Literary Criticism and Theory of Criticism

13 Sep 2023 20:30

Most of this, down to the horizontal rule, was written sometime around 1998 --- long enough ago I'd need to do a lot of work to determine exactly when. On re-reading it doesn't seem bad, exactly, but rather dated...

There are a great many books to read; there are many place to travel to. Travellers are often much better for advice --- where to go, where to avoid, what to know and what to do to get the most out of their trip. It is my humble opinion that works of literary criticism are the travel books of the written world --- sometimes guides (and it is, for instance, a rash traveller who visits Wallace Stevens without one), sometimes reportage, travelogues, impressions. This is, or can be, a worthwhile enterprise, but it does not sound like one which needs or would benefit from a vast and obscure body of theory, nor one whose successful practioners are likely to be able theorists.

What, then, accounts for the current deluge of theory of criticism, as opposed to criticism proper (and as opposed to critical theory, a different beast altogether)? I have no idea, but I feel licensed by the subject matter to speculate as to the causes.

  1. Disaffection. Mencken observed seventy or eighty years ago: "Every now and then, a sense of the futility of their daily endeavors falling suddenly upon them, the critics of Christendom turn to a somewhat sour and depressing consideration of the nature and objects of their own craft." This however merely backs things up one stage: why should critics feel that criticism is not enough, and practice it? Failing to practise criticism, why don't they give up and become actual novelists, poets, etc.? (Frank Lentricchia has finally taken this honorable course.)
  2. Vicious cycle. Suppose that, for whatever reason, theory of criticism came to be prized more highly than criticism itself. Then it would be to the benefit of fledgling literary scholars to turn to theory, and to continue to place a high value upon it. (This last is important, since the study of literature, at least in the West, is close to self-governing.) Selection can take it from there, though that is not a guarantee that the result will be sustainable. Obvious query: why should theory be more valued than criticism? Second obvious query: what are the coefficients of selection?
  3. Professional deformation. During this century, and especially since the Second World War, criticism, and literary culture generally, have migrated into academia in the most striking way. The qualities needed by a good critic --- "intelligence, toleration, wide information, genuine hospitality to ideas," to keep with Mencken --- are hard to inculcate in a lecture or seminar, and make very poor dissertation material. But theory of criticism, however appalling (perhaps especially if appalling) can be lectured on and debated endlessly and published. (And cited. Criticism of, say, Milton, is unlikely to be cited by anyone but other Milton scholars; but theory of criticism can be cited by other theorists and by critics.) Because they no longer need appeal to any public other than themselves, the usual concentration of mutants and anomalies found in small, in-bred populations may be expected.
  4. Physics Envy. Modesty forbids me to elaborate on this.
  5. Spirit of the Age. It has sometimes been claimed that "we" are now much more self-conscious and reflexive than our predecessors. This would seem to fit with critics preferring to theorize about criticism to criticizing, but the exact relationship is obscure. Would the general increase in self-consciousness explain the shift to theory, or would the shift be part of what is meant by the general increase in self-consciousness?

But at this point a doubt arises. Has higher-order writing grown faster than direct, first-order literature or its immediate, second-order criticism? I know of no statistics on this, so I made some very crude ones of my own, by counting the number of titles in the UW-Madison on-line catalog assigned to various Library of Congress call numbers. Books in the category PN, which are about literature in general, grew at 4.1 +- 0.2 percent between January 1950 and April 1998; the PS, PR and PZ categories, which roughly comprise literature in English (with some translations in PZ, and criticism in PS and PR) at only 2.9 +- 0.1 percent. By way of comparison, the QC category, which is (almost all of) physics grew at 4.8 +- 0.4, and the combination of PG, PQ and PT (literature in modern European languages other than English) at 3.9 +- 0.2. (The numbers are from a least-squares fit to a simple exponential curve, so the error bars should be taken with grains of salt.) The growth of non-English literature is probably mostly a change in our acquisition policy, but the difference between English literature and writing about literature is clearly statistically significant. Going from the number of books to the number of writers and so to something like relative fitnesses for different sorts of literary writers would, however, be pretty difficult. (Thanks to Jason Hsu for pointing out an unfortunate ambiguity of wording.)

An addendum from 2004

At some point I should use this space to record some thoughts about what a natural history of literature would look like, and how it would differ from hitherto-existing literary criticism; but really I should be working now, and you can probably figure out what I'd say from my contribution to the Valve's symposium on Moretti. At the same time, because I seem to have been unclear about this, I should emphasize that I don't think that sort of natural history is the only sort of literary scholarship, much less the only sort of literary criticism, worth pursuing.

See also Analogy and Metaphor; Books and Their History; Cognitive Science; Cultural Criticism; Epics and Oral Poetry; Fantasy; Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis; Intellectual Standards and Competence; Intellectuals; Linguistics; Modernity and All That; Mysteries; Myths; Narratives; Novels; Poetry, Poets; Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, etc.; the Romanticists; Rhetoric; Science Fiction; Semiotics; Structuralism; Universal signs, images and symbols