How to engage with books

Literary criticism needs a revival, but Michael Mack’s assertion that literature is ‘disruptive’ and his suggestion that it should be analysed for how it can help us cope with life won’t do.

Sarah Boyes

Topics Books

It’s become common today to avoid direct critical contact with literature. Instead, novels and poetry tend to be considered at a distance, for what they reveal about when they were written or how they might illuminate various fashionable issues. Texts have become detached from robust criticism. The role of the serious, independent literary critic with their own orientation in the world, part of a critical culture which holds writers up to clear standards, has fallen away – often seen as an outmoded, elitist bourgeois affliction best blotted out.

The results are far from desirable. Contemporary literature in particular has fallen prey to cod theorising and superficial reviews advising people whether or not to consume it. Literary theory, not in itself a bad thing, has ballooned into an amorphous and highly confusing category as theorists try to validate literature in non-literary and increasingly arcane terms. The underlying failure to engage with novels in a critical and more public-facing way leads to a failure to articulate a meaningful theory of literary value. It means being unable to say why literature is important and worthwhile as a distinctive art form.

How Literature Changes The Way We Think, by Michael Mack, has become caught in this unfortunate state of affairs. Mack’s aim is baldly stated: to challenge ‘the common paradigm underlying much of our current approach towards arts and humanities’. He wants to show how literature does more than simply reflect the world, a phenomenon he calls ‘flat mimesis’. This idea – that the humanities passively represent the world – has apparently been the dominant way of thinking about the arts historically, from Plato and Aristotle through to Kant and up to Martha Nussbaum.

But for Mack, literature can also articulate an ‘ethics of resilience’ that ‘works as a critique of those representations that have become our reality’. When this happens, mimesis becomes ‘not primarily concerned with copying what exists, but with making neglected or marginalised realities present to us and opening up a space, a place, within which the uncertainties that belong to those realities – and so the possibilities that reside within them – become available to us’.

This thesis only comes into focus in the final chapter of the book, after a long and winding argument through a bewildering array of different thinkers and mostly superficial analyses of various texts: ‘Literature is a disruptive force that changes the way we think by interrupting our ways of seeing and doing things’. As a claim taken at face value, this is surely true, but it is banal enough to be almost vacuous. Given the right context, a tomato could be so disruptive. Likewise, the opposite claim is equally true: literature can also have a conciliatory or a pacifying quality, reinforcing the way we already do things or confirming that how something already works is actually for the good. The real, more urgent question is whether this is how we should conceive or judge texts.

The intellectual grounding of the claim that literature is disruptive is found in the work of self-defined Marxist critic Walter Benjamin, who is presented as a thinker who breaks with the mimetic tradition where art simply reflects reality. For Mack, unlike Hegel who subordinates art to history, Benjamin shows how art can disrupt history. He thinks that all art has an inherent revolutionary potential and that poetry can be used to ‘establish a realm of freedom’. This is an interesting and important topic, studiously rendered, but the discussion here is too narrow and unhistorical.

More specifically, there is no acknowledgement of the way that Benjamin’s turn towards the poem could be seen as beating a pessimistic retreat in 1930s Germany. It is further hard to ascertain whether Mack’s central claim about literature moving from straight up representation (‘flat mimesis’) to opening up new possibilities is entirely true or, if so, how. Scant evidence is offered. For instance, is it meant as an historical claim about the developing self-consciousness in the language of art that characterised the birth of Modernism from the 1880s? Does it refer to Benjamin’s own contention that all art is political? Or, is it simply a moral or political suggestion about what should happen next?

Mack’s nominal interest lies with ageing and the rise of the biomedical. As an advocate of the new field of the ‘medical humanities’, he seeks to illustrate how literature can provide resources ‘through which we can become more resilient for future adaptations to demographic, social, religious, theological, economic and political changes’. Yet if the aim is for us to be more resilient, wouldn’t a reaffirmation of our most deeply cherished ideas and feelings be more useful than a disruption of them?

More concretely, while patients can read literature about illness and death to help them realise they are not alone – an initiative increasingly supported within medical practice – for Mack this rests too much on a flat representation of the facts. The arts should also ‘help us imagine what we could be’ by challenging social conventions, say those to do with growing old. This is all well and good, but it is not the point of literature.

The medical humanities itself is a recent field which draws on traditional subjects such as literature, philosophy and anthropology to illuminate various aspects of illness, disease and medical practice. Described as ‘an emerging field of enquiry’ that explores ‘the human side of medicine’, it has found a home at Durham University’s Centre for Medical Humanities where it is funded by the Wellcome Trust. The BMJ (British Medical Journal) launched an international journal of medical humanities in 2000, currently on its thirty-seventh volume. Several conferences have been organised by Glasgow University’s Association for Medical Humanities, which itself emerged from an initiative funded by the Nuffield Trust. Meanwhile, postgraduates can now study a Medical Humanities MSc at King’s College London, where they ask questions such as: What is health? What is illness? How embedded are narrative ways of thought in health care?

There is some support, then, for the medical humanities among both academics and medical professionals. And no doubt, there are probing and interesting intellectual issues surrounding the history and practice of medicine and health. Few would deny that literature can offer profound insights into human suffering, illness and death, for example, or that anthropologists and philosophers can shed light on related historical and moral issues. However, the acknowledged diffuseness of the medical humanities as a field in its own right is disturbing. This book in particular suffers from lack of rigorous argument, clear focus and inadequate proofreading.

Historically of course, the idea that literature has a primarily ‘disruptive’ role in society, challenging our standard values or perceptions and agitating for change, was associated with the political left. But this history is a coloured one, and far from simple. Today, however, it often seems that the ‘disruptive’ or subversive potential of literature has become its defining value, as if saying anything else is to advocate keeping things exactly as they are and being an apologist for all sorts of social ills.

The question of the role of the humanities and literature is as deep as it is profound. Yet they can only be answered through a reassertion of critical practice, not through further retreat. As critic Terry Eagleton recently wrote: ‘Literary critical discussion of writers has given way to biography, potted social context, coffee-table commodities and literary detective work. A whole venerable mode of discourse is in danger of going down the sink.’

The immediate challenge is not to dictate the proper role of literature, or to mine it for sociological or anthropological insight, but to engage critically with what’s being written, to challenge ourselves to think more seriously and critically about the world we inhabit and to do literature the justice it deserves.

Sarah Boyes is a freelance writer and editor, and the assistant editor of Culture Wars.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today