How Literature Moves Us and Why

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.

10 thoughts on “How Literature Moves Us and Why

  1. I’m going to ask very non-PC questions and I’m voluntarily provocative: what does it bring you to know that? Why do we have to “classify our affective response to particular literary works”
    Isn’t it the beauty of the experience not to know?

    • Hi Emma,

      Thanks for the provocation. Non-PC or any questions are wonderful. It’s why I continue to blog and why I also consider abandoning the project. Even if I can see a post getting 150-200 viewings, I’d rather a single viewer with a comment or question.

      There is no necessity to unpick how and why we are moved by works of art, and perhaps in doing so you are lessening the affective response. That hasn’t been my experience, but it might be account for why the range of art that does affect me is growing narrower. I like to think I grow more discerning, but maybe it’s a dulling of the senses.

      A three part answer:

      1. It depends on how we ‘use’ literature. For me, literature is a transformative medium. I want to read books that change, even slightly, how I see and even act in the world. Understanding why a book has evoked a particular reaction within me, whether enchantment, disorientation, anger, sadness or any other emotional response, helps me to understand something of myself and the world.

      2. All literary reactions are subjective and intensely personal. Comparing notes on books (or any other art form) together, conversationally, on blogs or Twitter, opens us up to experiences that might be enlightening. Reading your thoughts on Philip Roth for instance might either help me to better understand my aversion to many of his works and in doing so learn something about myself.

      3. On a much broader note I am fascinated by literature’s cultural role in shaping how we perceive the world around us, how it shapes and even changes other disciplines. Understanding my response to literary narrative is deeply implicated in understanding my relation to Others and trying to build a meaningful life. Trying to create some sort of meaning in this absurd world that we find ourselves in for a few moments is irresistible and necessary, but a bit like dismantling a watch to fully appreciate its style, method and aesthetic appeal, may well look unnecessary and downright bizarre to someone else.

      Does that make any sense?

      • Thanks for the answer.

        Yes, it makes sense and I agree with your two first points. That’s what I’m trying to do and that’s why I write billets about books I didn’t like or couldn’t finish. It’s interesting to think about books one didn’t like.

        I’m just not much into bringing a book down to pieces to unravel how it was constructed and all that. Two many bad school memories, I guess. (There are interesting thoughts about interpretation of books in Exit Ghost by Philip Roth, by the way. 🙂 He says that the writer’s death opens the door to any fantasy explanations about his work and he’s not even there to defend himself.)

        On the third point, maybe I’m pessimistic, but I’m not sure that books still have a major cultural impact nowadays, unless they are turned into Hollywood blockbusters.
        What I find fascinating is what the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey or Hunger Game tells about Western societies.

        • I’m also fascinated by how a book is structured, how it achieves its affective response – how is it that fictional characters elicit an emotional response? It fascinates me endlessly.

          I disagree with Roth’s position on authorship. A writer is no closer to possessing the truth of a work of literature than any reader. All response can be is personal and highly subjective. The writer as reader is just another reader.

          My feeling is that books (and films) have both a direct and visible response, but also a deeper, less obvious one in shaping what happens in universities and therefore shaping a generation of people lucky enough to take part in the full range of educational experiences, who then proceed to help define a culture and a society.

          Quite agree about those films. That we are again fascinated by dystopian futures, as we were in the Cold War, suggests a lot about people’s pessimism for the future.

  2. “The writer as reader is just another reader.” That’s a way to see it and it makes sense. But then, the person who gives an interpretation of a book, especially if they’re a teacher, should have the honesty to acknowledge that it’s just an interpretation and that it’s not The Truth.

    I didn’t study literature past high school so I don’t know how influencial university teachers can be. I’m still pessimistic because the people who have economical and political power don’t study literature, at least not in France. They go to scientific schools, business schools or ENA (the school for high rank civil servants & a reservoir for politicians) Literature is not high on the priority list.

    True about dystopian futures. (I can recommend two good ones: Jennifer Government and Company, both by Max Barry) As a feminist, I’m appalled by Fifty Shades of Grey. And as a litterature lover, I don’t even get how someone with such a poor writing style managed to be published.

    • “But then, the person who gives an interpretation of a book, especially if they’re a teacher, should have the honesty to acknowledge that it’s just an interpretation and that it’s not The Truth.” There is no absolute truth, especially in interpretation.

      “I’m still pessimistic because the people who have economical and political power don’t study literature, at least not in France.” But they are indirectly affected by people who are influenced by the study of literature, philosophy and critique. I accept that Sarkozy may be an aberration 🙂

      Fifty Shades is dross, but so is the majority of what gets published in any western nation. The business of literature is different from the few publications that matter. Commodification leaves nothing untouched, literature is no exception.

  3. “a tautness of style that distrusts metaphor and simile over concrete nouns and adjectives”

    So are you against these tropes in general? (What makes them worthy of distrust? Does a “tautness of style” automatically disfavor the figural?)
    Do they not, in some way, add to that “enigmatic quality” you desire? or make more intricate the “linguistic intricacies” you like?

    *thanks for bring Felski to my attn.

    • Thanks for the question, tj. These are not value judgments, but I spent time thinking of the works that illicit the greatest affective response (in me). I’ve nothing against those specific tropes when used judiciously and with brilliance, examples of such are rare. Too many works are ruined by their clunky use, and I loathe the sense of being manipulated by a writer. Of course, all writers attempt to manipulate a reader but I don’t like to feel my strings being pulled too hard. I don’t necessarily see a taut style disfavouring the figural, within the bounds of what I’ve said above.

      My pleasure bringing Felski to your attention. Her work deserves to be better known.

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