Battle in Print: Criticism in crisis?

Nick Westbrook, 28 October 2009

It is easy to understand the consternation of many about a decline in the judgement and authority of the art critic. Sixty years ago, FR Leavis could make a definitive pronouncement on who was and who was not a part of ‘The Great Tradition’ of the English novel. Not only was he taken seriously, but his judgements had enough authority to stand as the final word in the matter for several decades. Austin, Eliot, James, Conrad. And maybe Dickens. For over a generation, the task of the student or critic was more geared towards appreciation, acceptance and understanding of arguments such as these, put forward by only a few great critics and beyond the skill of any ordinary student or critic to question.

At least in the history of literary criticism, the underlying culture that made this possible goes right back to the inception of English Literature as a degree in the 1890s. And as Terry Eagleton, a prominent current Marxist theorist points out, ‘If one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: ‘the failure of religion’. You can clearly hear this explanation lying underneath the pronouncement of the early twentieth century Oxford Professor of English Literature George Gordan: ‘England is sick, and ... English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature now has a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State’.

English literature in the first half of this century took over the role of social cement that religion had previously carried out (a role that Terry Eagleton would have us see as control of the masses by the state). A few ‘high priests’ of the literary world, such as Matthew Arnold, Henry James and FR Leavis, made definitive judgements which set out a roadmap of English artistic achievement, that would inspire a sense of nationalistic pride amongst the working class, as well as a recognition of the ‘moral riches’ of bourgeois civilisation. It is extremely relevant to point out here that ‘English Literature’ as an academic subject was first institutionalised not in the universities, but in the ‘Mechanics’ Institutes, working mens’ colleges and extension lecturing circuits’.

Fast-forward a hundred years or so to today, and the critical landscape is unrecognisable. Hundreds, if not thousands of books dedicated to Shakespeare appear every year, offering massively differing opinions and critical judgements. Critics arguing from differing theoretical standpoints can present arguments on the same piece of art which are so opposed that it is clear that in many cases, the art has become merely a platform on which proponent’s points of view can be furthered. One brilliant example is the parodical Postmodern Pooh, which caricatures the current state of literary criticism through fictitious critics discussing Winnie The Pooh. For example, ‘Sisera Catheter’ provides a ‘gynocritical approach’:

Seeing himself castrated and thus ineluctably “female”, Eeyore bends his head between and behind his forepaws, evidently attempting an acrobatic autoerotic feat that, if successful, will not only restore his depleted narcissistic libido and give him something to chew on that’s nicer than thistles but also exchange his former adult self for a polymorphous perversity whereby the oral, anal, and genital stages can merge in an endless preoedipal, nonphallic loop. In short, he is so unsure of his maleness that he now hopes to transform himself into an unborn baby woman.’

In short, anything approaching critical consensus has been lost. Does this really mean, though, that ‘judgement’ within criticism has reached a state of crisis? I want to show you how in my experience, this is certainly not the case. Instead, I believe, this shift represents a movement away from unexamined, unreasoned acceptance of the essentially arbitrary authority of a few ‘great’ critics, to the current situation where critical authority rests purely upon reasoned, rational judgements, coupled with extensive subject knowledge.

As a current English undergraduate at Oxford University, I can assure you that the professional critics whose job it is to educate me in the world of English Literature do still make artistic judgements on and between texts. They will not respect my opinion on a piece of literature simply for the relativistic reason that it is my opinion, and nor will they shrink from criticising it for fear of ‘damaging my self-esteem’. Far from it. To show you I’m not joking, here is an extract from a report I was given during my first year of work:

’This term seemed to involve a pod-person, fresh from a playground sandbox somewhere, inhabiting the Nick-suit. Frivolous, silly, not very amenable to tutorial or class engagement. The papers, while they nominally addressed the readings, never engaged the texts but seemed to prefer ones Nick wished someone had written. Everyone, of course, has a text that defeats them sometime. Grown-ups worry about this, reread, try to engage. Maybe Nick will some time; he didn’t this term.’

This is hardly a watered-down judgement. Although admittedly more biting than most, it is also not unusual in the ability and willingness it shows to make judgements on academic matters. My problem was that I thought that, in a sense, I had a licence to argue whatever I pleased, to run intellectually amok as an arch-relativist to the extent that the texts themselves would become dispensable. This report may have ruffled my self-esteem, but (and it took me a while to get to this but) it needed ruffling. I have, fortunately, since learnt that to be taken seriously, academic criticism has to be grounded in textual detail, backed up with sound argument, and demonstrate an awareness of and interact with current scholarly debates around the topic. Can tutors really be said to be ‘respecting’ pupils’ ideas and opinions if they do not afford them this critical consideration? It is an often-quoted truism among my tutors that when interviewing undergraduate applicants, a response to the question of ‘Why do you want to study English?’ along the lines of ‘Because you can say anything’ or ‘Because its all about my ideas’ is an guaranteed way to ensure you do not get a place. 

