How to Talk About Books
You Haven't Read
Pierre Bayard (Bloomsbury)
Those among us who struggled with deconstruction , post structuralism, semiotics and the like in the seventies and eighties, when we found out that language in general and literary writing in particular couldn't possibly address the world as is will remember the sweetly slippery issue of inter-textuality. Promoted by Derrida and deMan, if memory serves me (and it often doesn't), this was the fancy footwork that while books fail to address the nature things and make them fixed, unchanging situations, texts (meaning books) referred only to other texts, and the coherent systems writers seemed to uncover or create about how things are were in practice drawn from a limitless archive of each text that came before the one you might have in your hand and considering it's fidelity to your experience. A futile concern, we find, since everything has already been written, everything has already been said. If this were true, we asked, how can it be that some theorists are using language to precisely describe what language cannot do, i.e., precisely describe things? I never read a response that made sense, as the the answers seemed even more steaming heaps of gobbledygook that made the unanchored theory before even more impassable.
But no matter, because at the time one had discovered a nice hedge against having to read a book; I am being grossly unfair to the good critics still taking their cues from Continental thought, but deconstruction and intertextuality were choice methods of not dealing with what a writer was saying, instead giving a jargonized accord of how all writing and discourse cannot get beyond itself and actually touch something that terms try to signify.
This is the basic thrust of Pierre Bayard in his book "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read ". Bayard is both a professor of French literature and a psychoanalyst, and puts forth his statement in a surprisingly breezy account of why one needn't have read a book in order to discuss it in detail and even to have a strong opinion as to a book's success or failure. Intertextuality strikes again, since Bayard spends a good amount of his time emphasizing that what really counts in one's relation to the printed word was the reputation and contexts books have, their relationships to the things they are not. This much of the book was great fun, since it is the bookseller's curse to know a very little about a great many things, and I have had to extemporize opinions and conjecture and create theory on the spot when asked by customers to talk about the merits of books I haven't read, and at times hadn't even heard of. Bayard deals with the same methodology, emphasizing that any of us, so pressed for an unsubstantiated opinion, would make do with what was available to us at the moment, be that the book's reputation, reviews one might have read. Bayard's assertion, satiric and attractive at the same time, is that discussing books old and new is a game of one-upmanship in how one stays current with an author's buzz factor rather than his content, and there is something gleeful in the way he describes the sort of artful improvisation a spirited raconteur can get away with as he riffs upon a tangential element. Tangents, in fact, are pretty much the real art in the literary community, and the dirty little secret is that a good number of us readers get away with our faux critiques and commentary because our audience is likewise without an idea as to a book discusses in detail, in depth, with texture. No one wants to spoil the game, a matter Bayard lampoons with his own strategic deceptions.
This is enjoyable to a degree, although the same repetition of his humorous application of post structuralist residue to a generalized obsession with being well-read is wearying after a bit, even in a book as short as these 182 pages. Still, there is here the spirit of Roland Barthes, specifically in his collection of newspaper columns “Mythologies”; Barthes was that rare thing, playful in is undressing the signifiers and the signifieds . There is something of the poet in Barthes’ musings, which I think was the original intent of this type of criticism. Bayard has some of that instinct, but one cannot escape the feeling that he’s riffing to the only song he knows. This is a joke, perhaps, that is always already told.