The Heart asks Pleasure first
And then—Excuse from Pain—
And then—those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering—
— Emily Dickinson
It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it's a poultice.
You have an eye, it's an image.
My boy, it's your last resort.
— Sylvia Plath
Robert Alter's The Pleasures of Reading could serve as a rewarding introduction to literature for someone who missed, or misses, first-year survey courses. It explains cogently and accessibly some literary devices essential to understanding. Its examples, drawn from wonderful writers, communicate the pleasure that Alter himself so clearly takes in reading.
This kind of survey has its limitations, however. It tends to highlight techniques as if coherence itself were the issue in a poem. Too often, especially in the first half of the book, I found interpretations that cried out for more of a work's very particular mediation of experience, for the dizzying insight one sometimes gets in innovative criticism. Worse, there is a darn good reason why.
I am going to argue that Alter's whole program for literature is dead wrong in theory. And behind it, I shall find a fashionably right-wing political tract at odds with both literature and reality. It offers an all too telling glimpse of Neoconservatism in America.
In the past, Alter has changed how I read the Bible. His ideological points here are broader, for he is driven to define all of literature. However, they are also made within a deceptively mild framework of common sense. All he is doing is bringing readers back to literature's pleasures. Even the works examined are old friends.
It sounds modest, right? Encapsulation and promotion, in literature as in marketing, are really fairly modest goals. Alter himself would not be dismayed if I said that his readings invite rather than inspire one to read more.
Alter's approach, as he would be the first to admit, claims for itself nothing so singular as a daringly original vision of literature. He wants to reassert the obvious in the face of more skeptical interpretations. That "obvious," balancing coherence with the pleasure of variety, derives from "unity in multiety," or Coleridge via the New Critics. Yet if one left the book with a sense of casual engagement casually rewarded, one would be blind indeed to its structure and tone. As he puts it, he begins with polemics.
The case is too urgent: for all their display of theoretical erudition and close reading—indeed, for those very excesses—too many critics would rather do anything else except love literature. It is those Marxist feminist deconstructionists, who once again are putting cultural politics ahead of literary merits and literate pleasures.
In reply, Alter must structure his book as a movement from anger to pleasure. This structure allows him both to supplement and to displace the polemics. To supplement them, he adds concrete interpretations, the substance that rhetoric alone may lack. To displace them, he shifts attention from bald argument to literary language. Respect for literature demands a certain rhetorical exorbitance—and its abandonment.
What should I make of that rhetorical sophistication in the interest of simple pleasures? Where do the constraints imposed by literature's own devices stand in relation to their political and cultural uses? And what kinds of readings can hope to withstand these conflicting demands? I shall argue that in adopting the New Critical scheme, Alter gives it a subtle twist. And that is a twist it need not and should not bear.
As Alter proceeds, the terms change from unity to coherence and from multiety or paradox to pleasure. As a result, literature start to sound rather cosier than it deserves. In fact, so does the life that literature so movingly shapes and describes. Alter's modest ambitions may conceal an all too ambitious, all too defensive program. Like too many in art's own history, he turns complacency into an artistic value.
First, he wishes to engage literary theory. Second, he feels that to do so he must prove that one can define literature uniquely. All lovers of literature know how special it is, but these two aims make him want it to play nice. I shall argue that they are bad aims—and badly executed at that.
I found the book simply infuriating for its treatment of the not-so-loyal opposition. Sure, a writer should get angry about things that matter, but that right does not extend to manipulative tactics—especially when he wants so much to separate literature from ideology and advertising. It is bad enough in the hands of parallel diatribes from political agents disguised as critics, like Roger Kimball blaming Chelsea on Bard College. But it ill becomes a lover of books to offer summary moral judgments in place of close readings.
I had at least three specific complaints about his polemical side. He attacks enough straw men to keep crows out of Berkeley for all eternity. He casts his net so widely that descriptions of the bad guys lose any focus. Finally, he picks a silly target for his one extended attack. Let me take them one at a time, because they are essential to his refusal to talk about political art.
