Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, by Joseph North

To properly appreciate a work of art we must judge it, not simply adhere to the modern paradigm of explaining it in context, contends Gary Day

August 17, 2017
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I think Joseph North and I can be friends. Like me, he actually thinks that F. R. Leavis is an important figure, and that there’s a connection between the economy and literary commentary. We differ, though, in our approach to these questions. I like the wide-angle view, he the close‑up.

North’s focus is on the fate of Anglo-American literary studies from the 1920s to the present. His argument is that they were, throughout this period, dominated by two paradigms, “criticism” and “scholarship”. The emphasis of the former is on evaluating a work, the emphasis of the latter is on explaining it. For the early part of the 20th century the two existed in relative harmony, but eventually scholarship – or what North also calls the “historicist/contextualist” approach (by which he means feminism, new historicism, queer theory and so on) – came to dominate. It was more inclusive, democratic and progressive than its rival – or at least that’s what its proponents claimed.

North links the change to the rise of neoliberalism, arguing that the new disciplinary stress on “knowledge production” was more in tune with the imperatives of the free market than the old aesthetic appreciation. Nevertheless, he continues, adherents of the scholarship paradigm remain strangely dissatisfied. Troubled by a sense of something missing, they probe the limits of their field in search for a more satisfying conception of literature, one that takes account of its affective as well as its analytical nature. And, in this respect, North believes that they could do a lot worse than revisit the work of I. A. Richards, whose The Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) provided “a sophisticated answer to the question of what literature is good for”.

Without Immanuel Kant, this question might never have been asked. He claimed that art had no connection with our moral or practical lives but was a thing to be enjoyed for its own sake. Richards disagreed, arguing that the value of literature in particular was as a means of ordering our minds and, as he put it in a quotation not in North’s book, transporting us “beyond our experience, satisfying and harmonising the unfulfilled activities of our nature”. North describes how those who followed Richards either adapted or ignored his legacy, leading to a split between “critics” who think the study of literature is about cultivating the mind and “scholars” who think that it is about challenging injustice. Richards offers a model of how it can do both.

North tells a good tale. He is a courteous and charming narrator whose book is an absorbing addition to the history of literary studies, and future researchers will be indebted to him. But his choice of terms is idiosyncratic to say the least, nowhere more so than when he equates “scholarship” with political readings of works. Historically, scholars come out of the grammarian tradition of commentary, concerned with the authenticity and integrity of the text, its allusions and stylistic devices. Critics come out of the rhetorical tradition that sees literature as a means of influencing behaviour. North conflates the two to the detriment of his argument. Sometimes things look clearer when you take the long view.

Gary Day is the author of The Story of Drama: Tragedy, Comedy and Sacrifice from the Greeks to the Present (2016).


Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History
By Joseph North
Harvard University Press, 272pp, £31.95
ISBN 9780674967731
Published 25 May 2017

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