Literary Criticism

The place of criticism: A wider view

What has emerged from this discussion of the reform of English Literature at A-level is that the tension between the specialist discipline of English and the private act of reading is still ongoing. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this tension took two easily distinguishable forms: the intellectual authority that was used to underwrite the new literary scholarship was resisted by critics both inside and outside the universities, while the rhetoric that was used to sustain the importance of more ‘personal’ forms of criticism clashed with the emerging norms of academic practice. As discussed in Chapter 1, the paradigm of academic professionalisation sketched by T. W. Heyck suggests that at some point, this tension would be reconciled: that the philosophies and techniques of the amateur would eventually be superseded by the institutional authority of the professional. Yet contemporary debates about the nature and value of literary criticism suggest that specialist knowledge about literature is still the subject of suspicion. What such debates often involve is a resistance to the knowledge of the ‘expert’, and an assertion of the value of ‘amateur’ experiences of reading, which are seen as more authentic and direct.

They are also fuelled by a belief in the importance of social utility and personal affect, arguing that in becoming more specialised, literary study loses its capacity to be relevant, meaningful and influential. The non-specialist reader is seen as engaging with the text in a manner that is not hindered or distorted by any extraneous detail: the academic, on the other hand, ‘murders to dissect’. This dismissal of specialist knowledge can be seen as part of a more widespread erosion of academic authority, or as evidence of a pervasive anti-intellectualism. Yet such claims need to be balanced against the fact that other disciplines have not suffered from the same kind of mistrust. History and the sciences have recently undergone a huge popularisation at the hands of writers such as Simon Schama, Anthony Beevor, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins: Alain de Botton is starting to provide the same service for philosophy, and David Crystal, Bill Bryson and Simon Winchester have published highly accessible works on the English language, all aimed at the general reader.

While not all of these writers are professional academics, what their works share is a focus on a body of knowledge that is beyond common experience, and which needs to be acquired before any further exploration of the subject can take place. The function of these authors is to provide their readers with such a body of knowledge, which is then used to elucidate ideas that are seen as valuable and worthwhile: the building of nations; genetics and evolution; human communication; and the ‘meaning of life’. Moreover, for many readers, such texts will provide their only encounter with the academic field in question: they will not have the opportunity to explore historical documents or carry out laboratory based research. In contrast, literary texts can be read and understood without any apparent necessity for the secondary material of criticism and scholarship. While literature can, of course, be mediated to its audience in the same way as history and science, the need for this to take place is much less obvious. Martin Amis sees this process in terms of literature’s greater accessibility, as ‘words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life: we all have a competence ’.

73 And the relationship between the reader and the book is popularly seen as much more personal than encounters with other areas of knowledge, having a validity that exists independently of any kind of academic debate. As a result, the work of the literary scholar seems much less relevant to the public at large. This mistrust of scholarship has become a common theme in popular discussions of literary criticism, which frequently depict university departments of English as engaged in an activity that is out of touch with the ways in which books are read – and enjoyed – by the population at large. In a review of Martin Amis’s collection The War against Cliché, the journalist Natasha Walter claimed that academic literary criticism is dead, for the simple reason that ‘outside the academic world, no one is interested’.

For Walter, criticism in the universities has been reduced to mere ‘intellectual buffoonery’, characterised by ‘a febrile kind of fascination’ with deconstruction, feminism and other branches of literary theory. Such fields of knowledge, so Walter argues, are futile, as literary criticism is nothing more than a matter of personal opinion, a kind of ‘shadow boxing’ whose subjectivity means that it has no real target: in the end, ‘there just isn’t any final way to say a book is good except to point to it and to say, read it’.74 Walter’s thesis is, of course, highly reductive, defining criticism as a simple process of evaluation and presenting a very narrow view of the kind of critical and scholarly activity that takes place in universities. It is also flawed in its treatment of Amis’s argument, which offers a markedly different reason for the death of academic criticism. For Walter, such criticism is irrelevant because of its narrow institutional basis: it renders the discussion of literature deliberately theoretical, anti-humanist and obfuscatory. In contrast, Amis blames the decline of criticism on a pervasive democratisation of society that militates against the exaltation of literature through criticism and the canon, seeing as negative the same free play of personal opinion that Walter embraces. In the univer- sities, Amis claims, this democratisation has led to a proliferation of critical approaches and the undermining of the traditional canon, bringing about a situation in which academic advancement ‘will not come from a respectful study of Wordsworth’s poetics; it will come from a chal- lenging study of his politics – his attitude to the poor, say, or his uncon- scious “valorization” of Napoleon; and it will come still faster if you ignore Wordsworth and elevate some (justly) neglected contemporary, by which process the canon may be quietly and steadily sapped’.

