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.

Best of Blog: The Mouths of Women

Today is International Women’s Day, and in consequence I would like to talk about a particular part of a woman’s body that gets a great deal of attention. No, not that part. Not that one either.

I’m talking about the mouth.

Seems to me that we’re always talking about the mouths of women, and particularly we talk about what’s going into a woman’s mouth, or else what’s coming out. Succinctly, then:

What’s going in.Susan Bordo pointed out some years ago the sedimented notions of gender and eating in visual advertisements. In advertisements for food, she argued (with many examples), men eat and women prepare. Women serve food to their children and their men: they don’t eat it. If they do eat, it is in controlled portions with low calories which they make for themselves at a time when nobody else can see them. A woman is caught in a closet with a pint of low-cal Haagen-Dasz; a man swans off a diving board into a three-scoop bowl of chocolate ice cream with not a calorie counter in sight. Almost twenty years later I pick up a Woman’s Day magazine, and with very few exceptions, the same narratives obtain.

We have not even got as far as the whole fat thing yet, except to talk about calories, and since we’ve now had food scientists assert that it’s indeed the calories that taste good, we don’t even have to go there to talk about those calories. The narrative is: woman putting something in her mouth that gives her pleasure = suspect. If she hasn’t fed the kids first, outright transgressive. I’d love to see a growing preponderance of visual advertisements that depict a woman consuming something with enjoyment that does not suggest guilt (even by mentioning guilt’s absence) or sin or temptation or any other hovering transgressiveness.

What a woman consumes by mouth is naturally a metaphor for other kinds of appetite: hence the deep suspicion of contraception as a means of license for women’s sexual appetites which will be uncontrolled as soon as they are freed from the “consequences” that keep them in check, and a sense that anysatisfaction of that appetite must benefit the race in order to be licit.

Indeed, even women’s intellectual appetites are a transgression, as the whole plot of Gaudy Night draws out: a woman either has bad taste in novels, films, and public discourse, or else she is wasting time that would be better spent doing something useful.

All of this is so ubiquitous that to point it out is either to belabor the obvious or to draw a defensive response from the sex not concerned, and that brings me to the other function of mouths.

What’s coming out. My father’s favorite epithet for me when I was growing up was “sharp-tongued,” and though it was effective in making me feel unlovely and inappropriate by nature, what I often thought most when I heard it was that my tongue clearly wasn’t sharp enough, or it would have cut me an escape hole by now.

What actually happens when I open my mouth as an adult is that people say: “What?” “I’m sorry, speak up, I can’t hear you.” “Say that again?” Never is this more problematic than when I am invited into the pulpit: I have to project far beyond what feels comfortable in order to be sure of being heard, to push the envelope of ineffectual yelling to make sure my words are understood. In fact, just the other day I was in a restaurant with my mother and sister and brother, and the waiter had to ask every single one of us to repeat our order over the background noise. “We’re quiet talkers,” my mother said laughingly. Well…yes. That, I think, is its own comment.

Yet it’s not untrue that I can be sharp-tongued, as any longtime reader of my rants on this blog may be able to attest. But how much is this an indictment of my very being, and how much is the equally-sedimented notion that women’s voices are heard too much, that to be a woman and to call for redress or repentance or recognition is to be a scold and a harpy, to snatch unlawful airwaves and display inherent ignorance, to rebel against the rightful judgment imposed from without? If women are saddled with an anxiety of eating, surely they are equally saddled with an anxiety of speaking.

In this context let me compare two well-known passages from the Middle Ages. First, the Clerk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales ends his tale of patient Griselda with an envoie clearly intended as a smack at the Wife of Bath, whose prologue was longer than her tale. He says in part:

O noble wyves, ful of heigh prudence,
Lat noon humylitee your tonge naille,
Ne lat no clerk have cause or diligence
To write of yow a storie of swich mervaille
As of Grisildis pacient and kynde….
Folweth Ekko, that holdeth no silence,
But evere answereth at the countretaille….
Ye archewyves, stondeth at defense,
Syn ye be strong as is a greet camaille;
Ne suffreth nat that men yow doon offense.
And sklendre wyves, fieble as in bataille,
Beth egre as is a tygre yond in Ynde….
Ne dreed hem nat, doth hem no reverence,
For though thyn housbonde armed be in maille,
The arwes of thy crabbed eloquence
Shal perce his brest….