The straw starts waving in the first chapter. For example, Terry Eagleton becomes merely an advocate of reducing Shakespeare to graffiti, whereas Eagleton takes post-structuralists to task for their ideological commitments. Alter fears the loss of literature's distinctiveness—just as Eagleton finds that loss still largely hypothetical or programmatic. Maybe they both should see how close Shakespeare actually is to having lost meaning for today's students. Maybe Eagleton and Alter need to leave high-prestige institutions and encounter the real world.
My first impression did not mislead me: straw men never go away. For example, who is Michel Foucault? Is he really trying to reduce art to the ideology of the ruling class? The actual Foucault wrote a playful book on René Magritte and Magritte's Surrealist years. He also began his most important work with an essay in praise of Diego Velázquez, the court painter who would be a shameful toady of the ruling power if anyone is and yet painted a friend and half-caste inspired artistic rebellion.
Think about how French thinkers became so popular in the first place: artists picked up on them first, long before philosophers and critics. That may explain the resistance of older American teachers, by the way, and it may also help account for the dismayingly loose use of Foucault and other philosophers by both sides in the debate. After all, the risk of opening up the academy is letting amateurs in.
Lester Young is said to have carried around a record by Bix Beiderbecke because "they were telling some stories I liked to hear." The artists and writers who discovered critical theorists heard stories too, not just ideologies. Older post-structuralists, such as Jacques Derrida, have spawned more nonsense than I can say, but they gained their audience the old-fashioned way: they showed that reading could require thought and still be enjoyable.
Alter describes his targets so broadly that they could not possibly exist unless they encompassed every reasonable way to write. They reduce literature to ideology, and they remove it from its connection to the world. They deny an artist's roots in older art, and they think literature so dependent on models that it is lost in "intertextuality." They reduce art to advertising and popular culture, and they treat literature as a subfield of philosophy or midrash.
Alter could be accusing others of self-contradiction, but I doubt it. After all, these claims turn up in different chapters and sound oblivious of what came before. Another possibility is that Alter falls prey to contradictions himself. I prefer a third explanation: criticism today is rich, vibrant, and contentious. This book invokes a narrow world that excludes the diverse masses of reasonable people (like us). It may prove instead it is we who are too rigid to play because we fear we cannot win.
For example, it suggests that Alter is so caught up in a community shaped by literary high culture that he cannot see the broader classical traditions of rhetoric and the liberal arts. He simply cannot abide the challenges that a close reading would bring to the culture at large. A claim that literature is being reduced to politics disguises his fears at what will be unleashed once one starts to explore the complex relationships (in the plural) between them.
Not surprisingly, then, Alter rarely cites his targets, and the critics to whom he is temperamentally closest fare the worst. For example, Tzvetan Todorov, a structuralist whose criticism he warmly credits in The Art of Biblical Narrative, becomes a kind of stage villain. For another, Eric Auerbach, a far older critic whose Mimesis gives criticism the sweep of an epic, deserves a small footnote in the chapter on realism. Most curious of all is the handling of Roland Barthes. In light of the nearness of Barthes's title The Pleasure of the Text to this one, I could not help noticing that the writer is mentioned only to be dismissed as "bleak." I know of simple pleasures, but few bleak ones.
When the final chapter at last introduces a real opponent, it is a Dutch Biblical scholar. This is not as preposterous a choice as it sounds, although I, for one, had not heard of her. After all, another Dutch feminist, Toril Moi, has edited a well-known selection of writings by Julia Kristeva, and Alter may fairly choose his example from Biblical studies, one of his own best fields. Still, if you think that the deck has not been stacked, I have this Polynesian specialist in the Gilgamesh epic you should read. Nor does it help that Alter's attack bogs down in the meaning of Hebrew words. So much for his victim's alleged ideological bias.
