Username: Literature

By Stan Persky | June 25, 2011

Marjorie Garber, The Use and Abuse of Literature (Pantheon, 2011).


The first thing Marjorie Garber talks about in The Use and Abuse of Literature is the decline of reading. Or, rather, the first subject that Garber, a Harvard English professor and prolific Shakespearean and cultural studies scholar, seems to address in her book about the current state of “literature” is the general decline in “literary” reading.

That’s a plausible enough topic. After all, if readers of literature are disappearing, then that will surely affect the “use” (and “abuse”) of literature. But it turns out that Garber is not particularly interested in a cultural crisis one of whose symptoms is the decline of reading and, what’s more, right at the outset she commits a sort of scholarly “howler” in the little that she does say about diminished reading habits (I’ll get to the latter in a bit).

Here’s what Garber writes on the first page of her book. At the beginning of the 21st century, she notes, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts “reported a disturbing drop in the number of Americans who read ‘literary’ works.” She cites the NEA’s 2004 report, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which “showed an alarming decline of reading in all age groups across the country, and especially among 18 to 24-year-olds.” Not only does the NEA report find that less than half of the American population reads literature, and that “reading among persons at every level of education… had declined over the past 20 years,” but that the decline of reading strongly correlates with the diminution of other forms of civic participation, including volunteer work and cultural involvement with the performing arts, and an array of “knowledge deficits” in other fields.

What interests Garber most of all, oddly enough, is not that there’s a big reading problem, but the “idea that fiction/nonfiction should be the determining category” in the findings of the NEA report. She notes that “literature,” for the purposes of the Reading at Risk study, is explicitly defined as including popular genres such as mysteries as well as “literary fiction,” and that “no distinctions were drawn on the quality of literary works.” So, a Harlequin romance or Tolstoy’s War and Peace are equally counted as literature, but not, say, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, because it’s a work of nonfiction. Garber agrees with the NEA’s “democratic decision not to judge works on their putative ‘quality’,” since such judgments are notoriously unstable over time. She also understands the desire to make some sort of distinction between categories, but thinks that “the decision to exclude ‘nonfiction’… does seem to undercut a little the message” that, as the report itself puts it, “anyone who loves literature… will respond to this report with grave concern.” Or, as the NEA chairman Dana Gioia declared, the findings are an indication of a “national crisis” that reflects “a general collapse in advanced literacy,” and a loss that “impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”

Rather than expressing some alarm about this “national crisis,” Garber simply goes on in the next and succeeding sections of her introduction to discuss the ambiguous and historically determined ways in which the term “literature” has been and is used to describe everything from high quality writing to the instructions that come along with your package of pills in the drugstore. The central aim of her book, she declares, is “to argue for… the ‘uses’ of reading and literature, not as an instrument of moral or cultural control, nor yet as an infusion of ‘pleasure,’ but rather as a way of thinking.” This “radical reorientation” of “what it means to read, and to read literature… is the only way to return literature to the center, rather than the periphery, of personal, educational, and professional life.” I’ll come back  to these portentous intentions shortly. For now, I’m simply puzzled about how you put literature back in the centre of life if people are not reading.

Amazingly, Garber’s commentary on the decline of reading in the first pages of her book is also the last time she mentions the subject. There’s not another word in the following 300 pages about whether people are reading or not and whether that means anything. Instead, Garber is primarily interested in the use of the term “literature,” which is separated from nonfiction in that NEA report on reading. This is like witnessing a terrible auto accident and, instead of being concerned about the injured victims, focusing on, I don’t know, whether it was a hybrid or an electric-powered vehicle in the crash. Garber’s perspective seems inexplicably off-kilter.

