Back in Boston, before moving to NYC for grad school, I read SIGNS OF THE TIMES, David Lehman's critique of literary deconstruction and of its infamous practitioner Paul de Man. I loved that book (as well as many others by Lehman) and am honored to have him reviewing Terry Eagleton's new book HOW TO READ LITERATURE for the September 2013 issue of The Brooklyn Rail. In his review, Lehman employs a bit of that very approach to critque Eagleton. Lehman says: "If deconstructive criticism has taught us anything, it is to take a good long look at a peripheral element for the light it throws on the putative center of the text. I propose to do just that here, with particular attention to Eagleton’s use of Winston Churchill." —David Lehman, The Brooklyn Rail, September 2013
Thank you, Joe. Here's the opening of my piece:
Some blurbs act as warnings. When I see “laugh-out-loud funny” on the back of a book, I wonder whether the blurbist is secretly telling me not to buy the supposed laugh riot. Still, because it is devoted to close reading, an activity I love, I decided to pick up Terry Eagleton’s How to Read Literature (Yale University Press; 232 pages).
Eagleton, the English literary critic known as a popular explainer of the recondite, has held appointments at Oxford and more recently Lancaster, with guest stints at Cornell, Duke, Yale, Iowa, Melbourne, Dublin’s Trinity College, and now Notre Dame. The author of Why Marx Was Right (2011) is a Marxist who has figured out how to make capitalism work for him. His Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) has sold many thousands of copies.
The opening chapter of the new book deals with some famous first words: the lead sentence of Pride and Prejudice, the first lines of Keats’s “To Autumn” and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the witches’ brew at the beginning of Macbeth. Subsequent chapters deal with “Character,” “Narrative,” “Value,” and “Interpretation,” with examples culled from works by an all-star roster of writers (Dickens, Hardy, Conrad, the Brönte sisters, Evelyn Waugh) with a ringer or two thrown in (nursery rhymes, Harry Potter).
Eagleton has a weakness for weird and gratuitous distinctions. “Sophocles,” he observes, “writes out of his own experience in Oedipus the King, though it is unlikely that he was a blind, exiled, incestuous parricide.” “Hamlet is non-realist because young men do not usually speak in verse while berating their mothers or running a sword through their prospective fathers-in-law. But the play is realistic in some more subtle sense of the word.” The effort to appeal to a general audience takes its toll: “Dostoyevski is better than [the novelist John] Grisham in the sense that Tiger Woods is a better golfer than Lady Gaga.” Well, yes, but the author also faults John Updike’s prose for drawing “discreet attention to its own cleverness.” In contrast you might say that some of Eagleton’s sentences draw indiscreet attention to their own cleverness.
Read the whole piece here.