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
Published in December 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 It’s not as if they have been replaced by an exciting new generation.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; David Lodge on consciousness and fiction. Yet, in a curious way, they only confirm a sense that something has gone wrong with literary criticism.
Lodge’s book of essays, Consciousness and the Novel, is dedicated to Malcolm Bradbury who, together with Lodge, did so much to domesticate the literary theory coming from the continent in the 1970s and 1980s. Immediately, Lodge tells us how he has lost interest in theory, and his book has almost no references to continental critics. In fact, there are few references to literary critics of any kind. And the same is true of Eagleton, the other main populariser of literary theory in Britain. His reflections on tragedy, Sweet Violence, has just as little time for most major critics, bar a handful of Marxists. The first chapter is about the failure of contemporary criticism to deal with the subject of tragedy. And when, in the final chapter, Eagleton writes movingly of Edgar and Lear on the heath, stripped of their rank, it echoes a sense that Eagleton himself has cast off his former critical identities-Catholic, Marxist, theoretical, Irish-to stand on his own, battling with one of the great literary traditions. You feel he has come to a crossroads.
This sense of a turning point in Lodge and Eagleton is symptomatic of literary criticism as a whole. During “the age of criticism,” from the 1920s to the 1970s, English emerged as a formal university discipline, with a core canon of great writers and an accepted method-a mixture of close reading and moral purpose. The criticism which grew up with this new subject took up a place at the heart of British culture; it was discussed in the Sunday papers and around dinner party tables. “For a few years,” Bernard Bergonzi wrote of the period, “there was a climate in both England and America in which literary criticism could make claims for intellectual centrality.” Now, like the books by Leavis and Williams in Waterstone’s, this “centrality” has vanished.
It is 70 years since FR Leavis founded Scrutiny, which he edited from 1932-53. These years coincided with a golden age of literary criticism: IA Richards’ Practical Criticism (1929), Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), TS Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), Leavis’s The Great Tradition (1948), Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1951) and Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1958). All these books were published in paperback, reached a general audience and were, in differing ways, hugely influential. They laid down the canon and created a new way of writing about literature, quite different from the amateur belle-lettrism that had gone before. In an August 2000 article in the Times Literary Supplement entitled “How the critic came to be king,” the intellectual historian Stefan Collini wrote, “by the 1950s, the imperial drive of criticism had become almost commonplace. ‘English’ paraded its claims to be considered a kind of presiding discipline in the increasingly specialised universities, and the literary critic figured as the very model of the modern general intellectual.” This was a time, wrote Malcolm Bradbury, when “literary studies were the essential human subject; more profound than politics, more specific than philosophy, more moral than religion.” English, wrote Leavis in Education and the Universities in 1948, was “the chief of the humanities.”
In Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society, the section on the 20th century is almost entirely about writers and critics, with chapters on Lawrence, Eliot, Leavis and Orwell. Culture, for Williams writing in the 1950s did not mean an economist such as Keynes, anthropologists like Rivers and Malinowski, scientists like Bronowski and Polanyi, or philosophers like Berlin and Ayer (all absent from Culture and Society). Then, Williams’s idea of culture was primarily literary.
Eliot died in 1965. Trilling, Leavis and IA Richards in the 1970s. But the age of criticism did not end then, for two reasons. First, the expansion of further education in Britain meant that more people than ever were reading critics like Leavis and Williams. The Great Tradition was reissued in paperback in 1972, and reprinted twice in the mid-1970s. Culture and Society was reprinted five times in the decade between 1966-1976. In the winter of discontent you could go to Cambridge and listen to Raymond Williams, Stephen Heath, Frank Kermode, Christopher Ricks and George Steiner. The only place like it in the English-speaking world was Yale, where the literature professors included Geoffrey Hartman, Fredric Jameson, Harold Bloom and Paul de Man.
Second, “theory” took Britain and America by storm. Most of the key texts of the “theory revolution” were written in Paris during, or just after, the 1960s. There was Louis Althusser’s Reading Capital (1965), Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1965) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference (both 1967) and Roland Barthes’s S/Z (1970). Eight books by Derrida were published in America between 1976-82. At NYU there was barely standing room to hear Foucault in the early 1980s. At Columbia University, in New York, Edward Said had just published Orientalism. Much of this work marked a dramatic break from the critical ideas of Leavis’s generation, but the schism created by theory merely intensified the energy infusing literary discourse. “English Literature” became a way of talking about psychoanalysis, Marxism, colonialism, anthropology and continental philosophy.
