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The Paradoxical Politics of Literary Criticism

How did literary scholarship take a leftward turn during the 1970s, when neoliberalism and austerity were ascendant?

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Harvard University Press, 272 pp., $39.95

For all the debates that have roiled literature departments over the past 60 years, the history of the discipline itself is a source of surprising consensus. According to the standard narrative, mid-twentieth-century literary studies served a conservative agenda, fostering traditional values and upholding a canon of dead white men. The dominant school of interpretation was New Criticism, whose defining method—close reading—consisted of scrutinizing short passages of literary works detached from their political context. A theory underwrote this method: that literature could be understood apart from politics; that its meaning and power transcended the social conditions within which it was produced. From roughly the 1940s through the early 1960s, this was the prevailing approach. But new schools of interpretation, energized by the anti-establishment political movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s—poststructuralist, feminist, anti-racist, Marxist, postcolonial, new historicist, queer—rejected New Criticism’s conservatism and usurped its central position within literature departments. These new methodologies are committed to the notion that a work of literature should be understood as responsive to its time.

But now, many scholars are saying that the discipline should take another new direction. Some have called for a return to the formalist concerns championed by the New Critics. Others have questioned what they regard as an attitude of suspicion adopted in political criticism, favoring the more affirmative, emotional responses to literature of readers outside the academy. Still others have advocated for a quantitative, data-driven approach enabled by new digital technology. What distinguishes Joseph North’s shrewd new polemic Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History from other these other efforts is his refusal to accept the conventional narrative of the discipline’s history. To recognize where literary studies should go, North says, we need to rethink where it has been.     

A troubling question propels North’s account: How, he asks, did literary scholarship take a leftward turn during the 1970s, when neoliberalism and austerity were ascendant? “How did literary studies manage, not merely to hold firm against the tide, but to move strongly against it?  Everywhere else, the left in retreat; but within literary studies, a historic advance.” The discipline regards itself as a righteous defender of progressive ideals within a hostile political climate, but North is unconvinced. Tracing the development of literary studies through the turbulent years between the two world wars, the mid-century “welfare-statist compromise,” the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s, and finally the 2008 financial meltdown, North argues that literary studies, far from coming to embrace political activism, has gradually retreated from the interventionist mission that it seemed ready to adopt during its earlier phases.

The first period North considers, the 1920s and 1930s, witnesses a struggle between traditional scholars, caught up in obscure debates over etymology, and amateur belletristic critics concerned with shaping the sensibility of the general public. The hero in this drama is the British thinker I. A. Richards, who embraces the goal of using literature to educate readers outside the academy, but simultaneously introduces more rigorous critical methods which literature departments end up adopting. Richards’s most important contribution, says North, is his rejection of theories that isolate the experience of art from the practical concerns of everyday life. For Richards, reading poetry is a way of reorganizing people’s minds, enhancing their cognitive powers, and cultivating their “practical faculties.”  A great poem imparts a greater psychic balance to readers, training their minds to accommodate and harmonize a multitude of competing urges, making them at once more sensitive and more self-possessed. By emphasizing the usefulness of aesthetic cultivation for non-scholarly lives, Richards pinpoints a means by which literary criticism can contribute to the transformation of society. Richards doesn’t imagine an explicit political function for literature, but according to North, his is the most feasible blueprint for turning criticism into an engine of political change.

 But later, the New Critics and others hijack the method introduced by Richards—close reading—and make it serve precisely the conception of aesthetic value that he had sought to invalidate: that of beauty for beauty’s sake.  It’s an understanding of aesthetics that places politics or social betterment beneath literature, as something that critics shouldn’t sully their hands with. In defending this view, the New Critics turn away from the project of cultivating minds, focusing instead on “objectively” ranking literary works, thereby propagating what North calls the “sterile concern with hierarchy and canonicity that will occupy much of Anglophone literary studies throughout the Cold War period.” The New Critics, in North’s account, are more interested in making absolute claims about the greatness of literary works than in using these works to improve readers’ lives.

This rewriting of the goals of literary criticism has had far-reaching consequences. Decades later, leftist critics—including the likes of Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, and Fredric Jameson—recoil from New Criticism’s commitment to traditional cultural hierarchies, and reject aesthetic cultivation entirely. Embracing a wholly political approach to reading, these critics abandon what North believes is the one means by which literature might be made to reshape the world. Though they believe they are pushing literary studies to become more politically engaged, they are, North contends, doing the opposite. In their view, literature is primarily a vehicle of ideology, a way of masking the painful contradictions of capitalism. Their criticism treats literature as a symptom, valuable only as an indirect expression of the political forces that created it.

