Blog Post

What is literary criticism, and why would anyone want to write or read it?

You know what kids need these days? Discipline. And heroes. And I am going to try to give them some of both.

Next year, I decided—agreed? I really shouldn’t overstress my agency in the scheduling process—to teach a course for mostly second-year students called Critical Approaches to Literature. It is a very stupid title for a course. I did not make it up. But the title will generate an initial lecture about why it is a stupid name, so that’s good. I have always been implacably hostile to the term “approach”: “approach” is what airplanes do before they land, not what literary critics do. Literary critics read (very slowly), and part of that reading is trying to figure out what reading means and what is getting read. An “approach” has already decided those questions: there is an object, and we approach it. That said, this course is often imagined as a standard intro to literary theory, and many people teach it as an introduction to various critical schools (marxism, feminism, deconstruction, etc). That is surely a reasonable way to go about such an introductory course. But truth be told, I’m not very good at teaching intro to anything. I get too stuck on little details (I am very fond of doing an entire class on the first word of Milton’s Nativity Ode). Paul Fry has a brilliant and clear intro theory course you can watch online that is a thousand times better than anything I could come up with. Some people can introduce, and some people can noodle. I noodle.

So I have decided instead to do something slightly different. The course will be centered around two basic questions: what is literary criticism, and why would anyone want to write or read it? I decided to make these the questions because I don’t have a good answer for them, and I plan to exploit fully the professorial luxury of getting to teach questions you don’t have an answer for. These seem like crucial questions: crucial because, in your second year of university, and your first year as a major, you ought to think for a moment about what the hell it is that you’re supposed to be doing; crucial because if my department doesn’t do a good job of explaining what it is that we do, we may never get to hire another tenure-track professor (which would be bad, though I would get to avoid the family romance of the hiring process); and crucial because literary criticism has a long history of eating itself, rather than celebrating itself.

It’s particularly in light of that last reason that I also crave a little discipline. I mean, who doesn’t like to be told what to do once in a while? And this course will be a celebration of the discipline of criticism. Literary criticism: not literature, not theory, not philosophy, not aesthetics.  It will be a celebration of writing strange things about poems and plays and novels and films and whatever else. I don’t want interdisciplinarity; I don’t want linguistics; I don’t want history; I don’t want philosophy. I want literary criticism. Jameson somewhere says that Lukacs was writing literary criticism on his deathbed. That is the sort of sense of importance and focus I want to inculcate.

And heroes: I want heroes. I can’t begin to describe how sick I feel when I hear someone at a conference making fun of, for example, New Criticism. Every course (and every discipline) needs a hero (sorry, Tina Turner, though we could definitely use another hero like you), someone or something that triumphs in the end and gives you hope for a future. And founds something—heroes are supposed to found something. In a literature course, the heroes tend to be, obviously, writers of literature: Shakespeare, Austen, Chandler. In a historical course, the heroes tend to be historians: Hill, Braudel, Burckhardt. And in a theory course, or a course on aesthetics, the heroes tend to be philosophers: Aristotle, Hegel, Heidegger. But I want to make clear that the discipline of literary criticism has a bunch of people who are (as Milton might put it) justly heroic, and whose practices are sufficient of themselves to raise that name of hero. I want to say—you are so lucky, you are working in the same field as Erich Auerbach! Do you know how amazing he is? I want to say: look at those reading chops—can you believe how effortlessly Cleanth Brooks unpacks a poem? I want to say: is there anything Jameson can’t explicate? See how much he learned from Auerbach? Literary critics have tended to make fun of their founders (Cleanth Brooks is naïve; Auerbach is Eurocentric). This is one of the many sad reasons so many people do not read any literary criticism written before, say, 1980. I have two responses. First, there ought to be a course that tells students where their discipline came from. And second, if you think Brooks is naïve, or Auerbach Eurocentric, well, you try writing something that founds an entire way of thinking. “The Canonization” is one of Donne’s most famous poems because Cleanth Brooks taught everyone how to read it. I should be so lucky to be so naïve. 

I should add that in my disciplinary hero-worship, I am not interested in being fair or representative: I do not plan to try to represent the field accurately in a 12 week semester (yes, I said 12 weeks…it’s a little embarrassing). I only want to teach things I want to teach. I have to like the piece, keeping in mind that “like” is a capacious category: I like CS Lewis because he can actually read poems, even though I think almost everything in his criticism is wrong (still, I haven’t put him on the list yet—there’s just something I find annoying about him). I insist that any reading be written by someone I would label a brilliant critic, so that I can perform my awe at their prowess in front of students.

In that light, I’ve started putting together a reading list. What drives the reading list so far is 1) that the piece thinks interestingly about what literary criticism might be; 2) that the piece is a great example of literary criticism (true, 1 and 2 are usually the same thing); and 3) that it deal with the “how do you read criticism of something you haven’t read” problem—that is, it is written in such a way that reading the piece of literature it is about is not strictly necessary, or the literature is sufficiently short that it is quoted (more or less) in full, or that the literature is so famous and well-known (“It is a truth universally acknowledged”) that (hopefully) everyone will more or less know it. I am also not putting on the list 1) essays that are too long or complicated for a good second-year student to get a handle on in a week; 2) things that are primarily concerned with questions like what is literature, or what is art, or what is aesthetic. Again, these are all very obviously related to literary criticism but nevertheless are slightly different questions. This is a course about literary criticism, and we will try to figure out what it is and why it is, or ought to be, so much fun.

Here’s my list so far, in no particular order (I haven’t gotten that far yet). Any suggestions would be much appreciated:

Booth, from Precious Nonsense

de Man, “The Return to Philology”

Poirer, from The Renewal of Literature

Williams, from The Country and the City Arnold, from Culture and Anarchy

Brooks, from The Well-Wrought Urn

Adorno, from Minima Moralia (probably #22, Baby with the bath-water)

Empson, from 7 Types of Ambiguity

Ransom, Criticism, Inc

Sedgwick, Between Men (ch 2)

Brower, from In Defense of Reading

Jameson, Postmodernism and Consumer Society

Calvino, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Said, from Culture and Imperialism

Auerbach, The Brown Stocking, and Epilogue from Mimesis

Dr Johnson, something especially funny

Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.