Friday, April 18, 2008

Apologia for Appeciationism

We must be as precise as possible. Most novels and poems and essays are failures. Some are honest hackwork, some are the work of con artists, most are just the best the writer could do.

Of the remaining books, most have value in the context of their time, but will eventually be forgotten. Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford anymore.

I don't spend much time with contemporary books. Most of my reading is amongst the tried and tested. The classics and the semi-classics. I like almost all of it. I appreciate the rest. My aversions* are few. On the one hand, it means I'm reading in the right places. On the other hand, it suggests a lack of independent judgment, an overdone respect for authority. What if I like everything because I am told I should? This is the side of Appreciationism that worries me.

The more positive side: some humility in the face of history is a virtue. I have trouble with Stendhal. He's puzzling, he's difficult. Is the intelligent response to dismiss him as worthless? What, am I a bored 12 year old? So I focus my attention, I read some people who are smarter than me (critics, scholars), I slow down a little. I still don't like Stendhal, but I've gotten a much better sense of what he does, and why writers and readers have found it valuable. I sent out a distress signal regarding Hawthorne last year - just writing the post actually seemed to help in that case, helped me read more carefully.

"Like" - there's part of the problem. I like a book, I don't like it. Who cares? As an Appreciationist, even I don't care. My curiosity about the variety and history of creativity is what I cultivate now, and I'm not sure that knowing what a book is and how it works doesn't sometimes provide almost as much pleasure as its actual contents.

Appreciationism has a long history in English criticism. William Hazlitt is my model. One of his best essays is called "On the Pleasures of Hating," but open the Lectures on the English Poets (1818), or the Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819, the man gave a lot of lectures) and see what he actually does. He describes a play, for example, reads a passage, and then says he thinks this line or that line is especially good, this character or that is especially well drawn. He points, and says "Look, isn't that good." This is not deep stuff.

Charles Lamb is not so different. Neither is John Dryden. Neither is Dr. Johnson, Our Greatest Critic, a lot of the time - throughout The Lives of the Poets for example (the Preface to Shakespeare is more complicated). The criticism of Coleridge may be Appreciationist, or not. I don't understand a word of it. To push the tour of English criticism forward a little, Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot are definitely not Appreciationists. They don't just want to Understand, but to Interpret. I have enough trouble understanding.

Anyway, when a litblogger does nothing more than post a poem, or a passage from a novel, it's an act of Appreciationist criticism - not deep, but criticism none the less, like Hazlitt. "Look at this. Isn't this something?"**

Thus ends Egomania Week at Wuthering Expectations. Next week, some actual books.

* I love this word, common in Restoration comedies. "You mean to say you don't admire Sir Fopling Foppington?" "Fy, fy, he is my aversion."

** Here's a recent mention of appreciation, by a Spanish professor at the University of Kansas, which I may have entirely failed to understand, and which seems to identify it with "prescribing an attitude of silent awe." My impression is that Appreciationists are a noisy and enthusiastic bunch. Remember, we like everything! We'll talk your dang ear off. Silent awe!


  1. I don't think there is anything suspicious about liking the classics. Behind that suspicion is the ridiculous notion that there is a cabal of evil dons who take out their frustrations on society by forcing us to read long, dull books and then say there is something wrong with us if we aren't in raptures. I don't know why we can't think of them as just far more experienced fellow readers sharing their *appreciation* for the books they enjoy the most.

    I would also submit the classics, by virtue of their grand variety, improve the reader's ability to discern what they really like and what they don't. It's only by trying different things that you can find what you like, the the classics represent every possible variety of literary expression so they are the best place to start.

  2. The way I figure is, classics are classics for a reason. I might not like them (see: Moby Dick) but even when I don't, they still have something to offer. I find that classics are a good common ground for book chat as well. Maybe not everyone's read Fall On Your Knees, but most people have read Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice or The Count of Monte Cristo, so it gives book nerds who have just met something to palaver about.

    As always, your posts are thoughtful and interesting.

