Thursday, October 16, 2008
Pedagogy, Evaluation, and What We Look for in ‘the’ Novel
(cross-posted from Novel Readings)
Recent threads at The Reading Experience (including this acrimonious one launched by Dan’s blunt denunciation of Dostoevsky’s “cheap tricks” and “unrelenting tedium") have had me thinking (again, and see also these posts) about the problem of literary evaluation. In The Death of the Critic, Ronan McDonald declared that “The first step in reviving [the critic] is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. . . . [I]f criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative.” As I’ve said before, I’m skeptical about this idea that aesthetic evaluation is the obvious fix for whatever ails academic criticism at the present time:
Once you’ve acknowledged the ‘problematics’ of literary judgment, how then are you supposed to answer what [McDonald] proposes is the common reader’s key question ("Is this book ... worth my attention and my time?")? For what it’s worth, I think most academic critics would in fact be quite happy to answer that question about any book, but first we would all want to develop the question further (along the lines I laid out here, for instance).
This time around, I’m particularly thinking about whether, or how far, my work as a teacher has committed me, not to relativism (which is where some people assume my reservations about ‘literary merit’ lead me) but to a kind of pluralism by which it’s not comparative measures of ‘worth’ that matter but seeking out the measures that fit the particular case. One of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms--trying to understand how to read it so that it best fulfills its own potential. This means not holding it up to a particular, preconceived standard of excellence ("good novels do this“), whether that standard is formal or ideological. Now, depending on the occasion, there may be a second phase in which you move back from internally-generated norms and question them against external ideas; often, in teaching, this kind of questioning arises just from moving to the next book on the syllabus and discovering that its norms differ widely from--and thus, implicitly or explicitly, challenge--the ones we’ve just left behind (reading North and South right after Hard Times, or Jane Eyre soon after Pride and Prejudice, for instance, will certainly have this effect). But it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre. It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.
Here’s another excerpt from a book I’m reviewing, itself written with a pedagogical purpose, that illustrates what I mean by “seeking the measures the fit the particular case.” The authors have just argued that the “complexity” in Jane Eyre is limited to Jane herself, and that as characters get further “removed from Jane’s immediate concerns,” they become increasingly “flat and stereotypical”; the extreme example is Bertha Mason, whose representation is marked by “familiar, and often virulent, national and racial stereotypes.” The authors note that the novel “has been justifiably criticized for its reliance on these stereotypes.” Though they acknowledge the grounds for these criticisms, they go on to rule them out of order:
Their use in the novel . . . is part of a larger pattern of flattening out the social world beyond the circle of Jane’s own immediate concerns. Jane Eyre, in other words, is simply not the place to look for compelling social portraiture or profound insight into social relations--any more than, say, Scott is the place to look for compelling psychological depth. (74)
In other words, objecting to Bronte’s ‘flattening out,’ even of Bertha, is a category mistake: it’s not the kind of novel in which Bertha gets her own ‘complexity,’ but rather is the kind of novel in which Jane’s complex interiority is (nearly) all that matters.
One thing I find thought-provoking about that particular example is that (quite deliberately, I think) it sets two approaches against each other, one that reads from the inside out (setting interpretive limits based on the work’s nature, as it were), the other that brings a template of expectations to the novel and applies it as a test (a great deal of recent academic criticism could be seen as pursuing this latter course). So far at least, in this book (again, one with an overt pedagogical mission), the former approach is promoted and, as it happens, the novels defended against detractors. In the chapter on Scott, for instance, the authors cite Henry James’s famous criticism that “the centre of the subject is empty and the development pushed off, all round, toward the frame.” The authors reject James’s metaphor, which prioritizes and thus seeks “the portrait of an individual”:
But what if the subject Scott wishes to paint is not an individual human being, but instead . . . the way individuals interface with society and history? What if he wishes to reveal human nature, not from the skin in [as, they reasonably imply, James prefers], but from the skin out? then what James calls the “frame” . . . might bge more important than the individual. (37)
James’s theory of the novel, in other words, results in an inappropriate reading. I haven’t reached the chapter on Trollope yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised (or it wouldn’t be out of place) to find a similar objection to James’s dislike of Trollope’s narrative intrusions. In his 1883 retrospective on Trollope, James protested against his “little slaps at credulity”:
As a narrator of fictitious events he is nowhere; to insert into his attempt a backbone of logic, he must relate events that are assumed to be real. This assumption permeates, animates all the work of the most solid story-tellers; we need only mention . . . the magnificent historical tone of Balzac, who would as soon have thought of admitting to the reader that he was deceiving him, as Garrick or John Kemble would have thought of pulling off his disguise in front of the footlights.
