A Lot to Be Said

Stefan Collini

  • Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History by Joseph North
    Harvard, 272 pp, £31.95, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 96773 1

Scanning recent academic literary studies for examples of what he calls ‘a genuinely critical impulse’, Joseph North picks out D.A. Miller’s subtle analysis of Jane Austen’s prose. ‘The critical voice speaking here is quite remarkable for the finesse with which it mimics the rhetorical effect it is describing,’ North writes, referring to a passage in which Miller dilates on the apparent impersonality of Austen’s writing. ‘The finesse lies in an odd place, in that Miller here reproduces Austen’s effect in an exaggerated manner, thereby training us to experience it in its more subtle original form.’ Miller’s argument is that the impersonality of Austen’s voice ‘turns out to be a cover for the shame of her person’. North comments: ‘Crucially, the critical voice that tells us this – Miller’s voice – also seems to be trying to speak impersonally, but is making such a fuss of it that it keeps failing.’

The persuasiveness or otherwise of Miller’s claim isn’t my concern here.[*] What interests me is North’s voice as he discusses Miller’s voice discussing Austen’s voice. It possesses a confident impersonality all of its own. North’s interpretation isn’t offered as a subjective reaction or a tentative possibility, nor does it anticipate incomprehension or resistance. He doesn’t speak in a technical or purely professional language, but uses the vocabulary of everyday human assessments, albeit of a discerning kind, finding the writing ‘quite remarkable’ or commending its ‘finesse’. In saying that the finesse of Miller’s achievement lies in an ‘odd’ place, North is acknowledging, casually but convincingly, some community of normal expectation that is initially jolted by finding it there. And in suggesting that Miller’s prose reproduces Austen’s effect in an ‘exaggerated’ manner, North takes for granted, justifiably, that an alert reader will see why this adjective is right and revealing. Finally, North’s prose gains extra force by its assured use of a more demotic register as in his remark that Miller’s effort to speak impersonally makes ‘such a fuss of it that it keeps failing’.

The stylish economy of North’s own writing here assumes that readers will recognise the truth of his analysis without the need for any laboured setting-out of methodological or intellectual premises. His passing reference to ‘us’ doesn’t serve to identify a specific group in sociological or other terms: critical writing is always implicitly addressed to readers, to ‘us’. The passage is an excellent illustration of the power and appeal of a certain style of literary criticism – assured, conversable and genuinely illuminating. Nothing, it seems to me, would be gained by describing it as, say, ‘conservative’ or, alternatively, ‘counter-hegemonic’, or as representative of ‘the neoliberal rather than the Keynesian phase of capitalism’. Of course, like any act of communication it presumes certain conditions of possibility, including some substantive assumptions, but those political or economic labels do not come close to identifying what is distinctive or valuable about this small act of criticism. And the fact that such a passage (and others like it) occur in a newly published academic monograph should make us wary of generalisations to the effect that the currently dominant ‘paradigm’ in literary studies has suppressed criticism and replaced it with historical and cultural analysis.

Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History is not a history of literary criticism. It confines itself to certain strains within Anglo-American academic literary studies since the 1920s and is a polemic about the actual and possible political roles of university teachers of English literature. North argues that ‘the profession’ currently misconstrues the political import of the kind of historical or cultural diagnosis characteristic of the most fashionable work in the field over the past three decades or more, and that it does so because it neglects or misunderstands the discipline’s past. The argument seems to me interesting, clever, unusual and wrong. (I should mention that he says various flattering things about my own work, albeit hinting in the politest possible terms that I may be a touch benighted.)

In North’s view, ‘the origins of the discipline’ are to be found in the 1920s: he repeatedly asserts that it was I.A. Richards who ‘founded the discipline’. But Richards, according to North, did not develop practical criticism for the purposes of identifying the aesthetic quality of a work of literature and then ranking such works, as some later critics who claimed descent from him did. Instead, Richards had a more pragmatic aim: the cultivation of readers’ capacities to integrate their responses to literature at a psychological (ultimately, perhaps even neurological) level. It was, North asserts, the New Critics in the US and Leavis and his followers in Britain who deployed what they claimed was a form of Ricardian ‘close reading’ for the purpose of upholding an idealist conception of the aesthetic, which in turn became an essential element in their largely reactionary critique of contemporary society.

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[*] James Wood reviewed Miller’s Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style in the LRB of 4 November 2004.