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

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The linked-to article is no longer appearing in the post, but there does seem to be an anti-literature literature out there, if what is meant by anti-literary is something like "novels that have no relationship to the history of the novel" (like rock music doesn't have much relationship to the history of music, if "music" is understood as classical music). I think of Henry Miller as being like this, maybe Celine, the poetry of Bukowski -- throwing "writing" --the history of writing-- out the window, and making something more like memoirs. And yet not memoirs.

Jacob Russell

It might help to check out Will Buckingham's post on Think Buddha:

... as this was clearly on my mind when I wrote that comment. See my post on Barking Dog on this:

You see, you miss the "seeming" paradox (no paradox, no contradiction):that to record what doesn't last, and for the reader to recognize it in himself--not as an eternal principal, not as evidence of laws of nature or artifacts of history, but as self-recognition--evidence for Proust's claim that what we read in literature is ourselves, generation to generation--as useless in one generation as in the next for anything we might wish to make of it. It's for living--and living is nothing beyond the here and now--strange creatures that we are, always begging for some larger purpose (the "great tradition" of philosophers and archeologists)--and thus missing that which is possible, not merely longed for, but possible, what no beast (free of the seduction of language) needs to be told.. but we do. There is no transcendence--not even of the intellect--the only overcoming, the only solace art can offer is to remind us of our mortality, and in such a way that we have, for a moment, the courage to accept life without asking for more.

Jacob Russell

You see, ElAleph, you rather crudly conflated ideas I had set in opposition. I explicitly rejected the "great tradition"... the religious, prophetic... and scientific claims to what lasts.

You might look up the word "ephemera."

Jacob Russell

Reject, not as important human endeavors, but aesthetics, from an aesthetic appreciation of art. A work of art can be BOTH--evidence of history culture, AND something other... perhaps, in your view, less... but nonetheless... essential to the contradictions that make us human.

Jacob Russell

To treat literature in any capacity requiers the ability to read.

Literature doesn't "save" us.

Maybe, at best... distracts us from our major business of collective sucicide.

What it doesn't do.. or rather, what an aesthetic appreciation doesn't do, is submit to being one more pimp or whore in the process.

No saviours. But, as a writer, better a bullet through my head then serve your masters.

Jacob Russell

An ability to read.. as in..

liberation. Liberation, as I stated, from FIXED interpretations, to fixed contexts.

You really don't know how to read.

Enough of your straw man projections. You are a type of those who, perceiving disagreement, assume you understand everything in terms of an opposit, a mirror reversal of whatever it it is you hold.. and have so little imagination that you cannot conceive that anyone might have ideas that haven't figured in your own limited conceptual patterns.

I don't agree with you, therefore I must hold to some negative version of whatever you happen to believe.

Failure of intellect, failure of imagination... compounded, and you think you really have something to say about art and literature?

Jacob Russell

You see, you miss the "seeming" paradox (no paradox, no contradiction):that to record what doesn't last, and for the reader to recognize it in himself--not as an eternal principal, not as evidence of laws of nature or arifacts of history, but as self-recognition--evidence for Proust's claim that what we read in literature is ourselves, generation to generation--as useless in one generation as in the next for anything we might wish to make of it. It's for lving--and living is nothing beyond the here and now--strange creatures that we are, always begging for some larger purpose (the "great tradition" of philosophers and archiologists like you)--and thus missing that which is possible, not merely longed for, but possible, what no beast (free of the seduction of language) needs to be told.. but we do. There is no transcendence--not even of the intellect--the only overcoming, the only solice art can offer is to remind us of our mortality, and in such a way that we have, for a moment, the courage to accept life without asking for more.

And as a writer, to write as neither pimp nor whore in support of our collective suicide.


Jacob, I deliberately twisted and "crudely conflated" your words for the purpose of mockery. I find statements like "strange creatures that we are, always begging for some larger purpose (the "great tradition" of philosophers and archeologists)--and thus missing that which is possible" to be silly and quite religious. Just because you reject the "great tradition," as you call it, does not mean you do not have a view of literature that is deeply religious in its reverence. Your latest posts confirm this. Apparently literature serves as a "solace" for you and reminds you of your "mortality." It is "essential to the contradictions that make us human." These statements are as religious as the Lord's Prayer, or the nembutsu if you prefer. Everything is there: ethics, metaphysics, devotion, moksa (since you object to my use of the word soteriology), eschatology ("collective suicide"). And would I be correct to go so far as to say that the reading of literature occupies a position in your life much like that of a ritual?

