May 21, 2008

Literary Impressions: Reading Well

About a week ago, I joined friends in New Haven for a Friday night meal. Their daughter was in town, back from college, and over the course of dinner conversation, I asked if she had any professors who were distinctive, who stood out from the others. She immediately described two faculty who were notable for the passion of their presentations and the degree to which they immersed themselves in their subjects. An English major now, just as I had been when I attended the University of Chicago twenty years earlier, she asked after 30 minutes into her own fairly passionate disquisition why I inquired. I admitted that I wanted compare her experience with my own and find the link between what these special professors had accomplished for her and what mine had done for me.

Actually, I will admit that I had one particular professor in mind, a professor whose own presentations liberated me as a reader. That professor was William Veeder, who has apparently produced enough of an impact as a teacher (and secondarily, in my humble opinion, as a scholar) to receive a Wikipedia article. The article, which outlines his theories of literary study, is largely a tribute. I'm especially tickled by the quotes, or "Veederisms," as they're lovingly described.

While some of what appears in that article on Veeder's approach to literature remains familiar from my classes with him, what I recall most is what fails to show up. It centers around the idea he espoused that a literary work's meaning (or more broadly any text's meaning) is the result of the intersection of the words produced by an author and the response of the reader to that concatenation of words. This intersubjective view of literary study is not uncommon and is an eminently practical understanding of how writers, texts, and readers relate to one another in the reading experience. The Wikipedia article certainly captures that idea by underscoring Veeder's pragmatic approach--in the William Jamesian sense--to how we respond to literature. The liberating aspect of that approach, much underplayed by the article and pretty important when you're a mere whipper-snapper of a college student seriously considering a major in English, was his de-emphasis of the authority of the author.

Mind you, in his class, he did not take much stock in some Barthesian "death-of-the-author" view of the matter. Veeder believed in authors and their authority, but it was an authority much limited. To make this point he told a wonderful story that, even if apocryphal, rings true in the only way these things matter. At some point in his education, Veeder had taken a course with mid-twentieth century literary scholar Leo Spitzer. (This is where the apocryphal part comes in--Veeder attended the University of Notre Dame; Spitzer taught nearly all of his life in the United States at Johns Hopkins University. Where they crossed paths remains a mystery to me.) Apparently Spitzer had been teaching Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, and the classroom conversation had become both incisive and lively. He then distributed criticism by an apparent contemporary of Lawrence's and asked for the students' feedback. They all agreed that the critic had badly misfired in his interpretation of the novel. Spitzer then revealed that the critic was...Lawrence himself. Not a single mind was changed: the class responded--rightly in Veeder's view--that Lawrence had simply failed to understand what he had achieved. As slippery as this slope seemed, Veeder held firmly to the view that literature remains first and foremost a literary experience, and that experience takes at least two to tango--a reader and a text.

It was the follow-up question to this tale and his answer that sealed the deal for me. One of my classmates asked if an author's interpretation has authority in our interpretation of a text. Veeder's response was artful: authors do not have the kind of authority that we (and sometimes authors) imagine. Once the text is born, it is, like a child, sent out into the world to fend for itself; the author may have brought the work to term but her relationship to it thereafter changes forever as she becomes just another reader.

OK, well maybe not just any other reader. Veeder's term of choice was a "privileged" reader, but a reader nonetheless. Privileged here means the author has a special relationship to the text--in the D.H. Lawrence case, as its progenitor. But need I add that if the author's work were about, say, his mother, such as Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors, the author's mother would also be something of a privileged reader, one with her own rather unique relationship to the text. But even this "privileged" relationship is problematized by the fact that we all have unique relationships to texts, not only because we are unique in relation to one another but because we are unique even to ourselves over time--at 43, I'm just not the same person reading Heart of Darkness as I was when I struggled with it at 18.

The net effect of Veeder's insight was to empower me as a reader by depriving the author of a kind of mystical authority that he or she simply did not have. True, the author is bound to be frustrated by perceived misreadings of his or her work--think Salman Rushdie, certain Muslim readers, and his Satanic Verses--but there is no getting around the reality of the situation. Readers will make what they will of what they read, which is why though it be a classic I find the Scarlet Letter a dreadful bore while some neighbor of mine no doubt considers it a thrillingly tragic romance. Let me hastily add that this does not make all readings equal in value or cogency. But that is an entirely different issue. The first step in reading well that Veeder taught was not about being right but about being bold. And in order to be bold, a painfully obsequious deference to the author is the first thing to go out the window. It's a mantra by which I still read.

