Contexts of Reception

Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History

Harvard University Press, 272pp, £31.95, ISBN 9780674967731

reviewed by Daniel Green

Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History is a book with a provocative premise addressing an important subject that ultimately does justice to neither. North contends that academic literary study has settled into a stagnant and unavailing practice that aligns it entirely with ‘scholarship’ at the expense of ‘criticism’. Further, the putative goal of this scholarship in a by now thoroughly politicised discipline – to act as a counterforce against the dominant neoliberal ideologies – is one that scholarship in its current form is actually unable to meet. Indeed, North maintains that the historicist/cultural studies approach that now dominates academic literary scholarship (to the virtual exclusion of nearly everything else) arises from and reinforces the neoliberal status quo and that only a return to criticism, with its greater attention to the aesthetic nature of literature, can in fact reorient academic literary study in such a way that it might have the capacity to ‘intervene’ and effect real political and cultural change.

Unfortunately, North’s argument, as conveyed through his attenuated institutional history (the title of the book is misleading, since it offers a history of the shifting fashions in academic literary study, not a history – political or otherwise – of literary criticism per se) does little to clarify the stakes involved in distinguishing between criticism and scholarship, to explain exactly what North has in mind in his use of the term ‘aesthetic’ to identify the literary value currently absent in the dominant mode of literary scholarship, or what its presence would add. Nor does he specify how the ‘close reading’ he advocates would differ from the versions that in his account helped lead to the banishment of aesthetic criticism from the realm of literary study in the first place. Finally, North offers virtually no defence of the fundamental assumption of the book that literary study as an academic discipline has as an ultimate justification its role in achieving political transformation, in creating a more just world order. These flaws ought to be palpable to readers devoted to the ‘historicist/contextualist paradigm’, but those of us inclined to agree with North’s premise even before reading his book should be even more disappointed that he fails to make a case for the need to intervene in academic literary study to restore literary criticism to something like its formerly more central place.

It is possible, of course, to believe in the centrality of what North is calling ‘criticism’ and not to care much whether it has a place in the academic study of literature at all, at least when such study is formally consolidated in an actual academic system. Criticism predates its inclusion in university curricula, and it will endure long after college professors have given up entirely on the notion that their interest lies in what was, after all, designated as ‘literature’ not that long ago – largely for the purpose of gathering together otherwise disparate forms of writing for ‘study’ in the first place. If criticism understood as the attempt to describe and assess a literary work in order to grasp and ‘appreciate’ it as ‘literary’ is no longer much evident in the academy, it continues to be practiced in publications associated with the general literary culture – it could be argued, in fact, that it is flourishing online in a way that itself begins to return to criticism some of the credibility it initially gained from its ascension to academic status but subsequently lost when its ‘subjectivity’ was deemed too insubstantial to support a properly academic discipline devoted to the creation of ‘knowledge’. If the sort of criticism whose primary purpose is to measure the strengths and weaknesses of a literary work on its own terms, to register the critic’s informed but inevitably unhistoricised response, is not welcome in academe, that aesthetic sensibility and critical judgment continue to be cultivated by serious-minded writers about literature seems apparent enough in the range of critics featured in these publications, many of them writers clearly impatient with the pervasive expectation that mainstream academic journals will almost exclusively feature scholarship (according to North’s delineation of the term).

North is certainly correct that ‘academic criticism’ in the strictest sense is now literally absent from literary study at the highest levels. North contends that criticism was discredited not because of its inherent unsuitability to academic study but through its appropriation by the wrong sort of people, the sort who wanted to convert it into a convenient means for elevating their own tastes and in the process reducing criticism to a tool for determining the relative ‘greatness’ of writers and works of literature. This betrayal was performed by the New Critics (the great collective bête noire in accounts usually given by those eager to hasten the transition to the post-criticism era) in sympathetic concert with FR Leavis, who together took the strategy of close reading introduced by IA Richards and wrenched it out of the context in which the latter had developed it, thereby rendering it as the method of choice for the most conservative and elitist forces in the academic hierarchy. This is a very familiar story, retold by North in the usual condescending way, differing only in that he exempts Richards from blame, maintaining that his notion of ‘practical criticism’ was intended to ground the study of literature not in an autonomous text but in the full context of the reader’s cultural position. ‘Before anything,’ North writes,

Practical Criticism is an attempt to examine as precisely as possible the actual relationships existing between works of literature and their most important context: their readers. Once we have put aside the idea that Richards is an early New Critic, we can begin to see that he is concerned everywhere to put the text into some productive relationship to its context of reception.’

