The one bright book of life

Once revered as a "great genius of our time", D H Lawrence has today become something of a national

The relations between literature, literary criticism and structures of belief have always been both fiery and dubious. I studied English literature at Cambridge in the heady days of Dr Leavis, who believed that D H Lawrence was "the great genius of our time", and that his novels "made for life" as opposed to "doing dirt" on it - as Djuna Barnes, Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, all admired by T S Eliot, did. Eliot needed religious belief. He said, "Our literature is a substitute for religion and so is our religion", a statement that explained much to my temperamentally agnostic undergraduate self. Lawrence wrote: "The novel is the one bright book of life", and Leavisite examiners set the quotation as an exam question, whilst their students went out into the world as teachers with the mission of connecting their pupils with life, and themselves, through literature.

The forms of the 19th- and 20th-century novel in English are deeply tied to their relation to the Christian religion and its semi-divine Book, with its human stories and prophetic poetry. James Joyce's Ulysses is a theological novel, coming out of a Catholic culture, playing with the idea of Father and Son, building hierarchies of interpretation. Lawrence comes out of Protestant exhortation and preachments. He said, and Leavis in The Great Tradition quoted: "Primarily I am a passionately religious man, and my novels must be written from the depth of my religious experience . . . you should see the religious, earnest, suffering man in me first, and then the flippant or common things after." As a student, I resisted his preaching, as I resisted attempts to cast me as a "Lawrentian woman". But the art - the ambitious shaping of The Rainbow and Women in Love, the ferocious precision of the poems - was exhilarating.

The trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover was one of the great comic moments in British culture, as the forces of righteousness - priests, professors, E M Forster and a token young woman - declared that Lawrence's "tenderness" was wholesome and holy. The one bright book of life was being solidified into a religious text, which would bring us liberation. We were all to be burned clean, like Constance Chatterley. Leavis complained, saying that the novel was not a very good novel, and the rhetoric was unjustified. But it went on to the syllabuses. I myself taught it to adults and art students. I said it was - like the rest of Lawrence's novels - an ambivalent beast, and that a novel, in this case often despite its author, is not a belief system but a story. "Never trust the teller, trust the tale" was another Lawrentian mantra, which came in handy.

What happened next was partly that Lawrence was attacked by Kate Millett - and other feminists - for doing dirt on women. She had a case, and a good case, which needed to be made precisely because Lawrence had become a kind of literary-critical Holy Book. But her attacks have to be seen in a context where literary criticism, and the teaching of literature, became a belief system, and indeed a societal structure almost independent of books and what was or is in them. A kind of moral fervour, accompanied by a glorying in their own power, led critics to cleanse the canon, to hunt out little snakes of sexism, racism, cultural assumptions of superiority, aestheticism, and destroy them. People got on to the syllabuses because they were virtuous and promoted sane and socially desirable values. George Steiner made the wise and necessary distinction between a canon - what the writers of books have thought it necessary to read and preserve - and a syllabus - what teachers think it is good for people to read, which includes the reading procedures they must use.

At this point I want to introduce the work of Gary Adelman, who teaches English at the University of Illinois, has written on Dostoevsky as well as Lawrence, and has a prophetic tone of his own about the teaching of literature. He has just published a book, Reclaiming D H Lawrence, with the sub-heading Contemporary Writers Speak Out (foreword by Sandra M Gilbert; Associated University Presses, £30). This book contains three things - a description of the near-disappearance of Lawrence from syllabuses in the United States; an account, with quotations from student responses, of his attempts to teach Lawrence to the undergraduates of the late 1990s; and a series of responses he received from writers in both the US and Britain, to whom he wrote asking for their present feelings and opinions about Lawrence. I was one of the hundred or so writers he approached, and I am particularly interested in his project because as a writer, reader and ex-teacher, I am curious about the shifting relations between writing, criticism and academe.

Adelman's students were overwhelmingly hostile to Lawrence, and seemed to feel that they should not have been required to spend time on him. Several felt a kind of visceral loathing. They wrote things like: "Feeling trapped in his crazy, created little world. His works affect you like a virus, a poison challenging everything you ever believed. He's anti-democracy, anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-conventional marriage, and antisocial, anti-religious."

Or "I hate him for his overt sexism, his cynical view of love and heterosexual relationships, his fascination with incestuous language and immature flirtation with homoeroticism, the constant vexation and negativity present in all of his works."

These are interesting because they demonstrate two facets of modern academic life - the certainty that the reader is there to sit in judgement, and equipped to do so, and the equally strong certainty that the personal response will inevitably lead to true judgement. A slightly different, more theoretical objection lays out the belief system behind the rejection:

"Who wants a relentless forcing of personal ideology and a multitude of obsessions thrust on them? Deconstruction, Marxist and gender theory are all invested heavily in questioning textual authority. The current English major is trained to dig as deeply as possible into a text to find anything that suggests social implications, and Lawrence's views on women, class, race and homosexuality are blatantly sexist, fascist, racist and homophobic. So it is completely unrealistic to expect anything other than general hostility towards Lawrence."

