- On Loving Literature
By Deidre Shauna Lynch.
University of Chicago Press, 2014
. 352p. HB, $40.00
First, a distinction. When I employ the term academic in what follows, I will not mean the first definition, the technical one: individuals who teach college students. I will mean the second definition, the sullied one: individuals for whom the academy is not a place to work but a way to think, those priests and priestesses of palaver for whom literature is never quite okay as it is, and to whom literature begs to be gussied up in silkier robes. These are politicizers who marshal literature in the name of an ideological agenda, who deface great books and rather prefer bad books because they bolster grievances born of their epidermis or gender or sexuality, or of the nation’s economy, or of cultural history, or of whatever manner of apprehension is currently in vogue. You might think of the distinction as one between those for whom the academy is a meaningful paycheck and those for whom it is a meaningless principle—teaching at a university does not ipso facto transform one into an academic. The distinction remains a crucial one, a distinction defined by much more than mere differences, because there are thousands inside the academy whose souls have not been spoiled by it—untold English professors who can write with clarity and speak with passion, who don’t conflate art with personal identity, or aesthetics with politics, and who every semester impart their love of beauty and wisdom to students savagely in need of it.
Now, let’s talk about love. Deidre Shauna Lynch, the Chancellor Jackman Professor of English at the University of Toronto, has just published a book titled Loving Literature: A Cultural History. To canvass the history of this concept called literary love, the book winds its tortured and tortuous way through that important British cultural chunk between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Lynch wishes to uncover “how it has come to be that those of us for whom English is a line of work are also called upon to love literature and to ensure that others do so too.” Except I’m not certain that anyone is really calling upon academics to love the subject they study—the point is that they seem categorically incapable of such love, and so they are being pitied for so ardently missing the point of literature. For Lynch, it’s unfortunate that we have “this tendency to identify literary studies with the love of the subject and to identify that love with amateurs not yet subjected to the affective deformation that supposedly comes with formal education.” She uses “amateur” in the literal sense and not the derogatory one, and by the awkward phrase [End Page 188] “affective deformation” she means, I think, theory’s habit of grabbing hold of students and smacking from their pretty hearts their love for the beauty and wisdom of literature.
Lynch dislikes that academics “must make their peace with the fact that viewed from the outside their work does not look like work,” but this again misses how academics are perceived by those sensible enough to dwell outside their ranks: The problem is precisely that their work looks too much like work—onerous, meticulous, pointless, jargon-soaked work without application either to literature or to living. “My experience,” writes Lynch, “does not suggest to me that the personal is repressed when departments of English go about their ostensibly clinical official business.” Very glad to have her word that her own experience refutes our perception of English departments—although that term “suggest” seems rather unsure of itself, does it not?—but the rest of us have had our own experiences of reading what those English departments produce. We have the fruits of those experiences, and the fruits are rotten: unreadable prose and classes with incomprehensible names. Also: Think twice about any writer who doesn’t mind using the term “business” when referring to “literature.” (Lynch’s previous book has the mind-warping title The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning.)