Stop Reading like a Critic

Think about your favorite book. Now ask yourself: Would you admit this to others? Most would share—but literature professors are not most people.

Take a moment to think about your favorite book. Now ask yourself: Would you be willing to reveal your thoughts to other readers? Most people wouldn’t think twice about sharing their enthusiasms. But literature professors are not most people. One of the first lessons you learn in grad school is to hide your personal taste or risk being shamed for liking the wrong sorts of things. Scholars have been conditioned to respond to talk of likes and dislikes with embarrassment, if not outright contempt. The facade of critical detachment may be on the way out, however. Some academics—most prominently, Rita Felski and Andrew Miller, each with a new book on the subject—invite their colleagues to fess up to the feelings they have for what they study, interpret, and even—dare I say it—love.

For Felski, examining this love is just as important as focusing on how “useful” a novel is, or whether a body of work serves a particular politics. More importantly, talking about attachments allows readers to admit to all the works they adore, breaking down barriers between what is “critically” and “commercially” good. It is time, urges Felski, to talk about Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir the same way we talk about Beyoncé and the Boss.

For Miller, literature’s import doesn’t stop at individual love. Instead, he focuses on “unled lives,” which, he argues, represent one of the great themes of modern literature. And no one understands their allure better than writers. Think of his book On Not Being Someone Else (a title in which that “Not” matters) as an account of the reading process itself: fiction immerses us in other people’s lives, while at the same time clearing space for us to reflect on the “What if?” moments that have shaped our own.

The rallying cry for literary critics to do more than expose hidden political agendas spoke to many of us once steeped in symptomatic reading’s theory wars.

Felski’s latest book, Hooked: Art and Attachment, completes a series, spanning more than a decade, targeting and calling into question the effectiveness of “symptomatic reading.” Still the prevailing mode of literary criticism, symptomatic reading holds that the critic’s duty is to uncover the oppressive or subversive elements within literary narratives. For many critics, though, tools of literary theory (including Marxism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and other approaches) that once felt empowering now look routine. The inevitable disenchantment set in when novels were all read in the same way—that is, with an eye toward their political implications in the world—with no discernable impact on the world outside their covers.

And so, the rallying cry for literary critics to do more than expose hidden political agendas spoke to many of us once steeped in symptomatic reading’s theory wars. Over the past decade, Felski has been a breath of fresh air: working to nudge literary criticism away from an exclusive focus on politics. As Felski noted of this urge to honor theory above how a text reads and feels: “We are all resisting readers.”1 Crucially, Felski is not against critique, the world being what it is. She is one of the growing number of malcontents who merely want to discuss other ways in which people respond to art.

What made Felski’s stance refreshing was that it did not retreat to retrograde notions of beauty, as previous salvos had done, so much as rehabilitate concepts—relating to books, say, or identifying with fictional characters—that had once seemed quaint. Felski’s formidable credentials as a feminist theorist with allegiances to the Frankfurt School made her the ideal spokeswoman to lead the movement. Here was someone fluent in critique, calling for something even more radical: talking about our feelings for books.

Hooked caps off a trilogy that began with Uses of Literature (2008) and continued with The Limits of Critique (2015). A manifesto urging critics to talk about motives for reading largely ignored by scholarship, Uses of Literature showed how contradictory and unpredictable responses to books could be. Next, The Limits of Critique followed with a forensic assault on approaches to literature that elevate politics over pleasure, advocating instead a “postcritical” style of reading attentive to its charms. The question on my mind, then, as I opened the trilogy’s final installment: Would Felski run out of steam?

Hooked seeks to understand the complicated ways people become attached to works of art. The first step to making a connection: dispensing with the critic’s pose of aesthetic distance. This detached attitude will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a literature classroom where personal feelings are discouraged (my students routinely accuse me of taking the fun out of reading by making them analyze texts). If the trilogy’s first installment called itself a manifesto, then this one is an exposé aimed at critics who disavow their personal allegiances.


The Murder of Theory

By Anna Kornbluh

“Hooking up” is Felski’s phrase to describe how people and artworks come together. (Presumably, Felski is aware that this term applies not only to meaningful relationships but also to regrettable flings.) Various forms of attachment described in the chapters include “getting” a work of art for the first time, identifying with characters in ways that cut across identity politics, and relating to texts from which we wish to maintain critical distance.

Readers might agree with Felski’s diagnosis of literary criticism’s problems without being convinced by the prognosis: more sociology. It is hardly surprising that the author of a think piece titled “My Sociology Envy” believes the best way to understand works of art is by turning to the things surrounding them.2

Hooked makes the most extensive case yet for the benefits of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), a methodology associated with the French sociologist Bruno Latour that involves meticulous description of the interactions among a group of actors (an expansive category covering everything from persons to pages) that contribute to an aesthetic experience. The approach is a pragmatic one, despite the name’s ungainliness: Latour once quipped that the four things wrong with Actor-Network Theory were “actor,” “network,” “theory,” and the hyphen.3 Although ANT’s methods of documenting connections have been around since the 1980s, literary critics have only recently begun to adapt them to the study of literature.

For me, though, ANT works better at describing than at explaining art’s appeal. Hooked enumerates the various factors contributing to aesthetic responses, without resolving the fundamental issue of why people respond to some works of art and not others. Although Felski aligns her work with sociology, phenomenology, and cultural studies, her approach might best be compared to reception studies. In documenting the mixed response to films like Thelma & Louise, she confirms the sheer variability and unpredictability of artistic encounters, while leaving us stuck with the same questions that have always bedeviled writing about them.

