Thu, Aug 01, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: How to Read Literature

By Steven Poole  /  The Guardian, London

It is only when Eagleton wields his own positive criteria that things go awry: They seem to spring, unargued-for, from the same Romantic-influenced, individualist modernity about which he is elsewhere so sardonic. One signal virtue, it suddenly turns out, is spontaneity. Eagleton berates a passage from John Updike because “There is nothing spontaneous about it,” and laments of an extract from William Faulkner that it has “an air of spontaneity about it which is almost entirely fabricated.”

One wonders how Eagleton imagines that any paragraph composed by a serious writer could show a spontaneity that was unfabricated. Fabrication is the name of the game. All airs of spontaneity, as well as any other literary effects, have to be carefully fabricated by their authors. Truly “spontaneous” writing must be that to which the author has given no thought at all, and so which is certain to be rubbish: the kind of stuff, perhaps, that writing gurus instruct their students to perpetrate for 10 minutes first thing in the morning to clear the mental pipes, but which is hardly meant for public consumption. All writing is a machine for the delivery of a time-delayed and space-shifted performance. The more spontaneous the machine’s assembly, the less reliable its functioning. One should trust “spontaneous” writing just as much as a spontaneously knocked-together motorcycle.

Things don’t improve much when Eagleton, discussing Evelyn Waugh, praises the “honesty” of his prose. What does this mean, in the context of people who are making things up? And one might very well share Eagleton’s judgment that Waugh is better than John Updike (as I do) without for a moment supposing (as Eagleton seems to imply) that Waugh is somehow any less concerned with choosing just the right words and arranging them in just the right order.

A literary-criticism virgin would be well served by this book’s account of what good criticism is not, and perhaps inspired by many of its tartly illuminating apercus on canonical dead authors. It would be a shame, though, if readers felt subsequently encouraged to judge writing according to its perceived qualities of “honesty” and “spontaneity.” Yet some such quibbles are probably inevitable with any general positive account of the virtues of literature. All good writing is fundamentally mysterious, even though its plumbing lies in plain view. Flann O’Brien, to the opening of whose The Third Policeman Eagleton devotes some admiring sentences, can make you burst out laughing with the right word in the right place, but it’s difficult to explain exactly why. Perhaps the most you can do is to point it out and invite others to laugh with you.

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