John Sutherland staggers under the title Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL. He has written numerous books on literature and a couple on himself (notably a drunkalog, Last Drink to LA). He has taught, principally, in the UK and America. His next book (out in a week or so) has the self-explanatory title: 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know. Roll over Dr Johnson.
“There are only a handful of grand-master literary critics in action at any one time in the English-speaking world. We lost one of our greatest literary critics, Frank Kermode, a few months ago. That leaves, by my count, Christopher Ricks, Terry Eagleton, and Elaine Showalter. Others will have a different pantheon – but if they’re honest it will be highly select.
“The hardest lit-crit is that which asks the simplest questions. What’s the difference between a ‘story’ by Ian McEwan and a ‘story’ on the front page of the Guardian? What precisely, is ‘lost’ in translation? Literature ‘means’ something. But is that meaning located in the author’s mind, on the page, or in the reader’s mind? Why does literature (unlike, say, the discourses of law or science) cultivate ‘ambiguity’ – saying many things at the same time?”
1. Aristotle, The Poetics (Ingram Bywater translation)
The still-most-relevant work of literary criticism, given (as a lecture, probably) around the fourth century BC. Aristotle takes on the biggest/simplest questions of all. How can we “enjoy” a performance of Oedipus Rex in which the hero blinds himself with his wife-mother’s brooch pins? Was Plato right to say the poet belongs outside, not inside, any ideal society? How can fiction be “true”? Even, as Aristotle argues, truer than history.
2. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (1966)
Full blooded assault on “professionalised” academic criticism and its preoccupation with “meanings”. As Sontag saw it: “In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Politically Sontag was de-institutionalising literary criticism – tearing it away from the campus. Her thesis is, essentially, a version of Lawrence’s dictum that if you try and nail something down in the novel you either kill the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail. Don’t interpret it, make love to it. Enjoy.
3. Stanley Fish, Is there a Text in this Class? (1980)
Winner of the wittiest title ever coined for a book on lit-crit (the question was initially asked by an artless student in his seminar). Fish’s simple/hard questions: what’s the difference between a “text” and a “work of literature”? How, when the best seminars tend to finish with more disagreement than they started with, do we reach a consensus reading of any text? Is there any such thing?
4. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of their Own (1978)
Showalter was the critic who realised that after the breakthroughs of the women’s movement in the 1960s a new map of literature was required. More particularly some mapping out of the zone in which women talk to women. Why does Jane Eyre mean more to a woman reader than a man? Or does it? Essentially, Showalter takes Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” thesis and applies it to fiction. In her career she went on to help frame a whole new syllabus area.
5. Roland Barthes, S/Z (1977: Richard Miller translation)
The sage of poststructuralism extracts meaning from a short story by Balzac with the care of someone removing kipper bones from their teeth. Is reading a story the second time round (when, for example, we know the butler did it) a richer, or poorer literary experience? Why do we read Jane Austen every year, then, when we know Elizabeth will marry Darcy? How do a few hundred thousand black marks on a white surface become Pride and Prejudice—a “world” with people, places, and events? What “structuration” is at work when that happens?
6. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (revised edition, 2000)
Why do we crave “closure” in our fictions – “the end”? Why do our brains insist on hearing tick-tock when, acoustically, the clock goes “tick-tick”. What’s the connection between the last chapter of Middlemarch and the Final Judgement in the Bible? Why does modernist literature (specifically) eschew traditional literature’s endings, or play with them mischievously (think, for example, of the three endings on offer in John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman)?
7. Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976)
This small book – a perennial lit-crit bestseller for 35 years – made the discipline “big”. Literature is not a peripheral thing but infrastructural. Literature matters, Eagleton believes, as much as War, Darwinism, Religion, or Revolution matter. The current government has foolishly forgotten the fact. He has reminded them in the Guardian.
8. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980)
Pioneering monograph by the high priest of New Historicism. You have this time machine and you want to use it to find out what Hamlet really means. Do you put it into reverse and go back to the Globe, 1601: or do you put the machine into forward gear and zoom at warp-speed aeons in the future when the last critics have had their final say? Put another way, can we ever know as much about Elizabethan literature as the Elizabethans knew about their literature? What, then, was the peculiar quality of their knowledge?
9. Christopher Ricks, Milton’s Grand Style (1963)
Literature is all about how to read, and Ricks is the smartest reader we have. His Milton book, one of his earliest, ponders the problem: does the poet have to create his/her own language? Could Milton have done Paradise Lost in a more common tongue? Ricks picks up a bone much chewed over, by TS Eliot and FR Leavis who could never quite make their minds up about Milton and his wholly idiosyncratic diction. Did he build a “Chinese Wall” round literature, or raise the English language where it could most effectively handle literature?
10. Henry Louis Gates Jr, The Signifying Monkey (1988)
The doyen of African-American literary critics, Gates has undertaken the pioneer task of fusing ethnic elements (previously thought wholly sub-literary) with cutting-edge theory – “semiology”, for example, as the word “signifying” indicates. In so doing Gates has defined a discipline within the discipline. More importantly he has widened the definition of what we classify as “literary”. Are rap lyrics literature? Gates, like Showalter, has drawn new maps of literary criticism.