The words of women are clearly seen here as weapons to make men cower, and indeed are the only weapons available to them, since they are physically weaker and at a social disadvantage. “Ne suffreth nat that men yow doon offense” — you can practically hear the sarcasm dripping from the page — “Don’t let men get away with offending you by any means,” as if a woman ever does, amirite? Yet though a woman can beat a man down with words, he may well go down believing he was in the right all along, and aggrieved that he cannot retaliate with physical violence.

Compare the long-awaited appearance of Beatrice at the end of the Purgatorio, where she meets Dante not with gentle words but with a stern scolding:

“With inspirations, prayer-wrung for his sake,
Vainly in dreams and other ways as well
I called him home; so little did he reck.

And in the end, to such a depth he fell
That every means to save his soul came short
Except to let him see the lost in hell.

For this the gateway of the dead I sought,
And weeping, made request of him by whom
He has been raised thus far and hither brought.

It would do violence to God’s high doom
If Lethe could be passed, and ill-doers
To taste this blessed fare could straightway come

Without some forfeit of repentant tears….

O thou, yon side the sacred stream,” said she,
Turning the sharp point of her speech my way —
Though even the edge seemed sharp enough to me —

And thus continuing without delay;
“Say, say if this is true; so grave a charge
Requires thine own confession; therefore say.”

Dante’s response to this is to indeed give up the “forfeit of repentant tears,” to weep and admit his wrong before the whole company of the Earthly Paradise, and in fact to swoon at the overwhelming consciousness of this terrible truth. It is after that that Beatrice leads him up into Paradise, making him more able, the more he comprehends of Heaven, to look upon her beautiful smile.

There are two things to be said about this. One is that however problematic the doctrine of Courtly Love may be in other respects, it at least introduced the concept of a woman as a man’s liege-holder, who by his love for her “bears rule” over him and therefore has the right to so chastise him when he is in the wrong. This is a rule he offers her freely, but it is also a rule that reflects the reality of her dazzling effect on him.

Which leads me to the second thing. The figure of Beatrice is unequivocally put forward as a “God-bearer” to Dante — someone who is the image of God, or an image of God, to him who loves her. The Divine Comedy is the story of a particular man who encounters God in this particular way, but were we each to write our own Divine Comedy we should (if we are lucky) have our own God-bearing person or image to lead us home with such patience no matter how little we reck. The point is that women are, as men are, the image of God. And whether one thinks that God made us in God’s image, or we made God in ours, this truth still holds — that we, humanity, this quintessence of dust, are nevertheless a brightness we can show to one another and to bear rule over one another, and we show our Godlikeness in our gift of language.

We humans have mouths, by which we eat and drink, and from which we speak, and I am taking this time out of my day to say that half of us should bear well in mind that we are fundamentally allowed to eat and drink and speak. We are anxious because the power to eat and drink and speak is presented to us as a power we have no right to. But it’s just not true.

Because women are the image of God.

[Originally published 3/8/2012]

Best of Blog: friendship essays

Back when I started the project that became Ryswyck, I felt pretty lonely talking about friendship as a driving moral imperative in stories. Now, though, my friends link me to Twitter discussions of friendship as an Actual Love, and big-name bloggers are tagging friendship as the stuff to give the troops, as Bertie Wooster would say.

So I decided to file some of my past posts on the subject as Best of Blog articles on this site. (The Writer and Eucatastrophe also technically counts as a best of blog article, but since it’s as close to a manifesto for this site as I’m ever going to write, it gets its own menu link.) Eventually I’ll probably add more posts from the ol’ catacombs, but this is obviously the most pressing and relevant topic, so here they are:

Let the Circle Be Unbroken: Friendship and eros in stories, originally published 12/31/13

and its later sequel

Friendship, Eros, and some notes on the Queen’s Thief series, originally published 5/24/17.

(I note that the tone of these articles, especially the first, is rather defensive; years in fandom has exposed me to a lot of shipping drama, and if you’re going to come out and say you prefer gen stories rather than erotic ones, you have to hedge it all around with assurances that you’re not some kind of purity freak, or outright homophobe for that matter. Let’s just say for the record that the Nutrition Facts on this site do not include either purity freakage or homophobia.)

By the way, if you have not yet discovered Megan Whalen Turner‘s Queen’s Thief books, you are so in for a treat. I can’t even remember who put me on to these books (probably R.J. Anderson, but it’s lost in the mists of time), but they are fabulous, clever, innovative, compelling, and witty and you should go read them right now (while you’re waiting for Ryswyck to come out).

There, I think that will do it for today.