Alter's polemics beg the question of just what contemporary literary critics are doing. What place does rhetoric—his as well as theirs—have in interpretation? His tactics invite closer examination by his own criteria. However, the best way to start is to confront more directly their place in the ongoing debate about "political correctness."
This dispute covers several controversial issues. One is affirmative action in college admissions. Racial preferences actually seem to have achieved fairly broad societal acceptance, but quotas are attacked by many liberals as well as conservatives. Both sides hate when a museum sacrifices quality for diversity without gaining either. The Supreme Court is still working out the challenges that divide the public at large.
Another is sanctions on "hate speech" or other expression. These have been adopted by too many college administrations, which after all have long been willing to restrict behavior in the interest of order and consensus. They have a mixed reception among students and professors, and they are opposed by off-campus groups of all political persuasions, starting with the ACLU.
A third is the introduction of minority or Third World literature into freshman surveys. This may not conflict with academic freedom, if enough professors want to teach the material and students want to read it. A fourth is intolerance of opposing views, which no one claims to favor.
All these issues are complicated in that the politically correct might not agree that they ever apply criteria other than excellence. Quotas, for example, could be needed because society refuses to judge applicants on their merits: the judges may not be as color blind as they think, or color-blind standards may overlook some talents and perspectives unique to black students that would benefit others as well. Annette Kolodny has protested her double bind on merit and the choice of a "canon": either she interprets female authors and seems to lack standards, or she keeps to male authors and appears to politicize them.
I think there really is a problem with academic theory. A perplexingly broad array of critical schools now has the currency once held by New Criticism. The remoteness of theorizing in graduate seminars from lay terms really has grown wider than even back in the heyday of existentialism.
Deconstruction should undermine any purely instrumental view of language, and Marxism should distrust production for its own sake. So how did they become an instrument for producing endless, redundant MLA sessions? Students learn that feminism and psychoanalysis attack languages of power. So how do they then face a feminist teaching assistant with some prepackaged post-Freudian argument? Cultural theorists show that Americans are manipulated by provincialism and feel-good slogans. So how is one to read demands for renewed pride in cultural identity?
Too often, then, criticism takes its cues from what it should be criticizing. Obviously a theory has to be applied, and one need not lose respect for the theory—or even worry about its being somehow betrayed—to find that certain applications share assumptions with the opposite camp.
However, the new ideologies have done some good, too. They have opened constructive discussions of literature and society, art and politics, creativity and gender, and art and humanity. They have not completely supplanted older modes of argument, and they are in fact a looser assortment than at any time in the past. They have no obligation to descend to the philosophical banality of weekly book reviews, and they hardly invented academic drivel.
I have no pretensions of settling any of these issues and figuring out what to do next. (I change my mind on them all regularly.) What does interest me is their alignment and their relation to Alter's polemics. Note in my summary the diversity of issues and lack of clear ideological lines in any one of them. Put on the defensive by each one taken separately, conservative critics have pulled a remarkable coup in linking them all. And here is where Alter fits in: he is claiming that a dominant academic radicalism uses literature as an excuse to promote extraliterary aims.
I have already suggested that this claim takes for granted the relationship between dogma and art, and I shall return to the notion of the extraliterary shortly. I have also argued that it uses dishonest means to characterize literary scholarship.
More broadly, it misrepresents power in academia. With due respect to what one hears, few young radicals have tenure. As I write, in 1996, most English departments are aging as they remain white and male. The top ten have no tenured minority professors and, if memory serves me, only two tenured women, odd for an alleged clique of quota-based radical feminists.
If these professors are more liberal than the population as a whole, at least it remains the same liberalism as ever. Their politics is only to be expected given the marginal place of the intellectual in America. It would be hard to alter without quotas in hiring or promotions linked to election returns. It cannot explain or support claims of recent shifts in academic power.
