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Book Notes: A Little History of Literature, John Sutherland
Books make you more human, apparently.
What is literature? Goodness knows I’ve read a lot of answers to that recently. I’ve taken it upon myself, as both a teacher of secondary English and person who really likes reading, to embark on a structured project to improve my knowledge of and around English literature. I’ve made a reading list; for each book I read, I’m going to write a blog post. I’m starting with some general-purpose books about literature before diving into the primary texts. I’ll be reading ‘classic’ literature and criticism.
I thought I’d start with John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature. I’ve had it recommended to me a few times. It looks like the kind of book a clever person might own, and that’s important to me: published by Yale University Press, critically acclaimed, written by a man who ‘has researched, taught and written on virtually every area of literature’ (dust-jacket blurb). The purpose of the book is lofty, but it’s a purpose that caused bits of me to tighten before I’d even read the book: ‘to reach a greater awareness of how literature from across the world can transport us and help us make sense of what it means to be human’ (again, blurb).
So literature, it seems, is about what it means to be human. This comes up a lot in English Literature. But why are people — readers — so keen to know? Don’t they know what it means to be human?
The answer — no, not really — is the so-called ‘human condition’, the supposed uniqueness of the human as a solipsistic, confused meditator on its own experience. Literature is supposed to be a way of exploring the human condition, perhaps even coming up with some answers along the way. Sutherland is optimistic about literature’s ability to do just this: here are some quotations from the introduction alone:
“Great works of literature are inexhaustible — this is one of the things that makes them great […] they always have something new to offer’
Every work of literature, however humble, is at some level asking: 'What's it all about? Why are we here?' Philosophers and ministers of religion and scientists answer those questions in their own ways. In literature it is imagination that grapples with those basic questions.
It helps make sense go the infinitely perplexing situations in which we find ourselves as human beings’
‘A great work of literature continues giving at whatever point in life you read it, and from whatever sources is comes from.’
‘Why read literature? Because it enriches life in ways that nothing else quite can. It makes us more human.’
I found these statements a little absurd. ‘They always have something new to offer’ — my italics speak to my chief issue with this phrase. Why should this be the case? Extraordinary claims — and, make no mistake, this is an extraordinary claim to make of the written word — require extraordinary evidence, and little extraordinary evidence can be found in Sutherland’s book. ‘And from whatever sources it comes from.’ Even if those sources are unpalatable, immoral? It reminds me of David Brent’s ridiculous claim in The Office that ‘a good idea … is a good idea forever.’ It does not take much knowledge of history to know how ridiculous the assertion of timeless greatness is. And greatness is what Sutherland is concerned with: he isn’t just talking about literature here; he’s talking about great works of literature.
He never really confronts what — or who — makes, or rather designates — literature as ‘great’, but this, from his argument for the greatness of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, is rather telling: ‘time has a way of sifting the good from the bad’, he writes, citing the fact that nobody remembers 1922 poet laureate Robert Bridges, whose Testament of Beautyoutsold The Waste Land 100:1 in 1922. Yet it is Eliot’s work that’s remembered, not Bridges’. That’s proof, surely, that Eliot’s work has an innate quality Bridges’ does not? But what Sutherland does not take into account here are the myriad other factors, not least Eliot’s starring role in the formation of the English literary canon; alongside F R Leavis, few were more influential (indeed, Leavisite criticism remains alive and well in today’s secondary English classrooms, whether those who teach and receive it are conscious of it or not). For Sutherland, The Waste Land is great because it survived — pretty faulty logic, at best.
One we start deciding what texts are great, it’s not a great leap to apply this logic to writers themselves. It is one thing, though, to claim that a work is great — works can be considered independently from the author, depending on your critical bent, meaning that Eliot’s purported anti-Semitism needn’t bother you at all, if that’s how you choose to read. It is quite another to claim that a writer is great, though one can still draw a quite reasonable distinction between ones abilities as a writer and other aspects that constitute a human life. Sutherland argues in respect of the former in his Dickens chapter, to whom he gives the epithet ‘The Giant’. The focus of this chapter is entirely an argument that Dickens is the ‘greatest ever novelist’. There are five strands to his argument, and my point here is not to pick them apart but rather to comment on how much such an approach bemused me. Why argue anything about the greatness of Dickens’ writing at all? What does it matter if he’s the greatest or not? Why is this worthy of any serious discussion? My answer is that it is if we are considering how and why literary canons are formed; more specifically, if we explore and interrogate the motivations of those who formed such canons. Dickens is firmly ensconced, one might say immovably so, within the canon; in this respect his only superior seems to be Shakespeare. Sutherland is convinced we should keep him there, that his work possesses an innate ‘value’. But, as Terry Eagleton, Peter Widdowson and others argue, arguments for innate value are wholly subjective and managed by those in positions of power and privilege. How can one expect any canon to be inclusive when it has this kind of relationship to power? Discussions of literary ‘greatness’, then, do nothing of value; all they do is affirm placement within structures, structures that, if left unquestioned, can continue to effect real harm, because they make so much and so many that ought to be visible invisible.
In regard to the above, I found Sutherland’s chapters on race and empire particularly disappointing. He is as vague about such things as he is specific about Dickens, writing in broad strokes about matters such as the Transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and imperialism. He makes passing reference to Toni Morrison, focussing mostly on how her epigraph for Beloved, ‘sixty million and more’, ‘caused huge offence’ because it alluded to the ‘only’ sixty million Jews who died as a result of the Holocaust. Such a statement is evasive; but claims that the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath faced the same levels of pain, persecution and suffering as black slaves is ludicrous. Such whiteness pervades his bafflement at Toni Morrison’s refusal to accept the ‘colourblindness’ that’s becoming the erasing default of modern Western society — why all the anger, he seems to ask — for Sutherland, Morrison’s anger is a choice, one that she need not make. At the end of the race chapter, all he can say about race in literature and society is that ‘attention must be paid’. This statement is so vague as to be useless.
All this above is not to say that the book is without merit. It is a history of literature; the history it does include is interesting, but the omissions are gaping. This might seem unfair: how can one expect Sutherland to include everything? One cannot, but the omissions are telling: power dynamics are held in the silences. I can’t put this better than Toni Morrison did in Playing in the Dark: whiteness and the literary imagination, so the final words of this essay shall be hers:
‘In matters of race, silence and evasion has fostered another, substitute language in which the issues are encoded, foreclosing the debate.’
‘Ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous liberal gesture’ [but we need] ‘serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination and behaviour of masters.’
‘A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only “universal” but “race free” risks lobotomising that literature and diminishes both the art and the artist. (12)