Stuff I read today (and last night)

March 12, 2014 @ 7:15 pm | Filed under:


Stayed awake last night long enough to read the first chapter of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a book I’ve had on my TBR list (and my Kindle) ever since Ta-Nehisi Coates blogged his way through it in an excellent and moving series of posts in 2010. This passage about Grant’s mother made me laugh out loud:

“She still lives in Clermont County at this writing, October 5th, 1884, and is over ninety ears of age. Until her memory failed her, a few years ago, she thought the country ruined beyond recovery when the Democratic party lost control in 1860.”

Until her memory failed her a few years ago. Meaning up through and including her son’s two terms as President. Gee, Ma, thanks for the support.


This morning, during Rilla’s piano lesson, I returned to and finished Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s first lecture from On the Art of Writing, which I began on the heels of last month’s Helene Hanff kick. This is the book Helene took eleven years to rabbit-trail her way through, stopping to read up on the many books and thinkers “Q” references, and after Wikipediaing my own way through this one lecture, I can see (a month later) why it took her over a decade. I’m also enthralled by the snapshot of a pregnant moment in time: there’s Q in 1912, recently appointed to the brand-new Professorship of English Literature at Cambridge—let that sink in for a moment; there wasn’t one before 1911—addressing his students to explain his purpose and point of view in the position. He begins with a somewhat lofty exploration (in company with Plato) of the question of “What to do with the poets?” and then lays out his aims and principles. He won’t go so far as to say you can teach literature; he approves of the wording of his job description, which specifies “to promote the study of Literature.”

But that the study of English Literature can be promoted in young minds by an elder one, that their zeal may be encouraged, their tastes directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged—this, I take it, no man of experience will deny.

And then, in a move that fills me with gratitude, he spells out exactly where he stands as a reader and a critic:

For the first principle of all I put to you that in studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely; that is to say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author’s mind intended…

Authorial intent. Got it. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated (and maybe somewhat quixotic), that school of thought, especially for someone like me whose undergraduate experience in the late 80s was a muddle of competing theories, most of which I didn’t know were theories, nor in competition. There was the Freudian professor, but we were too green to know he was a Freudian; I only figured it out (and that it was a thing at all, an approach to literary analysis and not just a unit in Psych 101) after I got a work-study in the English department and was assigned the mind-numbing task of entering his copious footnotes into the MS-DOS file of his very, very, very lengthy Freudian interpretation of Ulysses. Suddenly I had context for his insistence that every single story written by every single student in his Creative Writing class contained hidden Oedipal longings, no matter how earnestly we proclaimed that no, that wasn’t what we’d meant at all. The context didn’t really help; he went on doing Freudian readings of our work no matter how much we protested—actually, the protests made him all the more gleeful—but at least I knew on what grounds to ignore him. I felt conned, actually, resenting that the course description had not been more forthright about professorial hobby-horses. I mean, if you took Linguistics at that college, you knew you were getting a fervently feminist take on the subject, and I really appreciated that transparency (and enjoyed the course). Only later did I begin to wonder what critical theory informed my other professors’ pedagogy. The more I learned about theory, the greater my retrospective indignation. If we’re looking through a particular lens, I’d like to know I’m what glasses I’m wearing. If I’m signing up for your cooking class, I’d like to know up front whether you’re a vegan or a molecular gastronomist.

And so I find Q’s transparency terribly endearing. And it’s fascinating, too, to see him poised there in 1912, at the advent of Modernism, just before all these new ideas about interpreting literature (and writing it) were to sweep across the field. This article by a Cambridge professor captures it quite poignantly:

“He was also acutely aware that he was teaching at a moment when the direction of Literature was taking a radical turn, the turn to modernism. He believed profoundly that the literature of the present day should be taught and that students should be taught (as I believe, too) how to read modern literature. Yet he knew that, temperamentally, his own love of literature and his own ear for language were steeped in the literature of the past, and that he had great difficulty in appreciating the TS Eliots and the Ezra Pounds who were beginning to steal his thunder…”

Before long would come the New Criticism that focused on close readings of the text alone, rather than authorial intent and biographical background—which would, in turn, be swept past by Structuralism, and Post-Structuralism, and all sorts of other schools of literary theory about which I’m much fuzzier than I should be. I really don’t know where things stand at present. The lit profs whose blogs I read (and the ModPo crew I’m so fond of) seem to take the kind of historical, biographical approach that I myself most enjoy, looking closely at the cultural/historical context of a work of literature and the author’s life circumstances in addition to unpacking the text —and then I’d say, as well, there’s a lot of looking at various works through specific, clearly defined lenses. Of course it’s possible I read the blogs I do because they take an approach that appeals to me. For all I know, my old professor is out there happily blogging away about the Freudian underpinnings of Mad Men.


