In the 1960s, literary theory boasted the death of the author. But it was the critic who really died. Who killed him?by David Herman / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Whatever happened to literary criticism? Twenty years ago it seemed vibrant, full of excitement. It was where the intellectual energy was. Now, in the words of Martin Amis, it feels “dead and gone.”
In The War Against Clich?, Amis recalls how in the early 1970s, he read literary criticism “all the time, in the tub, on the tube; I always had about me my Edmund Wilson-or my William Empson. I took it seriously. We all did.” Now, reading Amis’s collection of essays and reviews, you will find hardly any references to literary critics, and almost all of these are from over 20 years ago. Amis’s lack of interest is typical. And the contrast with historical writing is revealing. This year, as Simon Schama signs a contract for two more television series, as Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw receives a knighthood and Antony Beevor’s history of Berlin in 1945 tops the bestseller’s lists, who is reading literary criticism?
It is not only history that is thriving. Science and philosophy are selling well. On the third floor of the biggest Waterstone’s in Britain is a table called “essentials.” On two recent visits, I found it piled high with science books by Stephen Jay Gould and Susan Greenfield; paperbacks by philosophers like Simon Blackburn and AC Grayling. But I found no literary criticism. It is FR Leavis’s worst nightmare.
Worse still, once I got to the literary criticism shelves, Leavis’s work wasn’t there. Nor were any books by Raymond Williams or George Steiner. It’s not as if they have been replaced by an exciting new generation. It feels more like the end of an era.
Of course, some kinds of literary criticism are still being published. Traditional scholarship continues to generate monographs on Jane Austen and Henry Fielding, critical introductions to the Romantics, scholarly editions of Shakespeare. It persists, useful to students and specialists, but passes most of us by. There is also plenty of critical writing by non-academics for the general reader. People want to read literary essays by Martin Amis, AS Byatt or James Fenton, many of which are published in broadsheet newspapers or small magazines. Accessible and interesting, this is part of the general cultural conversation.
However, it doesn’t amount to a critical culture. This year sees the publication of new works by the two best-known British literary critics. These are substantial books on big subjects: Terry Eagleton on tragedy;…