Denis Donoghue, The Practice of Reading

The Practice of Reading lies somewhere in between standard academic literary criticism and the more populist ‘books about books’ that I’ve been reading for my ‘writing for readers’ project. I suppose its main audience is an academic one, but its project and contents are quite miscellaneous and so it contributes more by modelling Donoghue’s idea of good reading across varied examples than by intervening incisively or extensively into any particular critical or theoretical debate. That said, Donoghue does present his ideas about reading and criticism in some detail in the first few chapters, and his broad aim is to make a case for aesthetic criticism (according to his careful definitions) against the various ideological versions he tags as the “New Thematics.” He advocates an aesthetic criticism that restores due emphasis to the ‘lived experience’ of reading texts, or to the element of ‘performance’ (qualities or properties that can’t be sustained in a paraphrase or plot summary). He calls for a “recovered disinterestedness,” a putting aside of our immediate selves and prejudices in order to release the imagination: “the purpose of reading literature,” he says at one point, “is to exercise or incite one’s imagination; specifically, one’s ability to imagine being different”–an ability inhibited, he argues, by the pressures of identity politics, among other forces. While I am in sympathy with much of this strain of his argument, I have questions (answered, perhaps, in his other writings) about what knowledge, experience, or education he thinks is required to achieve a “lived experience” of a text that deserves being written up or shared with others. He points out himself that, for some texts, our selves are insufficient for good readings–“information is required.” Some knowledge of literary history and genre is certainly necessary for the kinds of readings he offers, and yet at some points he seems to take sides against those who insist on the relevance of historical context. How well does his version of aestheticism work on texts that, themselves, look out to their historical world, novels such as Bleak House, for instance? (How far is his a “poetics” for poetry only, or literature of a certain kind only, that is not itself overtly social or political?)

I liked his breakdown of critical modes into Arnold, Pater, and Wilde (interesting that his prototypes are all from the 19th century), and he is convincing about the way much criticism driven by “High Theory” follows the ‘Wilde’ approach in which the work of art ostensibly under examination becomes a “suggestion for a new work of [the critic’s] own” (here he is quoting Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist”). He goes on to suggest that such criticism (including much of Derrida’s, for example) is best understand as a separate literary genre–perhaps autobiography. In a slightly different context, he argues that recent critics of Macbeth “reveal what is happening in criticism more clearly than what happens in Macbeth.” I think he is right, but both conclusions might prompt the student of literature to wonder why she would bother with this kind of criticism, the lives of critics or the history of criticism being rather separate inquiries.

Most interesting and potentially useful for me are the ways he distinguishes between criticism that (taking an Arnoldian approach) attempts to talk about what the text is overtly about (“the object itself as it really is”–admitting all kinds of complications, of course) and those whose critical goal is to “rebuke” the text for not being something else, or at any rate to evaluate it based on an external standard. His discussion of Marjorie Levinson on Wordsworth reminds me of the discussion of Spivak in Freadman and Miller’s Re-Thinking Theory (also on Wordsworth), and his line on recent critics of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” is my favourite in the book for the way it captures a particular (today, almost ubiquitous) approach to a literary text: “Yeats is not allowed to have his theme: he must be writing about something else.” So too is Charlotte Bronte often not allowed her themes in Jane Eyre, or Jane Austen, lately, in Mansfield Park, or George Eliot in Middlemarch in some recent readings (Elizabeth Langland’s, for instance).

I wonder if Donoghue offers the kind of aesthetic criticism Daniel Green (of “The Reading Experience”) would like to see more of.