On an entirely different note, today is the day Rilla met Mary Lennox. She wasn’t ready, last year when I suggested reading the book. Today, after a sunny (in all respects) hour in the garden, the time felt right. It was. Very very happy sigh from this lifelong Secret Garden devotee. And—we saw our first wild lupines of the year on the roadside today! Which means, of course, it’s time for Miss Rumphius.

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15 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. sarah says:

    Study a book with the intention to discover what the author wanted to communicate. What a radical notion. (By the way, my authorial intent there was bitter sarcasm. Especially as a poet and a student of poetry.)

    I’ll always remember with bemused fondness the professor I had who insisted Emily Dickinson was a lesbian undertaking a secret relationship with a married woman. I was a very shy girl at the time, but I was so gobsmacked, I actually approached her after her lecture and said, “really?? I mean, really??” Really, she averred. And she was one of the more rational teachers. My favourite was the big, brown-bearded professor (like an Antipodean Brian Blessed) who taught Austen from the perspective of a kind of literary joke theory. He proved to us that P&P and Emma are hilarious black comedies.

  2. Melanie B says:

    Lupines! I love them so. Especially as the snow is swirling outside and my own lupines are just a bag of seeds silently waiting for the spring thaw to come.

    Oh that lecture sounds so delightful. I was so sour on all things literary for a while after getting my MA. Too much theory, not enough simply appreciating the books and poems and works. My favorite professor came to literature by way of linguistics and at least he spent most of his time rambling on about his own little reminiscences and mostly left the poor literature alone. I felt so cheated in my Joyce class which spent as much time reading critical essays on queer theory and postcolonial theory and feminist theory as we did on Dubliners and Portrait and Ulysses. And yet somehow the fact that Joyce was raised Catholic and was reacting to Catholic Ireland merited not a whit of attention. Oh no, you don’t need to know anything about the Bible or the Church to read Joyce!

  3. Melissa Wiley says:

    I think I was pretty lucky, all things considered, in the big picture of my undergrad experience: for every crank like Dr Freudian there was someone with a really remarkable way of opening up a text to our understanding, like our Shakespeare prof at MWC or my amazing Medieval lit and World lit prof at my first college, about whom I’ve raved before. Scott had Modern Poetry with a professor so unabashedly joyful about the subject, she infected everyone in the room. I sat in on that class sometimes (and Rilla’s middle name is in her honor!). And the other creative writing teacher at MWC was a huge influence on my work and my sensibility. We all adored her. I picked my MFA program in large part because she’d gone there. And won the jackpot, because THAT program was taught by some of the finest minds I’ve ever known. Fred Chappell. Alan Shapiro. Tom Kirby-Smith on prosody. From all of them, and especially Alan, I learned as much about how to read as I did how to write. The rich experience I had with each of them left me even more resentful of what I felt were the ‘wasted’ classes. Though even the wasted ones were never truly a waste (is how I came to feel some years later) because they set up a contrast. And if I didn’t get much beyond frustration in the class discussions in Contemp Brit Lit (taught by Dr Freudian), at least I read all the books!

  4. Fanny Harville says:

    I am teaching a class right now that is meant to introduce literary theory to undergraduate English majors. I’m using a book that I highly recommend: “Beginning Theory” by Peter Barry. It gives quick, accessible overviews of literary theoretical movements in chronological order from liberal humanism (i.e. Q, Leavis, Richards) all the way to eco-criticism. Barry highlights both the benefits and the drawbacks of each theoretical stance. I wish I’d read this book myself as an undergrad!

    It’s impossible to generalize about role played by theory in current literary scholarship. There are some who are wedded to a particular theoretical approach, but there are many (like me), as you describe above, whose scholarship uses the analytical tools offered by a variety of theories.

    I agree that transparency from a professor is crucial. And I’m interested in your appreciation of Q’s emphasis on authorial intent. Often it seems that writers are uncomfortable when critics focus on authorial intent. Writers sometimes object on the grounds that they are not fully intentional about every aspect of their work, that the creative process is more mystical than that. And scholars are careful about authorial intent for the same reason: there are many kinds of meaning in a text, and the author may not have intended or even been aware of them.

  5. Sherry says:

    Well, it does seem to me that trying to discern what an author intended to say or accomplish with a particular text is the first step, anyway. If there are subconscious Freudian undertones or unintended insights to be gleaned as well, those are gravy.

