Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

"Language of Fiction" by David Lodge, (Routledge, 2002)

The book was first published in 1966. This version has an Afterword added in 1984 and a Foreword added in 2002. I really should have read this long ago. In Part I he tackles head on issues that I'm interested in, showing some options then giving his considered opinion. He points out that in the 1960s a literary criticism book could satisfy both scholars and the general reader.

He begins by quoting Wellek and Warren from 1949 - "Literary theory and criticism concerned with the novel are much inferior in both quantity and quality to theory and criticism of poetry". This state of affairs may have led to the effect Rahv observed - "the commanding position assumed by poetic analysis has led to the indiscriminate importation of its characteristic assumptions and approaches into a field [i.e. prose fiction] which requires generic critical terms and criteria of value that are unmistakably its own".

This leads to a discussion of prose vs poetry and whether there's such a thing as literary or poetic language. Lodge writes that "Abrams and Frank Kermode have shown clearly and perceptively ... how the idea of the lyric poem as the literary norm evolved out of the theory and practice of the English Romantic poets and, later, of the French Symbolist poets, contributing to the modern critical doctrine that a poem is autotelic, non-paraphrasable, non-translatable, a verbal object in which every part is organically related to every other part and to the whole" (p.7). He then challenges the claims that prose is so different -

  • He considers a passage from Proust to show that prose too, loses something in translation
  • he writes "Few modern critics trouble to prove that poetry is non-paraphrasable, but their justification of every minute part of a good poem on aesthetic grounds implies this. ... Paraphrase, in the sense of summary, is as indispensable to the novel-critic as close analysis is to the critic of lyric poetry. The natural deduction is that novels are paraphrasable whereas poems are not. But this is a false deduction because close analysis is itself a disguised form of paraphrase"

He looks at how literary language might often differ from the language of the everyday, and how they may need to be treated differently -

  • "we cannot assume in poetics that there is a denotative level of language at which meaning is embodied prior to the expressive activity of the writer ... The ... proposition that we know the meaning of an utterance by no other way than by the way it is said ... is true applied to literary utterances, but not as applied to non-literary utterances. (We may be assisted in understanding an utterance like 'It's raining' by physical evidence of rain)" p.66
  • "Anglo American criticism has ignored valuable developments in methods of accounting for the literary use of language flexible enough to take in both poetry and prose. English criticism, in particular, has maintained a somewhat provincial mistrust of formal grammatical analysis and description from which its own characteristically intuitive and empirical approach could benefit. Continental stylistics, on the other hand, generally yields up thinner results, in terms of interpretation and evaluation of individual texts, than the best Anglo-American criticism", p.55
  • "In speech, communication is 'elliptical': many signals can be ignored by the receiver, who is assisted by context, situation, and predictability. The writer aims to avoid this erratic, elliptical communication by 'encoding', at the points he deems important along the writing chain, features that will be inescapable, no matter how perfunctory the reception" p.61, quoting Riffaterre

Part II looks at the language of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, Hardy ("Hardy is a peculiarly difficult novelist to assess because his vices are almost inextricably entangled with his virtues", p.199), Henry James ("Modern criticism of James may fairly claim to have exonerated him from the charge of a perverse mannerism in the late style", p.201), Wells, and Kingsley Amis.

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