May 2, 2008

Literary Impressions: Why We Should Teach Literary Criticism

Earlier, I had written about the fruitlessness of teaching students how to write literary criticism. And in the two weeks since writing that post, I haven't changed my mind. But not teaching students how to write literary criticism is not the same as refusing to teach them how to do literary criticism.

In fact, when it comes to the art of unraveling a literary work--of dissecting it, if you will--I do believe we should instruct students in this activity. I'm just not convinced this is the most effective way of teaching students how to write better, and too often beginning literature courses are treated as an extension of one's training in academic writing. But, in my view, the experience of writing literary criticism comes too early in the trajectory of a student's college career. Unless the inability to write has burdened them with freshmen remedial composition courses--something of a norm among American college students--writing literary criticism within the first two years of study is too soon to engage in the art of analyzing one of our most complex human artefacts.

If you'll indulge a small digression for context, I've always been amused by the distinction in our culture between the "hard" and "soft" sciences. In academia, hard sciences like physics and chemistry have long been seen as more difficult, more challenging than the "soft" sciences of psychology and sociology. Just look at the adjectives! But this bias is built on a strange insecurity that belies the reality of the situation. The soft sciences are soft not because they're easier but because they're the more complex of the two. And why? Because they have humanity as the object of their analysis, and human beings by nature lie--if not to the scientists who observe them then to themselves. Our capacity for deception and delusion inevitably muddy the stream of reproducible results and controllable variables upon which "good" science depends. Pity the poor psychologist rather than the physicist, for grasping human behavior is enough to give even the keenest of minds a migraine. And narrative is, if anything, a demonstration of this ontological aspect of human nature. It is the instability and unknowability of intentions and responses, causes and effects, writ large. If human beings instantiate in every living moment the Heisenberg principle, stories are little more than extensions of that instantiation. And yet we're sending in students to write coherently about that?

Perhaps I make mountains of molehills here, but sometime I must wonder if compelling nineteen-year-olds to intelligibly and (one hopes) intelligently interrogate literature exemplifies the very irrationality they're asked to expound on. It difficult enough to discern, say, a character's ostensible motivation in a work of fiction; to ask students to peer further over the literary horizon and comment on the unstable source of that representation, which may range from the author's unconscious predilections to the ultimately unknowable historical milieu of the work, seems sheer madness. Here we blithely walk students into literature's hall of mirrors and ask them to look from reflection to reflection in a cascade of narrative instability, uncertainty and ambiguity--which, if you can believe it, is a good thing in a literary work--and expect them to walk out presumably loving the work and the craft of writing literary criticism.

Inevitably we are disappointed. They leave frustrated, and the work is more pedestrian than not. At best, we hope for diamonds of insight in the rough. Some, of course, stick it out, having enjoyed the ride despite the results. In these are our first English majors presumaby born. But was the ride worth it?

In the end, frustrations aside, I believe it was. Uncertainty and ambiguity in a work of literature is a good thing. I'm with the New Critics on that point. But try getting your typical first-year college student to accept that. Not so easy.

Not so easy because eventually they will have to accept the fact that life as lived is rife with uncertainty, and making it through depends on learning how to navigate its shoals. Literature of any real quality demands the abeyance of the Manichaean reality we'd all otherwise prefer. And engaging students in the act (and if they're further interested, the art) of literary criticism is among their first steps in exploring and accommodating the not-so-black-and-white reality in which we live. Literary criticism is essentially a safe space to pick apart reality through the vehicle of narrative. The more robust and thoughtful the picking apart, the better the training the student receives for handling the blows life will inevitably deal. Better to explore earlier in a textual work why a crime was committed than later in a courtroom as a witness, plaintiff or defendant. Literary criticism for this reason, among others, is a species--maybe a subspecies--of ethical behavior. It is the unexamined life being examined, through the lens of someone else's narrative existence.

But, mind you, this is only the act of engaging in literary criticism. It is not necessarily the act of writing it. For when you write literary criticism--not a bad thing in itself, of course--you have now more heavy-handedly codified the flux of possibilities that circulated prior to committing ideas and arguments to paper. Granted, codification will sometimes have the ameliorative effect of pushing you to think through and state more clearly your views of the work at hand. For while uncertainty may characterize the nature of reality, so does certainty, if only temporally. Uncertainty, after all, is not the same as chaos. And the writing of literary criticism, while difficult in the extreme at times, is not impossible. Indeed with time, maturity and the ability to walk the high wire of our quotidian reality, it is even something we may want to teach. But only when it really is worth teaching and not before. A softening up period that concentrates more on discussion and more imaginative forms of engagement would do far more till then.