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Okay, the first thing I need to say is that I am an amateur at literary criticism. I did not study English Literature (or English Language, come to that) beyond O-Level. Everything I have picked up about it is self-taught, with all the randomness and happenstance that implies. My reading on the subject has been undirected, so there are major figures in academic literary theory (Leavis, Fish, Deleuze) that I have not read at all, and others (Kermode, Eagleton, Barthes, Jameson) where I have read at best one or two works. This is not special pleading: I am comfortable with literary criticism in practical terms, if not always in theoretical terms. I practiced close reading before I actually encountered the term; and when I first heard about Historicism, or perhaps New Historicism, I thought that chimed with my own approach to the subject, until I realized that my approach seemed to be diametrically opposed to theirs (I look at the history as a way of understanding the literature that emerged from it; Historicists, at least as interpreted by Joseph North, look to the literature as a way of understanding the history).

literary criticismAnway, I’ve been reading Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History by Joseph North in the hope that it might help to fill in some of the immense chasms in my knowledge of the subject. (I must, for example, read up more on Historicism/New Historicism, if only to see if North is correct in his interpretation.) I was, in the end, disappointed, frustrated and excited by the book.

Let’s start with the disappointments: the sub-title is, to say the least, misleading. That it is short (217 pages) does not equate with it being concise; it is more polemical than political; and though it is arranged in roughly chronological order, it is not exactly a history. As a general rule, histories become fuzzier as they come closer to the present: distance tends to make it easier to shape the narrative and arrive at an analysis. North’s narrative becomes longer, more detailed and sharper the closer it comes to the present. The more historical aspects of the book, in other words, serve mostly as a setting for the polemical arguments about the state of academic literary studies over the last ten or twenty years.

North is a polemicist, he has a particular argument to make; in outline, he argues that in each stage of its history, literary criticism as practiced in Anglo-American universities has started on the left and moved steadily to the right. I don’t really know if he is right or wrong in this (in most instances, I only have North’s word to go on), but the polemical argument overwhelms the history. His chapter on “The Historicist/Contextualist Paradigm”, for instance, consists of him laying out what he sees as wrong with the positions of certain key Historicists and Contextualists, without ever actually laying out in clear terms what those positions are or how they were arrived at. (My interpretation of North’s interpretation of the Historicist position, for example, is entirely gleaned from reading between the lines; you won’t find a statement to that effect actually in the lines.) Now he may be right in his critique, but without providing, if you’ll pardon the term, an historical context for the position, it is hard to see how accurate or effective a critique it is.

You will note, also, my remark about “Anglo-American universities”. The focus of the book is that narrow. Every critic dealt with at all substantially is either British or American (there may be a Canadian in there, but I’m not aware of any Australians; but they are anyway all anglophone). A couple of non-anglophone theorists (Foucault, Derrida) are mentioned in passing, others (Jakobson, Barthes) are not mentioned at all; which means that the so-called “Theory Wars” do not put in an appearance, structuralism and deconstruction play no part in this story of literary criticism. Though to be fair, Marxism hardly appears; I think the word “Marxism” only occurs in quotations from somebody else. And when I read about Historicism, the name that keeps cropping up is Stanley Fish, but he is entirely absent from North’s index. My knowledge of the history of literary criticism is partial, full of holes, but I struggle to fit what I do know into the story being told here.

But that is because, as I have suggested, that this is less a history than a polemic. North believes that I.A. Richards was the greatest thing that ever happened to literary criticism, but his immediate successors misinterpreted his arguments or took his ideas in inappropriate directions; and their successors did the same, and so on. Every generation or so, someone tries to come up with a radical new paradigm, usually something that can be aligned with contemporary political thinking, Keynesianism with the New Criticism, neo-liberalism with the Historicists/Contextualists, and so on. But these radical shifts in the paradigm then suffer the same processes of misinterpretation and misdirection, and they are anyway never radical enough to go back to Richards. And right now the most interesting critical thinkers (Isobel Armstrong, Eve Sedgwick, D.A. Miller) are showing discontent with the current paradigm without quite getting their acts together enough to establish a new paradigm.

I don’t know the work of Armstrong, Sedgwick or Miller, or the others he quotes here, so I don’t know if North’s selective quotations really provide an accurate impression of their work. Because North’s notion of concision is to assume that his readers are already intimately familiar with every writer he quotes, and therefore do not need a precis of their work or any sense of their context. Similarly, in what he tells us is meant to be a popular work, he litters his sentences with often impenetrable jargon. So what was meant to be a concise work turns into a long, hard slog.

As I said, this “Concise Political History” is actually none of these things. And yet, there is an excitement in reading someone so madly, and maddeningly, committed to an idea; there’s an excitement in seeing literary criticism (or at least a particular subset of literary criticism) provoking such political enthusiasm; and there’s an excitement in discovering so many new (to me) thinkers whose work might, in time, inform my own. Above all the experience of reading this book, the disagreements, the hesitations, the doubts, has forced me to think more closely and in a different way about the subject, and that in itself is perhaps the most exciting thing of all.