The Right Questions To Ask About Literature

Harvard’s Marjorie Garber gets them all wrong.

Marjorie Garber

Marjorie Garber’s new book brought me back to my days as an English professor; I thought I was reading a freshman essay. My marginal comments might as well have been written in red: “What is the point of this paragraph?” “Where are we in the argument—and what exactly is the argument?” “Sloppy thinking.” “You need to unpack this.” “Again, is there a point here, or just a mass of notes?” “You have to develop your thesis, not just keep reiterating it.” The Use and Abuse of Literature purports to be a rallying cry for serious reading by a decorated and prolific Harvard professor, but once you pick your way through its heap of critical detritus—its mildewed commonplaces and shot-springed arguments, its half-chewed digressions and butt ends of academic cliché—you uncover underneath it all a single dubious and self-serving claim: that the central actor in the literary process is, what do you know, the English professor.

Garber begins with the ancient question of pleasure vs. use. Is literature valuable because it feels good or because it’s good for you? Her answer is, neither: It is valuable as a “way of thinking.” This is the thesis she keeps belaboring: that literary thinking means endless interpretability, the never-ending multiplication of meanings, questions leading not to answers but to further questions. Literature isn’t “about” anything but itself, refuses “to be grounded or compromised by referentiality” and so must be disentangled from issues of its “outcome, impact, and application”—that is, of pleasure or use.

Needless to say, the common reader (whom Garber condescends to as “a crucial ancillary part of the world of readers,” though she’s paraphrasing Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf and may dispute the “crucial” part) is not up to the task. For that we need the heroic professor. “A manifesto for literary studies”—literary studies, mind, not literature—”will claim for it an unapologetic freestanding power to change the world.” How? By “asking literary questions: questions about the way something means, rather than what it means.”

The argument is both remarkable and banal. Banal, because the self-enclosure of the literary artifact has been a commonplace of theory since the New Criticism of the 1930s—in fact, since the art-for-art’s-sake aestheticism of the late and indeed the early 19th century. Remarkable, because it cuts literature off from the very thing it most obviously wants to connect to: the world. Garber speaks of a procession of meanings, but what does she think meaning means? We can (and should) debate what Hamlet has to say about the moral content of violence, or the burden of the past, or yes, the nature of language, but when we do we’re making claims about the play’s ideas about that which lies outside itself. Yes, I said “ideas”—a dirty word in criticism these past many decades, but a fair one nonetheless.

Because literature, for Garber, is self-enclosed, so are literary studies. The point of asking questions, it seems, is just to ask questions. Call it crit for crit’s sake. That is the reason that Garber can only repeat her central idea, never take the risk of explaining or exemplifying it. Why does literary reading have the “freestanding power to change the world”? Does it make us more alert, more skeptical, more humble, more open? She can’t say, because any one of those would be a “use.”

The answer to the use-pleasure conundrum is not neither, but both. What is more, they are the same thing. “Use” does not mean instruction, as it did to Horace or the Victorians, the inculcation of virtue through the presentation of moral exempla. It means awareness. Literature is “useful” because it wakes us up from the sleepwalk of self-involvement—of plans, anxieties, resentments, habits, the fog that clings to our eyes as we stumble through the day, stumble through our lives—and shows us the world, shows us ourselves, shows us life and experience and the reality of other people, and forces us to think about them all. The pleasure of serious literature is not escape or fantasy, it is this very shiver of consciousness, this troubling exhilaration. Reading is thinking and feeling, both at once and both together, simultaneous and identical. Pleasure is use, use pleasure.

The distinction between “the way something means” and “what it means” is equally false. No, poems aren’t essays. Literature expresses meaning through form—which is why it needs to be explicated, not paraphrased. But we discover the “what” by examining the “way.” Form and meaning go together like letters and words. How you can look at one without the other I don’t really understand, though I certainly believe that it happens in a lot of classrooms. That kind of approach is all practice and no game, all cleverness and no conviction. As such it’s of a piece with Garber’s prose, which exhibits the weaseliness of a lot of contemporary academic writing. “We might want to make the … claim that,” she writes at one point, a phrase that backs away three steps from any kind of commitment. True to her theory of literary thinking, Garber’s favorite expository tactic is to reel off a skein of questions, then drift on to the next topic without braving an answer: not question-answer-question, understanding deepening through successive turns of analysis, just question-question-question, rhetoric glibly skimming the surface.

Garber devotes one of her longest chapters to another old warhorse: What is literature? Does a piece of writing achieve literary status by virtue of its intrinsic quality, or only as a product of social consensus? Garber plumps for the second, of course. She’d practically have her Ph.D. revoked if she didn’t. That’s the first thing you learn when you get to graduate school: that the notion of literary value is hopelessly naïve, even pernicious, a white male heterosexual bourgeois conspiracy. In fairness, Garber is half-right. Standards of value do change. Any number of literary genres, as she explains, have risen from disrepute to literary respectability: ballads in the Romantic age, novels in the 19th century, Renaissance ephemera such as sermons, tracts, and conduct manuals in recent decades.

But she is also half-wrong. “Is it literature,” she says, is not the right question. “A better question might be ‘Is it responsive to literary reading?’ Are these texts … ones of which … a critic can usefully ask literary questions?” The critic, again, at the center of the enterprise. But ballads and novels didn’t rise to literary status because of English professors, for the simple reason that there weren’t any yet. They did so because, despite their lowly standing, certain readers found them—yes—valuable: in particular, the most important readers, other writers. As for Renaissance ephemera, the only people who read them are the ones who make a career out of studying them (and the students who take their classes).

“Is it literature?” is indeed the wrong question, but the right one is “Is it good?” Devising a test of literary merit is not actually that hard. Here it is: Would you read the thing again? Not for a course or a monograph, but just because you want to. No, this doesn’t constitute a measure of universal value—art is personal; art is subjective—but it does begin to get us to the next best thing. For when we add up all the little “yous”—when a lot of people, in different places, over many years, have answered that question in the affirmative—we arrive at something like intrinsic quality: not universal, not eternal, but widespread and long-lasting, which is the closest we can hope for in human affairs. Books are unjustly forgotten, Auden said, but they’re never unjustly remembered.

The thing is, Garber believes this herself, she just won’t permit herself to acknowledge it. I don’t know how you can teach literature without believing it. How would you decide what to put on your syllabi, if some sense of value or worth didn’t enter your thinking? Garber makes all the right contextualist noises—”art made out of non-literary writing is literature if it is presented and received as such”—but she also says, about discovering the language of the King James Bible, “I … found my way to some of the greatest examples of English prose and poetry.” “Greatest”? Sounds like a value judgment. In fact, Garber’s standard of criticizability is itself a value judgment. “Is it responsive to literary reading?” is just a way of saying, “Is it good enough to be worth looking at carefully?”

Critics and professors, to paraphrase Garber, are a crucial ancillary part of the world of readers. The main reason they aren’t more is that writers do not write for them. They write for the common reader, and above that, for other writers, the most qualified judges of their work. Another reason, though, is exemplified by Garber’s vacillations and confusions (self-enclosure vs. referentiality, form vs. meaning, intrinsic value vs. social construct). Professors are usually too worried about striking the right attitudes to be honest about their responses. The abuse of literature begins with that. Reading, like politics, is not a thing that should be left to the professionals.