In a wider sense, it is epitomised by Amis’s paraphrase of Gore Vidal’s belief that ‘nobody’s feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else’s’. In other words, everyone has the capacity to be a liter- ary critic – especially if criticism is, as in Walter’s argument, little more than a matter of opinion, an individual encounter with the text that Amis sees as taking place ‘without any reference to the thing behind […] talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature’.75 In another review of Amis’s book, Lawrence Rainey has taken the author to task for his ‘recycling [of] anti-intellectual clichés about academic critics’.76 Such a charge could, of course, be brought against Walter as well; and there is certainly a hint of reductio ad absurdum about Walter’s listing of representative critical topics and Amis’s comments about academic preferment. Nevertheless, both Amis and Walter are writing as journalists, outside the boundaries of academic practice and with varying degrees of opposition to it. Perhaps more significantly, such sentiments are also a common feature of Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why and John Carey’s Pure Pleasure, both written by professors of English (at New York and Oxford, respectively: Bloom is also Professor of Humanities at Princeton) and both aiming to act as a guide to literature for non-specialist readers. It is certainly important that Bloom’s first instruction to his readers, Samuel Johnson’s ‘Clear your mind of cant’, is given an explicitly anti-academic spin: ‘Your dictionary will tell you that cant in this sense is speech overflowing with pious platitudes, the peculiar vocabulary of a sect or coven.

Since the universities have empowered such covens as “gender and sexuality” and “multiculturalism,” Johnson’s admonition thus becomes “Clear your mind of academic cant.”’77 Particular scorn is directed at a university culture ‘where the appreciation of Victorian women’s underwear replaces the appreciation of Charles Dickens and Robert Browning’,78 and at the critical phantoms that Bloom sees as needing to be exorcised: ‘One such phantom is the Death of the Author; another is the assertion that the self is a fiction; yet another is the opinion that literary and dramatic characters are so many marks upon a page.’79 It is clear that for Bloom, such ‘phantoms’ represent a corruption of literature’s primary humanist purpose, a sustaining and consolatory process that ‘retains considerable continuity with the past, however [reading] is performed in the academies’.80 Similarly, Carey states his aim as being the cultivation of ‘pure reading- pleasure’, a criterion ignored by ‘the lists of “great books” concocted by panels of experts and published from time to time in the literary press’.

81 Carey is less vehement than Bloom in his opposition of academic practices, but the suspicion with which he treats the concept of ‘great books’ and his disparagement of the views of ‘experts’, make his intention to champion his own version of the ‘common reader’ quite plain. Both Bloom and Carey espouse a view of reading that is essentially humanist, based on what Bloom describes as a ‘solitary praxis’ that is markedly different to the kinds of reading which takes place in institu- tional contexts.82 Bloom’s vision of reading is of a force that can ‘strengthen the self, and [help us] to learn its authentic interests’, making it ‘the most healing of pleasures’.83 For Carey, reading is valuable because it ‘admits you to an inner space which, though virtually boundless, is inaccessible to the multitudes milling around’. In addition, it draws on an imaginative power that is intrinsically linked to ‘the ability to empa- thize with other people’.84 It is not surprising, therefore, that both authors draw attention to what they see as the timelessness of their chosen texts, drawing on a normalising use of pronouns to suggest a common, univocal response that transcends individual and cultural differences. Thus Bloom tells his readers, magisterially, that ‘there are parts of yourself you will not know fully until you know, as well as you can, Don Quixote that which is generated by academic analysis.

