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  • An Uncommon Reader
  • Christopher Norris (bio)

It is not expected of critics that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.

At some very low level, we all share certain fictions about time, and they testify to the continuity of what is called human nature, however conscious some, as against others, may become of the fictive quality of these fictions.

This is an age of theory, and theory is both difficult and usually not related to anything that meets the wider interest I speak of.

—Frank Kermode

They ask me ‘Why no novels, why not tryYour hand at fiction; surely you could useAll those ideas, those insights, all the rareAnd subtle arts that were your specialty

As literary critic and applyThe self-same gifts to any theme you choose,Creating narratives that might compareWith the all the fictive texts you’ve helped us see

In new and complex ways?’ They flatter myPoor efforts in that line, my quest for cluesAs to what constitutes the reader’s shareIn finding some interpretative key

That unlocks secrets and what ought to lieMore squarely with the author’s canny ruseFor bringing us to recognize how they’reIn charge of every hermeneutic spree

That otherwise risks sending sense awryAnd all too easily forgetting whose [End Page 100] The mind that shapes the tale. A certain flairFor posing suchlike questions, a degree

Of theory-primed intentness to defyThe academic norms, to spread the newsFrom France (although the scoffer’s phrase ‘armchairRebellion’ comes to mind) – these seem to me

The only gifts, if such they are, that IWould think to bring in tribute to the muse,If such she is, of us poor hacks who dareProfess the critic’s trade. Still there’s a plea

Worth entering, one that lacks the note of highArnoldian zeal whose dwindling residuesStill haunt the dreaming spires but may yet bear,Once cleared of pious cant, some scrutiny,

If just ‘the passing tribute of a sigh’From Arnold’s fretful heirs. In truth we loseNo more than he lost, self-condemned to wearThe patched and faded robes of prophecy,

The togs of a Romantic age gone byWhen poets blazed and the Victorian blues,That torment of belatedness and prayerFor hope renewed, had not yet come to be

The music of the times. What cause to cry‘Born late!’ in any wilderness with viewsTo cherish all around? I’d rather errOn the bright side and recommend that we

Lit-crit trained Jeremiahs pipe our eyeLess readily and see we don’t confuseShort-term effects for long-term or declareThe outlook hopeless. With a moiety

Of clerkly skepticism we may plyThe ancient trade of critics and peruseDark texts for passages that squareWith no set protocol, no ABC [End Page 101]

Of reading. That might serve as alibiFor skimmers chiefly anxious to excuseTheir preference for idling in dead airWhile, scarcely felt by them, the energy

Of clashing signifiers rends the skyFor readers less in hock to the taboosEnforced by taste or custom. DoctrinairePost-structuralists may celebrate the ‘free-

Play of the signifier,’ but they’d flyMore scenically if they’d just opt to cruise,Once in a while, with altitude to spare,Or (not to milk my metaphor) just see

What’s lost by theories dead-set to denyThe yield that comes of paying equal dues,Ideally, to the giddy joys of theirUtopian devising and the pre-

Post-structuralist way of sometimes getting byOn plot and character. Each will accuseThe other of displaying too much careFor their pet notions, reading sloppily,

Treating the novelist as their fall-guy,Or waiting for a chance to put the screwsOn rival critics. Call it savoir-faire,Having it both ways, fake humility,

Or (my strong preference) having fish to fryWith both lots, ‘common readers’ and the crews...


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pp. 100-103
Launched on MUSE
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