Adam Gopnik, 23 May 1996
The Scandal of Pleasure has all a good teacher’s virtues: enthusiasm, a contagious love of books and learning, and the ability to hold up three or four dissonant ideas for tender inspection even if a couple of them are obviously cracked (‘Well, what does the rest of the class think of Marcie’s description of the relationship between Beth and Marmee as “murderously Oedipal”? Anyone disagree?’). The book’s faults are a good teacher’s faults, too: the belief that a lively digression is as worthwhile as a conclusive argument; a tendency to confuse energy with lucidity; a desire to please, or at least not offend, as many people as possible; and the belief that citing a lot of instances is the same thing as covering a lot of ground. Steiner wants to let a hundred flowers bloom in the American academy at a moment when the amateur reader, on the evidence of her own book, may have the feeling that the weeds are taking over the garden. This is a shame, because the points she makes in The Scandal of Pleasure seem not just right, but indisputable: books and pictures are not newspaper leaders and shouldn’t be treated as if they were; good stories can sometimes teach bad morals; bad people can often write good books. Her ideas are all reasonable. They just aren’t very closely reasoned. Worse, the unreality of contemporary literary theory, to which by a déformation professionelle she seems unduly respectful, forces her to make elaborate and unreal arguments for what ought to be obvious truths. It is always good to hear sane common sense being spoken about books and readers, but it is depressing to see a prominent academic having to twist herself into rhetorical knots in order to get it said.