Saturday, April 05, 2008

the death of the reader

It's good to see the attention drawn by the Blogging the Classics debate at the beginning of the week. A civil war in literary criticism has been averted.

In a recent review of Rónán McDonald's The Death of the Critic, one of the panellists expressed sympathy for the book's general complaint about the dearth of "expert evaluative critics" from academia: "In the English departments of British universities" writes John Mullan, "the professors have been strenuously denying the value of literature" and have thus waived their critical authority. If the lack is true, it is also true of novelists. There are very few writers of fiction who are also noted critics. As the Guardian Book Blog might ask: "Where are our Henry Jameses?".

Perhaps novelists are content to rest on the alibi of the innocence and purity of creativity even if, as seems incontrovertible to many of us, it has long lapsed. And for sure, there are plenty of readers for them who seek potato-headed delight to still the shimmering of the philosophical horizon. Witness another Blogging the Classics panellist sneering at one of the last century's great critics despite having not heard of him before let alone read a word. I have to admit this apparently harmless post has troubled me ever since I had the misfortune to read it (there is no RSS feed unsubscribe for pained memory); its disingenuous self-deprecation and withering contempt for another's "erudite literary argument" when only brief off-hand comments are quoted. So perhaps the reason for the critical dearth is more to do with the perceived unwillingness of "the market" to engage with anything other than cheerful chat about Victoriana and little Englander pre-Modernist nostalgia. What are publishers and newspapers supposed to do in this climate?

For what it's worth, below is a selection compiled from memory of critical and philosophical books about literature that I've enjoyed in recent years - many written by professors - some of which just might not have been mentioned in print thanks to that blessed editorial filter. Be warned though, they may contain erudite literary argument.

Michael Wood - The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction
Eduardo Cadava - Words of Light
Malcolm Bowie - Proust among the stars
Stanley Corngold - Kafka: The Necessity of Form (I'm reading Lambent Traces at the moment)
Teodolina Barolini - The Undivine Comedy: Detheogolizing Dante
John Freccero - Dante: The Poetics of Conversion
Lacoue-Labarthe - Poetry as experience
Timothy Clark - The Theory of Inspiration and Martin Heidegger
Christopher Ricks - Beckett's Dying Words
William Large & Ullrich Haase - Maurice Blanchot

I might add more as memory whirrs on. It should go without saying that I include Blanchot's non-fiction and Josipovici's On Trust and The Singer on the Shore, the latter currently being enjoyed at BookWorld. But now I have to ask if you have any such recommendations. Feedback is one of the advantages the blogosphere has over other forms. Apparently :)


  1. hi there! to note that Clark may read Heidegger clearly, but his text is without the gestures of this new fold. the figure (Lacoue-labarthe) is driven so analytic. I couldn't hear Heidegger. I still hold Pöggeler's book to be the best introduction. yet it is tooo hard. so timothy clark is 'nice' start.

    in case of Blanchot, as an amateur reader, I wonder what you think of Simon Critchley's and Leslie Hill's readings. (latter I found more true hearted)

    some downloads:

    poetry as experience

    Clark's Heidegger

  2. Thanks for the linkies.

    What's this new fold of which you speak?

    As for the two philosophers' books on Blanchot, neither really appeals to me, though Hill's essays are always worth reading. A more literary reading of Blanchot is what I'm looking for, which I why I recommended Will Large's book as it's a straightforward and memorable intro for English readers mired in English commonsense reading habits.

  3. book tells the odyssey with a distance. I think for start it's ok, but I would prefer a book in the face of which reader may feel Anxiety(Angst).

    what is left out
    1st Heidegger's hermeneutic circle: how all significations & meanings are revealed, and how this new reading talks of the closure of metaphysics

    2nd Heidegger [wonderfully] describes in "introduction to phenomenological research" how 'the question' turned towards consciousness from being (at centre Husserl's works). this is crucial for establishing proximity with reader

    3rd how kant is read

    4th 'difference' is articulated in Heidegger: it will be helpful for reader that how Heidegger, still, touchs metaphysics and how he -by tracing hermenutic circle- opens up a new fold (which Derrida opened up)

    (probably I demand too much, even above points are too big for a guidebook)

  4. Thanks again. It should be said that Clark's Heidegger book was written - as was the Blanchot - for a "literary studies" series by Routledge.

    Also, to my cost I find Derrida's translated prose more or less unreadable. But, going back, telling the odyssey from a distance is an issue, for sure. Great phrase.

  5. Anonymous10:12 am

    I am not qualified to comment on this particular issue, but you identify a practice called "quote mining" which is in very common use, particularly but not only on the Internet as a way to make your point without having to do any analysis or synthesis of the article or topic on which you comment.
    One very common usage is by the "intelligent design" fraternity, who quote-mine the scientific literature (without understanding it or trying to engage with it) and provide these quotes as "evidence for a creator" and so on.
    There are many other examples but as I don't want to get into arguments I won't provide them here! But the social science literature, eg analyses of various effects of scientific research on society, is riddled with books that in themselves are one giant quote-mine by people who seem to have no interest in understanding the science about which they pronounce.
    It is frustrating when one reads such a comment about a topic in which one knows a bit. I feel similar irritation if I should chance upon a news item or TV programme about a topic I know about -- which is why I do not view such programmes on TV

  6. Those familiar, and unfamiliar, with the great George Steiner,may wish to watch this interview: part one more biographical (and therefore of less interest to some!) than part two.

