Interesting bit from an…

Interesting bit from an interview with Susan Cheever:

Cheever: "...there used to be two schools of thought. One was the I.A. Richard's school, responsible for what is referred to as the New Criticism, which says you must consider every piece of writing out of context and in a vacuum [NOTE: This type of close-reading focus-on-the-text is what I was trained in as an English major at the U of C in the early 90s]. If you know anything about who wrote it, where and when it was written, that pollutes your ability to read. Then there was F.R. Leavis, who said you have to see everything in context. So there were these two very passionately argued schools of thought. Richard's school of thought is now gone....People don't even think about doing it a different way anymore. Even the idea that it's better to read work without knowing anything about it has been lost."

Interviewer: "Are you saying you think it would be better to go back to the old way of holding the work sacred?"

Cheever: "No. I'm saying there should be two competing ideas, one that work should be read in a vacuum, and the other that it should be read in context."

Mostly I just want to agree with her. I think it's really interesting, coming at a text from both these perspectives, holding them both in your head and seeing how the interpretations speak to each other. It reflects my own reading experience too -- some books I read knowing nothing about the authors, their historical time period, etc. Some books I already know lots. Some books I start out knowing nothing and over years, learn all kinds of things. And all of those perspectives for reading are interesting, and valuable to me.

5 thoughts on “Interesting bit from an…”

  1. Somehow, the I. A. Richards school seems absurd. There is always identifying information accompanying a text, unless someone emails it to you without comment. The type font, for example, gives historical clues. In the extremal case, a manuscript in Sumerian, on clay tablets, carries a lot of information about its origin which will be distinct from the information in a printed book from a time when letters looked different from today’s letters, say the 17-th century, which is still different from the look and feel of a Harry Potter book.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Well, but that’s assuming book as physical object. I e-mail books around all the time these days…

  3. I don’t think Richards’ school of thought is any more ridiculous than Leavis’. The idea that you could really have full context is pretty much a joke, or at least as much a joke as believing you can have no context at all.

    This is really interesting, Mary Anne, in part because it highlights for me my own frustrations with New Historicism and New Criticism. I’m more likely to fall down on the Richards side, largely because that’s what Howard and Brooke and the others had us do during our coursework.

    But then again, that’s not exactly true, is it? (Brooke had us read a biography of Keats, for example.) I guess I’m just still trying to convince critics to treat writers as writerspeople who work through a process. I’ve had far too many professors who seem to believe literature is born fully-formed out of the genius of the Greats.

    Not every writer is a genius, but all those geniuses were writers.

  4. Shows how much I’ve been out of the loop since my last exposure to academic lit-crit — I thought we’d killed off the author a long time ago. As my extremely po-mo Modern Japanese Lit prof pointed out, if you have to know who the author is, how do you read an anonymous work? (This is the same guy who dealt with a student’s complaint about the kinkiness of Tanizaki’s The Key by saying: “All sex is a perversion” — and when I raised my hand to ask “A perversion of what?”, thought about it for a second and said: “Breast-feeding.” Very sharp guy; kind of like an extremely gay middle-aged Ben Rosenbaum.)

    I think Cheever’s got a point, though. If you just use one approach or the other, you’re missing something. (Of course, I’m the sort of reader who thinks it’s, if not appropriate, at least interesting to, say, go ahead and keep reading Emma Dunham Kelly-Hawkins as if she was black, so of course I’d think that.)

    Hey, Mary Anne, do you read The Valve at all? I don’t know enough about the state of the academy to follow half the arguments on there, but some of them are interesting anyway.

  5. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    No, haven’t heard of it. And while I’m tempted to go look, I’m also going to resist because I HAVE NO TIME. 🙂

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