Skip to main content

A Literature Worth Loathing

What Makes Bad Readers Good

ISSUE:  Spring 2018

<em>The Hatred of Literature</em>. By William Marx. Harvard, 2018. 240p. HB, $29.95</p><em>Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers In Postwar America</em>. By Merve Emre. Chicago, 2017. 304p. PB, $27.50.</p>In his newly translated book, The Hatred of Literature, critic William Marx argues that celebrated minds like Heraclitus and Rousseau became utter lightweights when reading literature. Their insults, like all insults against the art form, were largely unoriginal and wouldn’t change much. “Real innovation is rare in anti-literature,” Marx writes. Presumably, this is why Marx was able to structure his investigation by four categories that sweep across Western history. These are the great “trials” of literature: authority; truth; morality; society. Hatred reads like an overblown victimology of literature in that its assailants have never presented a lethal threat. Belied, banned, or burned, stories and poems find a way of transcending their plight. For Marx, the true annihilator of literature is simply “indifference.” Against the coming wave of mass indifference, we can do nothing but join him in a helpless prayer: “May the gods prevent that day from ever arriving.”

Marx is a professor of comparative literature at the Paris Nanterre University, and he has a titanic sense of sarcasm. Hatred contains entire paragraphs meaning their literal opposite (kudos to its translator, Nicholas Elliott.) Like many French intellects, Marx relishes in the enigmatic gems created by the friction between two discourses that “share a medium.” Yet he remains hostile to the opposing discourse, which, over and over, has conducted the same dumb interrogations: Literature comes from the Muse, and who the hell is that? (Authority.) Literature is a mere ornament and has no claim to the truth of the universe. (Truth.) Literature, like video games, defiles the minds of wholesome children. (Morality.) Literature speaks on behalf of a society that gave it no such permission—and it’s useless. (Society.) That is basically all anti-litterateurs have ever had to say.

It might seem the historical gesture of Hatred is that literature and anti-literature uphold a dialectic in which they imperfectly police each other’s borders. But Marx suggests something more metaphysical. According to him, Western literature did not truly exist until it was besieged by Ancient Greek thinkers such as Heraclitus, Xenophanes, and especially Plato. Marx explains, “[Literature] does not start with Homer, with Gilgamesh, or with the romantic period, but with Plato driving the poets out of the city, just as God drove our first forebears out of Eden. That is literature’s genesis, and this genesis is a historical fact.”

I don’t see how this achieves ironclad factuality, but regardless, the idea leads Marx to this book’s dictum: “There is no literature without anti-literature.” And Marx really means this. Which is odd because he handily shows that anti-literature is always rooted in painful ignorance, as its “most general form is a plain refusal to read.” So you wonder why anti-literature, a reactionary movement that lives for the blood of a host it cannot see or understand, would be responsible for the “genesis” of anything. But for Marx literature is a special “enterprise that is continually renewed by dispossession,” and paradoxically, because it has shifted identity throughout history, literature has accumulated a wealth of thrilling, albeit transient, definitions. Literature: “brings forward an absent reality”; “is nostalgia for a fallen power”; “considers…ultimate purpose”; “is a place of reference, exchange, discussion and debate”; “is…a place where beauty, good, and truth come together”; “is precisely not the Law”; “is an ideal victim, and an ideal culprit too”; “[is how a nation] becomes aware of its destiny”; “is the ultimate illegitimate discourse”; “is what remains when everything has been removed”; “does not know the conditions under which it was produced.”

These definitions were articulated only because literature was perpetually forced to relocate its kingdom. Indeed, anti-litterateurs are the world’s useful idiots for preserving literature’s variability and religious allure. So in a sense we owe thanks to the enemies Marx brings to light: Thanks to Plato for living up to his reputation as a bit of a fascist, by using the state to banish all poets from Kallipolis; thanks to C. P. Snow for delivering a speech poisoned by its duplicity—“The Two Cultures”— which deemed the tone of the scientific culture, in comparison to the literary one, “steadily heterosexual”; thanks to poet Francesco Berni for writing a dialogue that would have poets and Jews wear special hats to mark them “as despicable and odious people”; and thanks to those contemporary schools so scandalized by racist language in Huckleberry Finn they published censored versions of the novel.

Literature welcomes your hatred.

