Reader, you are not welcome

February 14, 2003

Is literacy in decline? Alan Sinfield bridles at narrow lit crit's sidelining of audiences

Twenty years ago today, it was plausible to debate the principles that might underlie literary reading. In Re-Reading English , a volume in Methuen's New Accents series, Peter Widdowson and his colleagues asked how far criticism had itself created "literature" by way of its pre-selections, evaluations and tacit assumptions about what constitutes "literary value". And did not the Englishness of literature assert a dangerous, or at least a complacent, nationalism? These challenges were also raised in other New Accents volumes - Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction and Political Shakespeare , edited by Jonathan Dollimore and myself. Disputes about the effects of Shakespeare in our culture ran in the London Review of Books . There was an engagement on matters of principle and belief that is absent from the currently authoritative account of our activities. The Quality Assurance Agency has required that each university subject generate a "benchmark statement". This was done for English in 2000 by a group set up by the self-appointing Council for College and University English.

The benchmark statement for English comes with a couple of clauses about accommodating new developments, but these reassurances struggle with the conservative nature of the exercise, as defined by the QAA. "They provide for variety and flexibility in the design of programmes and encourage innovation within an agreed overall frameworkI They enable the learning outcomes specified for a particular programme to be reviewed and evaluated against agreed general expectations about standards." That may sound judicious, but what is the "agreed overall framework"? If one thing is clear in English, it is that we don't have "an agreed overall framework" or "agreed general expectations".

That "English" and "literature" might exert some ideological pressure is not contemplated in the benchmark statement. However, we do get a spectacular display of just how confused these terms remain. English, we are told, may include the literature of Ireland and the Anglophone world (whether this is to involve the cooption of American studies is unclear); also comparative literature. "English" may also include not-English - literature in translation.

The specification of "literature" is equally shaky. It can incorporate drama, creative writing and film (but no mention of television). It may even include the study of non-literary texts. One might have thought that at least we could define the literary as that which is not non-literary. No, the literary, like English, includes its own negation.

To be sure, for convenience and simplicity we could agree to call all those things "English literature". But will it not slant our study of Kafka, or indeed Dylan Thomas, if we start from the idea of English? And will it help or confuse our work on Queer as Folk or Robinson Crusoe if we start from literature? It is humiliating to have this confused document standing as a record of our professional activities.

The problem with the statement is that it is organised as both centre and periphery - as fixed unproblematically on a supposedly given core of "English literature", with a scatter of bullet-point principles, knowledges, skills and requirements, strewn around capriciously.

Even so, its omissions include: deconstruction; psychoanalysis; sexualities; Marxism and political thought; painting and photography; television and popular culture; religion, myth and the Bible; Latin and Greek mythology; literary and cultural institutions; words and music, folk song and story; Mills and Boon; science fiction; detective fiction; Westerns; opera; soap opera; and pop songs. Philosophy is instanced as something you might do "in the joint study of cognate disciplines", as a "bridging course". We are allowed no expertise of our own with Sartre, Marx, Hobbes or Aristotle.

Doubtless these omissions could be slipped in somewhere, but that isn't the point. The likelihood is that our administrators, eager to appease the QAA, will expect us to ensure that our courses correspond to the benchmark notions. "Primarily, they are an important external source of reference for higher education institutions when new programmes are being designed and developed in a subject area," the statement threatens.

The limiting of topics of study is matched by a failure of imaginative sympathy with that contested figure, the reader. Famously, F. R. Leavis refused to theorise the practice of reading. "My whole effort was to work in terms of concrete judgements and particular analyses: 'This - doesn't it? - bears such a relation to that; this kind of thing - don't you find it so? - wears better than that', etc." The right texts simply yield themselves to the right readers. No other factors are admitted.

Of course, being unspecified, the reader defaults to the norm: generally he is, or writes as if he is, white, male, heterosexual and professional. The plausibility of other reading positions is overlooked. Frank Kermode, for instance, says how we should respond to John Donne's rhetoric of seduction: "Of course we are aware that we are being cleverly teased, but many of the love-poems, like The Extasie or The Flea , depend on our wonder outlasting our critical attitude to argument." Might not appreciation of Donne's seductive strategies work rather differently if one were reading from the position of the woman whose honour is at stake? Above all, it is people working in feminism, women's studies and gender studies (unnoticed by benchmarkers) who have shown us that there are other reading positions.

"The reader" accomplishes a familiar menu of exclusion. Othello should not be played by a black actor, A. C. Bradley remarks, almost in passing. "Perhaps if we saw Othello coal-black with the bodily eye, the aversion of our blood, an aversion which comes as near to being merely physical as anything human can, would overpower our imagination." "We" in the audience may or may not be racist; in any event, Bradley assumes, we are all going to be white.

C. L. Barber, in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy , imagines all readers and audiences of Twelfth Night will experience "wish-fulfilment" when it turns out that there is a boy to marry Olivia and a girl to marry Orsino.

"Playful reversal of sexual roles can renew the meaning of the normal relation." Lesbian and gay readers are out of sight, as they are in the benchmark statement for English.

The principal disturbance in English studies is the death, not of the author, but of the reader. By this I do not mean, of course, that nobody reads (any more than the death of the author means that nobody writes).

What has dwindled, if not actually died, is acquiescence in that most convenient assumption of traditional criticism: that minority cultures can simply be coopted or ignored.

The benchmarking statement sedulously fails to address the death of the reader. It is remarked that English has a major role in lifelong learning and that about half the student intake is over 25. But this is in the context of congratulating English on its wide appeal. There is no sense that position in the life cycle might affect the kind of study that might be appropriate, or the kinds of reading that might occur. There is no mention of class.

This is why I write of a failure of imaginative sympathy: the conventions of literary criticism are maintained at the expense of the actual people who do the reading. Once it is admitted that different reading positions will justify different readings, easy claims for the universality of Englishness and the literary become unsustainable, indeed embarrassing.

Alan Sinfield is professor of English at the University of Sussex's School of English and American Studies. This is abbreviated from Textual Practice (Routledge £10.99).

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