The Uses of Literature
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Rita Felski is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and Chair of Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia, and an Associate Editor of New Literary History. She is the author of Beyond Feminist Aesthetics, The Gender of Modernity, Doing Time: Feminist Theoryand Postmodern Culture, and Literature After Feminism. She is also editor of Rethinking Tragedy.


Acknowledgments vi

Introduction 1

1 Recognition 23

2 Enchantment 51

3 Knowledge 77

4 Shock 105

Conclusion 132

Notes 136

Index 146


"Together, Felski’s four short essays on recognition, enchantment, knowledge and shock leave me refreshed, invigorated, and willing to engage with my own reading responses both more critically and more charitably. She does achieve her aim, which is to get 'a better handle on how and why we read.'” (Academic Matters, January 2009)

"Felski finds that it is the structural elitism of the literary critics that has given theory its bad name … .Felski wants to find an 'ordinary' theory of literature and culture that would replace these hermeneutics of suspicion. Her strategy is to outline a theory of literature based on four modes of human interaction—recognition, enchantment, knowledge and shock. She devotes a chapter to each, marshalling a wide range of texts to illustrate her approach ... .The one on 'recognition is convincing'.. .Felski's manifesto is timely." (Times Higher Education Supplement, August 2008)

“Felski proposes a pragmatic approach to reading literature. Opposing the exclusive focus on otherness in contemporary literary theory, she offers a correction by balancing otherness with the acknowledgment of the presence of the self in reading literature.” (Choice Reviews, December 2008)

"A spirited defense of literature, full of ideas which promise to prove invigorating for the future development of literary theory. … An inspired discussion." (Journal of Literary Theory, 2008)

“For decades now, the picture of how we read held by literary theorists and that held by everyday common readers have been galaxies apart. But in this lucid, readable, and highly persuasive book, Rita Felski demonstrates the impossible: that recent literary theorists and common readers not only have something to say to each other, but actually need one another.”
–Gerald Graff, Professor of English and Education and 2008 President, Modern Language Association

“With literature and reading losing their appeal to young people by the year, this manifesto is all the more worthy and timely … People are moved by a novel, play, poem. That's what keeps literature alive and makes it important. Why does it happen? Uses of Literature explains it, restoring notions discredited in literary study but central to the experience of reading … Such a return to basics is just what our fading disciplines need if liberal education is to thrive.”
–Mark Bauerlein, Emory University

“As I would expect from a scholar of this calibre, the quality of thought is very high. What came as an unexpected pleasure was the quality of the writing – which is to say, the directness and clarity, the elegance and wit … I am convinced of the value of her [book] as a whole – that is, to ‘build better bridges’ between literary theory and common knowledge. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
–Gail McDonald, University of Southampton

Uses of Literature is a lively, sophisticated polemic about literary criticism and literary theorists … Extraordinarily well-written, intellectually expansive, [drawing] on a wide range of canonical and popular literature and film to illustrate Felski’s compelling account of literary value. And as a teacher, I found her individual chapters to be brimming with possibilities for the classroom, focusing, as they do, on the important heterogeneity of reading experiences.”
–Janet Lyon, Pennsylvania State University