    I think my background as a Baptist studying the Bible informs my approach to literature. I read it first to get the story or to understand the literal meaning of the poem, as the author wrote it. Then, I look back to see the underlying symbolism or literary technique or word play or subtext. Then, look to see how it all fits together and what it could mean to me in a more personal way. Authorial intent and cultural context fit in there somewhere. It’s the Semicolon informal, yet analytical, school of literary hermeneutics. 🙂

  6. Melissa Wiley says:

    Oh Fanny, I wasn’t clear—I meant that I appreciated Q’s *transparency* in beginning his very first lecture with a statement about his approach. I agree with the caution of scholars who recognize a writer may have conveyed or included ideas he wasn’t aware of—cultural biases and such. And it’s not really possible to know exactly what an author meant or was aiming at in all aspects of a work—when, as you say, the author himself may not have everything perfectly articulated in his own mind. I find as a reader I want to know biographical background, context, cultural relevance, influences (oh especially influences) when I’m digging into a work. And the circumstances of the writing, too, always seem relevant to me (though can’t always be determined).

    But in speaking of Q, I was simply saying I like his professorial style. I’m not far enough into the lectures to know what I think of his opinions. 😉

    Thanks for the rec of the Barry book. Just the sort of thing I was looking for!

  7. Fanny Harville says:

    I understood you to be saying exactly that! You were clear! And I agree that a professor should be explicit about their POV as a scholar from the start of a class. What I was intrigued by in your post was this: I am always interested in relationships of writers — i.e. novelists like yourself — to the enterprise of criticism. They are two such very different projects. And sometimes, in my experience, creative writers balk at the ways that critics/scholars talk about texts (their own of those of others). I was wondering whether as a writer, rather than as a reader, you felt the same way about authorial intention.

  8. kortney says:

    oh what a delicious post! and such comments! poets, novelists, professors, mamas with MA degrees!

    beginning in theory is so difficult. beginning anything really. because of course you have to have all the background, contexts, references in order to understand. but that’s just the sort of information that beginners are only starting to acquire.

    to help us make a start my Shakespeare prof (who was also my Philip K Dick teacher!) had us read Augustine and Erasmus. that was our fine beginning in establishing contexts. that professor also happens to have a new collection of stories just out…

    can’t wait to look up the Barry book, Fanny!

  9. Melissa Wiley says:

    Kortney, I feel the same way about the rather special group of commenters who are kind enough to assemble here. I think your collective comments do as much to inform my reading and study as anything else I encounter—I’m constantly returning to old posts to look up what so-and-so recommended, or to revisit a sharp insight one of you has made. It’s one of the great joys of blogging that I sometimes take for granted—you’ve all spoiled me so! 🙂

    I remember reading that post about your prof’s book—I’ll have to look for it! (And how fun that you took a course in Philip K. Dick.)

    Fanny, now I see! And it’s interesting, you make me realize I haven’t talked with fellow writers much about our thoughts on critical approaches to own work —we talk about reviews, which are of course a form of criticism but play a different role than scholarly crit/analysis. But then most of my writer friends write for children, and there isn’t as much scholarly criticism of that (especially contemporary works). And (this is striking me as I write it) the very type of context I said I look for in (scholarly) literary analysis (biographical, cultural, etc) seems somehow inappropriate or intrusive in commercial reviews of contemporary books—if, for example, a School Library Journal reviewer were to go into great detail about Suzanne Collins’s personal life or childhood in a review of Hunger Games, that would bother me, would seem a distraction from the book itself. Now I’m wondering if the reason I would feel that way is because she’s a living author and it’s a recent work. And there are cases, certainly, where an author’s personal history may affect how a book is received—Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird comes to mind, where I think some initial critical responses about how she portrayed a main character with Asperger’s were countered by other critics who pointed out that the author’s own daughter has Asperger’s. (The book, which I found quite moving, won several awards and apart from the few reviewers I read who were uncomfortable with the girl’s portrayal, was praised very highly in the journals.)

    All that to say: your question made me aware of a contradiction within my own mind regarding how critics interact with a text. Which is an interesting thing I’ll have to ponder further! I always like stumbling across mental inconsistencies; they help you sort out what you think vs. what you feel.