It is worth inquiring deeper into the nature of this peculiar hatred, however impoverished the haters’ idea of literature, however senseless their criticism. By definition, reactionary movements are never self-determined; they react not to the actual object but to what it threatens in them. And look who, by Marx’s account, despises literature: theologians, philosophers, scientists, politicians, teachers, even poets and writers themselves. People who are fully committed to the life of thought and inquiry are most likely to see literature, in the general sense, as an unhealthy illusion. In Hatred, this point is most powerfully made in the case of Immanuel Kant, who criticized literature for “disrupting the unity of understanding (Verstandeseinheit)”:

Kant’s criticism…[emerged from] the world of the critic of pure reason, arranged in its carefully labeled boxes, just like the critic himself, an obsessive man with excessively hygienic habits, from sunup to sundown, taking meals and walking at fixed times. This world and this critic both so set in their ways had difficulty coming to terms with texts that disturbed such a fine orderly existence and promoted the scattering of the mind. The memory lapse feared by Kant is the loss of self-control and the failure to control the world, or else the wind blowing through the open windows into a neat and tidy Prussian home: yet how beautiful it can be when literature blows your papers all over the place.

Marx says that the obsessive need to control was specific to Kant, but this must mean only that the desire “to control the world” manifested in Kant’s ordinary life. The impulses to know and to control are tightly wound together, so I don’t think it’s much coincidence that the cerebral among us feel perturbed by an art form that so patently demonstrates the hopelessness of completely understanding the human condition, that keeps such fidelity to the chaos and strangeness of our lives.

Those who wish to understand human subjectivity are as doomed as those who desire perfect knowledge of literature. Marx lifts a dubious eye over argot like “poetic function, literality and formalism” because he knows that these will never reduce literature “to any kind of essence.” Only hatred serves to infer its existence; as strong gravity infers that of a collapsed star.

Skepticism at the quasi-scientific attempts to schematize the study of literature is warranted. But Marx does not satisfactorily demonstrate why hatred is somehow the only emotion able to detect what we call “literature.” The destructive sentiment may have clumsily aided in the articulation of the defining literary features of the age, as Marx convincingly argues, but it could not have created them.

I wonder, then, how Marx’s understanding of literature is ultimately justified. If literature is confirmed by hatred, it’s confirmed by a very distinct kind of hatred from a very distinct group of people: especially because that group refuses to genuinely engage with it and insists on unbearably stupid caricatures. Hatred contains a passage that put my jaw on the floor, wherein Rousseau, the author of The Social Contract, reads a children’s fable literally, word for word, while lampooning it for not accurately representing the physical world of time and space.

Defining literature through its detractors seems both strange and convenient, as if literature only need scout beyond its borders for possible invaders, never searching for the treachery within. Marx is himself an intellectual, so maybe it’s not surprising he finds no definition in how literature related to non-eggheads. Didn’t Greeks listen to orations of Homer? Didn’t the middle classes of Victorian England love Shakespeare? Didn’t entrenched WWI soldiers read Jane Austen to escape the unprecedented carnage? Didn’t despondent seventies high-schoolers read The Catcher in the Rye? Sure, these people may not have read literature the way they were “supposed” to—non-literary people rarely do. But these are examples of people who were seriously engaged with fiction, poetry, and theater, rather than deeply incurious cynics who couldn’t be bothered. If intellectuals hew the shifting boundaries of literature with blind hatred, why is it impossible for common readers to assign its fleeting domain with fascination and love?

Maybe Marx never intended to address this possibility, for lack of historical evidence or scope of project. Though, it’s not as if he is ignorant of the diminished status of literature in certain Western cultures. If the English reviews of his untranslated work are accurate, Marx knows how the European and American literary communities sabotaged the cultural relevance of literature by fixating on the “autonomous” nature of great fiction, which codified a few valid interpretative techniques, of which only MFA students, English PhDs, and literary critics were even aware. Coincidentally, perhaps, this disconnected literature from the real world where charges from authority, truth, morality, and social utility had meaning.

I suspect Marx didn’t give any power of definition to “ordinary” people because they tend to read literature in irredeemably bad ways, as means of entertainment or relaxation, for example. It appears that Marx would rather necessitate the degradation of literature than relinquish it to those who know little of the marvelous worlds that literature, when read properly, can suggest.

But any attempts to conserve canonical modes of literature are as futile as they were for the actual Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation, arguably when popular hermeneutics was born. We cannot hide this gift forever. The future of literature—if there is one—might just be sustained by those who love it for reasons we cannot yet imagine.

Merve Emre’s Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, a work of literary theory that explores post–World War II American reading methods, is a book that gives us an indirect means of scrutinizing my implication that there is nothing to fear by releasing the definition of literature to the wider public.

