that readers come to it bowed and awed, as if it came on tablets of stone. They think they should translate each line, like with Chaucer, and then scour it for the deep, profound meaning which remains accessible only to Oxford dons and child geniuses, like with Kant.

But Ulysses is really just a funny book about ordinary people, written by a man in love with language. This love is very Irish: the crunch and the zip and the twang of words. It is quite long but not exceptionally so, with a couple of bizarre chapters (Proteus, Oxen of the Sun) through which it is perfectly legitimate to whizz, getting the gist without trying to understand every line, as you would with obscure poetry. Once you treat Ulysses as the outrageous, ribald, piss-taking comedy it is, instead of being awed by its reputation for profundity, it is a hoot.

The sanctification of Ulysses is just one of the Lit Critters’ crimes. They bash all the joy out of Shakespeare too – dredging it for ‘themes’ until all the life is drained.

But Beckett is the absolute worst one. Nothing is surer to kill comedy than po-faced over-analysis. Beckett is plain funny and that’s that. If you get comedy of the absurd, if you get Monty Python, you get Beckett. The Beckett-killing university Lit Critters are apparently worst in America, where teachers ruin Waiting for Godot by making college kids study its existential meaning. Positively evil. Everybody knows that reading books at school prevents you from enjoying them as adults. Imagine if you had to write A-level essays about the 'themes' of Monty Python and The Holy Grail.

I recently heard an Irish actress saying that whereas American audiences sit through Happy Days in hushed awe and earnest reverence, Irish and British audiences just laugh. And not that awful self-conscious aren’t-I-clever-I-understand-this Theatre Titter: proper belly-laughs.


Duck said...

American audiences sit through Happy Days in hushed awe and earnest reverence

Say what? You have to be careful who you allow to define American manners for you, because you're liable to pick someone who gets it terribly wrong. I can't imagine how this Irish actress got such a silly idea. If the audience wasn't laughing it wasn't out of awe and reverence, but because the show wasn't funny. Happy Days just didn't have that many side-splitting scenes.

Brit said...

Don't shoot the messenger. I'm only repeating what she said on Start the Week. It was Fiona Shaw.

Susan's Husband said...

I agree with your larger point that excessive reverence and analysis kills a lot of potential joy from the classics. BUT

Ulysses really is not a difficult book

The depends on what you mean by "difficult". I have been exposed to many excerpts from the book and have yet to see one that didn't make my brain hurt from being (IMHO) badly written, never mind any deeper themes or reverence. Maybe that's a selection effect, but I'd rather read The Brothers Karamazov again.

Now Shakespeare, that's some good stuff, although I don't care much for reading it. I think few people would get why Monty Python is funny from just reading scripts of the shows either.

I haven't read any Beckett, as far as I know.

monix said...

Enjoyed the post. I'm happy to be in agreement with you again!

Mike Beversluis said...

Brit, I haven't read your post, but so far so good.

It was a long time ago that I tried to read them, so I always end up mixing Finnegan's Wake and Ulysses. Also, Gravity's Rainbow. Which is probably detrimental to Ulysses.

Peter Burnet said...

You guys are confusing the questions of whether Ulysses is readable and whether it is worth reading.

Mike Beversluis said...

New idea for a blurb: "Way easier to read than Critique of Pure Reason."

Brit said...


Well, you can only decide that after you've read it.

The contrast is Finnegan's Wake, which really is unreadable.

Peter Burnet said...


C'mon, give me a break. You think Mike is confused about all this? I've always thought Critique of Pure Reason was an outrageous, ribald, piss-taking comedy.

Harry Eagar said...

When I was at Cow College, taking (though not studying) Eng. Lit., the one serious student in my year asked me to drive him to Chapel Hill so he could purchase a book that explained Ulysses, for a class he was taking.

I went along for the ride, so to speak.

The explanation was 800 pages long, which I believe is about the same length as Ulysses.

But that's not my favorite example of Lit. Crit.

In my own, unambitious senior paper, I wrote about Hemingway's women. There was not, then, a great deal of scholarship on this subject (feminism hadn't yet been invented). But I did find about half a dozen books or articles that had somewhat to say about it.

One had been written in the Sudan during World War II by a would-be academic who had had his studies interrupted. He did not have access to any of Hemingway's books in the Sudan, so he wrote his critique from memory.

Then, when he got it published somehow, he did not bother to go back and correct his quotations from memory, nor his misremembrances of various episodes in the book.

This happened 30 years or more before the famous spoof in Social Text.


And how do you know Orrin doesn't read the books he reviews?

Brit said...

He has reviews of Joyce and Proust where he openly admits it.