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Literary Criticism and Theory of Criticism

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 tocritical 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 andpublished. (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.)
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.
    Recommended:
  • Aristotle, Poetics
  • Marissa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon, Psychonarratology: Foundations for the Empirical Study of Literary Response[Experimental cognitive psychology applied to analyzing questions of narrative theory and response to literature. This is brilliant; why doesn't everyone know about it?]
  • Brophy, Levey and Osborne, Fifty Works of English (and American) Literature We Could Do Without [Amusing, even if you don't agree with all their choices.]
  • Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form
  • A. S. Byatt, Passions of the Mind
  • Steven Cassedy, Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory [Online. --- It's not relevant to his argument, but, contrary to what he says on p. 137, the integers are not a group under multiplication (merely a monoid). Otherwise I can't detect any errors of fact.]
  • Frederick Crews
    • The Critics Bear It Away: American Fiction and the Academy ["The New Americanists" and "Whose American Renaissance?" are on-line]
    • The Pooh Perplex
    • Postmodern Pooh
    • Skeptical Engagements
    • Out of My System: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Critical Method
  • John M. Ellis, The Theory of Literary Criticism: A Logical Analysis [An extremely appealing account by somebody who actually knows something about logic, methodology, etc., and cares about literature. In particular, he's convinced me that literature consists of those texts which people use in a certain way, and while some propertiesof those texts make them more or less well-suited to that role, it's the usage that's defining, not the properties. I'm less completely convinced he's correctly characterized that usage, and much of the rest of his argument rests on that. But he actually argues rigorously from his definitions!]
  • E. D. Hirsch, The Aims of Interpretation [An essay collection from 1976, picked up because I like his books oneducation and it was on sale for $2. There's a lot of sensible and valuable stuff in here, which is shockingly still relevant. (His sociological predictions about what it would take to displace New Criticism, for instance, were dead on.) But his neo-neo-Kantian arguments about how, if objects of cognition are to be "shared", we must be able to assume the same mental set, seem to me to be vulnerable on two grounds. (I am thinking about Chapters 3 and 6 particularly here.) First, as every Perl hacker knows, when it comes to information processing There's More Than One Way To Do It, with different antecedents, consequences and side-effects. Second, why should we think that any mental objects are shared, in that very strong and frankly rather mysterious sense? Wouldn't it be enough, to account for our empirical social life, if we just have highly similar mental objects, which would in any event accord better with what we know about learning? (See, e.g., Turner's Social Theory of Practices and Sperber's Explaining Culture.) That said, I think his arguments could be reformulated in less Kantian ways, to much the same effect. --- I don't know how his focus on reconstructing the author's meaning accomodates multi-author documents.]
  • John Holbo, “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Theory for Life” [PDF]
  • Frank Lentriccha, “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic”, Lingua Franca, Sept.–Oct. 1996 [Now reprinted in the Lingua Franca anthology, Quick Studies]
  • John Leonard [Literary editor for The Nation. Reading his essays makes me sick with envy and despair, but I can't help myself, because they're so ridiculously well-done.]
    • This Pen for Hire [Reviews from when he worked for the New York Times, which either cramped his style a bit or before he really found it]
    • The Last Innocent White Man in America and Other Writings [The mature style begins here, it seems]
    • Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television and Other American Cultures
    • When the Kissing Had to Stop: Cult Studs, Khmer NewtsLangley SpooksTechno-Geeks, Video Drones, Author Gods, Serial Killers, Vampire Media, Alien Sperm-SuckersSatanic Therapists, and Those of Us Who Hold a Left-Wing Grudge in the Post Toasties New World Hip-Hop
    • Lonesome Rangers: Homeless Minds, Promised Lands, Fugitive Cultures
  • John Livingston Lewes, The Road to Xanadu
  • Carol Lloyd, I Was Michel Foucault’s Love Slave
  • H. L. Mencken, “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism”
  • Franco Moretti [Struggling towards a naturalistic, evolutionary theory of literature --- a "materialist sociology of literary forms," as he says. I think his efforts in this direction are entirely laudable, but, at least in the books below, he's still too much given to type-thinking (as opposed to population thinking), to psychoanalysis, and to teleology. --- Graphs, Maps, Trees, published 2005, collects three recent articles from New Left Review, and largely corrects these deviations from proper materialist thinking, though he is, in places, excessively tactful towards those who still are in the thrall of error.]
    • Atlas of the European Novel, 1800–1900 [Review: One Effort More, Litterateurs, if You Would Be Empiricists!]
    • Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History [Discussed at great length in my weblog.]
    • Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to Garcia Marquez
    • Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays on the Sociology of Literary Forms
    • “The Slaughterhouse of Literature”, Modern Language Quarterly 61 (2000): 207–227
  • Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading [Pound is frustrating, because he has some interesting and insightful things to say, mixed from page to page --- even from sentence to sentence --- with rubbish. Fortunately, here the rubbish (about, e.g., the nature of Chinese characters) is entertaining, and his fascism is not on display in this book.]
    • Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment
    • Principles of Literary Criticism
    • Science and Poetry
  • Alan Richardson, Literature, Cognition and the Brain — includes a very useful annotated bibliography
  • Levin L. Schücking, The Sociology of Literary Taste [The specific examples are both German and dated; but with a little search-and-replace it becomes universal.]
  • Herbert Simon, “Literary Criticism: A Cognitive Approach,” Stanford Humanities Review, 1994 [My discussion, with links]
  • René Wellek, Concepts of Criticism [Paper collection. The attempts at periodization are especially interesting, though ultimately they leave me unpersuaded that one can identify dominant clusters of ideas in the way Wellek proposes. Similarly, the attack on "evolutionism" only convinces me of the awful lack of understanding of evolution among Wellek's literary-theoretical predecessors.]
