Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
Critical Essays, Reviews
Literature, Literary History, Literary Study

« The Pedagogical Habit | Main | Bending Over Backwards »




I think that Nigel's analysis, although it may not be flattering, isn't entirely unfounded. We may not like the fact that art's reception is solipsistic, but that doesn't make the assertion less true. Adam Kirsh has an article in Poetry this month about the way poetry is, to a certain degree, an attempt to gain recognition in a world where recognition is limited. I'm not sure that Nigel's analysis is altogether accurate – it is probably too simplistic – but this certainly isn't the first time I've heard the view argued: it's based in a certain psychology of response and recognition. I don't think it has much to say about the quality of art as much as it does about enjoyment and taste (not to say these aspects are unrelated).

But to what end, art? The here answer seems to be "art for the sake of itself". If so, this purpose seems like no less navel-gazing than what Nigel argues here, only a more incomplete attempt to understand the relationship between mind and literature.

Dan Green

I truly don't understand the all-too-common dismissal of "art for the sake of itself. Do we dismiss, say, mathematics for being too much about itself? If art allows us to cultivate our capacity for more widely and deeply perceived experiences, which is what I think art does do, then we need all the art for the sake of itself we can get.


Well, the study of "pure" or "theoretical" math is intended to un-bias our "common sense," but still also to give us a greater understanding of the universe – it is never entirely disconnected from application or insight into physical realities, no matter how abstract it might seem to be.

Your answer is perfectly reasonable: that art "allows us to cultivate our capacity for more widely and deeply perceived experiences." It is not the same as saying "art for art's sake" though, and it must be realized that it also anchors art in a sort of 19th century didactic psychology.


"This attitude strikes me as ultimately rather contemptuous of 'the novel' as a form of literary art, as anything other than an opportunity to project one's own psychological preoccupations onto fictional characters."

I would add simply that this view reduces the artist to a mere craftsman, whose job is to produce objects that satisfy a particular audience. A work of art does not exist in order to please anyone other than the artist. In other words, it exists because the artist wants it to, that is all. I happen to like Moby Dick, but to say that it was written for me or even a reader like me is more than a little vain. Readers who look for themselves in a work of literature only want to take credit for a writer's genius. I find it hard to imagine that you can detect what is original and unique about a given artistic mind if you're too busy looking for how a work mirrors your own experiences.

Edmond  Caldwell

I read novels for the interplay of two things that I’ll call Writing and World. Every novel proposes a world, and proposes it through writing. There’s a kind of double-vision to reading novels which involves shuttling between the world and the writing, the signified and the signifier. What I’m most interested in is the shuttle itself, the relation between those two things, Writing and World – in other words, in the proposal itself. I can get writing elsewhere (poetry, blogs, cereal boxes) and I can get world elsewhere (society, cinema) but novels I think of as the unique site of their proposed cohabitation (and like any cohabitation as full of tension and fracture as cooperation). Novels might offer themselves to be read with one or the other aspect highlighted (Jane Eyre, say, puts World forward, Pale Fire advances Writing), but one often runs away with the other, and even as I feel free to appropriate them as I choose I’m also aware of the way that the novels I’m reading are simultaneously writing me.

“Character” is an element of World, but it is also an element of Writing (insofar as novels propose Worlds through Writing, they also often propose characters). But to read primarily for character or depictions of consciousness is what Brecht would have called “culinary”; I think it’s a way to halt or freeze the Writing/World shuttle on one side, it’s a kind of crippling of what novels can offer.

Edmond  Caldwell

Postscript: When I say "World" above, I mean the fictional one, not the so-called 'real' one.

Dan Green

Daniel: It anchors the experience of art in the aesthetic philosophy of John Dewey, as I've explained numerous times on this blog. If this is what you mean by "19th century didactic psychology," then. . .I guess so.

