How to Read Literature, by Terry Eagleton

After more than 40 books, the prolific professor is asking the wrong questions

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:10


Book Title:
How to Read Literature


Terry Eagleton

Yale University Press

Guideline Price:

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.

Eagleton asks us: “What is wrong with this discussion?” His answer, much to the point, is that if you were listening to the discussion and had never heard of Wuthering Heights, you would “find nothing to suggest that it was about a novel”. It could be gossip about some friends of the students.

Eagleton’s point is valid. Literature is literature. The only trouble with his intervention is that the way the students talk about Wuthering Heights is the way Eagleton himself writes about every novel he supposedly analyses in the present book and in Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (1999).

He writes about the characters in Jude the Obscure and Great Expectations as if they were people just like you and me, only different. “Joe’s job as a blacksmith involves a good deal of hammering, and so does Mrs Joe’s treatment of Pip.” Magwitch “is, after all, the unwitting source of much of Pip’s trouble”. That’s Eagleton, but it’s also the way Student B talks when he gets going. Eagleton writes 19 pages about Great Expectations without quoting a single passage for the slow reading he favours.

Then he adds several pages on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to say that Harry is “English literature’s favorite orphan these days” and to wonder why “Harry uses his wand to clean a filthy handkerchief which he has used to scour an oven”. “Why not just use the wand to scour the oven?” he asks. I have no answer.

As for his sources, he normally says, “as one critic famously remarked”, instead of just calling him Vivian Mercier. I see, without looking hard, clear traces of Borges, Eliot, Northrop Frye and FR Leavis.

A long chapter on value shows the best of Eagleton and the not so good. He descends into embarrassing frivolities: “Enjoyment is more subjective than evaluation. Whether you prefer peaches to pears is a question of taste, which is not quite true of whether you think Dostoevsky a more accomplished novelist than John Grisham.”

These are different questions, and trivial. I might prefer peaches to pears and think Dostoevsky more accomplished than Grisham and still prefer to read Grisham to help me fall asleep. Eagleton drifts from one nonsense to another: “Dostoevsky is better than Grisham in the sense that Tiger Woods is a better golfer than Lady Gaga. Anyone who understands fiction or golf well enough would be almost bound to sign up to such judgments.”

Or, I would say, to brush the question away as rubbish. Tiger Woods is a professional golfer, Lady Gaga is not, so there is no comparison: “The point is that there are criteria for determining what counts as excellence in golf or fiction, as there are not for determining whether peaches taste better than pineapples.”

In fact, there are no such criteria, if by criteria we mean a structure of values held in common by the society that reads the books in question. “And these criteria are public, not just a question of what one happens privately to prefer. You have to learn how to handle them by sharing in certain social practices. In the case of literature, these social practices are known as literary criticism.”

Wrong again. These social practices do not form criteria. Stanley Fish differs from Samuel Johnson on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Christopher Ricks differs from Yvor Winters on The Waste Land.

Ordinarily, as Kenneth Burke writes in A Grammar of Motives, one approaches a poem, play or novel “with a well-formed analytic terminology prior to the given analysis, and derives observations from the nature of this terminology”. The terms are like “principles” (or like prejudices, I would say), “and the particular observations are like the judicial casuistry involved in the application of principles that are always in some respects unique”.

To see Eagleton engaged in such judicial casuistry, turn to the last pages of his book, where he chooses a passage from each of five works of fiction and tries to persuade you to deduce his principles from his comments, and to accept the principles as you might accept another proffered faith. I don’t accept his faith, if only because he has not given me enough evidence, or a sufficiently winning narrative. The chosen passages are from John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest, Evelyn Waugh’s short story Tactical Exercise, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Carol Shields’s The Republic of Love. Eagleton rounds off this chapter and the book with a stanza from each of three poems, Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon, Amy Lowell’s The Weather-Cock Points South and William McGonagall’s River Bridge of the Silvery Tay.

But Eagleton’s terms are not self-enforcing. Bad writing, they imply, is clever, calculated, glossy, voulu, slick, busy, contrived. Good writing is spontaneous, serviceable, economical, crisp, quiet, realist. These discriminations could only be sustained by a critique of manners, behaviours and social practices. In the absence of such a critique, Eagleton is asking us to take his words for values he has not earned.

Denis Donoghue teaches in the English department at New York University.