The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: November, 2014

Methodological Difficulties

When what one is doing is predominantly analysis of literature, the imposition of precise and minutely developed methodologies can be difficult. Nevertheless, it has not escaped the overall turn towards methodologisation of aademic research of recent decades. For sure, there are ore hold-outs in literature than in other fields. One of the world’s most famous literary critics at this moment, Harold Bloom of Yale University insists that “[t]he individual self is the only method”. This recalls an old dictum of T.S. Eliot’s: “There is no method but to be very intelligent”. Should this remain so when the methodological approach has taken over almost every field of knowledge?

If you don’t think, by the way, that the methodological approach has taken over, you should apply for funding for your research. A section of the application will be set aside for delineation of method, and citing Bloom won’t get you off the hook. For the lover of literature, no method is sufficient for the study of a worthwhile work because such a work is, by definition, sui generis. The will to study literature is dependent on a belief in the singularity of the great work.

Therefore, to really dedicate one’s studies to a methodological approach to literary criticism is to deny literature’s worth and remove the possibility of demonstrating such worth. Many people do deny such worth, at least in practice, by not reading literature. Which is fine, but to institutionalize such a denial of worth, a denial of singularity of a work of literature is to devalue the whole project of literature, and hence of literary criticism.

This is not to advocate an uncritical attitude towards literature, simply to contend that such criticism should be the work in itself and as a singularity, not the kind of sweeping theoretical criticism involved when one invokes, say, Foucault, and performs a Foucauldian criticism of a text.

I’m not even suggesting a Foucauldian reading might not be quite enlightening about some texts, but I am suggesting that a preconceived methodology whereby a Foucauldian or other reading is imposed on some set texts is the kind of reading that gets no one anywhere. No literary texts should be deliberately framed by any one theory, as if that somehow contains them.

The problem with theories of texts are that their sophistication is inversely proportional to their practical workability. It’s easy to construct a mechanical methodology of the structuralist variety that can be used on texts and that – so long as the method is kept quite simple, like Barthes’ division of textual units into functions and indices – can be applied uniformly. The only problem is, dividing a text into its functions and indices doesn’t get anywhere near giving us a comprehensive or definitive account of how texts are written, how they are read, how they relate to each other. The vagueness with which the terms of analysis must be defined to made them relevant to all texts prevents this. So a science of the text is partlally impossible, and partially irrelevant.

Of more sophisticated methodologies, such as those of Foucault and Derrida, one should first note one thing: they’re not supposed to be methods of reading texts. They are private and idiosyncratic views of society – patently, certainly in Foucault’s case, related to psychological quirks of the author. They weren’t intended to be generalizable methodologies, and it’s somewhat baffling how suddenly these particular authors became, not just very widely read in academia, but seen as holding the keys to viewing all texts, and off having an insight that is reproducible by the mastery and application of method. This is not the way that older authors of influence, say Nietzsche, were read, by and large. And rightly so, for this approach precludes originality and critical thinking. Ironic, given it’s called critical theory, but the “critical” element is rigidly pre-ordained: the exact type of criticism is dictated by, say, Foucauldianism as an academic construct. One can only make the same tiresome points being made within the academy as a whole.

So, my conclusion is that one should not read authors as sources of methodologies – as telling you exactly how to read. There is no author, or combination of authors (as in Zizek, whose method is that a proper mixture of Marx + Lacan = Theory of Everything) that can define one’s reading, no matter how much one tries to apply it. there is always some remnant of self left , or of that which cannot be defined within a framework or theory. If one tries to frame one’s reading as a theory of some description one will soon find that there is a self always peeking through. Even if one believes that that self is but a social construction. The point is not that there is an essential self, but that the complexities of any individual are so great as to be irreducible to formulae. In that negative sense, there is individuality, at least until science reaches such a pitch of prefection that it can predict and control everything about each person. Until then, the notion of individuality has at least as much explanatory power for me, you and everyone as notions of social construction, and while individuality remains, we read always partly as ourselves, not through method alone. It is this kind of reading that literary academics should practice and defend.

On Trash Again

In the day before yesterday’s post I spoke about the difference between trashy books and literature in terms of the Buzzfeed quiz linked: the first one likes to read but not to have read in certain social groupings; the second one likes to have read but not to read. That is not to say that I believe in an essential difference between kinds of literature. It’s simply that they operate differently as objects of discourse. The trash/ literature distinction is one that, I imagine, few academics would now subscribe to, but it was in my head recently because I had come across a particularly blunt espousal of the distinction in Eugene Eoyang’s The Promise and Premise of Creativity: Why Comparative Literature Matters (Continuum, 2012).