And Jacob, you are being very insulting and increasingly nonsensical.

To summarize the real discussion going on here, the argument I have with the aesthetes is:

1. The assertion that aesthetics can be separated from the context of art. I am aware of no artist whose aesthetic choices are not determined, both deliberately and subconsciously, by her cultural context. It is foolish to think, as Dan seems to, that these context-based readings are a current fad of literary studies, when in fact it the oldest approach. Plato's moralistic condemnation of poetry and music in "The Republic" is based on the effect these arts have on society. Sounds a lot like Lukacs, doesn't it? In the "Poetics," it seems as if Aristotle is talking about aesthetics, and he usually is, especially when compared to Plato, when he puts forward the ideas of mimesis and catharsis, but Aristotle's purpose in praising catharsis is that when it is shared by a community it has a beneficial effect on the virtue of the city-state. He also engages in historical criticism when he proposes that comedy originated in the ritual phallic processions of Dionysus.

According to Dan, however, neither of these two rather obscure figures are doing "'liteary study' as it was initially conceived [sic]." And in contrast to LML, they are putting aesthetics to political ends, not vice-versa.

2. The anti-academia sentiment. (see number 1)

3. The ridiculous assertion/assumption that there is only one way to love or enjoy literature. Bah!

Dan Green

In Plato's case, no, he isn't doing "literary study," he's doing moralistic condemnation. That he might sound a lot like Lukacs is certainly not in his favor. Aristotle has a better claim to being a literary critic, although in praising the effects of catharsis he is also engaged in moral instruction rather than criticism per se.

There are various ways to value literature and art, but to maintain that what's literary and artistic about them is the least important--bordering on unimportant-- again just strikes me as weird.


As Martin Bernal showed with the publication of Black Athena, it is heresy to expose the underlying politics of a privileged perspective. I am reminded of angry, denuded Egyptologists crying over how Bernal took a perfectly pure, innocent discipline and ruined it with his..his...his..agenda! Today nearly all go on as though postmodernism has not ocurred, hungry for yesterday's fascism. Of course all perspectives are not equal and the best critics cannot be easily praised or dismissed as "formalist," "marxist," "deconstructionist" or whatever. There are simply great minds and everyone else. What's missing from the study of literature in academia is original thinking. Instead of discourse we get cultural hegemony. It's not that different from the publishing world. Old prejudices are continually replaced with new ones and you end up with a mob of zombies, schleppers. Imagine if Kenneth Burke, Jacques Derrida, Viktor Shklovsky, and Frederic Jameson occupied the same literature department. Or don't. People who think that there is one right way to study literature and that this way should be the only one implemented in a literature department (otherwise literature departments should be done away with altogether) share an unlikely kinship with the smarmy guys in loud suits who long ago caused me to stop watching television on Sunday mornings.

Dan Green

"share an unlikely kinship with the smarmy guys in loud suits who long ago caused me to stop watching television on Sunday mornings."

Bullshit. This inane analogy is only an easy substitute for the "thinking" whose absense you decry.


Tell man, Dan, do you believe that historical, linguistic, or any other contextual based Biblical criticism should exist in Religion departments? Or should Religion departments be dissolved as well and taken over by others?

Those who believe the Bible to be literally true certainly think so, and think that such criticism is an attack on the true meaning and value of the Book.

But a Religion department at a secular school (and also at most religious universities in addition to believer's Theology) doesn't follow along with how most people read the Bible (nor should it) but takes as its study how the Bible exists as a historical, cultural, linguistic, philosophical document. I don't see how English departments should be any different.

Dan Green

If you think works of literature are analogous to the Bible, then I guess you would treat them as essentially objects of knowledge. I don't think of them in that way, and "knowledge" in the abstract is the last thing I want from them.

I can't see anything analogous between thinking the Bible literally true and thinking that poems and novels are works of art.


Quite a lot of the Bible is not just analogous to literature, it is a work of literature. Especially most of the Old Testament. That you don't think so is surprising. So should Psalms be off-limits because it is poetry? Or does everything from Joshua to 2 Chronicles (excluding Ruth) occupy a special status apart from something like the letters of Paul because its an epic?

Your statement "poems and novels are works of art" is true. But the assumption you are making is that art is special, set apart and greater. A sanctum sanctorum not be be touched except in certain ways. And one must not misuse the holy term literary. This is why I somewhat-jokingly have identified religion with aestheticism. Personally, I find this attitude demeaning to math, science, historical documents, philosophy, non-literary nonfiction, politics, sex, sports, and, indeed, life itself.