The book’s handling of Zadie Smith illustrates what ANT has to offer. Smith’s essay “Some Notes on Attunement,” published in 2012 in the New Yorker, describes the author’s conversion to a Joni Mitchell album that she had once dismissed as (in Felski’s words) “a white girl’s warbling that was little more than noise.” How did Smith reach the point where the same album brought tears of joy? To answer this question, she traces the unique constellation of factors leading to the sudden reversal (“I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her”) with all the grace and acuity you would expect from one of Britain’s finest contemporary writers. Smith leads a master class for ANT critics on how everything from sunshine to sausage rolls feeds into our aesthetic judgments.

That last detail points toward the limits of postcriticism too: listing the factors contributing to our tastes seems potentially endless—not to mention tedious—without the arbitrary limits imposed by ANT-lite treatments. And whereas hyperarticulate writers like Smith, Geoff Dyer, Patricia Hampl, Wayne Koestenbaum, and even Felski herself (spoiler alert: she nearly wrote a dissertation on Thomas Bernhard) hardly need the critic’s help, unexamined lives or even prejudiced ones may prove elusive to ANT’s documentary methods. What ultimately makes Felski’s book such gripping reading comes less from ANT than from watching her demolish reductive claims about art.

Being under lockdown here in London had me acutely attuned (to use one of Felski’s keywords) to the life I might be living in an alternate universe, even before I started Andrew Miller’s On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives. At least I have my books to get me through this pandemic. For, as Oscar Wilde put it, “one’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.”

Chances are the mention of unled lives brought to mind Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” That poem frames Miller’s entire book: every tale of an unled life replicates its paradigmatic structure of a traveler looking back at how a fork in the road has shaped their destiny. Frost’s poem (along with Henry James’s story “The Jolly Corner” and Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life) exemplifies art’s capacity to allow us to experience two lives at once. Or, as Miller says of reading: “We can see something of what it would be to be one traveler on two roads.”

The biggest challenge to writing about this theme may be reining in its scope, since all fiction, by definition, focuses on other people’s lives. As Miller concedes, “these stories are everywhere, inescapable,” especially now that social media makes comparing lives unavoidable. But Miller wisely avoids surveying literature’s forking paths (the nod to Borges is intentional here). What he offers instead is a sensibility: a thoughtful, generous, amusing, tender, meandering, self-deprecating, wistful, even reverent style of thinking about our lives in relation to the stories we read.

On Not Being Someone Else resembles a commonplace book filled with curated excerpts from literature, along with Miller’s personal reflections that offer access to another reader’s mind. The sheer delight I felt while reading his prose arose from the sense of being part of a conversation with a thoughtful friend. The book’s intimate tone (“Sometimes I think … ”) emulates those of introspective philosophers, like Stanley Cavell, who do their thinking on the page.

The theme of unled lives looks completely different depending on your vantage point.

The theme of unled lives will resonate most with an audience that has reached middle age and finds itself asking, along with the Talking Heads, “Well … how did I get here?” In other words, it is perfectly pitched to someone like me, who reads more novels than I care to admit in which a character reaches the epiphany: I’m not the person I thought I would be. Melancholy is just one side of the story, however. Contemplating other people’s lives also clarifies what matters in our own lives.

In less capable hands, the practice of speculating about alternative fates could easily lapse into sentimentality. Opening Miller’s book, I braced myself for musings on the gimmicky film Sliding Doors. There was no need to worry, however, since Miller disarmingly mentions his own embarrassment in talking about the book’s theme and turns the conversation toward literature that resists easy conclusions. Trite speculations about the role of chance are quickly put to rest by David Copperfield’s conversation-stopper: “Suppose we had never been born!”

Frost, James, Capra: this study’s exemplars of unled lives reflect its tilt toward certain kinds of lives over others. The mention of marriage, families, or careers will prompt thoughts in most of us about what could’ve been. Some possibilities prove easier to imagine than others, though, especially when it comes to the hypothetical lives inflected by gender or race that Beyoncé sings about in “If I Were a Boy.”

Miller’s book sticks to low-stakes decisions compared with the life-or-death ones confronted by, say, refugees or trauma survivors. There is a sociological justification for sidestepping Sophie’s choice, of course. Speculating about alternative lives is a luxury. Those who have little control over their lives will have fewer opportunities to look back from Frank Sinatra’s perspective: “Regrets, I’ve had a few.” The theme of unled lives looks completely different depending on your vantage point.


Reading Lives, Writing Lives

By Nicola Sayers

But enough about unwritten books. Hooked and On Not Being Someone Else point toward the rewards of thinking about literature as bound up with our lives, not cut off from them. Dispensing with the pose of critical aloofness, both Felski and Miller urge literary scholars to reflect on why we care about works of art as much as we do.

Suspicion was far from my mind as I found myself grappling with aesthetic questions given scant attention by the literary criticism of recent years. Temporarily setting aside my habitual skepticism forced me to confront complicated feelings toward books and what draws me to them—and toward what it means to read as a critic while still being myself.


This article was commissioned by Leah Priceicon

  1. Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (Blackwell, 2008), p. 4.
  2. Rita Felski, “My Sociology Envy,” Theory, Culture, and Society, July 25, 2019.
  3. Bruno Latour, “On Recalling ANT,” in Actor Network Theory and After, edited by John Law and John Hassard (Blackwell, 1999), p. 24.
Featured image: Reading at the Poolside (2017). Photograph by Angello Pro / Unsplash