While reading Garber’s book, I happened to hear a radio interview with her on a program called “Bookworm,” hosted by Michael Silverblatt. The conversation began with Silverblatt attempting to empathise with how tough the current situation in teaching must be. “My impression is,” he said, “that it’s become very difficult to teach literature in college, that people from high schools come unprepared to read, and that English [enrollment] numbers have reached colossal, all-time lows.” Not at all, replied Garber, “I don’t think it is difficult to teach English… the students are uniformly enthusiastic and they actually know a great deal and want to know more.” As for the declining number of humanities students, well, that’s a situation influenced by external social factors not germane to the discussion. So, in Garber’s view, no problem at all. Everything’s just hunky-dory in academia and, she assures us, she’s not just talking about those carefully-filtered $50,000-a-year tuition-paying Harvard students. (Gee, I hope I can wangle a faculty exchange with Garber so she can get a chance to meet my students, who are sometimes slightly less than “uniformly enthusiastic,” and who don’t always give many signs of knowing “a great deal.”) Having heard Garber live-and-unplugged, I was a little less surprised by her myopia about the reading crisis, as evidenced at the opening of her book.

However, I remain astonished by what strikes me as a significant scholarly blooper. Since the point of Garber’s opening riff is that the 2004 NEA report used only “literature” (however skewed the definition) to measure reading habits, you’d think it would be professionally incumbent upon her to let readers know that there’s a subsequent 2007 NEA report, To Read or Not To Read. (You’d also think that the Shakespearean allusion in the report’s title would have caught the eye of the author of Shakespeare After All.) As the NEA press release (Nov. 19, 2007) explains, “To Read or Not To Read expands the investigation of the NEA’s landmark 2004 report, Reading at Risk. While that report focused mainly on literary reading trends, To Read or Not To Read looks at all varieties of reading, including fiction and nonfiction genres in various formats such as books, magazines, and online reading.”

Get it? The 2007 report is about all reading, not about “literature,” or historical variables in category definitions, or anything else. And then come the report’s dismal findings, which I won’t reprise except to note that they’re more dismal than the findings in the earlier report. (The whole report is available online. Just google “decline of reading” or “NEA.”) The point is: “Americans are reading less”; “Americans are reading less well”; and “the declines in reading” correlate to (but aren’t necessarily the cause of) deficiencies in a range of civic, social, and economic matters. (I should mention, as a matter of scholarly niceties, that there was also a 2009 NEA mini-report that recorded a mysterious uptick in reading, but not such a huge increase as to write home or send a tweet about. Maybe it was the Harry Potter fad that caused it.) The findings in the NEA reports also form the basis of Mark Bauerlein’s book, The Dumbest Generation (2008). Bauerlein is an Emory University English professor who was directly involved in the NEA research. That Garber doesn’t mention (or is unaware of) the subsequent NEA reports or Bauerlein’s book is, to put it mildly, intellectually disturbing.

You would think that someone in the editorial rooms of Garber’s publisher would have said to her something like, “Yo, Marj” (or however they address her), “you’re sweeping the floor with the wrong end of the broom.” Or that someone would have pointed out the glaring absence of relevant materials in her opening pages about the decline of reading (or whatever her opening pages are actually about). But no one did.

Maybe that’s because the people in the editorial rooms were too busy writing jacket copy bumpf for Garber’s book. Although Garber of course isn’t responsible for the puffery, this book jacket copy is so remarkably inflated as to merit notice. Here’s how it begins: “As defining as Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education were to the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, respectively, Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature is to our times.” I immodestly note that Bloom’s and D’Souza’s reactionary books were not the defining books of my 1980s and 1990s, but let’s not quibble. In a genre (book jacket copy writing) notorious for hyperbole, this is hype beyond the call of advertising. I’m here to assure you that Garber’s book is not, as far as I can tell, “decade-defining,” though some of its observations about the use of “use,” the “canon,” or the quarrel about what is and isn’t literature are perfectly interesting, albeit in a minor key.

We know that the copywriters got as far as the first page of Garber’s book: “Even as the decline of reading… proceeds in our culture, Garber (‘One of the most powerful women in the academic world’ – The New York Times) gives us a deep and engaging meditation on… “ etc.  I hope you like the parenthetical endorsement from the NYT of Garber’s commanding powerpoint status in the groves of academe. In any case, “The Use and Abuse of Literature is a tour de force about culture in crisis that…” Can I skip the “brio, panache, and erudition lightly carried”? Thanks.