Here, James confidently asserts that there is a right and a wrong way to write fiction--and Trollope is simply making a mistake when he “winks at us and reminds us that he is telling us an arbitrary thing.” But what if Trollope is not trying to write a Jamesian (or Balzacian) novel and failing, but writing a Trollopian novel? (I objected to a similar habit in James Wood’s How Fiction Works, in which at times a teleological theory of the novel seems to me to short-circuit Wood’s readings of fiction that ‘works’ differently than his favourites: ‘“Progress!" he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: “In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot.” But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing?’) If we allow the author what James, in a more pluralistic moment, called his “donnee,” then we have to think about Trollope’s narrator quite differently, in terms of what it “animates.”
Now, I wouldn’t want to say that reading a novel on its own terms should always be the end point of criticism. I think it’s also important to consider that not all novels read on their own terms get more, rather than less, attractive and compelling. Further, there’s lots of room for debate when it comes to defining what those terms are--to return to the Jane Eyre example above, I can certainly imagine someone disagreeing with the dodge that makes Jane’s attitude to Bertha relatively insignificant in terms of the novel’s overall themes or literary strategies. The starting point for that discussion, though, would not be “great novels are of X kind; Jane Eyre is not of that kind; therefore Jane Eyre is not a great novel.” Not least because no two novels are the same (including among nineteenth-century “realist” novels, often the straw examples for ‘smug moderns’ in the blogosphere), that discussion seems, inevitably, to lead nowhere.
Suppose, however, that you take the attitude sometimes expressed by Dan Green in his posts, and certainly expressed by some of his commenters--that philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are unimportant (even undesirable) in the novel, or at least far less significant than aesthetic effects. Then suppose you read a novel in which philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are extremely important: Middlemarch, for instance, or to take an example in which the form and aesthetics are far less impressive, Mary Barton. (I think the assumption that we have aesthetic experiences that aren’t bound up in what, for shorthand, I’ll call the ideas of a novel is highly problematic, but I’ll set that aside for now.) A reader committed to McDonald’s “aesthetic evaluation” might well reject these novels as poor examples of the genre. But it could be argued that such a reader is simply making a category mistake (as James is with Scott or Trollope) and thus doing a bad job of reading (and thus evaluating) the books. As a teacher, I would not let such a mistake alone but would instruct the student who faulted Gaskell, for intance, for sentimentality, to consider the kind of book she’s writing--the purposes she has for her novel--and then how the form and artistic strategies of the novel serve those purposes. My purpose would not be to coerce the student into liking Mary Barton, but to help him or her achieve an appreciation of Gaskell’s accomplishment--an understanding of what the book is and does. That, to me, would be the basis of any responsible literary criticism. Even on aesthetic grounds, I would want to take into account the contingency of different standards, too, and to consider whether our affective response to something like John Barton’s death isn’t also a matter of art.
I’m not altogether sure where I am going with these ruminations. I guess I’m wondering about the relationship between what I’m calling the “pedagogical” habit of trying to find the best reading tools, the right measures, for any given example, and other critical strategies or purposes. How typical is this pluralistic approach, among teachers or among readers? Is there a way in which such an approach really does disable evaluation? Or is it the means for an informed evaluation? Does evaluation inevitably imply prescription about what “the” novel should do, or what readers should prefer? What are the limits of the kind of sympathetic, ‘from the inside out’ reading strategies promoted by Case and Shaw’s book?
Roger Ebert offers a similar take, I think, on movie reviews in this explanation of his star system: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040423/REVIEWS/404230305/1023
Ebert writes, “What it means is that the star rating system is relative, not absolute. When you ask a friend if ‘Hellboy’ is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to “Mystic River,” you’re asking if it’s any good compared to ‘The Punisher.’”
(I’ve just seen this cited somewhere recently--apologies if it’s here.)
Doesn’t this get into ideas that I (perhaps wrongly) associate with Umberto Eco? The idea that you figure out a Model Author, and a Model Reader, and so on. That the work seems to imply a particular sort of goal or reading of the work, which you then can evaluate in terms of how well it does it.
Certainly, by all means, (attempt to) read the work on its own terms. It seems to me that’s one way to learn from, to grow from, reading literature.
As for “artistic merit,” yeah, sure, why not? But then, I get the feeling that these calls for evaluative criticism reflect mostly a nostalgia for a past that never was there for academic literary criticism. I keep wondering just what, concretely, is to be the output of this “return of the evaluator.” Are we really going to be writing about why this or that work - Hamlet, Paradise Lost, Robinson Cruse, The Wasteland, etc. - is good, bad, mediocre in this or that aspect (formal perfection, style, nobility of purpose, ethical judgment, whatever)? Will books of such stuff sell to the public at large and end, for once and for all, the tradition of the snarky article about the MLA?