What is the difference between what used to be called “Pulp Fiction” and literature? I submit that “trash” – like a brief interlude – is ephemera, a passing fancy, for the moment, whereas “literature” is perdurable, a lasting memory, and forever. trash is forgettable, literature is not. For all its vagaries, its triumphs and its tragedies, trash makes you ignorant of, and blithe to, life because it offers a factitious excitement. Literature makes you attentive to, and responsive to life – even when you think life is boring. A life without literature is not to live, but to exist, “Trash” merely counterfeits experience: it affords no insight into that experience, and it provides only an alternative reality to the life that one wants to escape. But it affords the reader no understanding with which to return to “real life” and to appreciate its qualities. “Trash” differs from “literature” in that there is no point in rereading “trash”, whereas “literature” warrants more than one reading: no reader can  exhaust its implications in one sitting. Good books, like good people, are worth knowing not for just a moment, but for a lifetime. (20-21)

Eoyang is saying a few things here about the difference: literature is literature because it lasts; literature is literature because it gives insights valuable to real life; literature is literature because it can be reread. Perhaps the first and last are in fact the same point. Initially, it’s unclear if he means “lasts” in terms of “is relevant to successive generations and cultures”, but it appears that he is only talking about last in terms of  the individual reader, who returns to literature again and again, but not to trash. The test, then, is if you reread it. Simple.

Eoyang’s second point is not apparently related to the first, and it’s one he makes in several ways in the course of a few sentences: literature makes you “responsive” to life, “attentive” to life, “affords an insight” to life, gives “understanding with which to return” to life. None of these points really elucidate each other. Are they meant to be synonyms? Or are they independent of each other? All we can really know from the discussion is that literature relates to life in a way that trash does not. So if we take from yesterday’s post that Twilight is the paradigmatic trashy novels of these times, we have to wonder if that means a) it isn’t reread by its readers b) it doesn’t relate to their lives. I don’t know about a), though I’m sure there are empirical studies somewhere, but as far as b) goes, I think it’s false. As one scholar has noted, “Bella’s struggles with self-esteem and her feeling of being an outsider prototypically depict the internal conflicts of the developing adolescent.” There’s plenty more that could be said about identity, gender and so forth in Twilight. That doesn’t mean it’s a good book. Maybe it is “trash”. But trash can’t be identified by not being related to reader’s lives, by not giving them an “understanding” of life – any book that is read closely will do that, because anyone who enjoys a book will relate to it and relate it to them. That’s a given: if it’s popular, it’s because people have related to it, and related it to their lives. Bella in Twilight isn’t just a character sealed in a book out there for the readers, but one who is intimately related to. The article linked above quotes a reader: “[T]he emotions displayed ring true for all women. There is always something we feel insecure about; there are always times we feel out of place…” Without that real-life identification, the book would not have attained its popularity in the first place. That such an identification has taken place is a given when we speak of a literary product of such wide popularity. If we seek to make a value judgement on Twilight, we have to look elsewhere.

Lying about Books, and on Trashy Literature

Interesting little quiz on Buzzfeed here asking participants if they’ve read/ not read/ not read but lied about reading certain books. The most lied about books appear to be The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, The Bible and Moby Dick. Moby Dick, with 11% lieds and 16% reads, is the only book where the amount who’ve pretended to read it comes anywhere close to those who have actually read it. Not surprising, it is one hell of a boring novel/ tract on 19th-century whaling. I don’t lie about reading books much, but in seminars I often have to talk about or lead discussions on books that I may not have read in full – just the relevant parts. If it comes to it and a part of the book I hadn’t read comes up, I would usually admit this rather than try to bluff that I had read it.

But what it means to have read a book is a difficult question. In the Buzzfeed quiz, I answered no for The Bible: I haven’t read The Bible in full, but have read excerpts, and of course I’ve also been exposed to sermons, etc., therefrom. So I do feel like I know The Bible, in some ways. On the other hand, I answered yes to some slightly ambiguous ones, namely Ulysses and Atlas Shrugged. Did I read those books? Yes, but there was a lot of skimming going on at times. They are books I couldn’t discuss with any degree of confidence and I feel that I haven’t read them in the way they should be read, according to the reading conventions that surround them. This is especially true with Ulysses: of course I know it’s the great book of the 20th century (in English, at least), and that you can’t just take it to the beach and flick through it. Reading Ulysses means something among different to the people who read Ulysses, so the status of my reading of the book is questionable.

The other interesting inclusion was Twilight: interesting because there the options were read/not read/ read but lied about NOT reading. 9% had lied about it, i.e. pretended they hadn’t read it. I’ve read Twilight (only the first book in the series). Twilight functions as anti-literature: literature apparently so bad that it has a negative cultural cachet. An even better example of this would be 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve read it (again, only the first book in the series). Sadly they didn’t include it, but I suspect the numbers who lied about NOT reading would be far higher than even Twilight. 50 Shades isn’t just notoriously bad literature, its subject matter is also rather questionable in many circles. Thus I would suggest it is the most lied-about book around at the moment – the anti-Moby Dick in that you pretend you haven’t read it. A related point is that its success was enabled by the existence of Kindle and other ereaders. You don’t have to own a physical copy, and nobody has to see you reading it in public or even find it lying around your living-room. Just as Moby Dick and some of the other books on the list are books to own but not to read, 50 Shades is a book to read, but not to own, if one can help it.

Or, recall the Mark Twain quote: “A classic is a book everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read”. A decent definition of trashy literature might be: “A book that everybody wants to read, but nobody wants to have read”.

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