Alter's opponents are far more varied than might be expected from his book—especially when they address each other. Conservatives, Alter might reply, reserve their malice for political opponents. Yet the tone of internal debate in literary criticism is very much the issue. Moreover, radicals bend over backward to appear moderate when they defend themselves in public forums.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as the only politically correct writer regularly offered space to reply, has become something of the media's token black. He takes care to place multiculturalism within more-familiar literary traditions. Geoffrey Hartman, a contributor to Deconstruction and Criticism, the volume that pioneered the supposed decline in standards, began his July letter to The Atlantic by imploring open literary discussion.
A recent talk show brought on a young man to defend himself against a critic of political correctness. Was she the enemy? Well, no, he was reluctant to apply such labels. Quickly she leaped in: that is wrong; we must make distinctions. The rhetoric of tolerance had, revealingly, been stood on its head.
Besides, professors are not alone in the academic world. If they are radical, students are hurrying off to careers in finance while the administrations cut budgets. Harvard's president began his administrative career at Princeton, where he defended university connections to defense research, then subject to student protest.
Conservative criticism refutes its own account of power and academic freedom. Its shrill articles have appeared in every magazine; its provocative books are widely read. In real life, as in Alter's prose, the left is nearly unseen. Even if radicals did dominate education, it would still be high time to complain about the powerful outside forces now shaping the university. When it comes to art education, change has already begun.
As George H. W. Bush last spoke on campus, only conservatives came out to heckle. If students have lapsed into mindless relativism, perhaps they are getting it from politicians, the media, and the hedonism of market economics. It was a Doonesbury character, not Freud and Nietzsche, who said, "The unexamined life is fine with me." It was the failures of high literary culture, not of high-tech ideology, that moved Daniel Bell to yearn for a religious revival.
Conservatives do not remedy the contradictions in academia. Instead, they persecute tired academics and reinforce tired ideas. They draw lines in self-serving ways. They reinforce the lines by the ferocity of attack and by premises held in common with many on the left. And then they cry out in triumphant anger as each side scurries to its side of the barricades. In short, attack on academic radicalism is barely removed from Senator McCarthy's waving a list of those who would undermine our values. It is a display of public power that uses a few unnamed radicals to control cultural criticism.
It is important to recognize that neither literature nor education has ever been immune from political turmoil. Think of the Vietnam War, not to speak of the intricate histories of the public university and of college English. Think of each new generation facing "critics of less judgment than caprice" and "the gaudiness and inane phraseology of modern writers," to bring together the unlikely pair of Pope and Wordsworth. Now federal and private funding, along with changing demographics, have made the campus a partisan issue as well as a political arena.
Political controversy cannot be avoided. As Michael Walzer wrote well before concern over political correctness, any insistence that education and jobs go to those with the greatest merit promotes the dominance of educators who define merit. That need not, he adds, discredit their definitions, but it does oblige one to evaluate fairly the mutual impact of politics and education. One should not talk comfortingly about protecting English from politics without addressing how one is influencing both English and politics.
I began with the polemics because Alter does, too, and also because they cast considerable doubt on the integrity of the real arguments he provides. However, they do not themselves prove the arguments invalid. It is time that I examined his interpretive machinery—a definition of literature raised in its defense.
So consider the problem of defining literature. Here Alter fails for three reasons. First, a definition is impossible in principle. Second, it is a waste of energy. Finally, the one offered miscarries on its own terms. Again I shall consider each point in its turn.
I shall get some arcane technical issues out of the way first. A definition has little chance of succeeding with even the best of connections. Alter would like one to think that one must choose between a tidy, common-sense view of the matter in America and a strange, obscure relativism imported from abroad. In fact, the best contributions to the debate are in the Anglo-American mode of analytic philosophy, which demands precision and clarity. They have cast doubt on the possibility of a definition.
