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Archive for July 28th, 2009

July 28th, 2009 • Posted in Literary Criticism

More ‘life’ required in Literary Criticism

"It is not merely an upsurge in “productivity”, he says "nor a shift to criticism-as-performance. The problem is with a kind of literary criticism more intensive than a language has ever known, a kind of criticism that has only grown more intensive since [John Crowe] Ransom’s day. Its microscopic focus, the stretching of its subject to excessive lengths, its fervid humorlessness, its exclusive concern with a text’s inner tensions to the utter neglect of literature’s extensions—the references and even the applications to a world outside the text—have narrowed the appeal of literary criticism and quite naturally cost it readers."

"to return from interpretation (which includes both criticism-as-explication and criticism-as-performance) to a more traditional scholarly conception of literary study. Scholars do not seek merely, in Bauerlein’s phrase, “to write something new and different”; they seek to contribute something new and different to knowledge. They are not satisfied with new “approaches.” They demand new facts, new sources, new intelligence.

Literary criticism has been narrowed, not merely in its “approach,” but in its subject matter. When I took up the question of Richard Russo’s Catholicism in Empire Falls yesterday, I consulted the MLA Bibliography to find the previous criticism on the novel. Eight years after its publication, only three articles on it have been published—and one of those, by Joseph Epstein in Commentary, was a review-essay on it and Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections. In the same period of time, sixty-four publications have appeared just on The Sound and the Fury."

Both men speak of a concept of literary study which involves ‘life:’ Bauerleinin calling for more direct interaction between student and teacher; Meyer advocating study that relates to the real world. Both calls are laudable. They tend to bolster arguments made by Mark Edmunsdon in his book Why Read?, arguments I plan to write supportively about when I engage with Adrian Michael Kelly over his unfair, I think, pegging of Edmunsdon as a ‘secular profit who uses literature ‘as a program for moral and political improvement.’
July 28th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression

Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish quotes one Tyler Cowen who thinks we should put down bad books:

[Cowen] finishes one book for every five to 10 he starts. "People have this innate view — it comes from friendship and marriage — that commitment is good. Which I agree with," he says. That view shouldn’t, he says, carry over to inanimate objects. It’s not that he’s not a voracious reader — he finishes more than a book a day, not including the "partials." He just wants to make the most of his time. "We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels," he argues. No one has trouble flipping away from a boring series.

and then, plugging e-books,  suggests that economics may be reason enough not to finish a book: sunk costs:

"If a reader paid $25 for a book, it’s a lot harder for them to put it down after ten pages than if a publishing house sent you a free review copy. That’s why e-books make more sense. They cost less and so the investment is lower. By the way, I think the same principle should apply to meals. If Americans simply left half their food on the plate, most of our obesity issues would disappear."

I’d say it’s more about time and boredom.

Dr. Johnson used to enjoy starting ‘pedestrian and solemn’ scholars, as biographer W. Jackson Bate once put it, by flaunting his inability to ‘read books through.’ As he said to Mrs. Thrale: ‘how few books are there of which one ever can possibly arrive at the last page!’ Or to one William Bowles: ‘I have read few books through; they are generally so repulsive that I cannot."

Apropos of which, one of my favourite Johnson remarks, via Boswell, via here: ’ "what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read."

July 28th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

John Ashbery on Francis Bacon: Ugly, Obscene, Terrifying, Human World

I plan to catch the Francis Bacon Centenary Retrospective at the Met next week. Here, from Reported Sighting, Art Chronicles 1957-87, by John Ashbery (yes, he wrote/writes about art) is what Bacon has to say about things:

That is why real painting is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance – mysterious because the very substance of the paint, when used in this way, can make such a direct assault upon the nervous system: continuous because the medium is so fluid and subtle that every change that is made loses what is already there in the hope of making a fresh gain. I think painting today is pure intuition and luck and taking advantage of what happens when you splash the stuff down…"

Here’s Ashbery (writing in the New York Herald Tribune in 1963) on Bacon:

"His subject matter is still man in the horror of his isolation – naked and obscene on a studio couch, or grinning baboon-like from behind a desk. Yet, strangely enough, Bacon’s work is neither horrible nor depressing. HIs tremendous gifts crowd out all feelings but admiration, and after the initial shock, one begins to feel on almost friendly terms with the creatures in his zoo. It may be an ugly, obscene and terrifying world, but it is also a deeply human one."

July 28th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Hail, Haul or Hale? Common Errors in English

"One old meaning of the word “hale” is “to drag,” especially by force. In modern usage it has been replaced with “haul” except in the standard phrase “hale into court.” People who can’t make sense of this form often misspell the phrase as “hail into court.” To be hailed is to be greeted enthusiastically, with praise. People haled into court normally go reluctantly, not expecting any such warm reception."

Check out this fun site for more corrections to common errors in English. More? Go here. And/or here.