I’m simplifying, but here’s the book’s basic idea: Shortly after 1945, at the height of its power, the United States became increasingly aware of itself as an international subject in a variety of interwoven ways. This growing awareness instigated many changes in our society. (Think, for example, about the United States before and after the Vietnam War.) Our government instituted programs to project a best-foot-forward image of America around the world; corporations like American Express began unprecedented branding campaigns well beyond our shores; National Geographic and other influential magazines made a market of bringing pictures and stories of other countries to the US population; American citizens, seeking international acculturation, made plans to travel more frequently, while privileged Americans competed for elite programs—like the Fulbright Scholarship—that would send them abroad specifically as ambassadors. Even countercultural figures and political radicals employed the international strategies of corporations and the government to advance their ideas and goals.

Most Americans, as they were socialized into a more international identity, learned new ways of communicating and interpreting that helped them form that identity. While institutional, bureaucratic, or corporate documents were the most common form of transmitting these new methods, they often came through literary texts as well. Meanwhile, the literary culture would refine modes like “close” reading and “critical” reading, which were regularly foiled against these new “paraliterary” practices of Americans, those “bad readers.”

Emre, a professor of English at McGill University, is interested in six modes of so-called “paraliterary” reading: “reading imitatively, reading emotionally, reading faddishly, reading for information, reading like a bureaucrat, and reading like a revolutionary.” What makes Paraliterary particularly exciting is that its implications reach far beyond the tiny world of literary theory. Although most of the text is guided by descriptive protocol, “we, as critics, must proudly claim the bad readers as our own if we wish to make claims about reading at all.” Emre believes this requires a survey of the institutional and geopolitical forces that created bad readers, along with an exploration of the distinctions between paraliterature and literature, if such distinctions exist. That last part becomes important (and maybe controversial) when Paraliterary discusses famous writers—for example, James Baldwin, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner—who engaged the “bad” reading public on paraliterary terms. “Even good readers, and writers, had to be bad sometimes,” Emre writes elsewhere.

The call for academic expansion beyond the literature of “good taste” reminds one of the immaturity of literary theory as a field, at least while it’s directed to assume the impartiality of a social science. Nonetheless, Emre knows that any innovation will likely send strong waves through the rest of the literary community, as it did in the 1960s and ’70s. Ultimately, she intends so: “The various methodologies this book has drawn together have been designed with [an] eye to outward expansion, to thinking big and bigger, so that the core of a thing called literature is no longer merely what people in literature departments do.”

This is genuine ambition from a younger scholar in a field that has a reputation for stifling it. Emre even attacks the mode of theory still used and taught today, the “obsessive-fatalistic style of interpretation” which was until recently “the methodological darling of Foucauldian historicism, queer theory and Marxist critique.” Particularly critics who practice this mode have not only proven politically ineffective but are “asocial, obsessive, and even monomaniacal” because they assume “that modern systems like the state, late capitalism, and global technology exert total control of their subjects.” That is exactly right. The notion of a runaway system that is no longer responsive to its creators is a hallmark of postmodern thinking and writing. The metafictional horror in John Barth and the domineering social logics in Don DeLillo were both expressions of a powerful illusion that, once dissolved, revealed a truism: Systems are created by people and will change when people do.

Precisely because Paraliterary rejects the pretense of a “pure” interpretive style, the book openly, and closely, engages with its material. All of its highly detailed chapters are charged with the potential of changing the ways we read and write literature.

According to Emre, certain sectors of black politics in the 1960s were stimulated by an influential novel that contained a plan for the “…elimination of an entire race of human beings…In order for the United States…to wage a more homogenous Cold War against the Soviet Union.” The novel was The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams, and the plan was the “King Alfred Plan,” which “convincingly mimics…[documents] produced and circulated by real institutions of liberal internationalism,” Emre says.

She points out, “the paranoid literary aesthetics” of Man Who Cried “emerged as a surprising entry point to international social activism for black American writers and readers.” Emre considers this “surprising” because this paranoia (like Pynchon’s) has a kind of “fuzzy systematicity” that more often leads to “analysis paralysis” instead of “concrete…social organizing.”

Yet it’s not as if the “King Alfred Plan” didn’t resonate with the anti-communist McCarran Act passed in 1950, or the heinous activity of COINTELPRO, which was exposed shortly after Williams published his novel in 1967. But Emre is suggesting that only a work of fiction like Man Who Cried could be written, read, and talked about effectively as a revolutionary document because it gave some black Americans access to an exclusive institutional language they could use during social protest.

