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Friday Five: 5 Lit Crit & Theory Books for Everyone

Ben Blattberg returns for this week's Friday Five and, rather heroically, he tackles the challenge of making literary criticism fun. Does he succeed? Let us know in the comments - and please, share your own suggestions as well! You can find Ben blogging about movies and story structure and making jokes on Twitter at @inCatastrophe


For all that Wikipedia and iTunes U have brought literary theory out of the ivory tower and into the streets (where it belongs), it can still be pretty easy to find yourself accidentally wandering off into solar anus territory.

“Coitus is the parody of crime.” - Georges Bataille, “The Solar Anus” (1927/1931)

So, while I don’t believe in “everyone” as an actual category, I’d like to present five books texts constellations I’m glad I read in grad school and that I think about even after I left. 

For people who read too fast

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (1946) 

Mimesis is the second-best thing to come out of World War II: holed up in Turkey during the war, Auerbach wrote only about a few books, including the Bible, The Odyssey, Woolf, Proust, etc. - the usual hits - but he wrote the shit out of them. Auerbach takes his time with each book, exploring how the littlest choices capture/express a different sense of reality. If you want to think about why a particular character says “O” rather than “Ah,” this is the book for you. 

D. A. Miller, Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style (2003)

For a modern take on Auerbach, Miller reads Jane Austen for her “style,” which has less to do with Austen's sense of reality and more to do with her sense of a comprehensible world. (Wait, aren't those the same thing?) This book has two of the six prime pleasures of any book: it is gracefully written; and it is short. Miller is sensitive to Austen's language and perceptive about what that language means; and he gets bonus points for noting her "proto-Wildean brio."

For people who only read the Canon and despise the popular

Janice Radway, Reading the Romance (1984)

Sure, academics read Austen and talk about the marriage plot, but even today you’re more likely to find a Marxist writing about Ayn Rand than a professor studying Harlequin romance. Unless that professor is Janice Radway, whose excellent book looks at popular romance in two important ways: 1) she looks at the common structure and character types of romance (the love interest, the foil, the bad girl nemesis, etc.); and 2) she actually goes out and talks to women who read romance to see what they have to say about it. Asking people what they think - who would have thought of it?

Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs (1985)

With all the whining he did about women writers who out-sold him, you would think that Hawthorne invented blogging:

“America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash - and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.” 

But history has proven that Hawthorne was better and that women didn't write anything good until Donna Tartt. Or maybe not. (Well, no, definitely not.) Tompkins's Sensational Designs looks at some un-canonized American literature - the gothic, the sentimental, and the adventure novel - and finds that, surprise, these books have something to say.

But if you've got limited time, read her opening and closing chapters, where she really skewers the notion of the great American Hawthorne, since that’s just one version of his work. (When was the last time you read Hawthorne’s “A Rill from the Town Pump”?) In short: fuck ahistorical modernist assumptions of what a novel should be.

For people who ignore the big picture

Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel (1998) 

Is Moretti the father of the modern infographic? No, of course not - but he does love him some visual representation of data. Graphs, maps, trees - he loves them all. Rather than reading a handful of books while in exile from Nazi Germany (a la Auerbach), Moretti likes to look at the Big Picture. Like: I once saw him give a lecture on the difference between indefinite and definite articles in seven-thousand titles, e.g., “A Hard Woman” vs. “The Parisian.” 

Now, if all you read is the title, you might miss something or end up telling us something we already know. (Did you know that 19th century British novels often featured French and continental villains?) But even with the problems in his methods and conclusions, Moretti's examination of the whole field of literature is thought-provoking, even if that thought has lots of curse-words.

For people who think that theory can’t help you read

Fredric Jameson, “After Armageddon: Character Systems in Dr. Bloodmoney (1975) 

Of course we all know Fredric Jameson as the dissertation advisor to Kim Stanley Robinson. (Oh, and also he wrote some incredibly important books on postmodernism, science fiction, and the political work of literature. But: Kim Stanley Robinson!) Besides those book-length works, one of my favorite essays of Jameson's is this one on Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney

The heart of this essay is a diagram, a Greimasian square (a.k.a., the semiotic square), where Jameson breaks down the fundamental categories of existence in Dr. Bloodmoney. And if you think that abstract literary theory has nothing to add to the reading process and that diagrams are only good for sex positions, then this is the essay to make you change your mind. Jameson's essay not only beautifully helps understand Dick's Bloodmoney, but also helps to explain how this theory works.

(Warning: the downside here is that you will take the Greimasian square out for a date. You will take it to a nice restaurant. You will say, "hey, I can break down Scott's Waverly into a Greimasian square around the idea of footwear," and, bam!, now you'll never be rid of it. Especially since Wells spent so much time thinking about footwear in fiction [cf. the Eloi sandals of The Time Machine] and non-fiction [cf. his socialist, Fabian tract, The Misery of Boots].)

Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry (1992)

Sure, Žižek may be the Robin Williams of theory; and sure, to the man with the Lacanian hammer everything looks like a petit objet a. (Waits for laughter to die down.) But at the end of the day, Žižek is a lot of fun and he talks about a lot of fun works, from Highsmith to Sheckley. 

For Jared 

Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic (1970)

This book is really for people who love arguing over boundaries and liminal spaces - I’m looking at you, Jared (Editor's note: <ducks>). Rather than get too bogged down in any particular fantastic book, Todorov works through the fantastic as a genre, which (for him) is a genre all about breaking down or hovering over liminal spaces. That sounds like a good weekend, doesn’t it? Todorov goes beyond the usual genre questions (“What is it?”) and asks some cultural and humanistic questions about why people do this thing at all. 

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