According to North all subsequent schools of political criticism employ the same “historicist/contextualist” approach, treating literature as a way of understanding rather than influencing society. Moreover, they tend to couch their readings in esoteric jargon, effectively shielding their work from any broader social relevance. North asserts that what he calls their “specialized knowledge production” serves the needs of neoliberalism—though he never quite explains how. But his account does clarify why the literary academic world is allowed to exist despite its radical posture: A remote and sparsely inhabited island, it exerts zero influence on the world around it.

Now, however, the neoliberal order is in crisis, throwing global politics into disarray and creating an opening for a new critical paradigm. In recent trends—including the renewed focus on form, the recognition of the importance of readers’ moods and affective states, the reaffirmation of the global reach of literature as opposed to an emphasis on national readerships—North discerns hints of a collective revolt against the contextualist-historicist paradigm in favor of a renewal of the public-facing criticism espoused by Richards. 

If such a renewal happens, North will deserve some credit: His effort to disentangle the progressive possibilities of aesthetic cultivation from the reactionary forms it has assumed may well help to rejuvenate the discipline. After all, it is entirely possible to expose students to complexity and nuance without reaffirming the old-school canon of dead white men or the reactionary politics that the canon was made to serve. North’s style is disarmingly lucid and self-assured; his reminds me of the work produced by an earlier kind of scholar, the sort who imagined a general audience. As devastating as it is meticulous, North’s analysis is a tour de force demonstration of what close reading can bring to light and why it would be a tragedy if the discipline ever gave it up.

North is such a smart and articulate thinker that it seems foolish to argue with him. But his strident tone invites debate. A good place to begin is his valorization of I. A. Richards and corresponding demonization of the New Critics. As a result of the New Critics’ ascendance, according to North, “the goal of so much critical work in the discipline became … not to educate the reader, but to adulate the text.” The New Critics are vulnerable to almost every accusation the left has thrown at them, but the one thing they did not do was abdicate the responsibility to educate readers. While Richards’ interpretations of poems tend to be cranky and elliptical, the models of careful exegesis supplied by New Critics were designed to show newcomers to literature how it might be done. To this day, any student who scours a passage from a literary work in search of ambiguities and ironies is following the example they set. The New Critics did defend traditional hierarchies segregating highbrow and lowbrow literature. But so did Richards, who claimed in Principles of Literary Criticism, that “the gulf between what is preferred by the majority and what is accepted as excellent by the most qualified opinion has become infinitely more serious.”

This would be just a trivial objection, except that it reveals a blind spot in North’s framework that has significant consequences. Strangely, for someone so committed to the pragmatic functions of criticism, North systematically privileges critics’ claims about their projects over their actual practices, and judges them on the basis of their mission statements rather than their work. Thus Richards’s abstract statements about what literature should accomplish are more persuasive to him than the New Critics’ engagement with particular literary texts. This tendency to treat statements of belief and intention as the key to understanding a given style of reading yields an impoverished picture of the various historicist schools that North finds wanting. He claims that these schools aim to produce knowledge and therefore don’t influence society, assuming they can do only one or the other. Postcolonialism, critical race theory, gender studies, and New Historicism may not have ushered in the seismic personal and social liberations that they aimed for, but can anyone who pays attention claim that they have done nothing to cultivate “new modes of subjectivity”?

Then again, North’s main concern may not be whether academic scholarship serves a practical function, but for whom. Over and over, he laments the isolation of the academy and yearns for an approach capable of reaching a wider public. This is a common desire among academics, but it raises the question of whether criticism aimed at such an audience, beyond the university and thus more responsive to market demands, would be better equipped to resist neoliberalism than traditional scholarship. 

It’s worth noting that North is himself producing historicist/contextualist scholarship: His book is focused on a narrowly defined historical context, the Anglo-American twentieth century, and he treats texts as symptoms of broader ideological forces. His book is polemical, but he is calling for, not producing, a new kind of criticism. This, too, is a widespread tendency. So many literary scholars these days seem to hope for a criticism that can crash through the walls of the academy, shape minds, melt hearts, and change the world. It is tempting to debunk their fantasies. But they may serve a necessary function. As North’s book demonstrates, continuing the modest but important work that literary studies does do may depend on its ability to imagine the work that it might do.