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This article is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.

Rotton Reconstruction Nicolas Tredell

Reconstructing Literature, edited by Laurence Lerner (Blackwell) £15.00

In The Times Higher Education Supplement earlier this year, I urged 'more effective resistance' to the bid by a radical caucus to dictate the future of literature studies in England. Reconstructing Literature is clearly - despite Lerner's feeble equivocations in his Introduction - an attempt at resistance, but it is hardly effective: on the contrary: it plays into the hands of the opposition. That 'seminar of radical students' invoked by Lerner could, I imagine, spend an enjoyable two hours demolishing this book; they may feel, however, that they have better things to do.

Lerner, quoting a correspondent's deprecation of the 'dismissive contempt' of new ideas in literature studies in England, says: 'Well, we [in this volume] can all I hope claim to have avoided that'. But that is precisely what has not been avoided: all too often, Reconstructing Literature adopts a patronizing, condescending tone. This is most evident in Cedric Watts' contributions: that he appears twice in this collection suggests the difficulty Lerner must have had in recruiting top-rank contributors. Watts is like a middle-order, minor counties batsman who has suddenly, astonishingly, been called up to play for England: the effect, inevitably, is comic and pitiful by turns. If he had simply tried to keep his wicket, we might forgive and forget: but he attempts, in his first essay, to hit sixes off every ball. Now, his main opponent is Barthes, and Barthes is not only a ...

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