I need to do a serious post, via Williams and the critical heritage of Watt and his successors, but I ran out of time. Instead, I’ll invite you to read Patricia Lockwood’s quick shiv between the ribs of Updike in LRB. This is how it begins:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are.

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n19/patricia-lockwood/malfunctioning-sex-robot (reg. req.)

It seems fair to say that all literature dates itself with the passage of time, but realistic fiction seems unusually vulnerable to this effect; or maybe the passage of time is exactly what we need to assess it more accurately.

I was also struck by Lockwood’s observations about Updike’s “habit of painting women in his fiction, rather than inhabiting them,” (taken from a sharp exchange Updike had with Barbara Probst Solomon). This seems to relevant to how we might evaluate Richardson’s critical revival in the late 20c.



Via Williams’ Keywords: “Literature”

Raymond Williams’s Keywords (and its numerous continuations by subsequent scholars) helps us understand broad trends in literary, political, and cultural history by tracing the trajectories of particular terms and their clustering and reconfiguration over time. The PDF here contains the Intro, and entries for “”Culture,” “Literature,” “Man,” and “Sensibility.”

In one sense, Keywords can be treated as a straightforward reference book, a kind of scholarly supplement to the OED, but what makes it really valuable is Williams’s decision to focus upon the most contested, most resonant words available to writers and readers at particular historical conjunctures. It is particularly helpful as it teases apart and distinguishes prescriptive from descriptive uses of words and shows competing usages vying for dominance in particular contexts. It is also one of those rare scholarly books whose erudition is revealed in its economy, in its spare yet well-chosen examples, and in its lucidity of definition and explanation.

In his “Intro” Williams notes that the starting point for his project in “historical semantics” (the history of evolving meanings surrounding certain terms) was the “cluster,” the set of interrelated words and references that make up a historically specific vocabulary for a period (22). He goes on to talk about the need for analyzing, above all, interrelations of terms, so that their social, collective character could be recognized (24-5). Hence, the focus will be on the historical, social nature of language, as used by both artists or public.

In his entry on “Literature,” Williams notes that “English literature” seems like a perfectly intelligible concept until we try to test its boundaries or scope with particular cases: for example, what genres or kinds of writing belong or don’t belong to literature? Should literature be restricted solely to written works or extended to drama or other forms of performance? Why or why not? Some terms conceptually or etymologically related to literature also seem quite distant from it, as we can see in the now obsolete term of “letters” (a translation of belles lettres or belletristic) or the less elevated, more functional meaning of “literacy?”

When we discuss “English literature,” though, we seem to be describing a phenomenon associated with a particular historical moment, the formation of “national literatures,” (largely a late 18th, early 19th c movement). These national literatures are crucially vernacular (witness the Romantic devaluation of the neoclassical and rhetorical heritages of pre-18c writing), and language based, and their formation coincides with the establishment of national literary histories along with the academic institutions (departments of English literature) devoted to their teaching and exegesis. But there are plenty of additional distinctions that feel too arbitrary to explain: e.g., imaginative literature vs. non-fictional genres; literature vs. sub- or “genre literature”; literature vs. popular culture; and so forth. Hence, literature is much more easily defined through these contrasts and distinctions than through any positive description of its particular features, which are extraordinarily varied, given the varieties of literary forms and genres that share this designation.