  3. I also prefer the classics to contemporary lit--it's a better chance I'm not wasting my time. Pick an era in literary history: there's a pretty good chance that readers were propping up somebody we now think is lousy, and were overlooking somebody we now think is great.

    Then again, each era picks its own classics too, right? The Romantics thought the pinnacle of literature was Milton (I'm not sure I disagree); Eliot revives the Metaphysical poets because he thinks they are most like him and his age. We may need to be wary of why we decide some works from previous eras are classics--do they just speak to our time better than those of a different era?

    But really, I just want to read the best of literature. I'll trust the wisdom of the centuries to guide me in my reading (though I'll maintain a bit of skepticism about who is excluded from the canon and why).

    I also recognize I have a lot of catching up to do: too much great literature was written before I was born, so I've got the greats of the ages to confront before I should spend too much time with the greats of my age. Sometimes I think I'd be better off reading every line Dostoevsky wrote before taking up reading anything else.

  4. Two comments, unrelated to one another:

    First, you can't be serious when you say no one reads Nabokov anymore! Nabokov is amazing, and I dare you to read "Pale Fire" and not agree. I think his American works "Pale Fire", "Lolita", and "Pnin" have safely made it into the canon, and deservedly so.

    Second, it would be interesting to me to see a survey of the percentage of people in the US who read and appreciate (as opposed to tolerate or hate them as assigned school readings) the classics. I'll bet the number is higher in other countries, like England. There seems to be a decided streak of anti-intellectualism in the US (epitomized by political discussions that rail against "The Elites") that might make folks predisposed to be wary of picking up the classics.

  5. That's why I don't feel like I'm at all qualified to have a blog reviewing these books. And I don't - I just sort of say "wasn't this lovely?" I really don't know if they're good or bad or deviate from the author's cannon. I hardly know how I feel about them. I suppose the only answer I have for that is complete immersion with the hope that I don't drown.

  6. "the variety and history of creativity" - an admirable focus of study. I like the journey implied in that idea and the fact that "opinion" is allowed to take a back seat. Lets get away from opinion and whether they matter, lets get discussing the nuts and bolts, the words, the asides, the details.

  7. What great comments.

    Sylvia, I agree and agree some more. But there is also a lot to be said for, as an example, Nabokov's dismissal of Dostoevsky, Mann, etc. - there's a serious critical point-of-view there. I just like everything. Maybe it means I'm staying too close to the surface, not thinking.

    Raych, the "common language" idea is an important one. We need people to get our jokes. Now I want a Monte Cristo for lunch.

    Speaking of jokes, will no one stand up for the unfortunate Fulmerford? (Note: in the tradition of William Hazlitt, I quoted from memory, and got it slightly wrong).

    Robby, it depends on the classic -Jane Austen is one of the bestselling authors in the United States, every year (you have to add up the sales of the various editions). Fundamentally, though, I agree with you - German literary culture is a wonder to behold, even if it's really just a difference of degrees.

    The pacific viking has raised the related but distinct issue of canon-formation, which I do not want to get into now. I'll just say that I'm as interested in the fringes of the canon as its center. And then what about the fringe of the fringe?

    Sarah, you're qualified and then some. Although I'll warn you that much of the canon is anything but lovely. Some of it is downright horrifying.

    Verbivore, that's the goal. Of course, the relationship between our tastes and opinions and how or what we notice gets kind of complicated, doesn't it?

  8. I like this ... it approaches my approach (ha) to reviewing/criticism/whatever it is that we do (and I think I've elucidated it somewhere) and that is I focus more on appreciating (ie analysing) what the author has done (to undestand) rather than on an emotional response. Though I guess I try some sort of interpretation after that. Hmm... tricky business all this. I have a book of Hazlitt essays that I've been meaning to dip into as I haven't read him for decades. I'm sure The pleasures of hating will be in it. Anyhow, thanks for an interesting post.

  9. I've been working on the interpretation \ meaning problem, I swear I have. I hope I have.

    "The Pleasures of Hating" is a treat, especially since it comes from a writer who loved, truly loved literature.