If you find my mild-mannered comments about Garber’s book too tame for your tastes, then I recommend William Deresiewicz. Writing in Slate about The Use and Abuse of Literature, he begins, “Marjorie Garber’s new book brought me back to my days as an English professor; I thought I was reading a freshman essay.” Ouch! “My marginal comments” says the professor emeritus, “might as well have been written in red: ‘What is the point of this paragraph?’ ‘Where are we in the argument – and what exactly is the argument?’ ‘Sloppy thinking.’”, und so weiter (as they say in German when they don’t want to say, “Etc.”).  Though Garber’s book “purports to be a rallying cry for serious reading,” “once you pick your way through its heap of critical detritus – its mildewed commonplaces and shot-springed arguments, its half-chewed digressions and butt ends of academic cliché – you uncover underneath it all a single dubious and self-serving claim: that the central actor in the literary process is, what do you know, the English professor.” (William Deresiewicz, “The Right Questions To Ask About Literature,” Slate, Apr. 4, 2011.)

Deresiewicz is underwhelmed by Garber’s handling of “the ancient question of pleasure vs. use. Is literature valuable because it feels good or because it’s good for you?” Garber’s answer, at noted above, is neither. Rather literature is valuable as “a way of thinking.” Deresiewicz rolls his eyes. “The argument is both remarkable and banal.” Banal, he says, because the “self-enclosure” of literature “has been a commonplace of theory since the New Criticism of the 1930s” – “close reading,” and all that. The argument is remarkable “because it cuts literature off from the very thing it most obviously wants to connect to: the world.” The answer to the use-pleasure conundrum “is not neither, but both.” Literature is “useful,” says Deresiewicz, “because it wakes us up from the sleepwalk of self-involvement… and shows us the world, shows us ourselves, shows us life and experience and the reality of other people, and forces us to think about them all… Pleasure is use, use pleasure.” Didn’t Keats once say something similar about “beauty” and “truth”?

Garber’s repeated insistence on “the way something means rather than what it means” strikes Deresiewicz as “equally false.” He modestly counters that “form” and “meaning,” the “what” and the “way” are inextricably interrelated. It was ever thus. As for the “old warhorse” question, “What is literature?”, he notes that Garber says it’s not the right question. “A better question,” she says, “might be ‘Is it responsive to literary reading?’ Are these texts… ones of which… a critic can usefully ask literary questions?” Snorts Deresiewicz, “The critic, again, at the center of the enterprise.” He, too, thinks “Is it literature?” is the wrong question, “but the right one is, ‘Is it good?’”

Okay, okay, I’ll stop. Like Borges’ Pierre Menard “re-writing” Don Quixote word for word, there’s a tempation to quote the whole of Deresiewicz’s uncompromising critique, or at least to insist you google up the link. Because if there’s any tour de force going on around here, it’s not in Garber’s book, but in Deresiewicz’s review. I cite it at length because it’s so rare these days to find a critical piece that doesn’t indulge in what I think of as thumb-on-the-scale style reviewing; i.e., don’t say anything too harsh, we don’t want to bring down the fragile edifice of (already declining) reading. In any case, if Garber’s Use is one of those books that makes you ask, about 150 pages in, What the heck is this book about?, Deresiewicz leaves us with no doubt about what he’s thinking.


I’ll keep the sermon short: There are books that say important things about reading and writing. There are even some books that face up to the decline of reading and the current forms of cultural impoverishment. Garber’s book is not one of them. Is there anything worth reading that does something interesting with these topics? How about, just to think of the ancient past for a moment, Jean-Paul Sartre’s What Is Literature? (1949), or more immediately, David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010)?  These, at least, are books that take seriously both writing and the world. They implicitly understand the poet Charles Olson’s “useful” battlecry, “Art is life’s only twin.”


2387 words, Berlin, June 25, 2011.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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