Reviews in the Wild: The Use and Abuse of Literature

Why read literature?  Why read literature about literature?  Does literature have value only as it shows good vs. evil, or is it amoral?  And do technological developments in publishing influence the ways we consider such questions?

Marjorie Garber, a distinguished Shakespeare scholar at Harvard, digs into these complexities in her recent book The Use and Abuse of Literature (Pantheon, 2011).  But Novelist Todd Gitlin, in a review in The New Republic, while joining Garber in bemoaning that “reading has devolved into a means for the efficient conveyance of information,” provocatively pushes back:

Lovers of literature insist, or pray, that their stock-in-trade not be dehydrated, shrink-wrapped, freeze-dried, shaken down, translated, or otherwise reduced to shadows of grander somethings — ideologies, deep structures of consciousness, hard-wired linguistic capacities, or some other fundamentals. If literature were a person, she would be freaking out….

Nowadays, those who write about literature seem even less sure of themselves. The situation is worse in the academy, where literature migrated to take refuge from the gross marketplace, only to discover that the professors no longer found literature quite so interesting or exclusive. … provosts want to know, what is the study of texts worth ? Neuroscience labs, econometric models, and computer science are obviously sexy, but who really needs George Eliot? …

Do not approach books as if they need to be unmasked, Garber insists. Do not tell them to come out with their hands up. Do not reduce Proust to a series of talking points. Do not repackage Tolstoy as a self-help manual. “We do literature a real disservice if we reduce it to knowledge or to use, to a problem to be solved. If literature solves problems, it does so by its own inexhaustibility, and by its ultimate refusal to be applied or used even for moral good.” But then she tries to have her text while eating it: “This refusal, indeed, is literature’s most moral act.” The question she does not answer is, Why trouble literature with the need for moral acts? Why not leave it alone, to be itself?

Gitlin’s review addresses the “non-‘about’-ness of literature,” the memoir craze that “makes everyone a hero,” and a Sarah Palin School of Literary Studies wherein “Dan Brown would be canonized.”  Read the full review as posted as Powell’sBookBlog.

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