(Alert) Reader Response Criticism!

Dear readers,

As you know, Wednesdays are sometimes the days we read your mail. Bleary-eyed, holding a key with a spongy plastic cow keychain, we stumble outside and pull open the creaky mailbox. I have no idea why we do this, since obviously people respond via email and Facebook, but it’s something about the importance of ritual.

Today’s mail comes from mon semblable, mon frere BG, who writes in response to my post on Louis Menand (on TS Eliot):

Well, I’d say [Louis Menand’s] claims are true in the broad sense insofar as while individuals may not consciously think that, the belief that English professors have a specialized knowledge about how to read literature – which they then pass on to students – is a fundamental assumption of the profession. Without it, why take or offer a course in literature?

It’s a good point. Most of us are still haunted by that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon announces that you can get the same education for $2 in library overdue fees that you could get at MIT.

This seems self-evidently not true of math and the hard sciences, and just as self-evidently true of the humanities. “Techie” books aren’t always something you can read on your own; if you do a problem set and get a question wrong, who is going to explain where you slipped up? “Fuzzy” books, on the other hand, are generally accessible to literate people. You might not have Nabokov’s vocabulary when you pick up Lolita, but you learn a lot from context. You might not have a sense of the book’s critical reception, but you still have the right to interpret it for yourself. Certainly, there are books like Finnegans Wake or Of Grammatology that are pretty tough to read right off the shelf, but in all honesty there the blame lies as much with the book as with the reader. Fitzgerald is easy to read and just as “great.”

So back to BG’s good question: Why teach or offer a course in literature? Doesn’t doing so imply some kind of special expertise about how to read books, passed along from teachers to students?

Yes. English professors are pretty good at reading books. Nonetheless, this “special expertise” does not mean that ordinary people “don’t get” literature, which is what Menand thinks English professors believe. Nor does it exclude the possibility of people becoming critics on their own time.

The reality is that unless you are employed as a teacher and critic of literature, you probably don’t have the time you need to learn, without anyone’s help, how to be a good interpreter of challenging books. It’s not that New Criticism or deconstruction or narratology are necessarily the best ways of reading books, but if you want to develop a methodology of reading, it helps to read up on the methodologies that are out there. You don’t have to have read Huysmans to get meaning out of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but if you do read Huysmans, it casts a new light on Wilde’s much-indebted book. English teachers are basically people who have spent more time than is common — on and off of work — reading literature. They have a greater sense of the contexts of works, which is slow going to acquire. (For example, laypeople have literally no idea that Lolita was meant as a parable about life in modern Tehran.)

Beyond that, one needs a sense that literature must be understood on its own terms. Let’s not fall into glamorizing the vox populi here; lots of people respond to art in a defiantly subjective way, and that’s alright, but it’s not the same thing as studying art. My reaction to seeing a blackbird (way #6 of 13) does not make me an ornithologist*.

I think of the classroom as a place where people have the opportunity to read and discuss books objectively. If there was world enough and time…but there isn’t. The sad fact is that most of us acquire those $2 in overdue fines for the same reason we keep Redbox movies too long: not because of everything we’ve read, but because of everything we haven’t.


*Nor does writing “bird by bird.”