Earlier Chris asked me if treating literature as I prefer to is a kind of "flattening" out. In contrast to the bloated sense of worth the aesthetes give to it, I should hope it is. Why, Chris, should not Thucydides be the equal of Virgil? Of course they are doing different things, but to scorn history and exalt propaganda (Virgil is probably not the aesthete's best example of great literature, great literature though it is) is baseless, except as an issue of personal taste and that has little place in research.

You often make the assumption that treating literature as a historical artifact like potsherds means that you treat it in the same way as potsherds. Of course not! A potsherd is a piece of a pot, and often part of a work of art. It is also a historical artifact. A poem is a work of art. It is also a historical artifact. To ignore either side will damn any attempt at research. Look at my sloppy sketch of Fielding's politics and aesthetics in my first post. Did I pretend that "Tom Jones" wasn't a work of art? No. I addressed the aesthetics of the work as part of my argument.

Seriously, Plato was not producing literary criticism, Dan? He was adressing the primary aesthetic and psychological effects of poetry on people and found that this effect is detrimental to his just polis.

Actually, looking back at the posts on your blog, I don't think you actually practice what your preach (hey! more religious metaphor!). Here are some quotes that, according to your narrow definition, don't seem to be "literary study" at all:

-"I am somewhat uncomfortable with Dewey's use of terms like "congenial" and "enjoyed experience." They come too close to suggesting that art is an escape, a reduction of experience as transformed by art to the peaceful and the happy when in fact (as Dewey frequently acknowledged) experience as rendered in and through art can be violent and disturbing..."

This is a moral judgment, like Plato's and Aristotle's (or Luakcs').

-"Both the sensationalism and the emphasis on biography, as well as "the fulsome but often strangely detached praise," to be found in the reviews of Némirovsky’s unfinished novel are entirely representative of the kind of attention works of fiction especially are accorded in newspaper book sections. Only books that will satisfy readers' desire for "quality," or that can be made to seem such through the reviewer's hyped-up language, are reviewed in the first place. Appropriate commentary then becomes an issue of finding the right kind of perfunctory praise, in some cases an emphasis on the "sensational copy" that occasionally accompanies this or that book.
I partially blame academic criticism for the dismal state of generalist book reviewing. First the wholesale retreat of criticism behind the walls of academe and then the virtual abandonment of text-based literary criticism for the treatment of literary texts as occasions for social, historical, and theoretical analysis left serious readers with few other organs of literary discussion than newspapers and a handful of magazines. "

This is analysis of literature as a cultural object like what is done in cultural studies, which is what you ironically condemn in the very passage. It also contains moral judgment.

-"I disagree with Andy only in that I don't think print litmags attract "higher-quality readers." They attract readers who will never get over a bias toward print, perhaps, or those who prefer their texts to be accompanied by a nominal amount of gloss (with most literary magazines, very nominal), but these aren't necessarily more attentive or intelligent readers. That print magazines might still have some fetish appeal and that they are often more convenient--although I'm not sure how many beachgoers are lugging around literary magazines--are plausible enough explanations, however, and, with Andy, I question whether this makes them inherently valuable enough for us to regret their impendng demise."

A very good analysis of the "fetish appeal" of print.

Dan Green

But of course in departments of Religious Studies, the Bible isn't being treated as literature, or at least not primarily. It's being treated as a sacred text, or what many people regard as a sacred text, and scholars in this department are indeed interesed in knowledge about such a text, perhaps even more importantly, about why so many do treat it as sacred. "Bible as Literature" is--or used to be--in the English department.

"A poem is a work of art. It is also a historical artifact."

This is certainly true. But if it isn't a work of art first, I can't see its reason for being (except for its future value to scholars of historical artifacts). Its reason for being isn't just suppelmented in modern literary study by study of its secondary values, the latter has more or less replaced the former altogether.

"This is analysis of literature as a cultural object"

No, it's analysis of book reviewing as a cultural practice. I've never said that I wanted to do only close readings of texts on this blog. Are you saying that in order to believe that aesthetic analysis should be at the forefront of literary study I must only do aesthetic close readings? I do plenty of them, I think, but this blog is one on "Contemporary Literature and Criticism," which covers a fair amount of ground. Am I not allowed to write about the *need* for aesthetic analysis and close reading, or about other critical issues?