Additionally, one of a tutor’s or critic’s most important functions is to bring their vast subject knowledge into discussions, either to expose weaknesses in, strengths of, or simply provide a larger perspective to students’ criticism. If, for example, I am in the midst of expounding a theory about how Sidney’s sonnet sequences are really more self-aggrandising than self-pitying, my tutor may refer me to a letter he wrote to court ten years before which supports (or rubbishes) my argument. It is their massive repository of knowledge, just as much as their finely honed analytical judgements, that is the foundation for the authority of the critic.

There seems to be a worryingly popular illusion about the hegemony of relativism in academic circles. For example, an article by art critic JJ Charlesworth on spiked denounces ‘an epoch where relativism now represses any claim to general truth [and] the very idea of offering generally valid criticism smacks of overreaching arrogance’. I will let you in on an unavoidable fact which may seem unthinkable to many caught up in the overwhelming tide of complaints about the destruction relativism is wreaking in the world of art criticism: I have never met a single critic who has matched this stereotypical arch-relativist that is so demonised in the popular media. And, consequently: yes, a critic is in general arrogant. He (or she) has to be!

Relativism, deconstructionism and the like are important and necessary tools to the critic, but they do not give him or her licence to run intellectually amok. I like to picture them as quite like a builder’s hammer. Yes they can dismantle things, but this does not give the builder the right to go around knocking down everything he sees. Rather, he or she knocks down only what has been wrongly built, and only in order to rebuild something they think is better. The point can be seen merely by looking at the difference between the two words ‘destruction’ and ‘deconstruction’. The former implies an arbitrary, senseless and negative action, the latter a careful, reasoned, pointed one.

One of my tutors, for example, is interested in feminism and feminist ideas within criticism. Deconstructionism is therefore a powerful tool for her: it allows her to challenge the overwhelmingly male-centred focus of literature, and put together equally well-reasoned, equally valid judgements from a different perspective. Much has been said about Prospero in The Tempest, for example. But why should just as much not be said about Miranda. Or, for the post-colonialist, about Caliban? To give these characters analysis in their own right however, and not to merely see them through the pre-judged lens of previous Prospero-centred criticism, requires initially a deconstruction of these previous views. Or, to use a previous example, the ‘gynocritical approach’ of ‘Sisera Catheter’ may be intended as parody and therefore be pushed to a humorous extreme, but I think it would be hard to argue that there is not still some kind of judgement being made here. If it was reasoned, coherent, and engaged with the text, why should we not take it seriously?

My experience of art criticism is categorically not of a ‘competing cacophony of unexamined prejudices’. A competing cacophony of reasoned, thought-out arguments which ultimately stem from prejudices, maybe. But, and this is the crucial but, who are we to decide objectively which prejudice is the least prejudiced? To do so is an extremely dangerous thing to try and do: you have to put yourself in the position of being objective. Countless numbers of readers, critics and authors may well have disagreed with the prejudices of FR Leavis. But their voices were simply not heard or even spoken, because the critical culture of their time put authority not simply on reasoned judgement or subject knowledge, but on which voice had been institutionalised and which had not.

Whilst it is easy to lampoon or denounce the current multitude of critical opinion as lacking a healthy sense of authority, unless this accusation brings the more serious accusation of frivolity, disengagement with its object, or lack of acumen against the critical profession at large, it is ultimately meaningless. A healthy sense of authority, I would suggest, is precisely that authority which I have been trying to show does exist: the authority of reason, analysis and knowledge.

Criticism in the arts has not reached a point of crisis in judgement. Whilst there are undoubtedly far more disagreement and different points of view circulating in intellectual circles, every professional critic still has strongly-held opinions on what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’, which they can and do argue about vociferously, highly analytically, and in forms which draw upon a vast array of subject knowledge. Let me ask you a question. Would you, for a sum substantially smaller than many students make immediately after completing their BA, commit your entire career to reading, discussing and writing about works of art if you didn’t passionately believe in what you were doing, or if you didn’t feel a compulsive urge to argue about why exactly it was that your favourite painter or author was so much better than anyone else? Would you do it if you thought that all you were arguing for was simply your own prejudice, and therefore that your judgement in artistic matters was no better or more worthy than the prejudice of the science professor sitting next to you at lunch, or the banker sitting in his mansion in Chelsea? No? Neither would they.


Nick Westbrook is an English undergraduate at the University of Oxford.


Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1996, 2nd edn).
Shakespeare, The Tempest
JJ Charlesworth, What has happened to art criticism? (2005)
Chris Baldick, The Social Mission of English Criticism (1983)
Frederick Crews, Postmodern Pooh (2001)
Lionel Gossman, ‘Literature and Education’, from New Literary History 13.2 (1982)

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