Rosemary Sutcliff’s work was never, to my knowledge, the object of Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s attention. But books written with her close and careful attention to language deserve the “close reading” and “close analysis of language” of which Eagleton speaks in a recent interview, connected with his new book Why Marx was Right. (I used to read avidly and closely, without I fear ever wholly understanding, his marvellous primer Literary Theory, from 1983).
I’ve got a book coming out called something banal like How To Study Literature because I fear that literary criticism, at least as I knew it and was taught it, is almost as dead on its feet as clog dancing. That is to say, all of the things that I would have been taught at Cambridge—close analysis of language, responsiveness to literary form, a sense of moral seriousness—all of which could have negative corollaries… I just don’t see that any more.
Somewhere along the line that sensitivity to language which I value enormously got lost. I didn’t really know about this because I had moved up in the echelons of academia and I wasn’t close enough to the undergraduate ground as it were to be aware of this. But when I got to Manchester [Eagleton began teaching at the University of Manchester in 2001], I was appalled by the way that people could be very smart about the context of a poem, but had no idea about how to talk about it as a poem. Whereas even if one did that badly or indifferently, it was still something one automatically did, in my day. This book coming out next year is really an attempt to put literary criticism as I see it back on the agenda. And to talk about questions of things like value, what’s good, what’s bad, form, theme, language, imagery, and so on.