Thucydides may very well be the equal of Virgil. I guess what I was suggesting was that they are not equivalent. But to answer the question more directly, I suppose that the substantive difference is that if the content of Thucydides' history is found to be faulty -- given that his stature and significance is derived in large part from his reputation for the development of a historiographic approach that prized analysis and accuracy -- then it loses a significant part of its value. If the content of Virgil's poetry is inaccurate historically -- which surely it is -- its value (for better or worse) is unaltered. Thucydides was irritated enough by Herodotus' "literary" flourishes to perhaps agree with this.


OK, obviously both of us know that there is value in both text-centered close-reading and theoretical meta-text analysis. The only real disagreement, then, is about how English departments prefer to do the latter. You think English departments should put aesthetics are "the forefront of literary study." However, although it is definitely possible and worthwhile to make an academic career out of this type of reading (And there are thousands of worthy examples: I can't imagine reading "Gravity's Rainbow" without Fowler's guide, and Umberto Eco's analysis of "Sylvie"'s complex plot is impressive and wonderful), there is a very good reason that academia should do a great deal of context-based readings. The reason is that universities are practically the only place that such analysis can be done. The requirements of historical research demand a well-stocked library and significant time devoted to such a task is great. Close reading of course requires much time as well, but it is much lower than the concentration required to pore over programs from Yeats' Abbey Theater (for an example). Your preferred method of reading, however, flourishes outside the academy, especially on the internet. I read your blog because I find a lot of good interpretation of aesthetic elements in it and interesting discussion of other critics ideas. But there are hundreds of good blogs like yours. I feel as if "aesthetic analysis and close reading" are the dominant form of criticism today. The academy seems cloistered because it is doing what can only be done in the academy. Yes, this is a bit of ivory towerdom, but that is the nature of the beast. And if the university were to suddenly blink out of existence I am sure that historical research would continue, but it would be much more difficult.

The problem of faddish theories in the academy can be solved no more than the problem of fads in publishing (Latin American fantastic writers anyone? It seems as if this one resurges once every decade). Or of fads in anything. It is human to find the new exciting.

And regarding my quotations of your blog, I was just being snarky and having a bit of fun.

I do have a question for you. I admit in a lot of literature the aesthetics are far enough removed from context as to allow for your preferred aesthetics-concentrated approach. For example, it is quite possible and very enjoyable to study the aesthetics of "Dubliners" without recourse to context or politics, even though these informed Joyce greatly in his intentions for the novel. (If you like Irish history at all and are interested in the historical links in Joyce's stories I recommend Torciana's "Backgrounds for Joyce's Dubliners." Yes, Torchiana's readings are occasionally very far fetched, but his brilliance and his love of literature and historical research are apparent throughout it. I think it is a good example of how the reading of literature in cultural and historical context does not "flatten" anything, but rather makes it more exciting. At least for me, it makes me want to not only study more Irish literature, but also Irish history and language. That is what I mean when I say there is much more enthusiasm and excitement for literature in the academy than I think you give credit to.)

Sorry for that long parenthesis. Returning to my question: But in much literature the aesthetic effects are intended to be read in the light of context, and even theory. For example, many of Gary Snyder's poems** are not only influenced by Zen aesthetics, but also by Japanese literary theory. It often isn't possible to get what Snyder is trying to do unless you are either already knowledgeable with Japanese literature or are willing to do research. Or with Umberto Eco, his novels work aesthetically on two levels. One that is based on immediate aesthetic appreciation and the other that relies on a great deal of "nerdiness" (referencing my earlier division). With something like "Finnegan's Wake" or "The Cantos" or "The Divine Comedy" or "The 2nd Shepard's Play" or Rabelais or Swift this phenomena only intensifies. However, I think there is a place for these works in your critical framework.

But then there are the works that seem to lie completely outside of your aesthetic criticism, like the novels of Upton Sinclair or the plays of Shaw or Brecht. Here, the aesthetic appreciation usually exists as an effect of the political message. It seems to me that this type of literature, and there is a lot of it and it is often quite enjoyable, can't be discussed in the way you prefer. Perhaps 200 years from now people will read Brecht with only aesthetics in the same way many read "The Aeneid" or "Gulliver's Travels" today with aesthetics first and politics later, despite being originally conceived to work to other way around. There will always be political literature, and examples prove that even propaganda can be very aesthetically pleasing. So, after much longwindedness my question - How do you respond to this type of literature?

