Saturday, January 01, 2011

Withdrawing from literature

If it is not merely special pleading, the hermeneutics of suspicion—or what Marilynne Robinson more accurately calls the hermeneutics of condescension—can’t apply to just one party to a critical dispute. The suspicious are not more exempt than the suspects. If I must be wary of reading lists that fail to include a sufficient number of women (or blacks or gays or Hispanics or whatnot), then shouldn’t I be wary of lists that include more than enough? If the motives behind the one are impure then the motives behind the other would be no less so, especially since the principle that determines the lists (exclusion or inclusion on the basis of group membership) is ex hypothesi the same in each case.

In a clever comment to my last post, Mel U tries to imagine Dr Johnson’s compiling The Lives of the Poets according to the principle of representative inclusion. But he doesn’t have to imagine it. I was an eyewitness to a similar absurdity (and be sure to read the Amateur Reader’s postscript). Those who insist upon irrelevant standards do not merely humiliate themselves; they contribute to the breakdown of critical discussion, by destroying the good faith upon which it depends.

The whole bother over Dead White Guys’ ascendancy in the “canon” (as if there were any such thing) has been a waste of valuable time and critical resources, because there is more to literary reputation than is dreamed of in race, class, and gender. As J. V. Cunningham taught his classes in the history of criticism many years ago, “It would be indecorous to ascribe a fault to Jane Austen.” Claire Harman expands upon the point in Jane’s Fame, her new study of How Jane Austen Conquered the World. As Barton Swaim put it in his review of Harman’s book:

By the 1890s, editions of Jane Austen’s novels had become widely available. At the turn of the century, according to one anonymous reviewer, “every man of intellectual pretensions either likes to read her books or thinks it necessary to apologize if he does not”—a state of affairs that’s held true ever since. In 2010, it’s possible to think the Brontës preposterous and cloying, to think Thackeray cold and pretentious, and to dislike Dickens’s long-winded moralizing. It’s simply not possible for a literate person to think poorly of Jane Austen.In other words, perhaps the only English novelist above suspicion is a woman. How is that remotely possible, if the “canon” is an exclusive club of Dead White Guys?

The demand that writers should be read as representatives of “dominant” or “minority” viewpoints is not an exciting new youthful departure in literary criticism. It is a withdrawal from literary criticism. The time is long past to retire the fatuous and misleading categories of race, class, and gender.


PMH said...

It is possible if we deny what is obvious to anyone not holding an untenable position in the controversy: this dispute really has nothing to do with literature, not even with privilege or disadvantage, but with power--the power to advance a set of principles as a way of advancing oneself.

This is the real "end" of literary culture because literary culture--ta da!--is no longer about literature.

If theory were important, if the politics behind the theory were important, English would not be losing ground with the rest of the humanities.

The students know this and must be amused at the spectacle of English departments and professors cutting their own throats.

Never has a discipline been so eager to advance its own irrelevance.

A.J. said...

Could we please stop being intellectually dishonest about the use of the term inclusion? Those who argue for a new canon/new lists or who criticize Dead White Guys do not really care about inclusion. They sneer at those who think Dan Brown is a great writer. Those who claim that literature can be defined by anyone don't really mean what they say. Not only do they condemn popular literature, they actually hate the minorities whose literature they have appropriated in their project of "inclusion."

Lane Eliezer said...

You realize that if the canon is inane, then so are your lists? I really don't see how those are altogether different.

Stop whining for being criticized--did it occur to you yet that you might be wrong?

D. G. Myers said...

You realize that if the canon is inane, then so are your lists?

Gosh, no. I never realized that.

Shelley said...

Loved your "gosh"!

Is there a synonym for hermeneutics? I would prefer an earthier(?)word, because for some reason (to lower the tone of these comments even further), the word always makes me think of Herman Munster....

D. G. Myers said...

A “synonym for hermeneutics”? Um, interpretive theory? Interpretology? “Hermeneutics of suspicion” is a phrase belonging to Paul Ricoeur. I don’t like it much either. But it has a useful history.