The Distinction of Literature: part one of a series

A couple years ago, at my local independent bookstore, I picked up The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter. I already admired Alter greatly for his contributions to the study of the Bible as literature (and have been lusting, if that’s the word I want, after his new translation of the Hebrew scriptures), so I snapped this book up thinking it might be fun.

Not surprisingly, it’s turned out to be a book I return to engage with again and again, and not only because it was written shortly before I started my undergraduate and then graduate studies in English literature. Alter’s characterization of the critical scene at that time is amusingly familiar. I’ve been out of the academy for 20 years, and this book was written 30 years ago, so there’s a sense in which I’m picking up a conversation with Alter 30 years late. But in another sense, the “ideological” age Alter is writing about is no longer just a description of the critical scene; and more than that, Alter’s treatment of the components of literary skill has worn well enough to be perenially useful.

The chapters of Alter’s book, in fact, are useful enough that I’d had it in mind to write a blog post or two talking about one or more of them in connection with my own approach both to reading and writing. But a recent reread of the book has prompted me to think I might want more of a series than that. So this is a post addressing the basic argument Alter delineates in his introduction and first chapter; other posts will tackle the functions of literary skill and merit that he identifies in other chapters.

Here’s a rough-faced summary of the argument. Alter asserts that although literary studies in academia promised to benefit from the structuralist and post-structuralist theory that challenged the ivory-tower, New-Critical style of literary criticism, by the time of Alter’s writing the study of literature has wound up in a boondoggle of doing things to texts for ideological purposes, scarcely ever reading them on any terms but polemical ones, and as far as Alter can tell, never recognizing or enjoying literary art at all.

He’s not exactly wrong. When I was an undergraduate, and even more in graduate school, I could usually be counted on to provide the least ideologically sophisticated responses to the texts on the syllabus. To say what the reading of the book has done to you, rather than demonstrate your proficiency at doing things to it, was at best precious and droll. But I couldn’t stop doing it; and that may be the true motivating factor (besides, of course, money) why I did not persist in academia after getting my MA.

So I don’t really have a quarrel with Alter’s overarching argument. But the last time I looked this book up on Amazon, its reviews had a lot of praise along the lines of the phrase “breath of fresh air” from backlashy types who were all too eager not only to criticize the ideological boondoggle but to heap scorn on what Harold Bloom liked to call “the School of Resentment” — “politically”-motivated scholars whose minority status made them delicate snowflakes in need of crushing with the shovel of reality. But scorn is not Alter’s project at all — and so this blog post is to deal with the distinctions that need to be made.

“All study of literature must emerge from and return to reading,” Alter says in his introduction, and follows it with a statement of the main theme: “Literary language is an intricate, inventively designed vehicle for setting the mind in restless pleasing motion, which in the best of cases may give us a kind of experiential knowledge relevant to our lives outside reading.” He is critical of the idea that the literary canon, loosely conceived, is nothing more than a vehicle of hegemony for congratulating itself, without taking Bloom’s tack of rejecting all criticism of the canon itself.

Alter only mentions Bloom a couple of times, and I resent (heh, see what I did there) doing so more than once in a short blog post, but it’s like shooting one big sturgeon in a barrel, really; it’s not to be helped. Bloom built his academic brand on the idea that great literature is so because its writers have engaged the tradition with serious intent and succeeded by overcoming their own idiosyncrasies to become, as Alter says, “relevant,” to broaden the scope of what might be called universally human. That most women and other minorities have failed to do this is, for Bloom but not for Alter, merely incidental. Alter has no axe to grind here; he just wants to read a damn book and talk about why it’s good.

But I don’t think Alter entirely achieves a distinction between the operation of the canon, “the impulse of self-recapitulation” that keeps the tradition going as a recognizably literary endeavor, and the ontology of the canon, the thing that makes a text worth recognizing as literary art. He warns the reader that the examples he will choose to illustrate elements of literary skill are not diverse because he wants immediately recognizable texts to hand for his discussion. The unfortunate phrase “affirmative action quotas” crept in there at one point. I can distinguish this from Bloom’s project of apotheosizing the Western Canon, but it just points up the problem that has not, as we know, gone away at all.

Let’s take as an example Ann Leckie’s groundbreaking SFF novel Ancillary Justice. It became a bestseller on its publication in 2014 and won the Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo Awards, and thereby was admitted to a canon, if not “the Western Canon” of literary art. It also drew a massive backlash that went on to affect how the Hugo Awards themselves were conducted in the future.

At contention was, among other things, Leckie’s use of a single pronoun to refer to all human persons in the novel, a pronoun that was used without distinctions and meant clearly to be universal in its comprehension of human identity. The pronoun was she. Now, there were (and are) plenty of thoroughgoing misogynists ready to state baldly that females and the feminine are representative of nothing but themselves, that to truly denote universal humanity you need a man. But this is an idea that is thoroughly sedimented in us all; and Leckie’s book required every reader to grapple with it.

Ancillary Justice‘s detractors used the argument, tellingly, that the book really had no literary merit and also no true popularity except among people with an ideological agenda. It could neither be valued nor enjoyed. Apparently, the pleasures of reading Ann Leckie’s book in an ideological age are either 100% or zero.

I’m pretty sure Alter would see the problem with this. And the question must be asked: can we appreciate the “high fun of literary art” of a text like Ancillary Justice if we have not already entertained the idea that the experiences and insights of women and other minorities can stand as relevant and representative, without asterisks or qualifications, of the human condition that art is made to speak to? I can’t help but think of how even after instituting blind auditions, women still weren’t getting into orchestras…until carpet was put down to hide the telltale clack of high heels when the auditioner came in. Then, amazingly, the acceptance rate quickly reached parity.

Without throwing Alter’s argument out the window wholesale, I would say that interrogating the canon(s) of literary art is not just a parity project but vital to the development of the very functions of skill and merit that Alter would like to see recentered in our minds when we pick up a book. And it is with those reservations that I appreciate the chapters that follow.

So stay tuned for more in this series on such topics as character, style, structure, and perspective. And ignore the acacia trees that grew overhead while I was writing this post, heh.

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