It is entirely defensible to argue that Richards has never really been accurately identified as a New Critic, although his initial example in focusing close attention on the effects of a work (specifically poems) was a real enough influence on critics such as Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom. However, Richards’s approach is more appropriately understood in its correspondences with the philosophy of art advanced by John Dewey, which is similarly experiential and focused on the pragmatic – what is meaningful in works of literature is to be found in the reader’s encounter with the text, not the latter’s abstraction into an autonomous aesthetic object. Although North champions Richards as the potential source of renewal in contemporary literary study, it seems unlikely that Richards himself would have much approved of North’s use of his example to advocate for literary study as a site of political transformation. Richards believed that close reading could reveal cultural and psychological forces that should occupy the critic’s attention, but he hardly thought this attention would best be concentrated on narrowly conceived political interests. Richards’s own interest in the aesthetic extends to its effect on the reader’s whole sensibility (culturally-inflected, of course), and while he does not, as Dewey does, emphasise the particular qualities of the experience itself, Richards is surely not so instrumentalist that he regards the aesthetic quality of literature to be valuable primarily because it might help to subvert global capitalism.

That this should be the object of academic literary study is an axiom embraced by the current establishment that North does not relinquish, despite his analysis of the shortcomings of the present scholarly paradigm. Indeed, North spends much time throughout the book reassuring scholarly readers that he is a dedicated foe of neoliberalism, trying to convince those readers that a renewed commitment to the aesthetic is actually the better strategy for overturning the neoliberal order. It might be possible to imagine a generation of readers more intensively educated in the close reading of literature as way of becoming more appreciative of its values, coming to realise that those promoted by market capitalism are in contrast shallow and destructive, that instrumental ambitions are not the only kind possible, but this would ultimately entail that these very readers also reject the underlying assumption that Joseph North himself clings to in this book about the role of literary study, since it too in its current incarnation (which North wants to modify, not abolish) understands its ostensible subject, literature, in strictly instrumental, utilitarian terms.

In fairness to North, perhaps it is this immersion in the ‘humane’ qualities of literature that he has in mind as the source of literary study’s potential to bring social and cultural reform. However, if so, North never really clearly identifies the mechanism by which social or political action is a necessary consequence of a curriculum of literary study with aesthetic analysis at its core. Most of the book is taken up with an institutional anatomy, tracing the ascendance of the historicist/cultural studies model back to Raymond Williams, whom North credits with justifying the shift from criticism to scholarship, and examining several scholars who, originally scholars of the knowledge-producing sort, began to struggle against the totalising dominion of the new scholarly model. They sought to escape it, if not back to the discredited modes of moral and formalist criticism associated with Leavis and the New Critics, then toward some different relationship with literature that acknowledges the possibility of relating to it as other than a conduit for cultural analysis. In North’s judgment, none of these attempts (by, among others, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Isobel Armstrong, and Lauren Berlant) managed to fully depart from the reigning paradigm (but, then again, neither does Joseph North), and so the task remains to find the means to finally do so.

Whether academic literary study manages to regain its focus on literature considered as literary art, separate from or in addition to its utility as a window on culture, is finally not a very interesting question in itself. As North additionally points out, academic criticism has evolved as a series of shifts from one favoured method to another, united only by the conviction that the latest is the one true way to study literature. This is not likely to change even if aesthetics retakes the field and a new cohort of close readers emerges. That both aesthetics and close reading might remain relevant concerns to readers and critics is of more consequence, however much the original relocation of ‘criticism’ to a home in the academy joined the two in a seemingly permanent association, so that whatever falls out of academic fashion must accordingly be disavowed more generally. Joseph North objects to the New Critics because of their reactionary politics and their elevation of favourite writers to the status of unquestioned greatness. But there is nothing about the kind of close reading introduced by the New Critics that necessarily entails right-wing politics, nor requires the creation of an imperious canon of great writers. ‘New Criticism’ can’t be revived under that name – its reputation is no doubt inextricably tied to its founding figures, who did indeed distort the underlying precepts of close reading in ways that made the principle of ‘disinterestedness’ seem transparently hypocritical – but North’s book most usefully demonstrates, through the very contortions by which it seeks to identify an approach to literary study that allows for attention to ‘literature itself’ but that is also politically acceptable, the extent to which the loss of focus on literature as first of all an object of aesthetic regard has itself left academic literary study floundering in its own self-imposed futility.
Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of online and print publications. His book on contemporary literary critics and criticism will appear in December, published by Cow Eye Press.