Two leading American estheticians, Arthur C. Danto and Nelson Goodman, have both been very hard on notions of defining art. While very dissimilar as philosophers, Danto and Goodman have certain types of arguments in common—arguments that closely parallel those of the insidious Frenchman Derrida in his essay "Signature Event Context." Both Americans focus on the visual arts, whereas Derrida draws examples from written media, but they have much in common. I must simplify matters as best I can, and any flaws in my arguments are my own.
A definition will offer necessary and sufficient conditions. In other words, certain conditions must be narrow enough to keep art separate from nonart, but broad enough to encompass everything that counts as art. (Alter jumbles these two points, by the way.)
Problems with excluding nonart are raised by what Danto, also a leading critic, calls the "identity of indiscernibles": is art changed if it quotes or incorporates nonart, such as headlines or found objects? What if art looks like an accidental mark on a wall? What can discriminate between literal and figurative uses of words, between real works and imagined ones playfully cited within other works of art? Problems with the adequacy of breadth of definition are raised by the very richness of art and its difficulty: why does one have to learn to respond (as well as how to respond) to different artists, media, and periods? It cannot be the same as learning to like peas once one has begun a vegetarian diet.
These challenges can be resolved neatly if one abandons the task of pat definitions. What happens when one discerns that something is art and that it is good? It is not that one sees how it fits a defining pattern. Rather, one simultaneously readjusts several perceptions—of the work, of other works that one already admires, and of the patterns in potential use.
Change even in definitions points both to the past and to the future. This explains some of the fears of canon changes. It is not just that one must teach unfamiliar works at the expense of the great books, perhaps readjusting one's valuation of the unfamiliar. It is also that one's interpretation of the familiar immediately is subject to implicit challenge. The standards of judgment for works yet unwritten has changed, too.
Compare this complexity to the entry of new members into a political community. When blacks became full citizens in the nineteenth century, it meant not only seeing them and their descendants as Americans. It also meant reading the old guarantees of liberty, justice, and equality differently. And it led to interpretations of the Bill of Rights that were not to become law for decades.
An insistence on definitions may seem to follow from the universality of fair judgment. In practice, though, it is enforces past judgments unfairly. That holds for any field, but what makes art special is that past judgments are inescapably unfair: some stranger to the supposed community is always begging admittance. Someone is always creating art of a kind never seen before.
I used the word inescapably rather than inherently, because not even undecidability can serve to define art. David Wiggins has associated personhood with "the inability to immunize" oneself "from delusions of technological omnipotence." Debates about the status of literature tease out what it means that an artist is quintessentially human.
In a way, art really is whatever one wants it to be, and not because it is purely conventional. That would make little sense. As Bernard Williams, an English philosopher, has said, the conventionality of human life does not tell against a relation between nature and convention. Nor do expanding subfields necessarily lead to confusion. For example, in mathematics, one can apply tests such as noncontradiction to know when the next contribution really counts. In contrast, art cannot be defined because its conventions include the means for breaking them.
Art resists what Abraham Maslow, the psychologist, has called "casual rubricizing." That resistance can make a definition downright dangerous. At best, a definition generates decent criticism; at worst, either too little hinges on it or it has become a weapon in the war over critical standards. Readers of Aeschylus ask first not how it differs from music (which it incorporates), or philosophy (to which it has given passion), or culture (which it founded). They care instead with all their heart about every reading and every performance. As Aristotle said, one deliberates best about means rather than ends.
I hope it does not sound if I were urging Alter to quit thinking and act. Nothing so dour. Even Rousseau, who says in The Social Contract that he would not be a philosopher if he had power, was happy once the political whirlwinds blew his way to be an idol rather than a statesman. And I have been stressing the importance of critical theorists, who raised the level of abstraction in literary arguments.
Yet by upping the philosophical ante, theorists have done more than invent formal schemes for interpretation. They have forced critics to do what writers like Empson, Brooks, or Leavis did all along—to give philosophical discourse the playfulness and attention to language of criticism, while also bringing to interpretation the depth of significance of its culture.