Nigel Beale


"It's hard to imagine a more narcissistic view of the role of fiction"

Take out pedagogical and political agendas, and I think you'll find that reading is a pretty personal enterprise. I read for my own entertainment and enlightenment…not for any narcissistic reflection: the point I make is that in order for a novel to best attract and hold our interest - a primary objective I'd say -- it must address or answer questions the reader deems important. The most effective method of doing this is through character. The development of a person who the reader can care about; who encounters situations and other people that the reader can, as you say, identify with. Without this engagement, nothing else works. This holds true of all the novels you mention.

"The order that form imposes is, after all, an aesthetic order without which a work of fiction really has no reason for being"

I don't deny the importance of form, plot or style; ideally, they are all present. I'm simply saying that, in my opinion, connection is essential, and that this is best achieved through character. I don't force fiction to do anything, other than entertain and inform me...and an 'important' question may, at any given time, range from something as silly as 'How do hamsters copulate,' to something as serious as Why do Humans fight...

Luther Blissett

I disagree with both Daniel and Nigel.

Great literature is always written not for "me" but for "The Little Man at Chehaw Station." It creates an imaginary space and asks readers to become someone different to enter that space.

Art transforms us into someone else. To get -- understand, enjoy -- a work art is to become other than what we are, if only for the duration of the experience.

A great artist asks for an imagined audience; a great reader can become that imagined audience.

Both Daniel and Nigel seem to assume that some stable reader engages a work of art, and that for whatever reason, the work of art meets the standards or desires of the reader. These days, I ask myself instead, "What am I become that this work is effective?"


Luther Blissett nails it. To ask that a writer create "characters I can relate to" is to assume that what I don't already know doesn't matter. What I already know bores me.

Steven Augustine

I think Nigel has a perfect right to describe the imaginational limits that keep reading safe/comfortable/ Nigel Beale-affirming for him. Where he goes terribly astray (and this is where people often do) is in trying to make a universal of the description (as though every reader's personality type/imagination/ IQ is interchangeable)... the urge to do so is an unmistakable symptom of narcissism: Nigel can't seem to conceive of a case in which a reader might enjoy a broader range of readerly attributes. Well, that's the normative impulse of the conservative for you. Nigel, are you a conservative? You aren't a Bush defender, are you? Just kidding.

Jacob Russell

I'm inclined to agree with Luther, though I wouldn't say the work changes the reader, as though a book had the power of agency. Rather, the reader changes in order to be able to read it. I've experienced this most clearly learning to read certain poets whose work at first were a puzzle to me: long ago when I first read Stevens, and later, Ashbery--poets who became most important to me. In contrast, I was bowled over the first time I read Sharon Olds but quickly grew tired of her poetry.


By what primary means is "character" developed in fiction? How does either the process of developing character or the raw materials used to do so differ from the process and raw materials used in the composition of other aspects of fiction? If we can agree that "character" derives from the same compositional methods and materials as other aspects of fiction, can we perhaps agree that the element of fiction Nigel most enjoys is a particularly skillfully executed illusion -- the creation of a voice -- rather than some essential (for who's to say?) limning of human et cetera? Unless he's just an Ann Tyler fan, or something.

Adventures in Reading

I've always found this perspective of literature peculiar and similar to readers discarding books because they couldn't identify with the character. One of my favorite authors is Nelson Algren and his gritty characters seldom have much to identify with, hell, they're usually not even likable.


DG — I was just clarifying.

Luz Maria

The great thing about critiquing conventional literature (or, really, any form of alternative literature with whose conventions you have been overly exposed) is that it is easy. You have already mapped out a course for approaching this kind of literature; you have a ready-made lens at your disposal; all you have to do is apply it.

(In my opinion), this is why feminist, anti-racist, and Marxist critiques are so popular in academia with people who participate in almost no political activism outside of class. It makes their work super-super easy, b/c all they have to do is say feminism feminism feminism racism racism racism racist Republicans and their racism and voila -- tenure!


>>feminism feminism feminism racism racism racism racist Republicans and their racism and voila -- tenure!

Didn't work for me. Of course, I was arguing the upside.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

The Art of Disturbance--Available as Pdf and Kindle Ebook
Literary Pragmatism--Available as a Pdf