Imagine that you are listening to a book club discuss a novel. Let’s say it’s Lisa Moore’s bestseller February, this year’s survivor of Canada Reads and a likely choice for the months and meetings ahead. One woman says she loved the book because she identifies with Helen O’Mara’s grief. Another says she’s sick of sorrow: “Welcome to the unrelenting self-regard of CanLit,” she says. “It’s all about nobly suffering women…me, me, me and my extraordinary capacity for sadness.”
A handsome man disagrees, insisting that Moore has told a Canadian story about a Canadian tragedy that all Canadians should know about and that speaks to all of Canada. “Happy Friday,” he adds. The young woman next to him agrees, but wishes the novel had been more attentive to the environment.
British literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s new book starts by asking you to imagine a similar conversation, a group of university students discussing Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. For Eagleton, the problem with both conversations is the same: Both discuss everything about these novels except the qualities that make them novels, works of imaginative literature.
What’s missing from our classrooms and our culture, Eagleton says, is discussion of the literariness of literature, of what makes a poem different from a stop sign, or a novel about grief different from the account of grief in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As an English professor might say, we’re good on content, not so good on form. We go straight for what the play says, and ignore how it says it.
Enter How to Read Literature, the latest book from one of the best and busiest English professors in the world. In just over 200 pages, Prof. Eagleton sets out to revive the dying art of literary analysis – not in theory, but by example. The first three chapters provide practical tips for understanding literary fundamentals such as style, characterization and narration; the last two teach literary interpretation and evaluation. Throughout, Eagleton provides extensive examples through close readings of the canon’s usual suspects, with an occasional detour into folk literature like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or the Harry Potter novels.
In his final chapter, Eagleton argues that like literary analysis, literary evaluation must be learned through practice. Taste, he says, can justifiably prefer peaches to pears. But “there comes a point at which not recognizing that, say, a certain brand of malt whisky is of world-class quality means not understanding malt whisky.” To reach that point, you have to learn the public criteria for what counts as excellence – you can’t just make up criteria, for fiction no less than for Scotch – and you have to practise those criteria in public, testing and adjusting them against new books and other judgments. We learn how to understand and appreciate literature through public practice, whether in a book club, a classroom, or the set of social practices known as literary criticism.
It’s a fair point well made, if a surprising one for a critic best known as a Marxist literary theorist, indeed the man who introduced many of my generation to literary theory in his 1983 bestseller, Literary Theory: An Introduction. Since and with 2003’s After Theory, Eagleton has famously and for some unforgivably turned his back on the continental theory with which he made his name, reinventing himself as the practical, public, if still happily Marxist critic of The Guardian and The London Review of Books. At times in the new book, I found myself missing the theorist and the historian in the aesthete, the one whose books taught me that great poems construct as much as they please our taste, that literature rose because religion fell, that like religion it helps solidify the ruling class and distract the rest by putting petty concerns like poverty in cosmic perspective.
But the problem with How to Read Literature isn’t that Eagleton has changed his arguments; it’s that he doesn’t quite carry this new argument. The book works well enough as a primer on literary analysis. But as an argument for the importance of the skills it teaches, the argument with which it begins, it fails. How to Read Literature does a good job of teaching you how to do literary analysis, and a poor job of teaching you why you’d want to. It gives you things to do, but unless you’ve got an essay due, no reason to do them.
For a book whose preface promises that “critical analysis can be fun,” How to Read Literature is a strangely joyless read. Terry Eagleton in full flight against an enemy (late capitalism, postmodernism, the Amises, etc.,) is a thing of terrible beauty, but this feels perfunctory, lecture notes thrown together into a book. At times, its author seems almost tired of literature. Perhaps literature, too, has disappointed him, and for the same reason literary theory did: That both, to borrow Auden’s phrase, made nothing happen. “We live in a world in which there is nothing that cannot be narrated,” Eagleton says. “But nothing that needs to be either.”
How to Read Literature is a conservative book, a book that wants to conserve a tradition. “Like clog dancing,” it begins, “the art of analyzing literature is almost dead on its feet. A whole tradition of what Nietzsche called ‘slow reading’ is in danger of sinking without trace.” (I don’t agree, but more important, I don’t believe that Eagleton believes that it matters all that much one way or another. If Dickens and Derrida couldn’t save the world, five-page readings of the opening sentence in A Passage to India aren’t likely to do much better.)
Even if he’s not a literary theorist any more, Terry Eagleton is still a very well-educated Marxist, and he knows better than most what else tradition preserves. How to Read Literature lacks the conviction of Eagleton’s best work because it is not itself convinced. Marxism is about improving the future, not restoring the past; it does not do nostalgia well. And neither, it turns out, does Terry Eagleton.
Nick Mount is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and the fiction editor of The Walrus.