World and time: lit. crit.


I was much taken by a piece in this weekend’s Guardian Review. Stefan Collini was reviewing a new book, The Good of the Novel, edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan and published by Faber. It sounded my kind of book: a collection of thirteen essays about recent novels, most of which I have read and some of which (J M Coetzee’s Disgrace, for instance, and Colm Tóibίn’s The Master) I have also taught.

I admire Collini’s writing. He is good at pithy, memorable statements. One that has stuck in my mind from a few years back is ‘Close reading is inseparable from hard thinking’. Quite. Nearly eighteen months ago he wrote in the Times Literary Supplement a passionate polemic, defending the humanities in the face of what he saw as the absurd decision to assess the quality of academic research and scholarship in terms of its impact outside academia. The impact of impact has been a contentious issue ever since, and Collini’s essay will be cited for years to come, I’m sure.

What struck me about his Guardian review on Saturday, as it happens, was also about the essay. He was talking about the value of a particular kind of writing:

These thirteen essays together constitute something like a manifesto, speaking up for the continuing vitality of that traditional form, the critical essay, a discursive piece of writing which is longer than a journalistic review but more accessible than an academic article. (‘The art of making it up’, Guardian Review, 02.04.11)

Collini’s enthusiasm for the critical essay is heartening indeed; even more so, his definition of literary criticism as an intellectual activity:

Such criticism, at its best, involves a sustained attentiveness to how a work of literature achieves its effects plus a focused analysis of what kind of achievement it represents in the scale of things.

Some people might seize on that phrase ‘at its best’. How and why, they might ask, should one presume to make such value judgments about literature - or about literary criticism, come to that? Isn’t that simply intellectual snobbery? Collini is not a whit abashed:

The best criticism involves being intelligent about the best writing, and the best writing involves being intelligent about living.

I’m delighted Collini has said this so emphatically, and said it just now. In a single sentence he has reasserted the importance of intelligent reading and writing and the importance, too, of the relationship between writer, text and reader. In doing so, he has summed up just why literature matters so much outside as well as inside the academy, and why studying it with students, whether eight, eighteen, forty-eight or eighty years old is so worthwhile.

Collini stands (though he might not thank me for saying so) in a tradition of Cambridge criticism that stretches back to the origins of the Cambridge School of English itself and to its founding father, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. On Monday I shall come to the end of the Diploma course I have been teaching this term, on ‘Cambridge Critics and Cambridge Criticism’. I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ve learned a lot while preparing it. It’s also my last such course. I retire in the summer.

I can’t imagine a more rewarding job than teaching people who actually want to learn how to become critical readers of literature. As part of that work, I have been lucky in the past fourteen years to spend a lot of time working with teachers on new - and old - ways of teaching literature: helping (mainly) young people learn how to read critically and with respect both for what they read and for the writers who wrote what they read. I spent two days last week in Paris, with a group of fifty teachers from all over France, doing just that. And while I was there, a few lines by Susan Sontag about the importance of literature kept nagging away at the back of my mind. I couldn’t quite remember them, but I’ve looked them up now that I am home again:

Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives lived may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate – and, therefore, improve – our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment. (At The Same Time, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007 p.213)

I hope Sefan Collini would agree with Sontag about this. Certainly her words resonate with what he wrote in his polemical TLS essay, and together they convince me that what I’ve been trying to do all these years has been fundamentally worthwhile.

It is worth insisting that what we call “the humanities” are a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity. To attempt to deepen our understanding of this or that aspect of that activity is a purposeful expression of human curiosity and is – insofar as the expression makes any sense in this context – an end in itself. (‘Impact on humanities’, TLS, 13 November 2009)

Adrian Barlow

3 April 2011

[photo: Madingley Hall lawns, early morning

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# Garry Headland 2011-04-03 19:03 Teaching literature is the most rewarding of all the jobs I’ve done in my life. My first pupil was myself, and we had a fairly hard time at first, I can tell you. The student in me knew there was something there every time I nipped out of the office to buy a new Penguin Classics at the local bookshop, but it took a long time before the teacher in me started to see it. And neither of us made much progress. The most illustrative of this frustrating path to articulating ideas was the front cover of a Penguin edition of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers showing a blazing coal fire in a miner’s cottage. For me it said everything I felt about the book, but the words failed me. Teaching literature is all about opening doors and for that I have a rusty old key which doesn’t always work immediately and often gets stuck so my students have to help me turn it. But when the door opens we get a glimpse at something new, that not even I had seen before. Enjoy your last course and happy retirement Adrian. Reply | Reply with quote | Quote