**Earlier you spoke of literature that speaks to you and I said that literature doesn't speak to me. However, if by "speaks to me" you meant that a work seems to somehow occupy a spot in your mind as if it were meant to be there. That it works on the same wavelength as your thoughts, then there is plenty of literature that "speaks to me." Gary Snyder's poems are one example. So does the criticism of Umberto Eco. Joyce's "Portrait" does as well (Although I like "Ulysses" and "Dubliners" much better, even though they do not "speak to me"). Italo Calvino and Stanislaw Lem, too. Octavio Paz... I may have written off your diction as pseudo-mystical presumptuously.

Dan Green

I'm willing to accept a split between the work of blogs or generalist print publications doing literary criticism and academic scholarship doing something else. At some point, however, academic literature departments need to just fess up they're no longer doing "literature" and to more honestly describe what it is they are doing: cultural studies or historicism or whatever. They should stop selling what they do to prospective students as "literary study."

If it really is true it "isn't possible to get what Snyder is trying to do unless you are either already knowledgeable with Japanese literature or are willing to do research," then in my opinion that's a flaw in the poetry. It's become something else, something closer to a religious practice. I've not found Snyder's poems quite that hermetic (admittedly I have't read all of his work), so there must be some wiggle room in that "isn't possible to get." Some of the other works you mention do raise problems of comprehensibility--I find The Divine Comedy almost unreadable because of the incessant allusive warfare against Dante'e political foes, for example--but I think most of them can still hold up to an aesthetic reading. I don't oppose tracking down information or readings that aid in comprehensibility; in many cases they can be used to enhance aesthetic appreciation on subsequent readings.

I believe Brecht and Shaw (Sinclair is another matter) can be appreciated aesthetically even now. It requires bringing what Dewey called a "special focus" on the formal or "poetic" qualties of the work and bracketting the politics or social commentary. One could choose to regard Brecht's politics as what motivated him to write some formally and rhetorically interesting plays. Two hundred years from now this may be the only way to take his work.

I think the allegedly "pseudo-mystical diction" was Jacob Russell's rather than mine.


The question of what research a scholar might rightfully pursue is different from the question of what approaches to literature s/he ought to impose on 18-year-olds. I personally loved being exposed to theory in college, and I continue to find Barthes in particular as provocative an observer of society as many major novelists writing during his lifetime--but these encounters were small potatoes compared to my encounters with Proust and Joyce and Beckett, none of whose work I was assigned in college.

Also, it's an overstatement to tell non-specialists that we can't possibly "get" Virgil or Fielding or Gary Snyder without making massive efforts at contextualization. Literary works survive precisely to the extent that communication across cultural gaps is possible. Lesser works need advocates/historicizers to survive. If you say that I must know X before being able to understand Y, I will tell you that Y is not the real thing. Of course, this kind of statement depends on the abilities of the reader who is making the statement, and it's possible that I overestimate my own abilities. I agree with Zadie Smith's contention that really good readers are almost as rare as really good writers.

That there's something to be gained by studying lesser literature, which doesn't survive translation across the gaps, is beyond question, but this can't ever replace a personal encounter with an enduring text. It is hardly mysticism to propose that a person who died thousands of years ago can communicate something of his or her way of seeing and feeling and thinking to me today. It is an amazing fact, but it is not premised on anything supernatural. This survival is based on a writer's aesthetic gifts, an ability to construct sentences or verses or images or situations that are durable or beautiful or insightful enough to survive all manner of indignity.

I can't read a syllable of ancient Greek, I have only the flimsiest layman's knowledge of Athenian history and culture, and it is my understanding that even experts do not really know what Greek drama looked and sounded like on stage, but I am moved beyond description by the scene in Ajax in which Ajax, tricked by Ulysses and Athena into killing a bunch of cattle, is wailing at his mistake amid all those bloody corpses in his tent. Much of this text, which is only an outline of the real aesthetic product Sophocles wanted people to see, survives to connect me with the playwright and his audience.

This is not a trivial form of connection. It may well serve as a gateway to further information, but this gateway function is merely a bonus.

Jacob Russell

I am baffled... how does an insistance on the immediately experiential translate into "mysticism".. or mystical rhetoric.. or..

We hold tie our experiences into ideas, narratives, abstractions... but what we live, are ephermoral moments, vanishing perceptions. Absent the idea of something that binds them together, a reality more real than the real, something "behind" or "beyond" the immediate... that sort of gnostic claim you might call mystical.

