Kinder, Gentler Lit Crit, With Tips on ‘Real Life’

Remember when literary criticism was a frightening discipline, austere and combative? Its devotees were in the grip of implacable theory, or buried deep in the “text”—that sunless realm where books are forgotten, readers irrelevant and authors dead. Split into feuding factions, the high priests of lit crit were imposing figures who spoke in tongues, made a fetish of obscure facts and issued all-encompassing edicts. They were also, it seemed, at war with the rest of the world.

Forget all that. Welcome to a new, user-friendly criticism, warm, gentle, inviting and personal; welcome to literary exegesis that addresses you—yes, you—and the issues in your private life. There’s no specialized knowledge required (though it does help to have read the books) and no need to sign up for ideological boot camp. This is criticism for everyday readers of acknowledged classics, readers who feel that books are important and salutary—good for everyone, if taken in moderation.

Did sophisticated comp-lit types laugh at you in college for confusing heroes and villains with real people and liking or disliking them accordingly? Well, listen to this: “A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.”

Whom should we thank for this empowering insight? Oprah? Heidi Julavits? Wrong and wrong again. The new champion of the common reader is Edward Mendelson, a tenured professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of a two-volume biography of W.H. Auden. Mr. Mendelson wants to turn our attention to The Things That Matter—a title that lets us know right off the bat that his criticism is relevant and straightforward, not academic and convoluted.

The book is a study of seven novels— Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts—which, his subtitle promises, have something to say about “the stages of life”: birth, childhood, growth, marriage, love, parenthood and (a touch of euphemism here) “The Future.” The Things That Matter makes very few startling claims (provocation isn’t friendly), but taken as a whole, it is startling—especially in the way it relates novels to the “inner life” of the reader.

In the old days, lit crit would teach us how a novel works (or fails to work, due to the tragic disconnect between signifier and signified), or how the world works (or fails to work, due to the perfidy of capitalism). Mr. Mendelson is more like a highly literate self-help guru: He wants to teach us about ourselves as “autonomous persons”; he wants to reach “readers … who are still deciding how to live their lives.”

Note that he’s chosen only novels by women (three of them by Virginia Woolf). His justification for this choice makes good sense: In the 19th and 20th centuries, “a woman writer … had a greater motivation to defend the values of personal life against the generalizing effect of stereotypes, and defend those values by paying close attention to them in her writing.” Moreover, he believes that these are the seven novels written in English that “treat most deeply the great experiences of personal life.” (Well … you could argue that claim until The Future is a distant memory and Woolf’s Between the Acts is long forgotten—but I’m going to give him a free pass, if only because he also calls Middlemarch “the greatest English novel”—irrefutable evidence of sound judgment.)

Mr. Mendelson’s readings of the individual novels are cogent and plausible but not particularly stimulating. Nowhere does he produce a dramatic revisionist argument. At times his emphasis is surprising, as for example in his examination of Mrs. Dalloway, which gives more play to Peter Walsh than to Septimus Warren Smith. Mr. Mendelson’s relatively narrow point of view (in this case, he’s focused on Peter’s old and pure and hopeless love for Clarissa) produces, in the end, a distorted image of the novel. The same thing happens when he discusses Middlemarch solely in terms of marriage: Other important parts of the book—about social change and politics, say—get short shrift.

On the whole, he’s more interested in giving the reader tips about “real life”—a phrase he repeats with notable frequency. He wants you to be autonomous, equal, integral, committed and … well, virtuous: a good parent, a faithful lover, a loving spouse.

Here’s a passage from his chapter on Jane Eyre that’s typical both in method (tripping lightly from the pages of a novel straight into your personal space) and message (casual sex is a no-no): “Charlotte Brontë understood that an unequal sexual relation between adults is necessarily an unloving one; she also seems to have sensed that sex is experienced differently—that is, produces different physical and emotional feelings—in unloving relations and loving ones.” A footnote elaborates: “ Post coitum homo tristis —‘After sex the human is sad’—is far truer about unloving relations than loving ones; if the union between two partners is limited to the sexual act, then loneliness inevitably follows it.”

Elsewhere (in a discussion that segues from Mrs. Dalloway to Plato to the boudoir), he abandons the prescriptive posture for a conspicuous display of tolerance: “[P]robably the only moral question it makes sense to ask about anyone’s sexuality is to what extent you use it as a means of treating other people as instruments and objects—something that can occur in a conventional married bedroom as readily as in more unconventional settings.”

It may be that I was too thoroughly brainwashed by the bad old lit crit to truly appreciate the benefits of Mr. Mendelson’s kinder, gentler approach. I’m still thrilled by the vaulting ambition of criticism on a heroic scale: the grand architecture of Northrop Frye’s classifications; the anthropological wizardry of René Girard; the nerdy, specialized systems engineered by Roland Barthes; the daring historical acrobatics of Stephen Greenblatt; the unstoppable ego of Harold Bloom. And then there’s the patient examination of technique provided by critics like Erich Auerbach (whose chapter on To the Lighthouse in Mimesis is simply breathtaking—minutely accurate at first, then sweepingly broad). Auerbach tells me something that won’t matter to everyone but that I want to know just the same, which is how a book’s intricate machinery turns, what makes all those clever parts click into place, and how this particular machinery compares with that of other devices he’s tinkered with.

But The Future, I suspect, belongs to Edward Mendelson and his neat, modest meditations on novels that address you and me and our everyday human problems. The things that matter most to him are the bonds that link “autonomous persons”—and who would want to argue? But I do wish he were less of a goody-goody.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.