Saturday, April 9, 2011


Marjorie Garber's The Use and Abuse of Literature: Why does she ask all the wrong questions? - By William Deresiewicz - Slate Magazine
The central conceit of a much contemporary criticism has been to raise the critic's musings on literature to the same level as the literature these folks intensely scrutinize. This seems a ploy to have literary critics form a new priesthood, an authoritative to be sought out no less than that of the poet, the novelist, the playwright, even the philosopher. Marjorie Garber is fairly typical of the academic who feels the need to produce a tract, composed almost entirely of weathered , rusty post-modernist adages, that demands that the reader requires the professional critic to open up the text for them and so facilitate a new rigor in how those so blessed think about the world. "The Use and Abuse of Literature", a manifesto intended to convince the readership she condescends to that their particular takes on books they've read and lived with are woefully incomplete, even shallow. We need to stop asking what things mean and investigate instead how they mean. If you labored for some years with attempts to grasp recent critical trends, you no doubt realize this is something that creates topic drift. Garber gives us permission to not debate ideas put forth through narrative conflict and metaphor and instead insists on turning us into mechanics. It's a messy and pointless labor, I think.

Anyone who knows me realizes that  I am not anti-critic--my chief concern is that the profession and the practice resist the codification of  closed-system terms that want to seal literature from the rest of the universe the art is assigned to engage and to prevent the interested reader from having a nuanced take on a writer's work that can stand beside the effusions of the doctors of literary chatter.  True enough, the critic ought to guide, poke, prod and urge a reader to think outside the conventional , freeze-dried frameworks an entertainment media foists upon us; the activity , though , ought be a temporary thing, as the  theoretical reader we're addressing should cease turning critics for clarification and  consider them, instead, as a means to heighten their own insight. Critics , ultimately, should be a short-lived thing. Garber writes as if she thinks the assignation should be permanent. This is hubris made worse by her habit of asking continuous strings of rhetorical questions about the whys and wherefores of  what creative writers do and then slipping away from  her implied assertions as she glides to the next issue . It makes for a splendid bit of dancing had one the elegance of a Nabokov or a James to pronounce their vagueness with the sweetest and most distracting of verb al music. Garber plays no music whatsoever; this book is a consistent paraphrase of  old notions presented in a droning monotone.

Even a critic I happen to enjoy, Harold Bloom, wrote a little instruction Manuel called "How to Read and Why", a grandiose albeit slight volume where the good critic plagiarized himself from other of his books about and offered up an inconsequential mumbling about reading in a correctly guided manner. Oh well, even smart people with insight and several levels of wit and discernment can be subject to a brief bits of blow-hardism. Though I do think that the there is a variety of "truth" that literature is best suited to reveal and bring forth for discussion, I am not taken with the idea that fiction and poetry and plays are intended to reveal facts. I have no objection to the questions that Garber wants to ask; the reservations comes with Garber's seeming need to rush past those questions and hurry instead to the next set of wonderings. She brings forth a continuous stream of inquiries and then defers, delays, goes diffuse at the edges. What this book lacks is a genuine discussion of any number issues, contradictions, controversies the task criticism contains. She resembles the critic Fred Jamison in this respect; there is a concentrated period of throat clearing and har-rumphing, followed by what can best be described as a gutless strategy of deferral. It makes you want to re-read Terry Eagleton's books on the critical arts, like "Literary Theory", "Problems of Post Modernism" or "After Theory"; background, thesis, argument. In general, I am interested in how literature works , indeed I am obsessed by it, but I am not willing to settle for the Professional Critic to be the priestly arbiter of what needs to be noticed, inspected, discussed; her insistence that the general reader's response is useless with out a Critic's watermark is implicit in this cozy apology.

In any case, Garber's insistence that the task of the critic isn't to discern what a book means but rather how it comes to mean is a handy method to avoid the harder answers a roving pundit might ask of an author's work; she seems very close to insisting that criticism defer a discussion of meaning produced by the form the author chose and instead shine the big lights on the forces contemporary criticism would insist the author is unaware of and beyond his control. This leaves little room for imagination as subject; it is a word many critics seem to fear. You wonder why, after all this time.


  1. I agree with what you say about Marjorie Garber, and about much of current criticism generally. Sometimes I feel that the kinds of critics you describe are part of an apparatus that includes the media and the educational establishment and is designed to make people distrust their own judgments and intuition. For many people, that is a disincentive to read and learn anything that is not directly applicable to their jobs, or the jobs for which they are training: They figure they can leave thinking about other matters to the "experts."

    As much as I love "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," I have to lay at least some of the blame for the current state of criticism on T.S. Eliot. I think he--if unwittingly--helped to create the notion that readers need critics to tell them how to read.

    I still think one of the best definitions of the role of a critic was made by H.L. Mencken, who said that the good ones were catalysts. You seem to be thinking something like that when you say the critic ought to "guide, poke, prod and urge a reader to think outside the the conventional, freeze-dried frameworks an entertainment media foists upon us." Very nice!

  2. Thanks, Justine. My main point isn't anti-critic, just to be clear. Critics, I think, are a needed part of a culture that values self-examination and awareness of things as they change; more critical thinking likely would have spared us much woe. What irritates me is the move by some critics to mystify their status, to address their work as oracular. This turns literature that can nothing else other than reflect and refract its own formations, something that is likely to increase as critical language over refines itself and jettisons any framework that connects imaginative writing to the community beyond the page, the classroom, the library shelf. Thanks for reading.


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