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 and authoritative to be sought out no less than the poet, the novelist, the playwright, and philosopher. Marjorie Garber is relatively 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 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 to 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 bare 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 verbal music. Garber plays no music; 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 slim volume where the good critic plagiarized himself from other of his books about and offered up a little mumbling about reading in a correctly guided manner. Oh well, even intelligent people with insight and several levels of wit and discernment can be subject to brief bits of blow-hards. Though I think that 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, poetry, and plays are intended to disclose facts. I have no objection to the questions Garber wants to ask; the reservations come 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. This book lacks a genuine discussion of any number of issues, contradictions, and controversies the task criticism contains. She resembles critic Fred Jameson in this respect; there is a concentrated period of throat clearing and harrumphing, 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 without a Critic's watermark is implicit in this cozy apology.