It is probably because when I was a young beginner, trying to write about literature, I did not feel encouraged or appreciated. Those were days of high theory in literary studies: it was naïve to be interested in realism, in emotion, in the human content of literature as I was. “Nobody came,” says Thomas Hardy of the plight of his own young idealist, “because nobody does.”
But I was very pleased when a friend recently sent me a book of literary criticism that he said I would like, and I did. This is rare: I am sick of university teachers treating literature as though it were a branch of something else—Social Studies, Gender Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Political Studies. The book was by Brigid Lowe and is called “Victorian Fiction and the Insights of Sympathy“.
It is a brave book, with one big simple message: all too often literary scholars merely use books (they call them “texts”) for the sake of their own agendas and careers. Here’s the novel; here’s the ideological agenda to which it is to be fitted; and here’s the critical mallet to whack it into shape. For example, this is from another recent book on “Victorian Sympathy” from Stanford University Press: “The Victorians were very interested in sympathy—which was all about consolidating the male sense of identity, and an early example of interpellation in action.” Ah, so that’s what it’s “all about”.
Instead Ms Lowe offers a vision of sympathy—both within Victorian novels and in the reading of them—that is too generous and too complex for prescriptive and self-righteous narrow-mindedness. A character in Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Gaskell” will have a prejudice, a theory, a plan or a principle—and then suddenly, when confronted by a particular person in a specific human situation and moved or pained, will give it all up. That’s what the novel does, and it is what novel reading helps to foster.
I was really looking forward Ms Lowe’s book making a stir. But in the Times Literary Supplement on Sunday, her book was loftily dismissed by a foremost American literary scholar. Ms Lowe is a member of the “younger generation” of literary scholars, the reviewer argues, but the book is rather “dated”. Apparently, all of Ms Lowe’s targets in the world of literary theory—Terry Eagleton, Mary Poovey, Catherine Gallagher, Roland Barthes, Edward Said and J.Hillis Miller—are not a problem any more. We have “gone on” to new ideas.
Well, you could have fooled me. But then the reviewer does one of those sneaky scholarly things designed to make fools of people. Lowe quotes with interest an argument from “In A Different Voice”, by Carol Gilligan: in tests to measure ethical development, where a moral person is (so narrowly) defined as one who can “effectively apply abstract principles of justice and fairness”, women did far worse than men because they got too interested in the particular case. Good for them! But our reviewer notes that Lowe quotes from the 1998 reprint of this “landmark book”, and, actually, “In A Different Voice” first appeared in 1982. Therefore Lowe too is “dated” (—and the Victorians, poor souls, presumably even more so).
I say to this distinguished reviewer as I said in my last posting: A Blog On You! Somebody had something important to say, but you did not want to hear her say it. You didn’t really offer an argument. Instead you made something true, regardless, into someone “dated” instead, just by being clever. It wouldn’t be morally good were you a scholar of Roman drainage systems (as I wish you were). But it is worse if you are a literary scholar, because literature should have made your intelligence more sympathetic. Let the curse stand on all such failures of university education: A Blog On All Your Houses.
(Philip Davis, author of “Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life”, is a professor of English literature at Liverpool University and editor of The Reader magazine. He will be speaking on Malamud at the 92nd Street Y in New York on October 31st.)