When a definition carries weight, like Coleridge's, it is because it empowers great interpretations. That, in turn, is often because the principles connect closely to the world view behind individual works. Lack of such vital connections in Alter helps reveal why he grows more fun when he explains devices like allusion or perspective than when framing those explanations with their intended moral.
The confidence of many philosophers in the possibility of firm boundaries increases when it comes to separating media or genres. Goodman, for example, distinguishes notated art forms, such as music, from autographic ones, such as drawing. I think that some of the same challenges will arise, however. Goodman's distinctions rely on treating the different forms as written rather than performed, and that opens up precisely the issues of citation and perceptual shifts due to time and context that I have been discussing.
Even the safest definitions and genres depend on a settled artistic practice or corpus. When conventions can be defined, their historical limits are clearest. In this trivial but also unhelpful sense, English literature had to be invented against a background of other modes of writing, as we concede when we leave most essays between Samuel Johnson and Joan Didion out of Norton anthologies. In fact, even modern anthologies had to be invented—possibly by Francis Bacon. The best definitions may apply to lots of art and literature, but they still could never live up to Alter's needs. They do not yield up the significance of literature from the Bible and Homer to Modernism and beyond.
Ironically, by emphasizing definitions, Alter does what he hates most: he treats a framework as something settled, within which interpretation can safely be channeled. Once it was liberating to argue whether works of literature are best described by pleasure rather than the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling. At another time, people cared about coherence instead of the unbreachable chasm between Apollonian order and Dionysian frenzy. However, I should have to know more about the stakes involved. Once again, polemics is always sitting a little too restlessly behind Alter's theory.
Still, genres like poetry do hold out hope that one might define some sort of narrowly prescribed body of works. Let me see, then, how well the definition that Alter supplies can handle the specific body of works available. The argument so far has been abstract. Let me put the philosophers behind me and turn to my second point: neither term in his definition, coherence or pleasure, is convincing.
Alter leaves the meaning of coherence vague throughout, as unfortunately he must. Actually, nonliterary prose is often quite coherent, whereas literature is among the finest ways to learn the limitations of that coherence. I do not know how to tell whether my own essay here is more or less coherent than if it had been converted into an equally bad short story, but at least I shall guarantee that it is not art.
Literature exposes fissures lying deep within the mind. It extends, too, to the distance between human ideals and the world, to the treachery behind the neat satisfactions of schlock or commerce, and to the lived openness of the present moment. In an image of Edmund Husserl's, a horizon moves as it is approached; as Virginia Woolf wrote, nothing is only one thing. Alter says much the same thing in his final chapter.
In his final chapter, Alter tries to address objections to pleasure. He asks whether the word can describe the experience at a performance of Greek tragedy. It is a good question. Most good literature does at least a little to unsettle.
Writers want to inspire an untold number of reactions, often in the same work. Peter Handke's Insulting the Audience may be only superficially derisive, for it really does delight as well as startle. Yet the problem of relying on pleasure in esthetics is something like that of basing ethics on happiness—the vagueness of the ideal and the necessity of enforcing it on people who claim not to desire it. Besides, everyone wants to live well, but no one wants to read all the time.
Alter's response to his own question is diluted Aristotle: tragedy may be terrifying, but at least art ties it up neatly. This makes art sound like Nero fiddling.
Part of the muddle is that pleasure and coherence are never fully joined or fully separated. Does art seem painful, even bound up in suffering? Then bear in mind the pleasure of coherently mastering the pain. Does literature seem chaotic? Then do not overlook the special kind of coherence in articulating a pleasurable diversity.
On the one hand, each term stands in opposition to the other, like unity and multiety, with literature arising from their opposition. On the other hand, each is needed for the other's very existence. They complete one another in two ways—as complimentary values and as underlying the integrity of the other.