  • René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature [Sensible and acute, but they give a hopelessly circular definition of the function and value of literature.]
    To read:
  • M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition.
  • Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature
  • Bakhtin
  • Mark Bauerlein, Literary Criticism: An Autopsy [Recommended, without comment, by John Holbo. I've only read the introduction so far, and it inspires very mixed feelings --- I alternate, sometimes within a single sentence, between "right on!", "this needs saying?" and "that's just wrong". Also, I cannot determine if Bauerlein gets his underlying epistemology from Althusser, or a certain strand of American pragmatism...]
  • Michael Bérubé [Has a nice blog, and some very agreeable essays, so I feel like reading his actual work.]
    • The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies
    • Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics
    • What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?
  • Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction
  • A. S. Byatt, On Histories and Stories
  • David Carroll, French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Antisemitism, and the Ideology of Culture [I had a copy of this very interesting book, but it was destroyed by the post office.]
  • John Carey, What Good are the Arts? [Sounds interesting, to judge by this Review by David Lodge]
  • Antoine Compagnon, Literature, Theory, and Common Sense [Blurb]
  • John Constable
  • Peter Dear (ed.), The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument: Historical Studies
  • Mark Edmundson, Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida: A Defense of Poetry
  • John M. Ellis, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities
  • Raplh Ellison, Shadow and Act
  • Empson
    • Seven Types of Ambiguity
    • Some Versions of Pastoral
  • Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode
  • Donald Freeman, Cognitive Metaphor and Literary Theory: Towards the New Philology
  • Girard, Fiction and Diction
  • John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation
  • Giles Gunn, The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture
  • Stephen Halliwell, Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems
  • Geoffrey G. Harpham, Shadows of Ethics: Criticism and the Just Society
  • E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation
  • Jerry R. Hobbs, Literature and Cognition [Fulltext as a free PDF. Large, because it's scanned images, rather than electronically-set text. But very cool!]
  • Patrick Colm Hogan, Empire and Poetic Voice: Cognitive and Cultural Studies of Literary Tradition and Colonialism
  • Norman N. Holland, The Brain of Robert Frost: A Cognitive Approach to Literature
  • Irving Howe
    • A Critic’s Notebook
    • Politics and the Novel
    • Selected Writings, 1950–1990
  • Stanley Edgar Hyman
    • The Armed Vision
    • The Tangled Bank
  • Charles Kaplan, The Overwrought Urn: A Potpourri of Parodies of Critics Who Triumphantly Present the RealMeaning of Authors from Jane Austen to J. D. Salinger
  • Klaus Krippendorff, “Measuring the Reliability of Qualitative Text Analysis Data”, Quality and Quantity 38 (2004): 787–800 [Abstract: "This paper reports a new tool for assessing the reliability of text interpretations.... It responds to a combination of two challenges, the problem of assessing the reliability of multiple interpretations ... and the problem of identifying units of analysis within a continuum of text and similar representations... A computational example is included in the Appendix." Obviously, this is working at a much lower level of interpretation than is common in literary criticism, but getting reliable results here is both non-trivial, as readers of Richards's Practical Criticism should know, and crucial to getting sensible higher-level interpretations.]
  • Paisley Livingston, Literary Knowledge: Humanistic Inquiry and the Philosophy of Science
  • Deidre Shauna Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning
  • Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction [Blurb]
  • Franco Moretti [NLR = New Left Review]
    • “Conjectures on World Literature”, NLR 1 (2000): 54–68 [online]
    • “More Conjectures”, NLR 20 (2003): 73–81 [online]
    • “Markets of the Mind”, NLR 5 (2003): 111–115
    • “MoMA 2000: The Capitulation”, NLR 4 (2000): 98–102
    • “New York Times Obituaries”, NLR 2 (2000): 104–108
    • “Planet Hollywood”, NLR 9 (2001): 90–101
    • The Way of the World
  • Franco Moretti (ed.), The Novel [Multi-volume survey: five volumes in the Italian original, but we're only getting a two-volume selection in English translation. Blurb and samples for volume 1for volume 2]
  • William Paulson, Literary Culture in a World Transformed: A Future for the Humanities
  • John Press, The Chequer’d Shade: Reflections on Obscurity in Poetry
  • Kenneth Quinn, How Literature Works [modest, ain't he?]
  • Phil Roberts, How Poetry Works [ditto]
  • William Elford Rogers, Interpreting Interpretation: Textual Hermeneutics as an Ascetic Discipline
  • Shawn James Rosenheim, The Cryptographic Imagination
  • Horst Ruthorf, Pandora and Occam: On the Limits of Language and Literature
  • Edward Said, Orientalism
  • Gordon E. Slethaug, Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction
  • George Steiner [James Wood's marvellous polemic against Steiner, "Toppling the Monument" (Prospect, no. 14, December 1996) is sadly no longer available on-line. But it's dead on.]
    • No Passion Spent
    • Errata: An Examined Life
  • Peter Steiner, Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics
  • Peter Stockwell
    • Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction
    • The Poetics of Science Fiction
  • Robert Storey, Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation
  • Peter Swirski, Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations of Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge
  • Tzvetan Todorov, Literature and Its Theorists
  • Mark Turner
    • The Literary Mind
    • Reading Minds
  • René Wellek, Discriminations
  • Edmund Wilson
    • Classics and Commercials
    • A Piece of My Mind
    • The American Earthquake: A Chronicle of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the Dawn of the New Deal
  • Martha Woodmansee, The Author, Art and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics
  • Virginia Woolf
    • The Common Reader
    • The Second Common Reader

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