Reviewed by Nicholas Mancusi ’10
[Literary criticism] This review, of What’s Been Happpening to Jane Austen, a collection of the last decade of Professor William Pritchard’s essays and criticism, is a daunting one for this reviewer. This is not only because, on some level, I am still a young English major peeking from the hallway of Johnson Chapel into the rarefied office of the legendary professor, or because this legend has a fairly high chance of reading the review. There is also the further challenge of offering criticism of a collection of criticism that itself is often focused on criticisms by others. As Pritchard writes in his essay on the work of critic John Simon: “Any reviewer of a reviewer is in a slightly dubious spot, not quite sure whether the world stands in need of judgments twice removed from the original product.”
But the unifying ethos of Pritchard’s criticism is so singular that it warrants praise as a thing in itself, and not only as a function of how effectively it unpacks each instance of art that it examines. This is the work of a man wholly dedicated to the pedagogy, as much Amherstian as Socratic, that he himself has helped shape from his post at the college. Readily evident in the book (published by Impress) is his belief that the function of criticism isn’t to bludgeon the reader with abstruse erudition but rather to incite conversation or invite disagreement, to ignite the mind rather than declare the issue settled. The book’s jacket copy describes this approach, perhaps indelicately, as “pitched towards the informal,” but there is nothing informal about Pritchard’s attentiveness to his subjects; the informality is only in his belief that criticism should breathe with the same vitality as the art that it addresses.
An example: as it turns out, what’s been happening to Jane Austen is that she’s been suffering the abuses of over-reading, or over-intellectualization, at the hands of “specialists of this or that area of Austenwork,” who produce passages such as the following:
“In raising the specter of the antireal, particularly as a contestational mode where realism is concerned, I am not suggesting that probabilistic fiction maintains a referentiality independent of either contrivance or of the many complications that language, as an arbitrary and figurative apparatus, brings to any verbal act.”
At such silliness, Pritchard joins the reader in a hearty chuckle. Compare the purple example above with the manner in which Pritchard describes an unsatisfying novel by the Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul:
“Reading The Mimic Men is like trying to chew your way through an endless, flavorless loaf of bread. … ‘Dryness’ presumably in the service of a larger import; or so, it seems, Naipaul convinced himself.”
Perhaps the most interesting section of What’s Been Happpening to Jane Austen is the collection of Pritchard’s writings on John Updike, whose literary legacy is still battled over like the body of Patroclus. Pritchard, who penned a book-length appreciation of the writer, is, by Updike’s own admission, “a passable interpretation of … the Ideal Reader.” Updike and Pritchard kept up a lively correspondence in the slightly passive-aggressive manner of Men of Letters: Updike at one point informed Pritchard via letter that he had been wounded when Pritchard praised a “couple dozen” of his short stories rather than the “well more than a hundred” that Updike considered worthy. One feels prematurely nostalgic for what we will have lost, perhaps 50 years from now, when the only correspondence we have between our favorite writers will be their collected emails.
Mancusi’s writing has appeared in Newsweek, Newsday, American Arts Quarterly and elsewhere. He has a column on The Daily Beast and blogs at Galleyist.com.
Photo by Samuel Masinter ’04