At some point it seems to me that this call to evaluation betrays a lack of intellectual imagination and daring. It’s a kind of lazy desire to believe that the human mind and imagination are fully comprehensible in commonsense terms, that one doesn’t have to stretch intellectually in order to understand how literature works.
I am an amateur, not a professional, literary person, but it seems to me that there used to be (maybe up until the mid-20th century) a reasonable consensus that Literature serves a commendable and necessary function (perhaps to delight and instruct). Since then there is progressively less agreement that it is either delightful (compared with competing pursuits) or instructive. One has to know why one should read at all before one can begin to know what one should read. Maybe aesthetic philosophy has to precede literary criticism.
"that one doesn’t have to stretch intellectually in order to understand how literature works”
No one said that evaluation has to be non-intellectual. But really, this assertion has a large number of unquestioned premises. The idea that there is something called “literature” that works in a particular (single?) way. The idea that people who read Moby-Dick, to take an example that recently came up here, really want to afterwards think something like. “That was interesting. Now, how does literature work?”
Evaluative criticism lets you consider how, and how well, a particular work works. The evaluative part is valuable because it is an implicit comparison with other works, and therefore avoids considering the work in a vacuum in which anything the author writes must work because the text can’t be compared to anything else.
"It’s a kind of lazy desire to believe...that one doesn’t have to stretch intellectually in order to understand how literature works.”
But this assumes that the point of reading literature is to understand “how it works.” Why do you assume that “how it works” is what is most important?
As Bernstein said, you can read books about Beethoven’s 3rd and how it works, but it’s the experience of listening to it that is truly important. The fundamental greatness of the work itself is what is relevant-- not HOW it is great, but THE GREATNESS ITSELF. Maybe that doesn’t make any sense.
Though I’ve not read McDonald, Rich, it seems to me that, from what Rohan has quoted from him and said about him, he seems to be one of those thinkers who assumes the primary purpose of the academic literary critic is address the public at large (and undergraduates as well) on literary works using, for the most part, non-specialized repertoires of concepts grounded in common discourse. As far as I can tell this hankering has been around for over a half-century. It’s not a new idea at all.
But it does seem to set itself against the idea that there is a need for intellectually specialized work that addresses literary phenomena is various ways. It is content with a repertoire of ideas about literature and human experience that were more or less in place as of, say, the mid-20th century. In that sense it is opposed to stretching oneself intellectually to deal with newer ideas about language, mind, human nature, and so forth, ideas grounded in modern linguistics, the cognitive sciences, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, etc. So, what we’ve got is a high-minded call “back to basics” that conveniently ignores a great deal of very interesting intellectual work that is, at least in principle, relevant to understanding the human condition.
As for what people want to talk about once they’ve read Moby Dick, I’m sure I don’t know. But I have no particular reason to believe they want to read evaluative criticism. Perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t. But addressing that need is only one aspect revivifying literary studies. I find it difficult to believe that an evaluative criticism comfortably lodged in the world of venerable old ideas and ideals is a viable long-term strategy.
Yes, crazy horse, it’s the experience of reading Moby Dick that’s important. The single most important thing that happens in undergraduate literature courses is that students read those great texts. The sorts of things that most interest me, as a literary critic, may well be irrelevant to them. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.
You don’t need to know anything about nutritional chemistry or sensory physiology to appreciate the difference between steak and hamburger. But that doesn’t imply that the study of nutritional chemistry and sensory physiology are of no importance.
"So, what we’ve got is a high-minded call “back to basics” that conveniently ignores a great deal of very interesting intellectual work that is, at least in principle, relevant to understanding the human condition.”
And what if the very interesting intellectual work turns out to be B.S.? It’s not really science, after all. This kind of thing isn’t “grounded” in cognitive sciences or neuroscience—no one has traced out the brain area for appreciation of Modernist concision—it just uses science-y buzzwords. The Just-So stories of evolutionary psychology are even more Just So when they are applied to actual storytelling.
I didn’t mean to imply, with my example above, that people want to read evaluative criticism when they put down a book. I just meant that they don’t generally go from that to “how does literature work?” But really, talking about literature would be impossible without some kind of implicit evaluative criticism. Far more is written than anyone could read, so without evaluation, there wouldn’t be any shared experience within groups of readers. Mostly, the focus on evaluation is good because literary studies people currently don’t want to admit that they do it, and therefore do it implicitly.
“The single most important thing that happens in undergraduate literature courses is that students read those great texts. The sorts of things that most interest me, as a literary critic, may well be irrelevant to them. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant."
The single most important thing that happens in any literature course-- undergrad or otherwise-- is that students and professors read the texts. You don’t think the literary critic still has something to learn?
