How to Read Fiction by Terry Eagleton
....A literary classic, some critics consider, is not so much a work whose value is changeless as one that is able to generate new meanings over time. It is, so to speak, a slow-burning affair. It gathers different interpretations as it evolves. Like an ageing rock star, it can adapt itself to new audiences. Even so, we should not assume that such classics are up and running all the time. Like business enterprises, they can close down and start up again. Works may pass in and out of favour according to changing historical circumstances.
....works which have fallen into near-oblivion may be jolted into fresh life by historical developments. In the crisis of Western civilisation that culminated in the First World War, metaphysical poets and Jacobean dramatists who had also lived through a time of social turmoil were suddenly back in favour. With the rise of modern feminism, Gothic novels with persecuted heroines ceased to be regarded as minor curios and acquired a new centrality.
....there are criteria for determining what counts as excellence in golf or fiction, as there are not for determining whether peaches taste better than pineapples. And these criteria are public, not just a question of what one happens privately to prefer. You have to learn how to handle them by sharing in certain social practices. In the case of literature, these social practices are known as literary criticism. This still leaves a lot of room for dissent and disagreement. Criteria are guides for how to go about making value judgements. They do not make them for you, any more than following the rules of chess will win the game for you. Chess is played not just according to rules, but by the creative application of such rules; and the rules themselves will not tell you how to apply them creatively. That is a matter of know-how, intelligence and experience. Knowing what counts as excellence in fiction is likely to decide the issue between Chekhov and Jackie Collins, but not between Chekhov and Turgenev.
Different cultures may have different criteria for deciding what counts as good or bad art. As a foreign onlooker, you might be present at some ceremony in a Himalayan village and say whether you found it boring or exhilarating, high-spirited or stiffly ritualised. What you could not say was whether it was well executed. To judge that would involve having access to the standards of excellence appropriate to that particular activity. The same goes for works of literature. Standards of excellence may also differ from one kind of literary art to another. What makes for a fine piece of pastoral is not what makes for a powerful piece of science fiction.
Works which are deep and complex would seem obvious candidates for literary merit. Yet complexity is not a value in itself. The fact that something is complex does not automatically earn it a place among the immortals. The muscles of the human leg are complex, but those with calf injuries might prefer them not to be. The plot of Lord of the Rings is complex, but this is not enough to endear Tolkien's work to those who dislike donnish escapism or medievalist whimsy. The point of some lyrics and ballads is not their complexity but their poignant simplicity. Lear's cry of ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ is not exactly complex, and is all the finer for it.
Nor is it true that all good literature is profound. There can be a superb art of the surface, such as Ben Jonson's comedies, Oscar Wilde's high-society dramas or Evelyn Waugh's satires. (We should beware, however, of the prejudice that comedy is always less deep an affair than tragedy. There are some searching comedies and some trite tragedies. Joyce's Ulysses is a profound piece of comedy, which is not the same as saying that it is profoundly funny, even though it is.) Surfaces are not always superficial. There are literary forms in which complexity would be out of place. Paradise Lost reveals little psychological depth or intricacy, and neither do Robert Burns's lyrics. Blake's ‘Tyger’ poem is deep and complex, but not psychologically so.
Plenty of critics, as we have seen, insist that good art is coherent art. The most accomplished works of literature are the most harmoniously unified. In an impressive economy of technique, every detail pulls its weight in the overall design. One problem with this claim is that ‘Little Bo Peep’ is coherent but banal. Besides, many an effective postmodern or avant-garde work is centreless and eclectic, made up of parts that do not slot neatly together. They are not necessarily any the worse for that. There is no virtue in harmony or cohesion as such, as I have suggested already. Some of the great artworks of the Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists are deliberately dissonant. Fragmentation can be more fascinating than unity.
Perhaps what makes a work of literature exceptional is its action and narrative. Certainly Aristotle thought that a solid, well-wrought action was central to at least one species of literary writing (tragedy).Yet nothing much happens in one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century (Waiting for Godot), one of the finest novels (Ulysses) and one of the most masterly poems (The Waste Land). If a sturdy plot and a strong narrative are vital to literary status, Virginia Woolf sinks to a dismally low place in the league tables. We no longer rate a substantial plot as highly as Aristotle did. In fact, we no longer insist on a plot or narrative at all. Unless we are small children, we are less enamoured of stories than our ancestors. We also recognise that compelling art can be spun out of meagre materials.
What, then, of linguistic quality? Do all great literary works use language in resourceful and inventive ways? It is surely a virtue of literature that it restores human speech to its true abundance, and in doing so recovers something of our suppressed humanity. A good deal of literary language is copious and exuberant. As such, it can act as a critique of our everyday utterances. Its eloquence can issue a rebuke to a civilisation for which language has become for the most part crudely instrumental. Soundbites, text-speak, managerial jargon, tabloid prose, political cant and bureaucratese can be shown up for the bloodless forms of discourse they are. Hamlet's last words are
‘Absent thee from felicity awhile, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story … the rest is silence.’
Steve Jobs's last words were ‘Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.’ Some might feel that there has been a certain falling-off here. Literature is about the felt experience of language, not just the practical use of it. It can draw our attention to the opulence of a medium that we usually take for granted. Poetry is concerned not just with the meaning of experience, but with the experience of meaning.
Even so, not everything we call literary has a sumptuous way with words. There are literary works that do not use language in particularly eye-catching ways. A good deal of realist and naturalistic fiction employs a plain, sober speech. One would not describe the poetry of Philip Larkin or William Carlos Williams as lushly metaphorical. George Orwell's prose is not exactly luxuriant. There is not much burnished rhetoric in Ernest Hemingway. The eighteenth century valued a lucid, exact, serviceable prose. Works of literature should certainly be well written, but then so should all writing, including memos and menus. You do not have to sound like The Rainbow or Romeo and Juliet to qualify as a reputable piece of literature....