The writers who responded to Adelman's questions varied in their sense of Lawrence's current importance to them - most were prepared to concede that his preaching and hectoring could be "silly or sinister" (my own phrase) but most also recognised the quality of his mastery of language, at his best, of the power of his sentences. They had in common a curiosity about shapes, an awareness of the nature of ambivalence and ambiguity, and a sense of the need for historical imagination in approaching Lawrence's world, which the students seemed not to have at all. I myself felt, reading the student on questioning textual authority, that the literary-critical pieties about subversiveness and authenticity of the Sixties had been formalised into a manageable belief system which had its own thought police. This particular student was a representative of it.

What has disappeared is the sense that literature is exacting, diverse, and difficult to read or to describe. I remember reading I A Richards's Practical Criticism, in which he exposed a group of students (which included my mother) to a selection of poems, the names of whose authors he withheld. What stuck in my mind was his discussion of the "stock responses" - usually sentimental - which prevented the students from seeing what a poem was really doing, from picking up unusual uses of words, or ironies, or qualifications of thought or mood. (One of his best examples was Lawrence's "Piano".)

Richards's work was done when the study of English literature, as apart from philology or classical literature, had barely begun in the universities. I loved reading him because I felt that his analysis of reading was also a way into learning to write, a way of knowing what the language was capable of, its subtlety, its variety, its polymorphy, its resourcefulness. Leavis could do that - his examples of well and badly written sentences were compelling - and you could take or leave the preachments that went with them. I think literary criticism has now moved so far in the direction of making judgements, and teaching formal "critical" skills which are almost always morally loaded, that this process of innocent, attentive reading has been lost.

I used to believe that before you wrote an essay on a writer, you should have read most of what they wrote, you should know how the paragraphs or verses and the emphases differed over the oeuvre. You should suspend judgement for as long as possible. You should saturate yourself in a writer's written world, and the written world out of which it grew. I always quoted to myself Coleridge's saying: "Until you understand a writer's ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding." Now, I think, student time is spent on acquiring professional skills and theories, with the inevitable result that they simply haven't read enough writing to get the necessary feel for it. They have a new, knowing kind of stock response.

It is odd that I find, when I now talk to friends who teach literature - or indeed to those who try to write it - that the one thing they are never reading is literary criticism. They tend to be reading books of science, or lately of history, since history rediscovered narrative. And a gulf has developed between the academic study of literature and the writers who, ironically, are now studied while alive, as they would not have been in any previous generation. I think it has been quite good for the writers. They write again for a general reader, they tell stories, they make up their own rules and their own canon, or discover them through reading. But in my gloomier moments I really do think the students have been unfitted for reading books with the necessary curiosity and openness.

And D H Lawrence? I tried reading him again before writing this, and found myself irritated again by his insistent sawing noise, his making a point over and over - which he described in terms of sexual repeated rubbing leading to orgasm, but which is also preacherly pulpit-thumping. Gary Adelman points out that his writers all concur that Sons and Lovers is a masterpiece, and so it is - but it is, as Leavis says, a conventional masterpiece, "with the kind of 'character creation' and psychology that the conventional cultivated reader immediately appreciates". (One of the effects of the impenetrability of academic criticism is an increased simple demand for these conventional virtues from all fiction reviewers in the ordinary press.)

The poems sing and glitter. But what Lawrence means to me is the formal ambition - which is a vision of life - of The Rainbow and Women in Love. He had much less grip on the total texture of his text than the authors of Ulysses and The Waves. But the possibilities opened by his idea of unsettling the "old stable ego of the character", of making a verbal object which explored not separated coal or diamond but the substructure of carbon, are still endlessly exciting and in some ways more liberating. He saw that a novel could have both characters and story, and also "some other rhythmic form, as when one draws a fiddle-bow across a fine tray delicately sanded, the sand takes lines unknown". He learned from George Eliot, who had orchestrated the social, spiritual, chemical, physical and intellectual world of her novels into a whole in which her people walked and felt and thought and lived and died. He wound suns and moons and primary colours, rainbows and corn and cats and rabbits into a recognisable Midlands world of fields, coal mines and shifting class relations. (As a girl, I thought he didn't understand the social limits of being born working class - how could Ursula and Gudrun have made the acquaintances they did? Now I see that he was interested in fluidity as much as stasis in this field also.) He was a maker - a word I used romantically in those student days, and am almost embarrassed by, now. But that is what he was, and is, whether he is studied or not.

A S Byatt's most recent novel is A Whistling Woman (Chatto & Windus)