And what are these “other things of interest” you mention which will apparently be too high above the heads of the undergrads? I see a reference here to “intellectually specialized work” in the study of literature, but I can’t really get a feel for what this stuff would look like.
You don’t need to know anything about nutritional chemistry or sensory physiology to appreciate the difference between steak and hamburger. But that doesn’t imply that the study of nutritional chemistry and sensory physiology are of no importance. “
So: you’re suggesting that literary criticism is roughly analogous to chemistry or physics? And the difference between a good novel and a bad one is like the difference between a cheeseburger and a steak?
No wonder I don’t understand where you’re coming from.
And what if the very interesting intellectual work turns out to be B.S.?
Some of it, most of it, will likely turn out that way. But not all of it. There’s an enormous variety of work being done. To dismiss it all, without even spending some considerable time in the technical literature, is foolish.
Far more is written than anyone could read, so without evaluation, there wouldn’t be any shared experience within groups of readers.
You need another clause or three to get from your first clause to your last one. As it is, it doesn’t follow from the first.
You don’t think the literary critic still has something to learn?
Are you perhaps thinking about the wisdom of the ages or some such things? Well, yes, there is that. But that’s not all there is to the study of literature, not by a long shot.
No wonder I don’t understand where you’re coming from.
I can live with that.
"You need another clause or three to get from your first clause to your last one.”
All right. The literary world is full of implicit acts of evaluative criticism. The Nobel Prize in literature, or the Booker, is evaluative criticism of a primitive but influential sort. Whenever a professor chooses which texts will be read in a college course—or when whoever does so chooses the texts to be read in high school—then texts have been compared and evaluated for a particular purpose.
And these acts of evaluation create reading communities. When someone in a blog comment thread refers to Moby-Dick, they can be fairly sure that most other people have read it. Why? Because evaluative critics decided that it was good and got it to be commonly read, not only in classes, but by anyone who asked what a good book was or looked at a list or went into a library.
I don’t mean to say that evaluative criticism equates to canon building, because it doesn’t. (Although canon building may be a sort of subset of it.) It’s learning the tools for how to make your own judgements about which texts work and which don’t, and whatever gradations you want to have in between. And since literary studies people, especially educators (as Rohan points out) are doing it all the time, it seems like they should study what they’re doing.
FWIW, studying “what they’re doing” is what eventually led to Theory.
There are at least two general ways in which people can study what they’re doing. They can either go meta, as with philosophy of science, Theory, etc.—all of this being notably unsuccessful, I’d say. Or they can study it in order to try to do it better, or perhaps just to describe what they’re doing, without trying to figure out the universal rules for why exactly they’re doing it or what it depends on.
Why do I say that the attempts above have been unsuccessful? Because, in general, they tend to either over-limit the activity they’re describing, or leave people wondering why they should ever do that activity in the first place. The second is what has happened to evaluative criticism. People didn’t like canon-building for various reasons that we don’t need to re-hash, and people wanted to shoot down the clearly bad idea that there was some kind of eternal standard of value that one could measure every work against. But in the process, they denied that they were doing activities which in fact they were still doing and which still needed to be done. Just as in philosophy of science Bruno Latour had an “Oops!” moment when he realized that his work was justifying global warming denialists and the like.
How do you describe what you’re doing without going meta? You need terms and concepts to describe what you’re doing, no? And those terms and concepts will treat “what you’re doing” as some kind of object. That makes those descriptive terms and concepts meta to what they’re describing.
Note that there’s more than one way of going meta. When David Bordwell wrote Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema he used concepts from cognitive psychology to describe the interpretative activities of film critics.
There’s a difference between studying a commonplace process but basically accepting that it will go on, and between deciding that your study of it is so earth-shaking that you’ve called its basic assumptions into question. Read one of John Emerson’s bits about what philosophers have done with philosophy of time, for instance, and how they’ve confused the kind of time applicable to elementary particles with the kind of entropy-affected, one-way time that we experience that pretty much corresponds to intuitive ideas about time. The sciences have the tools to invalidate what you describe as “venerable old ideas”, but that’s because they’re the sciences.
In short, people have always thought that texts could be relatively good or bad. Or, before that, perhaps, that storytellers could be better or worse than others. That’s not going to go away, and making those decisions is a large part of what literary studies people do whether they want to admit it or not.
And I really doubt that neuroscience is ever going to add much to that. It’s at a lower level of complexity, just like you can’t really derive biology from physics. Neuroscience may well explain one day why we like texts, how we appreciate them in a very broad sense, and so on. But it’s not going to tell us anything useful about why one particular work is a good example of high modernism and another doesn’t work so well.
For a real example of how one thinks about selecting books for a course, recall Rohan’s recent book bleg: