When I was an undergraduate in English, Shakespeare was the equivalent of the Almighty. His texts were revered as biblical in their overarching status, and we were told which critics must be treated as esteemed guides to the true significance of the Holy Word. I thought it wise not to say that I found him an exhausting exhibitionist, like an exuberant waiter standing constantly at our shoulder with yet another outrageous concoction, just when the customer craves rest, or a plate of chips.
I also recall being fascinated by the mainstays of modernism – James Joyce’s Ulysses in particular – but not because, as my lecturers informed me, they represented groundbreaking moments in the history of representation. No, I wondered about how they had come to be classified alongside the kind of novels that I actually enjoyed reading. And my sense of alienation was not confined to the exuberantly celebrated avant-garde. I agreed with Byron that Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s poetic personae seemed wilfully cretinous, and not only in Lyrical Ballads.
Yet even if I’d wished to voice my opinions on these authors, my attempts at academic suicide would have been hindered by the questions asked in exams, essay assignments and indeed in tutorials, which all took it for granted that the authors in question were the best available. No one explained how they had earned this ranking or merited three years of intensive study.
Later, when literary theory became an endemic feature of degree courses, the exam papers on the core modules remained much as they had been, while the theory papers expected the same examinees to accept that the canon was a bourgeois delusion and that literature per se did not exist. These parallel universes coexisted quite ludicrously. The one thing they had in common was their refusal to allow undergraduates to address a question that all of us in the real world – from the publisher to the reviewer to the customer in the bookshop – ask every time we open a book: is it any good?
Sometimes I wondered if my closeted opinions were the result of intellectual immaturity. But gradually I began to discover that I was not alone. I did not come across colleagues with similarly guilty secrets but, rather, found sympathetic echoes of my own views in neglected (and often unreprinted) works by legions of critics who, since the 17th century, treated what we now revere as the core authors with perplexity and distrust. When Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land were first published, more than half their reviewers saw them as no more than bizarre, transient curiosities. And before the cult of Bardolatry was established by the Romantics, the overwhelming consensus was that Shakespeare’s “difficult” plays were self-indulgent gibberish.
What I would like to call for, then, is a research and teaching agenda that focuses explicitly on evaluation. We could begin by revisiting “the history of criticism”, concentrating not only on the canon of worthy, well-known commentators but also on the minor reviewers, letter writers and dissenters whose opinions challenge our own complacent sense of who and what is good. In teaching, we should consider first-year modules that introduce students to the basic skill set required to distinguish the competent writer from the hopeless failure. It is a commonplace that Jeffrey Archer and E. L. James (author of Fifty Shades of Grey) are laughably bad stylists, but how do you go about proving that contention? We could look at how to differentiate between exemplars of quality, solipsists and pedlars of trash, and then move on to more complex questions about the significance and purpose of literature.
Above all, we should revise our routine perception of the history of literature and criticism as linear and conclusive, and treat it instead as an unfinished debate.
Richard Bradford is professor of English at Ulster University. His latest book, Is Shakespeare any Good? And Other Questions on How to Evaluate Literature, has recently been published by Blackwell/Wiley. He is planning networking schemes to enable those with an interest in evaluation as a subject for research and teaching to exchange ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org