The book of the week: Literary Criticism: A New History

Philip Smallwood on a polemicist's progress

June 19, 2008

Much of the recent drama of criticism," writes Gary Day in his Literary Criticism: A New History, "comes from a wilful ignorance of its past." In his "Polemical introduction", he brings into focus one of the traditional paradoxes of accounting historically for this condition.

Any "history of x" aspires to give, on the one hand, a true narrative of events. And without a commitment to satisfy our need to know what really happened history degenerates into a system of fictional tropes. On the other hand, no history is possible or comprehensible without a point of view. There is, accordingly, no history of criticism without choices. Such choices are made on principle, whether consciously or unconsciously, and an authorial purpose is expressed by them. The historian must determine a narrative structure; there must be chapterings, a division between starring roles and supporting ones, a sense of what constitutes an "event", a decision on where to start the history and where to bring it to a close, and there must be a marking of significant turnings of the critical tide or - as this book freely recognises - a polemics of critical history.

Day's polemically pitched history aims to reassert a stronger sense of the literature that has motivated criticism's theory and practice - "writing about writing" in the broadest (if not the most misleading) of definitions, and he focuses witheringly on the various forces (class, academic insularity, commercial managerialism, money and market values, clottish educational instrumentalism and so on) that have, in post-Thatcherite Britain, threatened to extinguish the study of literature. In this attention to social, institutional and economic determinants, Day is in implicit, and sometimes explicit, dialogue with those who have traditionally interpreted the critical past as a subdivision of the most grandly abstract and intellectual of designs, and where criticism is defined within a succession of Large Ideas (Augustanism, Romanticism, Victorianism, Modernism, Post-Modernism). But his history, although also decisive about criticism's wider cultural and economic relations, has an emphasis distinct from the loosely New Left, ostentatiously anti-Leavisite, story told by most other explicators of modern critical history from a parochially British perspective. In seeking to maintain the critical past in a dynamic relationship with literary experience, which has to be partly emotional experience - often intangible, unorganised by system or philosophical tradition, animating of the sensibilities as well as the intellect, inconclusive and extraconceptual - Day's history remakes out of the fragments a more complete whole of the logical subject of critical history. In his pursuit of an imaginable reality for the critical past, he offers a timely foray into criticism's cultural politics.

That said, there are some conventional, if probably indispensable, features recognisable from pre-existing critical histories at play in the methods of Day's more "polemical" version. First, where to begin? He commences his story where most others do, with the Greek and Roman classics - with Aristotle on tragedy, Plato on truth, Longinus on the sublime, Horace on pleasure and instruction - and he unites the very different kinds of critical texts and textual situations expressive of criticism. Such texts, along with their origins, cultural occasions and motivations, belong (as Day shows) to a very different world from those of the present-day scholarly monograph, theoretical "reading" or "theory guide", and offer no models for the current style of critical review or student essay. This difference seems to call into question the possibility of a joined-up narrative of criticism, although Day's narrative shows how historical form can accommodate radical discontinuity.

In the second place, while Day forges connectedness on this front (moving through medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic phases to the critic's modern institutions, and pointing up pertinent correspondences between old and new worlds en route), he reproduces the categories - the historical building blocks - that previous historians from George Saintsbury at the turn of the last century through Rene Wellek in the 1950s and 1960s have regarded as criticism's major period divisions. The notion that there really occurred, for example, around the 17th and 18th centuries, a "neoclassical" age of literary criticism, comprehensible within that term, is one that Day cannot quite dispense with. He hits the mark, however, if not in an entirely new way, when he writes that "the English relation to neoclassicism was one of dialogue".

Professional historians, somewhat snootily perhaps, do not write histories of criticism (or, for that matter, histories of literature); such labours are conventionally left to the critics themselves. As a practising critic of literature functioning in the historical mode, Day has made an important contribution to this most problematic of genres - a literary mode that we have to have, because it is clearly so useful, however vulnerable to the paradox of representation (and because students of English literature in today's HiEdBiz need at the very least to know what adversarial tradition they are working within). It is symbolic of this paradox that Day's narrative should recall other general or chronic critical histories that do not confine themselves to a specific period, and that it should reach a conclusion in which nothing final can be concluded. The critical conversations that the historian charts through the complex of terms, ideas, theorems, tastes, loves and loathings are for such reasons never terminal.

In viewing critical history from the viewpoint of a politically and morally imperfect British political culture, echoed and magnified by a damaged system of literary education in universities and schools, one is bound, therefore, to conclude by criticising the critic and implicating oneself. Day's openness about where he stands within current critical-educational debates is extremely refreshing, and in that sense "critical". He is admirably undaunted by the bully boys (and girls) of theory evangelisation, and by the imperative to have all master narratives of criticism give way to the deprivileged tangle of stranded individual stories - as happens in multi-authored, multi-volume histories such as The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. One might call Day's overview a recuperated Whig history of literary criticism in this respect. It contains much delightfully detailed discussion on the long and winding teleological road to the British critical present from the past, and offers a reliable, pungently argued, textually particularised introduction to literary criticism's forme historique totale.

Day is exuberantly readable; his synthetic competence seems informed by the skills of a good teacher, and his sense of the cultural-political realities of the modern British scene suggests its great, unacknowledged difference from the soil and climate of the American critical world. He is impatient with designer theory, and his lightness of touch is heroic in the presence of hugely intractable and diverse material from the past. With these qualities he has constructed a book that will appeal to students and professional scholars alike, one that will make much visible that was previously shrouded in the occult art of telling the truth about the critical past - as far as such truth can be told.

The author

All-singing, all-dancing Gary Day is a man of many talents. He is on the national committee of the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, a member of the Advisory Board UK Network for Modern Fiction Studies and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

A keen amateur actor, Day says his talent did not match his aspirations: "I always had a desire to play Macbeth but I ended up playing the clown in The Winter's Tale." He has also had a go at stand-up, and describes his style as "vulgar and common".

As a student, he worked as a runner in a bingo hall and found he had an uncanny ability to predict bingo numbers. He claims that this ability also runs to horse racing. However, the curse of his gift means he can use it only when he is not thinking about it, which may explain why he has yet to make his fortune.

Day admits that, but for the money, academia might have lost him to tap dancing. A tapper for many years, the highlight of his career was performing at the Brighton Festival. His burgeoning dance career was interrupted by critical theory. After studying for a PhD at Cardiff University, he went on to teach at De Montfort University, where he can still be found as principal lecturer in English.

Since his student days, Day says, "not much has happened, unless you count being stung by a wasp in Bedford Park. But then academics need uneventful lives if they are to contemplate the mystery of things."

Sarah Cunnane.

Literary Criticism: A New History

By Gary Day
Edinburgh University Press
334pp
£50.00
ISBN 9780748615636
Published 15 June 2008

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