'A Little History of Literature' Is Pleasantly Conversational Rather Than Authoritative

by Jon Morris

1 November 2013

To deny the value of literature requires a willful ignorance of almost heroic proportions, and this is a welcome reminder of the role it has played in our lives, and of its indubitable destiny to continue to do so.
cover art

A Little History of Literature

John Sutherland

(Yale University Press)
US: Nov 2013

Lately, it seems as though literature has come under assault from all sides. American public schools, for example, had already managed to reduce the canon to the object of fact-finding missions for standardized tests even before the new Common Core virtually eliminated fiction in favor of non-fiction texts with readily-discernible data. As for our universities, many humanities departments teach “theory” as opposed to literature, and some professors have gone out of their way to suggest that literature has little or no intrinsic moral value (e.g., Gregory Currie’s New York Times article, “Does Great Literature Make Us Better?”).

Yet, to deny the value of literature requires a willful ignorance of almost heroic proportions, and John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature is a welcome reminder of the role it has played in our lives, and of its indubitable destiny to continue to do so.

In true Aristotelian style, Sutherland starts at the beginning, with a discussion on myths and their function in helping us make sense of our world. He then follows with chapters on epic and tragedy before moving on to the “English Tales” of Chaucer. There are some 40 chapters in the book, all of which are fewer than ten pages. This makes for fast reading that never gets bogged down or loses focus, though of course some details are necessarily lost along the way, and others are left unexplained. For example, in his chapter on magical realism, Sutherland makes no mention of Franz Roh, who coined the term, or of some of its earliest European authors, such as the Italian writer Massimo Bontempelli; instead, Sutherland privileges those most frequently associated with the genre today—Günter Grass, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie.

Sutherland’s methodology is chronological and descriptive, so over the course of a couple of chapters he charts the rise of the novel, distinguishing it from the “proto-novels” that preceded it, but he never satisfactorily explains the differences between the two beyond their chronology. More confusingly, Shakespeare is said to have written 37 plays at one point in the book, and 39 in another. Arguments could be made for both numbers, but in the absence of any commentary, the reader is liable to believe the number a mistake rather than the product of a long-standing debate.

With the possible exception of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, the lack of detail in Sutherland’s history is not a criticism, but merely an expression of its limitations. Sutherland is writing for an intelligent general reader, not for academics or specialists, and this is what makes his book such a well-paced read. Moreover, by way of compensation, some chapters are not what one might expect: there is a chapter on “Literature and Race”, and another that ruminates on the relationship between literature, film, TV and theater. There is a delightful chapter on the development of children’s literature titled “Under the Blankets”, and another dedicated to “America and the American Voice”. Sutherland is a British author, and it’s worth pointing out that, despite a chapter subtitled “Literature without Borders”, his history is primarily a history of the western canon.

Throughout A Little History of Literature Sutherland prefers to ask questions rather than answer them, which makes for a conversational rather than authoritative tone. Similarly, his chapters on copyright and literary prizes are informative rather than polemical, though he somewhat provocatively suggests that one reason for the “current obsession with prizes is impatience. As George Orwell observed, the only real judge of whether a work of literature is any good or not is time”.

That said, scattered about the book are his own answers to why literature matters, which are partially (though not entirely) summed up in the last chapter, “Literature in Your Lifetime ... and Beyond”. There we are told: “This book has explored how, taken in its totality, literature is something communal: a dialogue with minds greater than our own; entertainingly-clothed ideas about how we should live our lives; a debate about our world, where it is going and where it should go. This kind of meeting of minds, enabled by literature, is central to our existence now.”

Sadly, this sort of dialogue or debate is precisely what is precluded by standardized testing and data-driven instruction, as Sutherland helpfully points out, though in another context: “Imagine a classroom,” he says, “of thirty students tackling an algebra equation. However difficult the sum there will be one correct answer. Imagine, however, an English lesson being asked ‘What is Hamlet, the play, about?’ There should be a whole range of answers, from ‘The best way to appoint a king’, to ‘In what circumstances is suicide a proper decision?’ It would be a disaster if every member of the class simply parroted what someone else had said or thought”. The so-called correct answer.

Sutherland’s book should appeal to a wide audience and will make a great gift for the bibliophiles we all know. Here in the USA, let’s hope that some of them are on our local boards of education.

A Little History of Literature


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