The apparent irrelevance of academic literary study to the reading public is highlighted by John Sutherland’s observation that while an academic monograph on Dickens may sell as few as four hundred copies, Dickens’s novels enjoy annual sales of over two million copies.90 Sutherland, who was Professor of English Literature at University College London until 2004, has himself capitalised on the renewed public interest in ‘classic’ texts through his investigations of literary mysteries, collected under such titles as Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Will Jane Eyre Be Happy? Such texts share Carey and Bloom’s unaca- demic stance and aim to appeal to the ‘ordinary’ readers of the ‘classics’ who are the contemporary equivalent of Woolf’s ‘common reader’: 

Such readers do not, I suspect, much worry about Deconstruction, New Historicism, or the distinction between extradiegesis and intradiegesis. But they do wonder, in their close-reading way, whether Becky killed Jos, exactly what nationality Melmotte is, what the ‘missile’ is that Arabella Donn pitches at Jude Fawley’s head, what Heathcliff does in the three years which see him leave Wuthering Heights a stable-boy and return a gentleman, and what Paul Emanuel does in his three years’ sojourn in Guadaloupe.
The publishing company Penguin, meanwhile, has responded to this public interest in the nineteenth-century novel by re-marketing certain texts in its ‘Penguin Classics’ series, issuing them without scholarly apparatus and with redesigned covers in an attempt to appeal to readers who might find the notes and introductions of the standard editions off-putting. The ‘blurbs’ of these new issues are designed to highlight plot, character and drama, and carry recommendations by contemporary actors, writers and journalists: Beryl Bainbridge’s comment on Jane Eyre, for instance, is ‘They don’t write them like this any more’.92 In pointing to the difference between the concerns of the academic and those of the ‘ordinary’ reader, Sutherland also highlights the parti- cularly contested nature of the term ‘literary criticism’. Within universities, literary criticism and literary scholarship take a number of different forms and philosophies, sometimes contradictory and often conflicting. Nevertheless, Sutherland’s mystery-solving and Carey and Bloom’s humanist explorations of reading would not – by their authors’ own admission – be considered ‘academic’ ways of looking at literature. Even so, the fact that literary texts continue to be read and discussed outside academic departments of English means that the term ‘literary criticism’ also encompasses, in a wider sense, the activities and methods of inquiry promoted by Sutherland, Carey and Bloom, and by the more straight- forward expression of personal taste and engagement hinted at by Natasha Walter, and facilitated through reading groups, websites and other forums for discussion.

The spectrum of activities covered by this more generalist definition of ‘literary criticism’ is therefore much broader – and requires much less specialist knowledge – than the activities encompassed by other academic disciplines. Martin Amis’s comment that where words are concerned, ‘we all have a competence’ therefore echoes the statement of Professor Mayo of Cambridge that the study of literature required little skill beyond the basic literacy that was learned in the nursery. Just over a century ago, the belief that literary criticism did not rest on any kind of specialist knowledge was used to argue against its institutionalisation in the universities. Today, it lies behind the designation of professional critics and scholars as ‘book snobs’, ‘intellectual buffoons’ and purveyors of ‘academic cant’ who seek only to deny ‘common readers’ a right to their opinion and enjoyment.93 The recent reform of A-level English literature has shown that the status of English within education is still dominated by the same arguments that circulated at the time of its entry into the universities: on the one hand, a desire to give English disciplinary status by grounding it in a recognisable body of scholarship; and on the other, a denial that English needs such a grounding, claiming that all it requires is a text and a sensitive reader. Literary study continues to find itself pulled between different conceptions of intellectual authority: the knowledge it produces and the purpose it is meant to serve are still the subject of debate.

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