loving literature

a review of Deidre Shauna Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History

book

Sometimes it’s expressed; sometimes it’s repressed: either way, emotion is deeply embedded in literary criticism. As I. A. Richards reflected in 1929, critics are constantly torn between instinctive “feelings” and standardized “doctrines” – between “deciding we are too hot or too cold” and “hanging up a thermometer”. Our thermometers have grown increasingly technical since Richards’s day, augmented both by the post-1960s “theory” boom, and by newer developments in brain science and big data. But even when we aspire to scientific dispassion, it is widely assumed that we do what we do because, at bottom, we simply “love literature”. Why else would we do it? Deidre Lynch’s Loving Literature provides a fascinating history of this presupposition. Lynch begins by clearing away the old cliché that literary scholars are cold-bloodedly loveless – the image, to quote Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society, of “armies of academics measuring poetry” without allowing it into their hearts. Instead, Lynch observes, an English professor’s emotional life “is supposed to slop over onto her job; it’s all in a day’s work when it does.” In this sense, literary studies is an “oddly intimate profession”, whose practitioners are routinely expected to love their work – and, indeed, to transmit that love to their students. Lynch’s book excavates this expectation, uncovering its historical origins. At the same time, she emphasizes that love isn’t always a healthy emotion. As she points out, those who love literature sometimes forget “what literary texts themselves say about love’s edginess and complexities”. With novels and poems, much like with people, love can be confusing and painful.

read the rest in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 March 2015