The Event of Literature, by Terry Eagleton

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Though prolific, the writer, cultural critic, religious apologist, and British literary theorist Terry Eagleton fights for relevance with each subsequent book. Most of us, if we know his name at all, either recognize him from the somewhat recent spat between academics and the new atheists, or from literary theory 101. This is our loss because Eagleton illuminates any issue he touches with a plethora of information, intelligence, and analysis as to make him a feast to read. His newest book, The Event of Literature, perhaps a book he has been writing in one form or another throughout his career, takes a mature look at the basic question of the definition of literature through the prism of the relevance of literary theory. As he himself notes, we tend to think of this question and literary theory as either puerile or futile, but either way, unimportant. This, despite the fact that we work within an intellectual framework which presupposes entrenched assumptions about these issues. Though we shy away from postmodern strategies, or deconstructionist jargon when we review or talk about our books, we use many of their assumptions about epistemology and literature for our judgment of “quality literature.”

Eagleton attempts to throw his own answer in this ring, but first, he must clear away the debris surrounding this debate while attempting to prove why it matters (Not an easy task.) He begins by purposefully simplifying the sides of the debate into two extremes: realism and nominalism. Realism, based on centuries of philosophy and theology, asserts the existence of an external category of literature that abides outside our subjective impressions. To that extent, all that we dub “literature” shares certain, inherent characteristics that separates literature from genre fiction or advertisements. Many of us, intuitively, shun this position both for logical and political reasons. The canon contains too many anomalies, too little order and on the other hand contains too many straight white men to adequately represent some sort of Platonic category. The Nominalists (based on scattered strains of older philosophy, but more a creation of modern times) reject the idea of “literature” or a non-socially constructed canon for these exact reasons. All categories stem from social constructs, largely created to give or reinforce power and tend to only delimit something that by definition is not susceptible to limitations. Art, by definition for these thinkers, is an immersion in the ineffable, perhaps the last bastion of the singular individuality of existence. Most people, whether academics, or just fans of literature tend to take this second approach. Eagleton sees these extreme positions as just that: unnecessarily extremist.

Before he goes on to provide his own interpretation of this question, Eagleton wearing all his hats provides the cultural, philosophical, religious, and political foundations and implications of this sometimes fervid debate. Some of this indulges in unbecoming academicese, but Eagleton, in his unique style, tends to illuminate more than obscure. As in many of his books, he swipes away what are in his mind the foundational mistakes of postmodernism and co. with one clean sweep of a paragraph. To that extent, he belongs in the category of many of today’s best thinkers including Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel who notice the insidious effects of outdated and simplistic postmodern thinking on today’s cultural dialogue, especially in the attenuated forms of uninformed relativism seeping into culture. At the same time that he discards relativism and other extreme positions Eagleton combs through the history of literary theory and the philosophy of literature in order to salvage its important and germane conclusions.

Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton

For example, he points out that thinkers still use that clunky divide between style and content, a divide that in the heyday of literary theory was exhaustively purged from our thinking. Furthermore, he explains that literature—to the extent that we think of something as literary—is a relatively new construct that inhibits the range of possible conversations. Or, in a more immediate manner, he highlights how the canonization of a book often limits our ability to read the book outside of the expectation of a masterpiece. (None of these necessarily are new or earth-shattering, but he speaks of them with such panache and urgency as to reopen the conversation.)

Moving on from this more argumentative approach, he argues for his own working definition of literature. Invoking Wittgenstein’s argument of family resemblance and language games to argue for a more refined and moderate approach, Eagleton essentially argues that simply because we cannot pinpoint the definition of literature we should not conclude that we cannot discuss the amorphous borders of literature. To what end? To the same end that we discuss love despite the obviousness of our inability to encapsulate in any sort of neat definition: it provides a clarity that need not reach the definitiveness of an encyclopedia or dictionary entry. As Eagleton notes, most concepts evade definition, but that need not debilitate discussion.

Consequently, in the crux of the book, Eagleton provides five neither necessary nor sufficient criteria of literature, based on a sort of empirical historical survey concluding:

My own sense is that when people at the moment call a piece of writing literary, they generally have one of five things in mind, or some combination of them. They mean by ‘literary’ a work which is fictional, or which yields significant insight into human experience as opposed to reporting empirical truths, or which uses language in a peculiarly heightened, figurative or self conscious way, or which is not practical in the sense that shopping lists are, or which is highly valued as a piece of writing…We may call these factors the fictional, moral, linguistic, non-pragmatic and normative.