    But to go back to your question: “the relationship of writers to the enterprise of criticism” and particularly in regard to authorial intent…it’s thorny, isn’t it? On the one hand, I dearly want critics (both scholarly, if indeed any scholars were contemplating my work in that fashion, and others [reviewers, individual readers]) to *get* what I’m doing, to see the layers I’ve worked to set down. I think that’s almost the thing I want most of all, that grokking—the thing I want the *very* most being to tell a story that absorbs the reader, moves her, strikes deeply, remains a part of him forever—you know, just those tiny little things. 😉 But then, second, yes, for the novel or poem to be worthy of revisiting either mentally or actually, and for the second (third, fourth) reading to reveal new levels, new layers, especially (but I won’t say exclusively) the ones I strove to build.

    I’m surprised by my own work often enough (sometimes happily, sometimes not) not to assume everything a reader discovers in it is going to be something I crafted deliberately. Nor do I have much evidence that the motifs and things I do craft deliberately have ever been noticed or remarked upon; but as long as they support the narrative—my first priority—instead of distract from it, I don’t mind their not being discussed. Indeed, because I write for children first and foremost, I quail at the notion of the books being too taught—that is, assigned in school in a way that would wring the fun and freshness out of the experience of reading them. I’ve seen searches in my stats from time to time which strongly suggest a very dry sort of worksheet has been assigned for one of my books or a book I’ve recommended. (In contrast, I thought the Brave Writer Arrow edition that featured Prairie Thief did a wonderful job of talking about language and content in a way that would make the book seem even more appealing to students, not less—it was quite exciting and gratifying to see.)

    I’ve read interviews by other writers, including some quite esteemed ones, who speak of being bemused—or amused—or sometimes annoyed—by various ‘readings’ of their work. There’s that set of letters that makes the rounds occasionally, responses by a number of famous writers to a student who wrote to ask questions about how deliberate the symbols are and so forth in their works. You have some writers saying “oh I wasn’t thinking about that as symbolic at all, people have made it all up” and others saying “of course it’s all deliberate and you’re impertinent to ask”—I’m paraphrasing, of course. 😉

    So—again circling back to the question—I have to acknowledge that searching for authorial intent is a guessing game at best, and while I would, as an author, resent a reading that forced my work into a framework or meaning that shored up the critic’s pet theory but wasn’t at all what I’d intended or in keeping with my history, sensibility, views, etc, I also acknowledge that once a book is out there, it’s out there and I can’t control how it is read. In fact, it’s really none of my business—personal though it might seem. Hmm, or is it? I’m thinking of Nabokov’s responses to various readings. He certainly didn’t shrink from saying ‘oh no, this critic has got it all wrong.’ But most of the time, when I see an author responding publicly to a negative review, I wince. But again, that’s a different thing from scholarly analysis, with different aims and vocabulary, so perhaps I’m mixing up my apples and oranges here.

    This answer has gone post-length!

  10. Melanie B says:

    Oh this is one of those really delightful conversations!

    Lissa, I do love hearing your point of view on critics from the point of view of the writer. One of my favorite professors from my undergraduate days was himself a published novelist and taught his literature classes very much from that standpoint, trying to get us to try to stand inside the writer’s skin to imagine why he or she might have made particular choices. Not in a way that assumed too much about authorial intent, but just that got us to step outside our own heads, if you know what I mean. Sadly, I’ve never read any of his novels and I keep meaning to go back and buy some of them, but every time I think of it, it seems to be at a time when I’m on a strict budget and can’t just jump on the computer and order one up. Like now, actually.

    I guess I was so disappointed in my grad school experience precisely because I’d been so profoundly lucky as an undergraduate. It felt like I’d moved from an airy mountain peak to a dreary janitorial closet, staring too much at the plumbing. My single disappointing experience as an undergrad was when I took an introductory level course that included the Divine Comedy from a professor that the upper classmen assured me was a Dante expert. But he seemed to think that we lowly freshmen were too green to appreciate the depth of his knowledge. The class was dry and dull but he always seemed to be chuckling to himself over a little joke he’d seen but which he couldn’t be bothered to share with us. I’m assured his upper level classes weren’t like that but I never gave him a second chance to prove it.

    I’ve always had a big soft spot for New Criticism even though I don’t completely toss out biographical information and context. I think it’s going to be a while before I’ll be able to acknowledge the usefulness of the tools offered by various theoretical schools. I know on one level they’re there but I still want to cry a pox on all their houses. I rather like what Sherry describes, the Semicolon school. I’m also very partial to medieval fourfold exegesis, my roots at a Catholic Great Books school showing.

  11. Melanie B says:

    Oh hey, I just noticed the check box for “Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.” Is that new?

  12. Melissa Wiley says:

    I think it’s always been there, but then again I was clicking around my settings recently and although I thought I’d activated that one long ago, perhaps not?

  13. Fanny Harville says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for your detailed response above. You capture the wonderful thorniness of this issue and I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.