May 11, 2010

Reading pathologies

Certain writers seem to always attract the wrong kind of attention -- the kind of attention that devalues their work and turns them into personalities, celebrities. They get this sort of following that isn't an appreciation of their work, per se, but an identification with a lifestyle. Which is fine, I guess, or, anyway, is what it is.

What is a problem is when critics and scholars seem so taken by the person (which is really a persona) or biography that they cannot comment on the work except as a way to shed light on the life. The artist as celebrity, and nothing more. There's this psychological reductionism -- only ever, it seems, done by amateur psychologists -- and really sloppy readings and loose, unfettered engagement with every imaginable fallacy.

And this, also, is what it is, and maybe it just has to be accepted as a fact of the world we live in, but it really is maddening when it's not just a fan, a reader, or a reviewer, not just someone who's conservatism doesn't actually allow for contemporary literary criticism, but someone who really ought to know better.

Exhibit A -- I was reading secondary work on Philip K. Dick, the other day, and came across Samuel J. Umland actually defending fallacious readings, arguing that the literary critics who came up with the fallacies were involved in grand, Dick-novel-like conspiracies. He cites William H. Epstein, and then says,

"the origin of the alleged critical 'fallacies' known as the 'biographical fallacy' as well as the 'persona fallacy' in the late 1940s and 1950s by literary scholars who were to become CIA employees ... allow[ed] the critics to authorize a critical interpretation by taking on an 'assumed identity.'"

On the one hand this is absurd -- they did what? why? -- and entirely ad hominen, but also, so what? The fallacies are still fallacies, and treating Dick's work only as evidence of his own, private pathologies is still a bad way to read.