The New Compass: A Critical Review

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How Should We Talk About Books?
Duke Maskell

In the second issue of The New Compass, Pat Menon said that Edith Wharton's The Reef seemed to her too full of the author's own unhappiness to be perfectly intelligible as a novel. In the next issue, Sarah Emsley disagreed: she found the novel perfectly self-sufficient in the sense it made, and with nothing of the merely symptomatic about it.

Although I certainly think it matters who is (the more?) right and who wrong here, what struck me most strongly about the disagreement were other things. Firstly, that it rested on an underlying agreement which I thought had (but am glad to see hasn't) been driven out of literary studies: that a novelist isn't condemned to the mere acting out of his own feelings or interests, either as an individual or member of a class, but is free to treat his material (without his novel becoming any less his own) with a certain impersonality and justice. Pat Menon and Sarah Emsley might disagree about whether The Reef is sufficiently impersonal; what they don't disagree about is that it ought to be. They both seem to make, that is, the radically subversive assumption that some things are literature and other things are … not. But you couldn't fairly say that they are privileging literature or mystifying it. Surely, in a kind of joint effort to say where the boundary lies between what is and is not literature and what the difference consists in, it's the opposite they are doing. If literature really is to be demystified it isn't by treating everything as undifferentiated 'text'—The Reef seen by Sarah Emsley along with the one seen by Pat Menon—but by maintaining the traditional distinction and seeing where it will take us.

To be able to distinguish between self-expression as merely private and symptomatic and self-expression as art and thought ought to be considered an achievement, and one that is greatly to the credit of literary criticism as an academic discipline. It may not quite be the discovery of literary criticism but it's a distinction that no other academic discipline has done more to explore or establish as real. It can be both a fine distinction and an important one to draw. Drawing it can be work as demanding as any in the most demanding of disciplines, and what can hang on it as important. No one following the long-running argument about how far and where, say, Lawrence's Sons and Lovers is (to use F. R. Leavis's phrase) "autobiographical record" and how far and where it has the "impersonality of art" could come away (it seems to me) thinking either that the argument wouldn't prove a testing one to offer to contribute to or that it was about trivialities.[1] And, perhaps, now, under the hegemony of 'Theory', when the distinction is banned, it has, in fact, become easier to see it for the achievement it is.

The other thing that struck me was that buried within Pat Menon's and Sarah Emsley's explicit disagreement over The Reef was another, sharper disagreement about the nature and practice of criticism. It seemed to me sharper because, on this issue, they seemed to me not to be disputing from common ground. Whereas they shared the assumption that literature—when it is itself—possesses a kind of impersonality which is the perfecting of personality rather than its extinguishing—they didn't, I thought, at all show signs of similarly agreeing that in criticism too the personal and the impersonal are necessary to one another.

Sarah Emsley seemed to me often to write as if criticism were much more a matter of method, something more completely impersonal, in which personality really was extinguished—but not by mistake. She early on describes Pat Menon as invoking and returning to "the biographical model of criticism". Now, I've no doubt that there are people of whom it would be true to say that they have a model of criticism, which they can invoke and return to, that they employ one model, follow one approach, when they might, for this or that reason, have employed another, not the biographical but the psychoanalytical or the Marxist, say. And then one would be suggesting that, in perhaps important respects, they weren't themselves fully or very intensely present in what they had to say or in the use they made of their model, that their connection with it was merely professional, or provisional: they did have this model, to be sure, but only until something better came along. It would be hard not suggest that they were not, for good or ill, wholehearted—or wholeheartedly present—in what they had to say. It would, at least, be going against the grain of the description to try to use it to say that, in speaking as they did, they couldn't help themselves.

Certainly, Pat Menon talks about Edith Wharton's life; but as someone employing a model? It's not that there is nothing to be found in her essay that might fairly be called employed. The theme it is organised around—the clash between (William) Jamesian pragmatism and idealism—is what if not that, a convenience, an apparatus even? Something which at once helps organise a lot of difficult material and gives the result the look of academic respectability, making it impossible to accuse the writer of a want of 'thought' or too 'subjective' a treatment of her subject. But the reason Pat Menon herself gives for what she calls her efforts to confine her responses to "the intellectual and analytic" has nothing itself of "the intellectual and analytic" about it—not, at least, in the sense of that phrase as it attaches to her use of William James. It is frankly confessional; and what it confesses, moreover, is an engagement with Edith Wharton's novel—with the author she finds in the novel--as unprofessionally and unmethodically personal as one could imagine. What she says—and Sarah Emsley quotes her in her own first sentence—is:

I must admit that The Reef is a novel that gives me a great deal of difficulty. If I confine my own responses to the intellectual and analytic, as I attempt to do through most of this essay, it is, I suspect, as a consequence of a wish to shield myself from the endless anxieties experienced by the characters or, at a further remove, from Wharton's own despair. To respond to The Reef without an attempt to bring it into some kind of intellectual order would result not in an essay but in a prolonged shriek.
Now, the last thing that sounds like is someone employing a model of criticism, biographical or otherwise. Surely, it sounds more like someone speaking just, that is, unprofessionally, as themselves? And isn't it a rather engaging 'someone' too? Ready to admit—as if she had never been to graduate school—that she feels the anxieties of the characters and the despair of the author? And turning the admission into a shrewd, witty joke at her own expense? This isn't someone employing a model of criticism; it's more like giving it the elbow.

Although Sarah Emsley is—formally at least—defending The Reef from Pat Menon's criticisms of it, she has a way of describing it that makes it sound less interesting. I mean, what would you rather read—which would you, in all sincerity, be more drawn to—"an autobiographical expression of misery and despair" or "a carefully constructed representation of the problem of making a definitive moral choice"? Nobody, nobody, actually, would prefer the latter. And when we pretend to—as we so commonly do—it is just a pretence, practised upon the world, and ourselves, because our profession seems to require it.

Sarah Emsley may, perhaps, be right when she says that Edith Wharton doesn't lose control in The Reef, and Pat Menon wrong. But which would do more to persuade you that the novel has been written by a member of your own species and might have some possible connection with your own life, someone who says of it that "no Jamesian lecture is going to save me from the distress of those final chapters" or someone who sums up its author as "interested in the problems of ethical indeterminacy"?

[1] See, especially, the relevant parts of D. H. Lawrence: The Major Phase, J. C. F. Littlewood, Brynmill Press, 2002 and The Story of the Prussian Officer Revisions, Brian Crick, Brynmill Press, 1983.

Maskell, Duke. "How Should We Talk About Books?" The New Compass: A Critical Review 4 (December 2004) []

For more information contact the editors:
Michael John DiSanto and Sarah Emsley