Curiously, given Alter's hostility to deconstruction, he is forced to repeat what Derrida calls "the logic of the supplement." In Grammatology, Derrida used this phrase to describe an addition that has the burden of completing—and never can complete—what is also supposed to be its ground. By trying to base literature on two kinds of mastery, Alter points to a void at the heart of each.
The void persists as he pursues literature back past its definition, to its dependence on the world. It must never lose itself in an empty formalism superior to ordinary values, and yet it must contribute the pleasure and coherence lacking in human experience. Its devices merely make up for the natural accents of living speech, a lesson that Alter draws from Denis Donoghue. Homer convinces him, however, that even speech is subject to literary complexity.
It sounds to me like those academics Alter hates. In Derrida's terms, he sees literature as supplement—both disreputable addition and necessary completion. Yet he uncovers the same uncertainties when he searches for a ground in experience beyond literary expression.
Deconstruction cannot have the final word, and it refuses the honor anyhow. However, it can help explain the tension between criticism and polemics. For Alter, the love of literature has a cultural function but must also be protected from the encroachment of politics. His sensitive interpretations can exceed his opening rhetoric, but only to the extent that they can never fulfill its demands. Paradoxically, a culturally useful, coherent pleasure is only an attempt to limit literature's greater openness to play and its engagement in culture.
A loaded definition and a loaded polemic work together. Alter imagines literature as pleasant and coherent as life—a left-handed compliment if I ever heard one. He contrasts that with its besiegers, the bleak, narrow critics. Let us hurry up and join the status quo quick, before they burn it.
At the risk of compounding the intentional fallacy with bad psychology and a distressing lack of sympathy, I might speculate on the sources of Alter's one-sidedness. Bitterness in someone like Allan Bloom or E. D. Hirsch comes from fighting a lonely cause against decades of a shifting critical consensus. They have reviled with equal fervor the biographical criticism of the distant past, the New Criticism of Composition 101 as many like me experienced it, and the wilder experiments since the 1960s. Now, however, they can at last make common cause with the powerful.
Ironically, they also gain in strength from their critics: a number of postmodern writers point to a canon very much like the one that humanists out in Chicago have always wanted. That way, they can lament their exclusion from it.
The edge beneath Alter's tone of moderation may come from an opposite concern. He is desperate to distinguish himself from a stance that he himself may encourage. Note how far his sanity is from other clerics in the conservative inquisition. His eloquent plea for many readings strongly contrasts with Dinesh D'Souza's despair at "over-reading." His hope that one can learn to read by studying carefully how poems work contrasts with Hirsch's short-answer review books.
His willingness to draw new moral resources from a nuanced literary reading of a multiple-author text like the Bible contrasts with Bloom's preference that ethical grounds dictate the teaching of literature. His ability to find pleasure in some very grim authors contrasts with Camille Paglia's dismissal of Samuel Beckett as "repressive."
Perhaps these contrasts could provide a potential meeting ground for the best of American and continental criticism. His systematic overview of literary devices recalls a structuralist's exploration of literature's "grammar." His discomfort with formal views of literature recalls the desire of a feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic critic, or many a great moral philosopher to burst a "prison house of language."
His wish to define and to privilege literature recalls Paul de Man's domestication of deconstruction. In de Man's influential terms (slightly bowdlerized by me) literature is whatever can use formal devices to raise troubling questions without our ever being sure that they are not actually profound answers.
To is credit, Alter has parallels in all these. These common desires may make him all the more eager to stay apart from his unindicted co-conspirators. I only wish he could do so without putting everyone else on trial.
Alter wants art to have norms at the same time that it be nonnormative. Those impulses are difficult to maintain without contradiction. They drove Plato and other moralists to exclude art entirely from the good life. Maintaining them with all the generosity and lack of cant that they deserve is crucial. It is central to appreciating both literature and its critics.
Robert Alter's The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age was published in 1996 by Norton.