Wednesday, January 06, 2010

In which the Meridian becomes the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of literary criticism

The abandoned--and more-or-less-preserved--room of David Rodinsky, a reclusive Jewish scholar living in England who disappeared in 1969 but whose residence (this room--itself inside a long-forgotten former synagogue) wasn't found until 1980. More information here; image found here. You'll see at the latter link a critique of projects involving Rodinsky that they often end up saying less about Rodinsky than they do about the project-maker--which, of course, is the way it often goes in the lit. crit. game.

Hey! A new decade (and its first Epiphany, at that) requires a new paradigm!

Over at the House of Leaves forum's "Out of the Way" section, forum participant katatonic alerted us to something called My Life Is Twilight, in which people, some of whom are fans, some of whom are tugging the reader's leg with the intent to dismember, share brief vignettes about how moments from and people in their lives have come to resemble events and characters in Stephanie Meyer's tetralogy. (Full disclosure: I finished reading Eclipse a couple of days ago and had shared this in the forum, prompting kat's post.)

Looking at My Life Is Twilight led me to wonder how many, if any, of the post-ers there would move on to a more sophisticated engagement with the books; one thing led to another, and . . .

The Five Stages of Literary Criticism

(Aren't y'all glad y'all checked y'all's Google feeds today?)

First Stage: "Incoherent Admiration/Hatred." This stage occurs upon an initial encounter with a book; it consists chiefly of gasps of pleasure/anger and nothing more. It's an entirely visceral, all but unarticulated response to the book. This is not a bad thing, I hasten to add. One has to start somewhere. Besides: This is the make-or-break stage for the book-reader encounter.

One of my most memorable First Stage encounters with a book occurred just this past fall, as I sat down one day at Barnes & Noble to read the first few pages of a new book, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larson. After a few minutes of reading, I noticed my mouth was aching and wondered why. It was because, I realized, I'd been smiling so broadly almost from the get-go. I felt two things in that moment: a) a bit goofy; b) certain that this was a good book if it was making me smile like that. If you've not seen this book yet, go. Now. It's beautifully-made and beautifully-written (what I've read of it).

Second Stage: "Admiration/Hatred Incorporating Subjects, Verbs and Modifiers and, Often, Ellipses and Exclamation Points." The last two sentences of the above paragraph are examples of the Second Stage. This is the territory of the Blurb. You know the rhetorical work of this stage: It's the provocatively-unbuttoned blouse, the exposed bulging pectorals of the book-promotion world, intended to (a)rouse interest in the book-browser to the point of turning him/her into a book-buyer. It is, in its essence, the First Stage put into words, with a dash of an ethos appeal in the form of the reviewer's name and/or the publication where the review appeared: It conveys, mostly, the reviwer's emotional response to the work but shies away from an actual reading (that is, an interpretation) of the book.

Because the Second Stage is what it is, it is the most disingenuous of the stages. It's most often deployed to Sell Books. Among friends, it's harmless enough: we want to encourage others to read what we've enjoyed reading. The thing, in either case, is not to mistake the Second Stage for being more sophisticated than it actually is.

The remaining stages are below the fold.

Third Stage: "Confusion of Book with Real Life." The Third Stage incorporates not just stuff like My Life Is Twilight but also, in my experience, a whole lot of supposedly-sophisticated lit. crit. of the sort popular in the '80s and '90s. This is the territory of those who argue that Huckleberry Finn is a racist novel because of the number of times the word "nigger" appears in it--or, for that matter, that it is the most-enlightened novel on the subject of race in the American canon. (Neither is true.) This is the territory of theory-driven readings, of over-reading (the mistaking of one's own predilections or obsessions or personal knowledge or experiences or beliefs for those of the novel or its characters or narrator or author), the territory of arguing that some sort of modern-day academic/patriarchal/matriarchal/liberal/conservative conspiracy has to have kept a given work out of the canon because of its challenge to said cabal. Most Third Stage criticism is sincere and well intended, I'm persuaded. It's just awfully limited and, I'm afraid, pretty simplistic. Its simultaneous virtue and liability is that it is easy to write. Much of it will be forgotten within 10 years of its being written.

Fourth Stage: "The Book Becomes Text" (also known as, "Actually, You Know, Reading the Damned Thing"). I think I ran into one of these just today at the bookstore. While browsing the shelves, I saw yet another paperback edition of Don DeLillo's great postmodern novel White Noise, this one with an introduction by a novelist I much admire, Richard Powers. In the intro., Powers talks about his memory of first reading the novel, almost 30 years ago now, and then the experience of re-reading it now for purposes of writing the intro. To engage in a bit of Second-Stage crit. here, Powers discusses it honestly: he notes that some particulars in DeLillo's novel have dated, but its depiction of an information-saturated world filled with gizmos we've got to have but barely understand, a world where truth is relative (if it exists at all) but we still seek Ultimte Answers remains at once very funny, very sad, and very true. It's a good Fourth-Stage intro, in other words: he claims nothing more or less for the novel than what it is, but it's not a full reading. That comes in the . . .

Fifth Stage: "Sober, Thoughtful Assessment (That Still Can Be Extraordinarily Wrong-Headed)." This is the realm of the New York Review of Books-style long review and the book-length study of a writer, and individual work, or a theme. These are the works that don't become dated come the next decade's -isms (those would be examples of Third Stage work) but, instead, remain starting points for the work of others, works to be built on further or argued against so as to set up what one hopes is one's own Fifth Stage work.

As to examples, I have numerous ones I could name, but one I'll mention here is one I've blogged about here several times before, Richard Poirier's A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature. At least for the ways of talking about American literature that I think are most valuable, Poirier's book, now over 40 years old, remains for me the embodiment of Fifth Stage lit. crit.

And one last thing: As you all know, Dr. Kübler-Ross's fifth stage of dying is Acceptance. While it's very true that much criticism seems more interested in itself than in the work it purports to explicate, Fifth Stage lit. crit., I'd contend, actually gives new life to the work or idea in question. It helps the reader to see that work or idea in a new way.

* * *

So: there you go: the first paradigm of the new decade! I feel like I can sit back and take it easy for a couple of years now.


R. Sherman said...

I'm trying to get the Elder Son out of Stage One . . . threats are being deployed.


John B. said...

Ask him to use his words, then ask him what in the book causes him to respond in that way. I do this with my own students; it usually works. Of course, I have a bit of power over them; you're kinda obligated, as the Official Patriarch, to love him unconditionally and stuff.