  7. Thanks Nigel. Terrific interview.

  8. Anonymous9:23 am

    Great list, Steve, thanks for it. I know all those books well save for Cadava's (which I'll buy today).

    Excellent interview too: thanks Nigel.

    I'm little read with regard to George Steiner -- I've read just two or three of his books -- but I'd recommend his most recent (My Unwritten Books) wholeheartedly. It started me on my own Steiner journey, and I'm sure would charm others equally ...

  9. Just repeating a post regarding the Blogging the Classics over at RSB.

    It might have been amusing in the radio discussion to have drawn attention to a certain book called The Intellectuals & the Masses, and accusations of elitism therein, and the irony of such an author's presumed position regarding having to prove one's credentials within the hierarchies of a system so as to have an opinion of validity. It's essentially the master-slave dynamic, where the slaves are told to know their status.
    Though naturally there is no irony as Carey's intent with I & the M was utterly transparent in the first place. Treat people as slaves & pretend this is showing them respect. Dostoevsky's Legend of the Grand Inquisitor dynamic.

  10. Anonymous4:22 pm

    From my experience, 'cheerful chat' is exactly what is happening within undergraduate classes today, for the most part at least. Gets annoying, mainly because its often so disarming, the earnestness.

    Thanks for the list.

  11. Stephen, I NEVER sneer and I take issue with your use of the word. I think the following para demonstrates that I was owning up to my own ignorance whilst wanting to offer my own thoughts on what I had read.
    "Tricky if not risky to pin down this hint of a gist of an event that has thrown up such a controversial statement and I hadn't been there to hear it in the context of what went before or after. Every chance I'd bark up the wrong tree and miss the point completely and who do I think I am anyway, George Steiner's probably a god."
    Clearly as you point out I did bark up the wrong tree and out here in dgr scribbles land we may be out of our depth and therefore we say so, but it shouldn't prevent those of us who wish to from making observations and of course those of you who know from telling us we're being disingenous and withering, so thank you for that.

  12. Anonymous11:36 pm

    dovegreyreader, I tend to agree with Steve's analysis. The issue for me isn't your self-confessed "ignorance" re. Steiner (how many bloggers dare to admit as much these days?), but, rather, that, rallying to your own bugle call of "Who dares, wins", you take pains to recommend plenty of literature you feel isn't "tired", without actually establishing what Steiner meant by "tired." I feel that your conclusion: "Maybe I've over-simplified and misinterpreted George Steiner's erudite literary argument but his world is all too depressing to contemplate really" isn't necessarily unjust, but I would prefer to believe you understood and disregarded Steiner's arguments as "depressing", rather than that the apparent cynicism of his judgments suficiently disillusioned you that you no longer cared to seek out his real purpose (if there were one). I do think that's really the main issue at stake.

  13. Actually, Stephen, whether or not you, or I, agree with Dovegreyreader, I can't see the necessity for knowing the work, reputation, or biography of a quotation's source before responding to the quotation; the stakes are quite low, in any case; Dovegreyreader's response is not liable to the same burden of proof that GS's cited remarks are, is it?

    Personally speaking, I can defer to what towers in GS while believing he's uttered clangers before; eg, his write-off of the German language for its complicity in *all of that* (though let me make it clear that I *hate* speaking German; larf) ...which dovetails with his lionization of "American English" as the language of "hope" or somesuch nonsense. Both are forgiveable lapses in a man of his age and experiences.

    If the Steiner quotation in the GU required qualification before it could be safely accepted or reviled by an audience, then the burden was on the reviewer citing it to A) provide those qualifications or B) not cite it. DGR is responding to something she read which was presented (right or not) as ready for consumption. Fair enough?

    What's problematic in Steiner's cited remark and (I think) your response to DGR's response is the too-tacit qualification that makes Steiner's point workable: he's not *really* being as sweeping in these pronouncements as would seem. The tacit qualifier is, of course: "amongst jaded mandarins like us".

    He can't *really* be saying that narrative has lost its ability to thrill/move/illuminate/ennoble the (eg) as-yet-unborn reader, can he? For that would be as daft as claiming there are no more taboos.

    DGR makes her position clear: for *her* it's not the case that narrative is tired. Impossible to argue with that...

    ...whether or not you could bring yourself to even *look* at the covers of any of the books DGR subsequently champions in her post. And I don't mean to imply a hierarchy here. Argue as long and hard as you care to (and I *promise* you I'm one of the most heinously Formalist Art Snobs going), it's all subjective, mate.

    You crossed, briefly, into an entirely different "books" culture and found the experience not to your liking. How is that DGR's fault?

    For the record: I think GS's latest is a little gem. Written by a human. Some of it I sort of squint at.

  14. Hi there, Steve. I would definitely recommend any of Geoffrey Hill's essays. And Empson (especially The Structure of Complex Words).

  15. Anonymous5:16 am

    Please add Milan Kundera's "The Curtain" to your list... with special mention of "Die Weltliteratur," an essay I'd wish everyone who reads, writes and things about literature to have my memory.



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