How to Read Literature, by Terry Eagleton
After more than 40 books, the prolific professor is asking the wrong questions
How to Read Literature
Yale University Press
As a teacher I have never been fond of sublime questions. What is truth? What is literature? When I think of the latter question I content myself with the answer that a work of literature is a book I would happily read twice. Or even more often. I read a crime novel only when I buy one at the airport before a transatlantic flight, and I discard it on arrival. But I can’t count how often I have read TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, WB Yeats’s Among School Children and Jane Austen’s Emma. Brahms, when Carmen was first produced in Vienna, in 1876, went to see it 20 times.
I fancy that someone at Yale University Press had a bright idea and said to Prof Terry Eagleton: “Give us a lively, populist ‘How to’ book about reading literature. Don’t raise any hard questions, but, if you do, give them a soft landing. Just tell people who don’t read English literature what it’s like, how you go about it. Don’t bother with ‘practical criticism’ of selected passages. You needn’t give references or declare your sources. Just go from one issue to another as you please – plot, character, theme, that sort of thing. Keep it all conversational, and put in a few cracks.”
So we have Eagleton’s 43rd book, or thereabouts. It begins with a joke and an error: “Like clog dancing, the art of analysing works of literature is almost dead on its feet.” Funny, but not true about critical analysis. Without trying hard, I can name a baker’s dozen of critics who can analyse novels, plays and poems superbly: James Wood, Michael Wood, J Hillis Miller, Gillian Beer, Rachel Bowlby, Louis Menand, Philip Fisher, Christopher Ricks, Terence Cave, Stanley Fish, Geoffrey Hill, Frank Lentricchia and Gérard Genette.
Riding to the rescue of “slow reading,” a bid Eagleton makes as if it were heroic, is not urgent. But he does well to describe a normal seminar, where a few students sit around a table discussing Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Student A says: “I can’t see what’s so great about Catherine’s relationship with Heathcliff. They’re just a couple of squabbling brats.” Student B: “Well, it’s not really a relationship at all, is it? It’s more like a mystical unity of selves. You can’t talk about it in everyday language.” Student C: “Why not? Heathcliff’s not a mystic, he’s a brute. The guy’s not some kind of Byronic hero; he’s vicious.” Student B retorts: “OK, so who made him like that? The people at the Heights, of course. He was fine when he was a child.” So it continues.