Friday, June 17, 2011

Good Literature as Risk-taking

According to Marjorie Garber, Professor of English at Harvard, the mark of great literature is the open-ended questions it leaves in the reader's mind.

Her book, The Use and Abuse of Literature "opens with a strikingly similar lament about literacy in her time, which is present-day America. The share of college graduates receiving English degrees is a shockingly low four per 100, and there’s been an accompanying drop in reading rates across all age groups. This is bad news not just for literature professors, but for democracy, since reading correlates strongly with various forms of civic participation."

The reviewer reflects, "If anyone is qualified to rescue literature from the threat of irrelevancy, it’s Garber, of some 15 books on cultural and literary matters, including six on Shakespeare alone. She simply knows everything there is to know about the history and practice of literature and criticism....Garber is not a proponent of the Great Books approach—she’s no fetishizer of the canon or timeless notions of quality. For her, “literature” is a shifting cultural status ascribed to books by critical arbiters of the moment, not an intrinsic quality. Rather, there are literary ways of reading, and literary ways of writing—a book becomes literature when we ask literary questions of it. Equally, books lose the status of literature when they fall from these considerations, the fate of many—perhaps the majority of—works by once-revered authors."

For Garber, literary ways of reading "pose open-ended questions—the most interesting of which are those without definitive answers.... She’s deeply uninterested in what makes particular books good or bad; what engages her is how meaning is produced. She prefers the brand of criticism that engages in uncertainty, productive mistakes, and continuous re-readings that settle nothing—“every way of reading produces an equal and opposite way of re-reading.”

The reviewer concludes, "The Use and Abuse of Literature is an enormously learned and wide-ranging defense of the literary imagination, but as Garber herself says, “The future importance of literary studies . . . will come from taking risks, not from playing it safe.”

The review encourages one to think about the authors who are taking risks and leaving the reader with resonating questions about life.

Review in The Wilson Quarterly