Though he delineates these five components, he spends much of the rest of the book investigating their feasibility as categories. Keeping in line which his general mode of moderation he first explodes many of the prevalent assumptions about these aspects before he settles on more tentative conclusions. In his exploration of morality in literature, he notes the prevalence of the idea of literature as an exercise in empathy (See the beloved quote from David Foster Wallace of literature as a communication, a tool to attenuate existential loneliness), but Eagleton also fluidly notes the ambiguity of empathy. Not that literature does not evoke or allow for empathy in novel ways, but we need to know the limitations of our assertions. As he notes, sadists use empathy as well, and empathy rarely equals moral behavior. He goes on to apply this type of analysis to each concept, invoking our common assumptions about their merits then showing how they fall apart under the pressure of boundaries and counterexamples. In this, we find Eagleton at his most astute. Eagleton evinces a destructive beauty as he tears down other theorists conclusions, one after the other. Not a nihilistic joy of destruction, but the enriching joy of complexity.

In the end, after much discussion, Eagleton urges a fancy amalgam of strategies of reading based on all the positive aspects of the varied literary theories. We can no longer simply admire style without discussing the ideological basis of certain rhetorical devices while we cannot simply discuss ideology outside of how a text works on itself and on the readers. In his attempt to ground these flighty literary theories, Eagleton creates a “strategy” that essentially asks the question: to what question does this book present itself, both internally regarding narrative strategies, but also externally an answer to the given context? Jane Eyre, he attempts to show, was written as both a question and an answer to certain Victorian mores; however, in a deconstructionist manner, given the rhetorical tools it can rely upon, it undoes itself time and time again. If this sounds roundabout it is because Eagleton himself, when it comes time to actually analyze a work based on his unique hodgepodge principles he falters.

While interesting, I find the strategy he advises largely inert. In no way does my understanding of Jane Eyre feel enriched by his somewhat Marxist understanding of the book, even though it attends to literary tools as much as any formalist. Like many literary theories, ultimately it sounds self-fulfilling as if when we look at every book through a Freudian viewpoint we will find a vapid argument between the id, ego, and superego, or for a Marxist, the proletariat struggling for identity in society of commodities. It’s not that these strategies don’t yield results, they just yield largely boring obvious results. (Sontag essentially makes this claim in Against Interpretation. While she often goes too far in pushing her, “erotics of art,” she levels perhaps the greatest complaint against literary theory: how boring!)

What then remains for us to take away from this book? How will all of his arguments affect the way we read or talk about writing or art? When we review a book of fiction should we simply summarize the plot then check off the five components Eagleton provides to see how this book accomplishes its task? Obviously not. Rather, if I can pierce through the density of these myriad arguments, Eagleton calls for a more self-aware analysis of books. We make statements, carelessly, referring to a novel as morally enlightening, or transcendent, or cathartic when he wants us to investigate what these terms possibly mean. At this point, however, we run into a wall when attempting to talk about literature. For Eagleton, a discussion of literature entails a destabilization of our assumptions about literature. What he leaves unanswered is how to translate all of this abstract argumentation into more refined discussions of the actual texts. In a book review, we cannot at every turn qualify our statements i.e. what we mean when we say characterization… or, when I call this morally complex, I mean to say moral in the sense of values, not judgments. To that extent, Eagleton leaves the reader wanting. He fails to accomplish this loftier task of concretizing his conclusions in a compelling way.

However, he acutely points out the pitfalls of our current state of unenlightened phenomenological literary criticism. When Elaine Blair makes arguments about the trends of today’s male writers she does so without explaining or exploring the proper methodology of this claim that allows it to rise past mere impressions. She barely explores her assumptions about authorial intent, novelistic coherence, and the nature of fiction. Consequently, we need to find a balance in which we can still make phenomenological critiques of art, the most pervasive form of criticism today, and yet resuscitate the desire and ability to grapple with these larger questions.

I find Eagleton’s effort invigorating. Few books invite us to ask the basic questions of that which we devote our days to, and fewer do so in a manner that doesn’t pander to reductionism. Reading through the arguments, even barely understanding some of the subtleties between the different thinkers he quotes, engenders a heady rush of intellectual excitement, akin to the feeling of reading about the God particle without completely understanding the physics behind it. It lends a weightiness to literature, to writing, to criticism. We chafe so much at authority that we tend to view this type of writing as pedantic, but when Eagleton just rattles off thinkers and writers one after the other, none of which I have read, I feel lost in the depth and complexity of that which we call literature, which, in the end, encapsulates the main purpose of Eagleton’s book.


Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living in the Upper West Side. When not ingesting all things cultural, he attends classes for a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support this extravagant lifestyle, Joe teaches, tutors and babysits, unabashedly. He started writing with a personal blog - noconversationleftbehind.blogspot.com, which allows him to indulge the ramblings of his mind. He began his writing career after he quit a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology because he realized that he likes people more in the abstract than in reality. More from this author →