The exchanges between Williams and his editor, Carl Brandt, during the drafting of the novel are stunning. Brandt, intending the plan to read as convincingly as possible, demanded that the plot be “sharply realistic” and encouraged Williams to include an “operating plan devised by some special task force of the United States government…which would describe in detail plans for the control or isolation, or even deportation of all or certain elements of the negro population in the United States.” Upon the novel’s publication, Williams, who apparently agreed with Brandt, went about photocopying pages of the “King Alfred Plan” and spreading them around the New York City subway. And these tactics had genuine political impact, as Emre shows. The plan made its way into the meeting halls of large cities and eventually into the pages of the Chicago Defender.

Imagine a contemporary “paranoid” novel stressed by the shady technocratic history of huge investment banks selling fraudulent mortgage-backed securities to pension funds and labor unions and then shorting those same securities. Say this novel, in its text or marketing, encouraged Americans to organize against those banks because they were now up to something worse.

What happens when this novel is published and read? Perhaps less important—and that is the point—would this be literature?

Emre makes no secret that many of these modes of reading sprang from dubious intentions. It’s true that the “King Alfred Plan” ginned up real political grievances by means of basically lying—fiction being fiction. According to Emre, the editors of the Bay Street Banner, a black American newspaper at the time, condemned “paranoid” revolutionary novels like Man Who Cried “as a ‘misleading,’ ‘inflammatory,’ and ‘unsoulful’ tactic for linking literacy to activism.” But Emre’s contention is that these modes may harbor better potential than their troublesome origins. “Reading for feeling,” a topic of urgent discussion in literary culture today, was a mode inculcated by the Fulbright Commission in the hope that “teaching people how to love and how to communicate their love for one another could restore a sense of reciprocity to a materially imbalanced system of internationalized property relations.” Not exactly thumping with compassion.

In 1905, expatriate novelist Henry James gave a commencement address at Bryn Mawr entitled “The Question of Our Speech.” As Emre documents, James claimed the speech of American women was no different from the “grunting, the squealing, the barking or the roaring of animals” compared with the elegant ladies of European cultures. What else could James offer as a better template for their speech and mannerisms than the female characters that peopled his fiction. He advocated: “What you young ladies should do is imitate! Don’t be afraid to imitate.” Indeed, many others were equally embarrassed by the innate behavior of the American female, including many women. Using fiction to get women to behave and speak in ways that made international relations a little smoother was common in many women’s colleges at the time. These manner schools used fiction like that of James’s to inculcate “reading as imitation,” a mode by which readers combed dialogue and descriptions within novels for cues on how to behave and speak in their real lives. This development, Emre claims, led to the publication of many “speech training” textbooks, to be read by American women who suffered from no speech pathology other than dialect. Reading James as a means of imitation culminated in the curious affectations of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Emre writes that Jackie O, who attended Vassar, “stacked James’s novels in the White House library as a part of her attempt to bring high culture to Cold War America.”

If extracted from this openly sexist program, Emre claims that reading as imitation reveals one of “literature’s social and pragmatic uses.” She’s right, and she wonders if the mode, in cold theory, could be appropriate under other circumstances. Ultimately, though, how it’s used won’t be up to her.

Would we not be thrilled if more people spoke with the cool graveness of the characters in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find? Wouldn’t we like to see imitation of the moral subtlety of Starbuck from Moby Dick, or the heroic reflectiveness of the characters in To the Lighthouse? Maybe we should take cues on dedication from Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” or on leadership from the Judge in Blood Meridian. While we’re at it, we may as well affirm those lonely men who have formed their personalities with the help of Atlas Shrugged.

The above scenarios are misguided not because they are the wrong models for our behavior but because they are already models of our behavior. Reading or writing for a means of imitation is not literary. If there is anything true of literary characters (fiction or non-), it is that they are imitations of real living people, who are incomparably more complex and mysterious than their mimetic brothers and sisters. I read literature to bring into consciousness those aspects of my nature I’ve already lived with—not to program it. (Note that this reading motive is of the “bad” variety, according to Nabokov, whom Emre quotes for his infamous pop quiz: “Good Readers and Good Writers.”) Even those who want fiction to face and engage with society, as I do, can recognize pitfalls. Coercing a human being to imitate a model of a human being is the ambition of the social engineer.

Both of these books have arrived when literature is in danger of reclaiming its relevance. But the essentially corrupted style of literary imitation is one of many examples I would frantically wave before the eyes of those wishing to bring literature to the center of a culture that is as “unpure” as the literary one. There are fates worse than indifference. The journey back to relevance will be full of deadly comprise and moral panic, and it will necessarily change literature itself. How pitiful it would be if the gift we gave no longer resembled the gift we once kept.  



By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading