IN A TIME when reading has devolved into a means for the efficient conveyance of information, and sustained reading is in decline even as the techniques for distributing “text” multiply by the hour, lovers of literature insist, or pray, that their stock-in-trade not be dehydrated, shrink-wrapped, freeze-dried, shaken down, translated, or otherwise reduced to shadows of grander somethings—ideologies, deep structures of consciousness, hard-wired linguistic capacities, or some other fundamentals. If literature were a person, she would be freaking out.
Actually, she is. Literature’s anxiety about its own obsolescence worsens both inside and outside the academy. But it was already acute more than a half-century ago, when Saul Bellow warned, in a little flight of disdain called “Deep Readers of the World, Beware!” that “meanings”were “a dime a dozen.” It was better, Bellow wrote, to read literature “from the side of naïveté than from that of culture-idolatry, sophistication, and snobbery.” Bellow dug deep into his own well of sophistication—more or less Freudian, at that juncture— suspecting that “the deepest readers are those who are least sure of themselves” or, even more disturbingly, that “they prefer meaning to feeling.” Nowadays, those who write about literature seem even less sure of themselves.
The situation is worse in the academy, where literature migrated to take refuge from the gross marketplace, only to discover that the professors no longer found literature quite so interesting or exclusive. There were, after all, plenty of “literatures” to choose from. Today, with Taylorite bean-counters prowling the universities like John Boehner on a budget-slashing tear, demanding that the humanities prove their utilitarian value in a hyper-competitive, resource-stretched world, even English departments are understandably prone to obsolescence anxiety. From a practical (that is, fundraiser’s) point of view, provosts want to know, what is the study of texts worth? Neuroscience labs, econometric models, and computer science are obviously sexy, but who really needs George Eliot?
Marjorie Garber is a prolific Shakespearean (as in her lucid and non-sectarian Shakespeare After All) and one of our finest practitioners of cultural studies. As a writer, she has come a ways from the doctrinaire Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, when she staked out her subject cleverly, coyly, and clumsily. (“The fetish is the phallus, the phallus is the fetish”; “the figure of the transvestite specifically as rupture or disruption here enters the discourse of gender and power with an unsettling force.”) Sex and Real Estate was a witty and smart hybrid of Walter Benjamin and Benjamin Franklin. (It deserves a revised and extended second edition to take account of the bursting bubble and possible implications for ruptured romance.) She has a versatile mind, at home in the wild as well as on the Upper West Side.
After a generation of work exposing literature as ideology’s mask, insisting that cultural practices like cross-dressing were worthy of maximum attention, Garber appears to have changed her mind. She now insists that literature is irreducible. It is not a portal to something more important than literature. She celebrates “the non-‘about’-ness of literature, its refusal to be grounded or compromised by referentiality.” “Literature is a first-order, not a second-order, phenomenon,” she writes, demolishing the pretensions of cognitive science, which claims to have found the master key that unlocks the cultural universe. “It is not simply a clever kind of code developed by the mind to ensure that we all possess a mental Rolodex of figures enabling the nimble linking and blending of commonly held thoughts. It does not merely frame concepts or conceptual metaphors in pleasing or memorable phrases. Language makes meaning, or rather, meanings; it does not merely reflect it.”
Do not approach books as if they need to be unmasked, Garber insists. Do not tell them to come out with their hands up. Do not reduce Proust to a series of talking points. Do not repackage Tolstoy as a self-help manual. “We do literature a real disservice if we reduce it to knowledge or to use, to a problem to be solved. If literature solves problems, it does so by its own inexhaustibility, and by its ultimate refusal to be applied or used even for moral good.” But then she tries to have her text while eating it: “This refusal, indeed, is literature’s most moral act.” The question she does not answer is, Why trouble literature with the need for moral acts? Why not leave it alone, to be itself?
Garber will not accept that literature is the shadowed, cave-bound, lesser light that Plato’s Socrates found so flimsy. Literature is not “an instrument of moral or cultural control,” and reading is more than a sensory exercise, but rather “a way of thinking” (her italics). Indeed, “the very uselessness of literature is its most profound and valuable attribute.” Reading, in other words, is an autonomous experience, and one to cherish. One thing that follows is that our recurrent memoir scandals have been mystified, because the telling of truth is the telling of a story and the telling of a story entails literary technique. But while biography, say, following Virginia Woolf, should combine scholarship, psychological insight, and wit, it should remain, with Woolf, “fairly ferocious about the importance of ‘the substance of fact.’” She refuses to slide down the slippery slope toward making things up.
This is quagmire country, and Garber’s prolix and repetitive style leave her views opaque. At one point, she is oddly equivocal about Colm Tóibín’s fine novel about Henry James, The Master, when she says that “the term novel allows the author to have things both ways: the gravitas of biography and the freedom to identify and psychologize that comes with the writing of (a certain kind of) fiction.” What’s wrong with equivocation when it is delivered with style? Isn’t it really just complication, which is one of the writer’s duties? She wants to draw the line at increasingly common hoax memoirs—for example, fabricated Holocaust stories and James Frey’s tricks—but is sufficiently postmodern to have trouble explaining what’s wrong with them. “The claim of truth invites not only the suspicion but perhaps even the formal inevitability of the lie,” she says. That little weasel-word “perhaps”! But if all writing is approximate, then are all imperfections of accuracy equivalently suspicious? She cites a sentence to this effect from Derrida, but one swallow of Derrida does not make a summary.
Garber spots the absurdity of the populist mood, as in the current surfeit of memoirs: “the memoir craze, like American Idol and reality television, makes everyone a hero.” But she, too, veers toward laissez-faire, maintaining, for example, that literature is “a status rather than a quality. To say that a text or a body of work is literature means that it is regarded, studied, read, and analyzed in a literary way.” But then we are back at the high significance of Madonna Studies. Is Madonna as valuable as Shakespeare? If not, why not? Shouldn’t literature professors be able to answer that question? Or does the market decide? If there were a Sarah Palin School of Literary Studies, Dan Brown would be canonized, and damn the elitists who would object. But on what ground would Marjorie Garber object? The populist ghost still stalks her enterprise, and when it shakes its bony finger, her book becomes more of a testimony to the crisis of literature than a resolution of it.
Todd Gitlin’s latest book is Undying.
Please read a note from Isaac Chotiner, executive editor of The Book.