Derek Attridge

Derek Attridge

Derek Attridge is the author of JM Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading (University of Chicago Press) and The Singularity of Literature (Routledge). Here Derek kindly answers a few of my questions.

Mark Thwaite: I profited hugely from reading The Singularity of Literature. Essentially, it asks some very simple questions - principally, what is the uniqueness that makes literature literature? - and, as many theorists before have found, finds that it is a particularly difficult question to answer! How did you approach your subject? Were you hampered by how aesthetics seems to have got itself a bad name?

Derek Attridge: These questions have been going round and round in my head in various forms since I started studying literature at university in South Africa several decades ago. They became particularly pressing during the last ten or fifteen years as literary criticism, at least in universities, began to treat literary works more and more as cultural and historical documents on a par with other kinds of writing and not as texts remarkable for their ability to survive historical change and to have a distinctive and meaningful effect on readers today. Of course this effect is not the same as that which the original readers experienced, but it is not unconnected with it either. There's a real sense in which reading a literary text as a literary text and not as some other kind of document is responding to the creative act whereby it was written, however long ago that was. And I wanted to remind people that literature's importance in Western culture has something to do with this extraordinary fact. Although literary works can be used as historical evidence, as stylistic examples, as moral treatises, this is not what makes them literary. As you suggest, though, trying to articulate this central quality of literature today is difficult because the traditional ways of talking about it suffer from their association with a discredited approach that, for want of a better term, we can call "aesthetic". I felt that the tradition of aesthetics acknowledges important aspects of literature, but I wanted a new language with which to talk about these things - a language that takes account of the inseparability of the work of art from its social, cultural, economic, and political context, and of the uniqueness of each individual's experience of the work in a particular place and time.

MT: Is deconstruction an aesthetics? Are we all deconstructionists now? Or have we always (in the crudest sense the argument of your Peculiar Language) all just been aestheticians!?

DA: No to all your questions! We have to make distinctions here, though they are tricky. Deconstruction has made an important contribution to our understanding of the aesthetic tradition - I'm thinking, for instance, of Derrida's discussion of mimesis from Plato to Mallarmé - but it's as much concerned with what aesthetics tends to keep at arm's length: issues of enormous ethical importance such as responsibility, judgement, forgiveness, and hospitality. The common currency of critical discourse, I would say, has been dominated by an aesthetic approach for a century or so, but there have always been deconstructive impulses. Wilde, for instance, who is often thought of as an aesthete par excellence, foreshadows a number of deconstructive arguments.

MT: Both Derrida and, especially, Maurice Blanchot haunt your work? What do you think that (ahem) serious readers outside of the academy can gain from reading these two theorists - or, indeed, literary theorists/theory in general? Or should we just stick with James Woods and Martin Amis!?

DA: Readers who are willing to put into question their ideas about what literature is, and about how we might talk about literature, should certainly tackle these two thinkers (and in their own works, not in student handbooks). Nothing too ambitious to start with, as they need slow, careful reading. One shouldn't expect writers who are working at the limits of what can be thought to be easy! My feeling is that at its most valuable literature, too, challenges us to reconfigure the frameworks by which we understand the world, and that the best writing about literature responds to this challenge. "Theory" is an unfortunate word in this context as it suggests abstraction and an attempt at distanced objectivity; whereas the writing of Derrida and Blanchot is engaged, poetic, one of a kind.

MT: Are you concerned at all that very little literary theory really lives, really takes hold, outside of the academy? Do you think, as James Wood recently argued in the LRB, that theorists aren't asking the questions of literature, ie the value judgements, that readers want asked of it?

DA: I think James Wood put his finger on at least some of the reasons why literary theory seems to have little to offer readers who are not academics or students, and one of my aims in The Singularity of Literature was to bring back into our theoretical and critical discussions the issues whose absence he lamented. The importance of the reader's sense of the author, for instance, is not something that we can ignore in our accounts of literature. Something else that needs to occupy a more central place in our thinking is the way in which the value that literary works have for us is tied up with the particular kinds of pleasure they provide. I don't see why literary theory, and a literary criticism that builds on it, should be the preserve of the academic - which is not to say that it should be dumbed down to reach a general audience. It can be challenging and readable (like the best literature).

MT: You have just written about JM Coetzee. Is he the best writer around or are you, having been raised in South Africa, just biased!? What is your favourite book/author?

