In a recent profile of Stanley Fish, Fish is quoted as having said, "Literary interpretation, like virtue, is its own reward. I do it because I like the way I feel when I'm doing it." He further amplifies:
You do this kind of work simply because it's the kind of work that you like to do, and the moment you think you're doing it to make either people or the world better, you've made a huge mistake. There's no justification whatsoever for what we do except the pleasure of doing it and the possibility of introducing others to that pleasure. That's it!
There is, of course, a paradox at work in Fish's formulation: To provide yourself and others with a positive pleasure is, however slightly, to "make. . .people or the world better." Since the pleasure that "interpretation" provides comes from the invigoration of one's mental faculties, it might be said that literary interpretation--literary criticism more generally--performs an especially useful service. But Fish is cautioning against the hubris of believing that literary criticism will perform any service beyond this modest one of engaging the mind in a productive activity.
This view is no doubt uncongenial to both those academic critics who want their work to be an "intervention" in culture that transcends the "merely literary" and to those traditionalists who think that literature itself can make us better, a goal to which the scholar or critic should help lead us. In my view, the "justification" for criticism and interpretation indeed cannot be found outside of the activity itself, although it is certainly true that any particular act of interpretation can prove useful or enlightening for others. And to the extent that the critic intends his/her analysis to be enlightening, this sort of utility could be said to "justify" critical analysis as well. Such analysis might even be narrowly and tendentiously focused, an attempt to "use" the subject text for partisan purposes that go beyond simply understanding or appreciating the text. But criticism has then become something other than literary criticism. "Interpretation" as Fish would define it becomes instead the means to some other end, an end deemed more important than simply coming to terms with the text itself.
Fish is perhaps the most well-known literary critic associated with philosophical pragmatism, as descended from John Dewey through Richard Rorty. His version of reader-response theory, in which meaning can only arise "in the reader," is a clear descendant of Dewey's notion of "art as experience." Since the highest pragmatic value is generally considered to be that of utility--an action or belief is justified if it produces an efficacious result--one might think that when applied to literary criticism whatever "use" might be made of a literary text is perfectly acceptable if it works to some desired end, but while of course finally any reader can make "use" of any text in any way he/she wants, this does not mean that all such readings contribute to the integrity of literary criticism understood as a practice or a discipline possessing definitional coherence. Indeed, if any reading can be appropriately considered "literary criticism," then the term has no meaning at all, no object that is its proper concern. Fish is implicitly insisting that the proper concern of criticism is the free play of "interpretation" unconstrained by agendas other than the imperative to carry it out intelligently and attentively. Interpretation of texts that do not themselves communicate meaning fully or directly is what literary critics do, and the most appropriate affirmation of its value comes from the critic who is able to convey "the pleasure of doing it" to responsive readers.
There are, alas, too few critics of this kind around. In my opinion, this is only partly because critics themselves cling too firmly to various non-literary and non-critical agendas. Those in charge of the most widespread source of literary commentary, book review sections of magazines and newspapers, seem seldom to assign works of fiction or poetry to capable, disinterested (as in "impartial") literary critics in the first place. In fact, a significant majority of reviews of novels and poetry collections seem to be written by other novelists and poets, a practice that is apparently founded on the assumption that novelists and poets are in the best position to assess other work in their chosen forms. This is a mistaken assumption.
In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom observes that "when a potential poet first discovers (or is discovered by) the dialectic of influence, first discovers poetry as being both external and internal to himself, he begins a process that will end only when he has no more poetry within him, long after he has the power (or desire) to discover it outside himself again." Bloom is acknowledging that while the poet--the fiction writer as well--is initially inspired to write by the discovery of previous writing "external" to his/her own need for expression, eventually he/she finds it difficult to still "discover" poetry in other writers because his/her own work now so thoroughly defines what poetry should be. This is especially true of the best poets and novelists, which all the more makes it a good idea to view even the most accomplished of such writers with suspicion when they turn to reviewing. We will probably acquire more understanding of the reviewer and the reviewer's perspective on his/her own work than we will get a trustworthy account of the book ostensibly under review.
There are, of course, always exceptions. Some writers are also such penetrating critics that one wants to read them even if it is likely the critic's analysis will reveal more about the critic's assumptions than about the subject of the analysis. William H. Gass would be one such writer, but as much as I value Gass's criticism, I would also acknowledge that it is at least as valuable as an adjunct to his fiction, helping to explain the nature of its departures from convention, or as part of a philosophy of literature that works in tandem with the fiction. Certainly Gass engages in this critical work because it his work he "likes to do" (or at least this is the impression his criticism leaves with me), but as much as Gass lends credibility to experimental fiction through his essays and reviews, ultimately such fiction is well-served as well by critics able to more comprehensively assess its failures as well as its successes.
The kind of work novelists and poets most like to do, presumably, is writing novels and poems. They might also like writing reviews perfectly well, but this is inevitably a secondary sort of gratification, and in most cases not something done for "its own reward." My impression of the reviewing done by these writers considered collectively is that all too often it is either an opportunity to disparage an approach to fiction or poetry that isn't the reviewer's or to praise one's colleagues, perhaps in the hope that such generosity might be reciprocated when the reviewer's own book appears. The first approach is an especially good way to dismiss unconventional fiction that might pose a threat to established practice, while the second helps to build "community," to elevate the status of current writing more generally.
Ultimately none of these motives do current writing much good, however, if it is to be considered as potentially part of "literature," if "literary" is to be a term that designates more than a lifestyle choice. Judging a work according to principles the work has rejected is hardly criticism in the first place, and seeks to encourage a conformity of method that would really only drain literature of its vitality. "Community" is a pleasant notion that might help to blunt the edges of literary rivalries, but finally it has nothing to do with writing worthy poems and novels. Praising fellow members of one's community for anything other than creating worthwhile literary art is just a free form of publicity and reduces literature to just another act of social networking. New books need critics willing to regard them as efforts to be taken seriously as literature, to survive in the long run, not just their notices in the weekend's review pages. They need critics who regard criticism as the act of considering books in this way, and who want to engage in it because it's a good thing to do.
June 6, 2011