Monday, February 07, 2005

Top ten lists, literary criticism, and the pleasures of pointlessness

Over at Wordmunger, Dave has a smart posting from a few days back in favor of charting a middle course on the subject of literary criticism: good criticism (which I take to mean interpretations of literature informed by theory) and theory (which I take to mean treaties on how to read literature that may or may not include examples) can do much to illuminate our readings of the books and poems we love. Putting things through a theory machine (theorist + text = brilliant reading) doesn’t exactly inspire.

But I am guessing, from what I see on the web, that blogging itself is an outgrowth of the frustration with theory’s inability to connect to the experience of reading. In spite of Chekhov’s Mistress’ musings over the impact of Top Ten lists (such as the one at the Guardian), the real message I hear--and not just in this one post--is of excitement about this new opportunity to write about reading, even if it seems sometimes like all we're doing is writing about other blogs. (He manages to strike an admirably detached tone over the feeling of being left off, moreso of surprise at who else is left off, and about the impact of mainstream journalism suddenly seeming to want to notice.)

I’m not all that interested, in the end, in reading more about theory’s failures. I have found many things of value in the theory I’ve read. What gets me excited, though, is the idea that somewhere on the web, I can be reminded, every day, of Samuel Pepys and that, in thinking of his diary or Addison’s Spectator, I can think of the ways in which what we’re doing is and isn’t like that; that I can hear a great story about the best spy novels ever on NPR (but miss the list) and then be reminded of it again, thanks to The Elegant Variation; that Jenny Davidson over at Light Reading, is combing Michael Chabon’s gigantic website to find that he’s writing an introduction to the D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths and that, finding it, I am inspired again.

I think, I hope, in my happiest moments, that we are inventing a new way to talk about literature right here.


genevieve said...

Hi Anne, visiting from Bud's place and thanks for the interesting post. I agree there is a place between theory and criticism where serious readers should gather, and have had a ball following the conversation since I happened upon TEV discussing The Great Fire last October or so. Is it new? I'm not sure, speaking from a more insular literary culture here in Australia, I'm starting to think a little about what is and isn't different about this. But it is certainly fun.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Genevieve.
(The Hollander book is amazing.)
This is an old conversation, I do think that blogs give it a new spin. But, it's at least as old as the beginning of the professors writing about English literature (think Matthew Arnold or so--Victorian days). Some people always have found professors (and I am one) dusty, boring, deadening while others have gotten tired of the lack of rigor in more essayistic writing.
Australia, by the way, is wildly ahead of the curve in being smart about how to write intellectually about things other than literature--cultural studies.