Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Talk about literature can clarify, enhance, the experience of reading, no? If I contrast my experience with that of other students in the class, learn to articulate facets of my experience in critical prose, etc... All that can happen in the classroom just as it happens on a blog or in private discussion with my friends. People seem to want to talk about their experiences, not just have them in the privacy of their living rooms. So the "literature can't be taught" statement is very limited. Taught can only mean "transmitted as a fixed body of information" in such a sentence. But then almost nothing can be "taught." "Philosophy cannot be taught... the most you can do is point the student in the right direction... " etc...

Ann Darnton

I agree with Jonathan on this. There was some extremely interesting work done with primary age children in the late 80s by Adian Chambers and published as 'Tell Me' about the way in which discussion of the books they had read not only enhanced the children's ability to understand and appreciate books, but also fed into their ability to talk about other aspects of the curriculum. I've replicated this on several occasions with the same results. However, the big issue is that all the children have to have read the book and have time to go back and re-read passages if they feel the need - so bring on the armchairs as well.

Dan Green

I have no problem with "discussion of books" as a way of enhancing the prior experience of reading, but suffice it to say this isn't any longer the primary pedagogical approach in most college literature classes.

Rohan Maitzen

It's true that aesthetic response, the immediacy of the experience, cannot be taught, but as you say, readers can be taught many things that will help enhance that experience, or even make it possible in the first place. Not just tools for understanding "style and form" or "subtlety and implication" but historical context (including political, social, and literary history) can be taught and that 'expertise' (like all of a person's knowledge and experience) becomes part of their literary experience--aesthetic response is not (or not altogether) an instinctual process, after all. It's easy, also, to underestimate the value of "talking about literature" (and notable that the urge to talk about literature--that is, some form of criticism--seems to be about as old as literature itself). I think it's not quite fair to say that "At best, the literature classroom can only be talk about literature, not the opportunity to experience literature." I suppose one can never be sure the 'experience' is shared by everyone in the room, but reading aloud is a great way to experience, say, a passage from Dickens, and working through poems or passages of texts communally can be exciting and rewarding.

Dan Green

"Historical context" can indeed be taught. In many ways it's the easiest thing to teach. But it's also the point at which literary study ceases to be the study of literature and becomes the study of something else.

Rohan Maitzen

What about literary history? Also, doesn't it depend on what you do with it? Again, Dickens seems a good example of someone whose works offer more reading pleasure if you have some sense of the conversation they are part of ('Bleak House,' for instance).

Dan Green

Yes, it does depend on what you do with it. If the history is used to illuminate the literary, fine. If the literary is used as an excuse to "interrogate" history, it ceases to be useful as part of the study of literature.


This is why I almost failed a Shakespeare course in the 2nd part of my freshman year. For many years I had been spoiled by high school teachers who read sections aloud in class, who had us do the same, where we allowed to discuss after several re-readings and so on. In university I was tossed five Shakespeare plays to read in 3 months (along with a few sonnets). The professor skipped through each play pointing out certain lines he thought were of thematic importance. I don't even remember the weird theory essays we were assigned. Exam...and done.

I nearly failed out of sheer bewilderment. At least the end of term dinner at his home was good.

Rohan Maitzen

'If the history is used to illuminate the literary, fine. If the literary is used as an excuse to "interrogate" history, it ceases to be useful as part of the study of literature.'

I'm not sure this distinction can always be drawn so clearly. I take it that the latter would look something like this: "'Jane Eyre' reveals the underlying racism of 19thC Britain" (to give a pretty crude version of a pretty familiar interpretation of that novel). If you turn that around into something like "The characterization of Bertha Mason in 'Jane Eyre' relies on 19th-century stereotypes of the foreign or racial 'other,'" is that using historical context to "illuminate the literary"? (For the record, I'm not necessarily backing these readings of 'Jane Eyre': I just want to see if I understand the distinction you want to draw between legit and illegit uses of history--or other kinds of context-- in literary interpretation.)

Dan Green

I don't particularly object to your turned-around version. (I assume it's being used to critique Jane Eyre, and further assume it's part of a broader effort to evaluate the novel. If one doesn't like Jane Eyre because its "racism" is a crippling aesthetic flaw, then of course one is entitled to make such an argument.) Although I have to say I find most versions of the "author X shares this or that assumption of his or her time" pretty uninteresting. Of course he/she does. How could it be otherwise? So what?

Rocco DiStreitlmahn

Northrop Frye said essentially the same thing in Anatomy of Criticism -- that "literature" cannot be taught, only the criticism of literature.

Aiden O'Reilly

If I study maths or history or economics the object of my study is the same as what the mathematician or historian or economist studied.

Students of a novel do not generally contemplate the same issues that faced the writer in his production of the work. Junior school pupils who sit around and discuss the characters and their motivations come closest.

"Critical theory is just bad philosophy" the philosophy professor at my uni said. "You should see the shit they study."

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