Book review: How to Read Literature

By Steven Poole  /  The Guardian, London

Thu, Aug 01, 2013 - Page 11

Terry Eagleton was once the bad boy of English studies. His textbook Literary Theory introduced generations of students to what their tutors feared was the mind-rotting influence of the continent. But his new book is a more traditional affair. Aimed at “readers and students,” it is a personable stroll through a predictable canon: Charlotte Bronte, Forster, Keats, Milton, Hardy et al. — plus JK Rowling, perhaps thrown in so as not to appear snobbish. The avuncular prof cautions his audience not to read in certain ways, and aims to show, through close reading of selected passages of poetry and prose, how to appreciate the best of what’s been thought and said.

As is generally the case with the later Eagleton, the book is often funny, and it is trying hard to be funny slightly more often than that. The best jokes are also critical observations, e.g. that Shakespeare’s Othello “is a man who seems curiously aware that he is speaking Shakespearean blank verse.” Running throughout is a critique of modernity: Eagleton attributes most faulty assumptions about what literature should do and how we should read it — for example, “the doctrine of literature as self-expression,” which he dismantles with delicious sarcasm.”

Eagleton has many interesting things to say about Conrad, Milton and so on, in a series of thematic chapters that focus in turn on “Openings,” “Character,” “Narrative,” “Interpretation” and “Value.” There are some longueurs, as when he devotes four pages to an elaborate reading of the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep in order to show why such an interpretation is under-justified by the text, but overall it’s an amiable affair. Charming, too, to find that Eagleton is a kind of happy existentialist who finds support for such an attitude in modernist (and proto-postmodernist) literature. “Works of fiction like Tristram Shandy, Heart of Darkness, Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway,” he remarks with cheering optimism, “can serve to free us from seeing human life as goal-driven, logically unfolding and rigorously coherent. As such, they can help us to enjoy it more.”

The book’s knottiest chapter is the last, on “Value,” in which Eagleton considers various criteria for what literary value might be and gleefully demolishes them all. Must good literature be groundbreakingly original? In that case, Eagleton points out, “we would be forced to deny the value of a great many literary works, from ancient pastoral and medieval mystery plays to sonnets and folk ballads.” Should literature speak to our everyday concerns? Balls to that: “If we are inspired only by literature that reflects our own interests, all reading becomes a form of narcissism. The point of turning to Rabelais or Aristophanes is as much to get outside our own heads as to delve more deeply into them.”

Nor, Eagleton demonstrates incisively, can we demand profundity (“There can be a superb art of the surface”) or coherence (“many an effective postmodern or avant-garde work is centerless and eclectic”), or richness of narrative (see Waiting for Godot). Nonetheless, he insists, there are criteria for determining literary value. The criteria are “public,” and embedded in the set of “social practices” known as “literary criticism.” It is thanks to the existence of such criteria that he is confident in pronouncing: “Dostoevsky is better than [John] Grisham in the sense that Tiger Woods is a better golfer than Lady Gaga.”

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.