In “A Criticism of Life”, the first essay of his spirited, pugnacious and sometimes disagreeable collection In Defence of T.S. Eliot, Craig Raine presents a rousing and convincing case for literature as an act of “measured consideration” that provides “focus, sharpness, magnification [and] intensification” to reality. Like other critics, such as Martin Amis in The War Against Cliché, this leads him to put great emphasis on style: the precision and the power of words.
I think that such critics are often too admiring of too little. One of my bugbears is their enthusiasm for a certain kind of metaphor: that which tells us that one object looks like another object. In the preface to his aforementioned book of criticism, for example, Amis refers to “the twin tepees of his flared trousers”. “Nice,” said one reviewer, and it is a cute comparison. Enough to make one smile. But does it focus, sharpen, magnify or intensify our perceptions of life? Well, no. It tells us nothing new about flared trousers, and we didn’t need to know much about flared trousers to begin with.
This isn’t Amis’s fault. It wasn’t meant to be profound insight and certainly enhances an average sentence. But in his book Raine is enamoured of this stuff. He says, in the worst example, that “few writers note things better than Nicholson Baker” and offers as proof his reference to his baby’s vulva as her “captivating little coffee bean”. Again, the comparison is counterintuitive, and there is pleasing alliteration, but does it look like a coffee bean, is “little” not redundant and, more significantly, what does such a comparison add to our pleasure, our knowledge or our imagination? Only that two dissimilar things look a little alike. If am going to tune in to a man’s most intimate observations of his baby daughter I want a bit more than that. Literature should enrich our perceptions. It should not merely add to them.