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What Is Literature?, edited by Paul Hernadi; xxiii & 257 pp. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press, 1978, $12.50. Discussed by T. J. Diffey It would be a mistake to suppose that the question "what is literature?" could ever be finally settled. The eighteen essays (not seventeen as stated on the dust jacket) by the nineteen contributors to this attractive book do, however, indicate lines of inquiry which cannot be neglected by anybody seriously interested in the question. Professor Hernadi, the editor, has insisted on brevity. He must be congratulated upon having assembled a collection ofessays which abound in powerful ideas lightly sketched in and which invite the reader to participate in fruitful debate. The essays are mainly written in a plain and unpretentious prose, so indicating that the contributors really do have something to say about their subject. This cannot of course be said of everybody included, but poor or worthless pieces are agreeably few. These will be ignored. Some influences have been imported from Europe, notably structuralism , and negligibly Marxism; but there seems to be nothing from Britain, to the chagrin of a British reviewer. For the warning had better be sounded that this book has fallen into the hands of a British reviewer. However, putting aside questions of exotic influence, the book leaves the abiding impression, which I also believe to be true on other grounds, that within North America real and exciting progress is currently being made in the theory of literature. It seems ungracious, then, to criticize the editor, but on some points he must be taken to gentle task. First, it was unnecessary to arrange the essays in three sections, or at any rate the three which we are given. The section titles look ad hoc and only make (a kind of) sense after the essays comprising the sections have been read. I defy anybody editing an anthology like this to say in advance of receiving copy that he must have three sections and that the topic will be best illuminated by having these and only these titles: (1) "Definitions: Theory and History"; (2) "Canon-Formation: Forces and Procedures"; (3) "Literature : Acts, Effects, Artifacts." Fortunately this sort of insipid scholasticism does not affect the vitality of the essays themselves. Secondly, the contributors have, for the most part, but evidently not in all cases, worked in apparent ignorance of what their fellow 121 122Philosophy and Literature contributors were going to say in this volume. It may be wondered how this is a criticism of the editor, or if it is, how, with so many contributors involved, it could have been remedied. The fact is, however, that many of the writers refer to previous, that is to the published, views of one another, not necessarily to criticize, indeed quite often to praise. But it is slightly disconcerting to find the contributors within the covers of the same book talking about one another rather than to one another. What, one cannot help wondering, will they think of one another's performances this time around when they have read the whole collection. Their reviews and rejoinders must be a good deal more interesting than anything a mere bystander can say. My last complaint against Professor Hernadi is that he has not provided biographical notes on his contributors. Probably the contributors are too well known at home to need introduction. More facetiously, perhaps everybody in North America is now too sophisticated to be caught committing any version of the intentionalist fallacy not only in literary criticism but also in the theory of literature. And at least six of the contributors need no introduction, being internationally known. For the most part they live up to their reputations, although the piece by Morse Peckham calls for some reservations. The exposition of the argument as summarized in Peckham's conclusion is not as clear as it might be; the essay makes fewer concessions to the lay reader than many here collected triumphantly manage to do. Moreover, it is sophistical to maintain, as Peckham does, that literature is a perceptual field on the grounds that "it consists of discourse perceived either by eye or by ear" (p. 222). In a review it is possible to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 121-130
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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