What I've said about the aesthetic experience has nothing to do with any sort of "beyond" ... includeing the ideological uses we would put to those experiences, the "knowledge" we would claim to derive from them to justify them.

Is there no room, no freedom from the tyrany of Ellul's "Technological" mind? From the fascists of the "useful?"

Anything that can be put to use can be made into a weapon.

There is nothing that can't be, by translation, put to use.

But the translation, in this case, is rape and murder. Let's hold out some room for hope that there is a residua for the useless... or shall we just take up arms and join in the mutual slaugter?

Martyn Everett

To believe that the "purpose of the university (is) to produce knowledge, not to foster appreciation." is to misunderstand the function of Academia. The University acts as gatekeeper and defines what is "acceptable" or "legitimate knowledge", it also acts as gatekeeper for the class of "new mandarins" sorting, grading and certifying recruits for industry, academia and the state bureaucracy. Knowledge can exist quite easily outside the University, which doesn't produce knowledge, but processes it. John Clare's knowledge and understanding of nature did not require approval or certification by academia, but it now helps sustain numerous professors on high salaries.

The University's role can be clearly seen in the continuing flow of almost unreadable texts that are offered as a substitute for literary criticism. Texts that rely on an in-group vocabulary to ensure that literary discussion and analysis is confined to other academics.

It might be true that in some subjects the University "produces" knowledge - in a technical sense - the increasing investment for military research purposes, and closer integration with big business might be seen as stimulating pure knowledge in a technical sense, although in fact the knowledge that results has been predetermined by powerful social elites.

King Wenclas

This discussion comes across like a narrow group of theologians debating how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Step back and look at it.
With literature being marginalized in this society, this kind of attitude is the LAST thing we need. The idea is to be literary evangelists speaking with clarity (and no less involving ideas-- real world ideas) to the greater public; with words which can connect with that public.
Just my two cents.


Postmodernism flatters itself too much with the supposed novelty of its effects. There's no question that highly metafictional fiction has been in vogue for some decades now, but "putting the very premises of literature in question" is as old as literature itself. Think of Fielding, who loves satirizing the "beautiful language" of the epic, draws constant attention to the worldly, "anti-literary" nature of his characters and story, and so on, leaving his authorial fingerprints all over the work. Or Sterne, who plays in "Tristram Shandy" with virtually every trick in the postmodernist book, "disordered chronology" and "extreme parataxis" included. Heck, think back to the "The Canterbury Tales": the virtuoso language games, the delight in metafiction, the earthy humor are all there six hundred years before Pynchon.

Authors and critics still make the mistake of conceiving literature as progressive, with each era more evolved, more enlightened, more "modern" than the last. Nothing could be further from the truth. That's not to say that there's nothing new under the sun--there are always new voices, sometimes new ideas--only that most of the basic tools in the authorial toolkit were invented long ago, and simply go into and out of fashion as different authors pick them up or drop them.

Dan Green

"but "putting the very premises of literature in question" is as old as literature itself."

"most of the basic tools in the authorial toolkit were invented long ago"

It's true that "putting the premises in question" goes back far into literary history--this is the point of my post, and your own example of Fielding creating a new kind of "novelistic" language is a good one.

But Fielding's speicific innovation was not "invented long ago," or he wouldn't have had to invent it. The same is true of all the innovations in fiction post-Fielding. Otherwise everyone would still be writing like him.


True, Dan, and that comment was meant to second your analysis of Josh Corey's post, not contradict it. Maybe the distinction here is between a basic authorial tool and a new application of that tool. Contemporary critics are too apt to credit modern/postmodern literature with reinventing the toolkit, whereas it has really only reused and recombined tools in innovative ways, as every era does.

"Only literature that puts the very premises of the literary into question can now summon the aesthetic impact we associate with great literature"--this argument, which Corey seems to be resisting or qualifying, can simply be dismissed outright. Literature always wriggles out of such prescriptive chokeholds. As you point out, questioning the old, the conventional, the artifically "beautiful" is part and parcel of what vital literature does. But at the same time, not every great book tries to start a revolution--or needs to. Those who think that more "conventional" realist fiction (the kind that James Wood is accused of parochially favoring) is a dead or obsolete art should read, for example, Amy Bloom's novel of last year, "Away." They may find that when the language is beautiful enough and the fictional dream persuasive enough, fiction obsessed with questioning literary premises and raging against antiquated notions of the beautiful can be an awfully parochial genre itself.

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