How do literary works move us and why? In Uses of Literature, Rita Felski proposed a taxonomy to describe this engagement and how certain texts may trigger recognition, absorption or disorientation. Any attempt to classify our affective response to particular literary works is hugely difficult and beyond the reach of objective observation. However, what Uses of Literature opens up is a way of seeing and reading that intensifies the wonder not only of literature but of how it transforms the world around a reader.
What I particularly like about Uses of Literature is that Felski takes Jane Bennett’s idea that secularism does not mean an end to enchantment, and gives a convincing argument about how literary theory should develop as a result.
Felski’s latest book The Limits of Critique is addressed to an academic audience, developing her argument that it is about time that the teaching of interpretive modes address similar concerns, without throwing away entirely the depth hermeneutics that is at the heart of contemporary scholarship. Despite its audience, The Limits of Critique, is clear, lucid and makes a perfect companion to Uses of Literature. Both are invaluable catalysts to thinking what affinities are shared by the works of literature you value as transformative, and what that says about your society, culture and you.
I can make out many shared characteristics in the literature that generates the strongest affective response in me: an enigmatic quality usually captured in depthless, allusive prose and linguistic intricacy; a tautness of style that distrusts metaphor and simile over concrete nouns and adjectives; a voice whose doubt and indecision allows me to feel included in the thought process; a recognition that fiction and non-fiction are, at the level of narrative, just fictive constructs and both products of human perception; and resistance to notions of completeness, finality and absolute truth.