That is why mainstream culture in the form of Newsnight, Channel Four and The Times dipped its toe into literary criticism in the 1980s. In America, the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s came largely out of literature departments. In Britain, Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge and Howard Jacobson all wrote popular, knowing novels about critics and the conference circuit.
The 1960s and early 1970s also saw the re-discovery of seminal works by critics from revolutionary Russia, Italy and Weimar Germany. Into the 1980s, much criticism was still driven by a sense of historical drama and cultural crisis. Now, that drama has gone. The afterglow of 1960s radicalism became increasingly confined to the universities, cut off from larger social movements. In 1968, Roland Barthes, for many years the best-known of the French literary theorists, spoke of “the death of the author.” Thirty years on, it looks more like the death of the critic.
What happened? Many of the key figures died, some prematurely. Barthes, Lacan, de Man, Foucault and Williams all died in the 1980s. A series of scandals also undermined the authority of theory. In 1987, the New York Times revealed that Paul de Man had written articles for a pro-Nazi paper in wartime Belgium. More recently, Alan Sokal wrote an article about how a leading critical journal had been tricked into publishing a piece of nonsense which he had submitted in parody of the fashionable terminology of the day. In 1999, Commentary published a long and damaging article documenting how Edward Said had distorted his life-history to make it seem that he had spent more time in Palestine during his childhood than he actually had.
This may have set campus photocopiers whirring, but to the outside world it had become small beer. Academic critics had long retreated into arcane jargon. Open at random a collection of essays called Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, and you will find prose of this sort: “In this essay I shall pursue the notion of identity as process: in fact, as a series of processes, which A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man joins in a ‘brisure.’ Brisure, which I borrow from Derrida, encompasses the ambiguities of ‘cleaving’ in the sense of splitting, and ‘cleaving’ in the sense of joining or embracing. So in translation let’s enflesh brisure by calling it a ‘cleavage.'” But jargon isn’t the only problem. Even beyond the small world of literary theory, there has been a larger failure to tell stories or write great prose. How many of today’s literary critics have written anything comparable to the chapter on 17th-century Amsterdam in Simon Schama’s book on Rembrandt or Roy Porter’s evocation of 1950s London?
And beyond the corruption of style is the far bigger problem of what literary critics write about. Go back to Leavis, Steiner and Williams. A maverick, a European Jew, a lifelong Marxist-all three spent much of their lives on the margins of academe. An astonishing number of the great critics of the mid and late-20th century were outsiders. Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, Georg Lukacs, Queenie Leavis and Lionel Trilling were all Jews, most of them from central Europe. De Man, Said and Eliot were exiles. Williams, Jameson, Barrell, Eagleton, Lukacs and Goldmann were Marxists. These were people for whom national literatures and identities were a problem, not a given, raising serious questions about what has been left out. Much of Said’s work is about how the best-known images of the middle east were created by westerners. Williams’s The Country and the City is about the way the realities of rural and urban life came to be mystified and idealised in English literature. Steiner’s Language and Silence and In Bluebeard’s Castle raised questions about silences surrounding the Holocaust in postwar European culture. Issues of class, race, genocide and memory gave tremendous energy to much literary and cultural criticism in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Judging by book sales, readers still want to engage with the world. But not through theory and jargon. Biography has never sold better. “Big history” has produced Schama on 1789, Figes on 1917, Beevor on 1945. Case histories from psychoanalysis (Adam Phillips) or neuroscience (Oliver Sacks, Paul Broks) have created a new genre. There are big audiences for science writers who tackle our minds and bodies (Steven Rose, Susan Greenfield, Steve Jones), and the universe beyond (Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees).