DA: I don't think I'm in a position to answer your first question! I started reading Coetzee because of the South African connection, but by the time he had published Foe I began to feel that his work asked to be measured against the best that was being written in English anywhere in the world. I've had no cause to change my view since then. I don't believe you can rank authors on a single line - there are too many different kinds of literary quality - but I would certainly say that Coetzee is one of the most accomplished, most searching, most original writers around today. His work is constantly disturbing and discomforting, yet produces that elusive pleasure I talked about before in ways that take you by surprise and are so hard to explain. I probably wouldn't take any of his books with me to my desert island, though, since I would want to find myself laughing from time to time, and there's not a whole lot of humour in Coetzee's fiction (though there's more than is often thought). If I had to choose a novel by a contemporary writer, it would probably be Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which is both hilarious and searing. And if I could take a book by a contemporary poet, it would be Paul Muldoon's collected poems.

MT: I know you have written extensively on James Joyce. I love Ulysses, but I can't be convinced to embark on Finnegan's Wake. Can you convince me?

DA: The best way to read Finnegan's Wake is in a reading group. (I've tried to give a sense of how this works in an essay called Reading Joyce in The Cambridge Companion to Joyce.) Taking just a few paragraphs, and one of the basic guides to the book (here I think it is useful to have a guide, as it provides some short-cuts to recurrent motifs and structures that you would otherwise take years to work out for yourself), you free associate around the puns and portmanteau words and try to build up a sense of the themes and stories that are in play. Reading from cover to cover, although those who relish a challenge may enjoy taking it on, is probably not the best way into it for most people. And it's such a rich book - there's so much going on on any page - that it doesn't matter if half the allusions escape you: there's plenty left to enjoy. It's also a hugely funny book, and that's something that comes across best in a reading group too.

MT: What are you working on now? What is coming next?

DA: Well, I have a substantial administrative job - head of the York University English Department - to keep me busy for the next three years, so I'm not setting my sights very high. But in the long term, I have a big project I started a few years ago and hope to be getting back to when I have some more research time: a history of poetry as a performance art, starting with Homer and tracing the story through the invention of writing as an aid to oral performance in classical Greece, the emergence of written poems in Alexandrian times, the beginning of silent reading, the invention of printing, the invention of recording techniques, the revival of oral performance, the arrival of the internet… I don't know how if I'll ever find time to bring the story up to the present, but there's a lot to get my teeth into in preceding centuries. Among the questions I'm asking are: Is it appropriate to use one word to refer to the series of rather different cultural activities that can be traced from Homer to Tony Harrison? How did poetry - if we can call it that - maintain its identity in relation to music on the one hand and drama on the other? What difference does it make to this art-form if it is composed in sung oral performance, recited aloud to an audience, read silently on a roll of papyrus, listened to with earphones, followed on a screen?

MT: What book do you wish you had written?

DA: Too many. I wish I'd written a novel - any novel. But let's say, rather arbitrarily, JL Austin's How to Do Things with Words - a book that is wonderfully readable while breaking new ground and opening up new possibilities for other thinkers, by a philosopher who is unafraid to pursue questions even when they challenge his own argument.

MT: Do you think good writing can be taught? What are your top tips for the aspiring writer?

DA: A great deal, but not everything, can be taught, whether one thinks in terms of classes in creative writing or in terms of what one learns by reading widely. In The Singularity of Literature, I describe the process whereby an inventive work comes into being as both an act and an event: in the act of composition the writer draws on what she or he has learned, and the more there is to draw on the better; but for true inventiveness (my term for creativity that makes a difference in the world) something also has to happen, an event that is as mysterious to the writer as it is to anyone else. There's never any guarantee that it will happen, but it seems to require as a minimal condition an alertness, a receptivity, to otherness, to that which is outside the familiar, controllable sphere within which we live most of our lives. It's an inherently risky business, though the chances of success can be increased by discipline and a willingness to learn from others. I think the old adage gets it about right: 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration. I'm not making any distinction, incidentally, between "creative" and "theoretical" or "critical" writing here - inventiveness doesn't belong exclusively to any particular kind of writing.

MT: Anything else you'd like to say?

DA: Thank you for this opportunity to appear on your excellent website!

MT: The pleasure was absolutely all mine - thanks so much for your time Derek.

-- Mark Thwaite (01/08/2004)

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