However, literary criticism, especially in Britain, has shrunk-to Lacan’s version of “French Freudianism,” highbrow feminism, queer theory, deconstruction. In America, criticism has continued to feel somewhat more relevant because the “culture wars” are still fought out within it. Big names like Said, Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West have lent heat to questions of race and post-colonialism. But in Britain, while the decline of literary criticism highlights a particular crisis in academia, it also belongs to a larger set of cultural changes. The first is a loss of interest in literature itself. This sounds absurd. Fiction is in demand, from Amis and McEwan to Pullman and JK Rowling. But behind the tower blocks of contemporary fiction at Waterstone’s and Borders there is a massive loss of interest in pre-20th century literature. How many people today read Chaucer or Pope? Who talks about Defoe or Browning? At Roy Porter’s memorial service, it was said that he owned half a dozen copies of Tristram Shandy. He had probably read them all. How many people now could claim to have read it once since university? How many of those reading Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass with their children have read Paradise Lost or Blake since the sixth form? How many readers of Flaubert’s Parrot have read Madame Bovary?
There is a break in our culture. Our literary past looks remote, even incomprehensible. Most of us don’t know the Bible, can’t read Latin or Greek, don’t know our ancient history or classical mythology. The kind of criticism which deals with pre-1960s literature is out of step with the larger culture. The best literary critics understand and enjoy the references and echoes most of us miss. By insisting on the value of what is sometimes difficult, by reminding an amnesiac culture of once resonant references, they are still doing something valuable, and largely unappreciated.
As a discipline being formed in the 1920s and 1930s, English literature was in many ways defined in opposition to the facile and popular. It is not a coincidence that 20th-century literary criticism emerged at the same time as the paperback, mass media and mass culture. Allen Lane founded Penguin in 1935, the year before Leavis published Revaluation. Literary criticism became a way of talking about values which were felt to be threatened by what Leavis called a “technologico-Benthamite civilisation.” To be a critic was to be on the side of complexity. There was a war going on-between literature and “life” on the one hand, and commercialism and philistinism on the other.
The core audience for literary criticism comprised students, schoolteachers, autodidacts. Without this sense of a minority culture on the defensive, it is impossible to understand the ferocity of the “two cultures” debate. What Leavis, Williams, the “new critics” and 1970s Yale graduate students all had in common was summed up in 1982 by the critic Ren? Wellek: “There is a gulf between a minority culture and the mass culture which more and more deserts the written word in favour of television, computers, video-games and spectator sports. It is the duty and the task of the professor to resist this trend.”
Such oppositions no longer trouble us in the same way. Who would now share Leavis’s contempt for science and technology? It’s not just that science books are popular. There is a larger sense that the sciences, in the form of computers and genetic knowledge, are changing our world for the better. CP Snow has won; Leavis’s hostility seems strange and antique. The same is true of Leavis and Williams’s struggle against Americanisation. In the age of ER, Dreamworks and Nike, that battle too is lost. Most people reading Andrew Billen’s article on the golden age of American television drama (Prospect, August 2002) would have had no problem with his references to Steven Bochco or The West Wing. The lines between high culture and popular culture, once so clearly demarcated, have since become notoriously blurred. The political force behind literary criticism has also been eroded. Communism or Marxism, once espoused by critics from Lukacs and Goldmann to Williams and Eagleton, has been vanquished. Capitalism has won. Few mourned its triumph in 1989 as eloquently as George Steiner, who saw the fall of the Berlin wall as the moment when the last bastion of state-subsidised high culture would fall to McWorld.
There is a final context which has sped the decline of literary criticism in Britain. This is the crisis of Englishness itself. It is no coincidence that studying “English” has long meant studying English literature. The recent debate about opening the Booker Prize to US writers is part of a deeper confusion about the relation between English writing and writing in English. With American culture dominating, with relations to Europe growing ever-closer, with the creation of a multicultural society, our sense of what England is has changed profoundly.
The age of criticism of Leavis, LC Knights et al was part of a movement to create an English literary tradition which ran from Beowulf and Gawain to Shakespeare and Milton and onto Woolf, Eliot and 20th century modernism. Words like “tradition” and “community” echo through mid-20th century literary criticism. But the England that Leavis grew up in no longer exists. And if those ideas of England and Englishness no longer exist, what does that do to a literary criticism grounded in English literature?
The decline of literary criticism is not something we should celebrate. It is part of a larger story. What does it mean for a society to see the values of Leavis, Williams and Steiner so completely overthrown? We need, more than ever, a strong and popular criticism, free of jargon, addressing major issues of our past, our culture and our identity.