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Literary criticism

On another thread, Mike A mentioned Ian Watt’s excellent book The Rise of the Novel, and it made me wonder whether anyone else enjoys reading literary criticism.

Of course, as with any other kind of writing, literary criticism comes in all shapes and sizes, from the basic to the complex, from the execrable to the excellent. But at its best, it really is something to be savoured.

I remember when Roy Hattersley was on Desert Island Discs: when he came to choosing a book other than Shakespeare and the Bible, he chose A. C. Bradley’s seminal work Shakespearean Tragedy. He said that Shakespeare’s works, plus Bradley’s book to provide insights into those works, should keep him happy. I remember at the time that it struck me as a rather good choice. Of course, Bradley’s interpretation (or anyone’s interpretation) is not the final word: there isno final word in these matters. And Bradley himself has come in for a fair amount of criticism for some of his judgements. But that is as it should be: literary criticism is, and should be, a dialogue. And this is what I find is so good about good literary criticism: even if you find yourself disagreeing with it – or even part of it – good criticism encourages dialogue, even if only in the reader’s mind. And this dialogue is encouraged not by unsupported statement of opinion, but by clear presentation of argument.

I have recently bought a hefty (800 pages +) volume by the late Tony Tanner entitled Prefaces to Shakespeare, in which he writes in detail on each of the lays in turn, and I am astonished by how much had passed me by even on repeated readings over many years. Once again, I don’t agree with Tanner on all points, but because he presents carefully argued discourse based on the text, he is opening up for me new avenues of thought. I’ve been dipping into this book now for some time (for the last few weeks, it has even taken over from Sherlock Holmes as my favourite bedtime reading!), and it’s fascinating.

I also find very useful the Cambridge Companion series, each of which is centred around a particular author, or a particular literary theme, and presents a series of specially commissioned essays by different people (each an expert in their field) on different aspects of the subject. So far, I have the volumes on Ibsen, Tolstoy, Milton, Wordsworth, Faulkner and Yeats, and they’re marvellous reading. I like also the “Casebook” series, each of which focuses on a particular work, and provides a collection of some of the major critical essays that have been written on the work since its first publication.

The only downside is that these books tend to be pricey, as is inevitable, I suppose, given they’re of minority interest. Anyone else enjoy reading literary criticism?

I tend to read the criticisms by writers I admire – George Orwell, John Buchan etc. I suppose I feel there is so much to read that I begrudge the time spent on detailed comments about a writer's work rather than the work itself.
The last book of reviews I read was three years ago called Some poets, artists & 'A reference for Mellors' by Anthony Powell.
This includes newspaper and journal reviews of literature from Chaucer to Dylan Thomas while his artists vary from van Dyck to Hockney. Then there are articles on portrait painters in India, illustrators for Dickens, London statues and artists' models. I found the reviews on the poets were especially instructive.

The last time I read what I thought might be a book of literary criticism was something by Iris Murdoch, but it was well over my head and seemed to be more philosophical arguments than literary criticism.  I had to give up on it.

We used to read people like Arnold and Wordsworth at university.  I iked Arnold but not Wordsworth, as far as I can remember.

Cheers, Caro.

Literary criticism can often border on philosophy, I think, especially given how impreecisely "philosophy" is defined. Since literature does reflect the author's perspective on life, literary criticism must surely concern itself with analysing that author's persepective; and this brings into play the critic's perspective also; and thus, a dialogue is started.

As I become older, I feel I would like to spend more of my reading time getting to know to greater depth the works and writers who mean most to me.
John Q

The Norton Critical Editions are very good in this aspect.  Apart from the text of the work in question they give essays in early criticism and more modern examples.  I tend to  prefer the early stuff, as very modern criticism can become too obscure (i.e. I do not understand it) with its structuralism and historicism  etc .
I think criticism has to be enjoyed as of itself and not  always as a means of understanding or interpreting the text in question, although that often happens.   That is why someone like William Hazlitt is so admirable. He  lets his mind wander where it will as he discusses a favourite work or styles of writing.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s Familiar Studies of Men and Books is a favourite of mine in this sort of Genre.  Although Stevenson says in an essay that Henry David Thoreau that he was a ‘skulker,’ for which I have never forgiven him .   Virginia Woolf,  although not as discursive as say Hazlitt, is a literary critic I greatly enjoy and her Common Reader books  are the most enjoyable things she did ( Whoa! personal view there of course).  Samuel Taylor Coleridge is estimated a great critic, and I Have tried to read him a little but apart from being extraordinarily prolix  he wraps everything he says in so many layers of philosophy and theology that he really does lead you nowhere.

Yes, I enjoy those Norton Critical editions as well. One ogf my favourite critical essays is the one by Irving Howe that appears in the Norton Critical edition of Jude the Obscure

Like yourself, I am no afioconado of jargon-heavy theoretical approaches: I do appreciate that difficult ideas often requires difficult language, but given how freqently I have struggled through abstruse chunks of theory only to find rather simplistic ideas at the bottom of it all; and, conversely, given how frequently I have found subtle and difficult ideas presented with the utmost clarity; I must confess to a certain scepticism in this matter.

There cerrainly arecases where the criticism can be enjoyed for itself. Hazlitt, whom you cite is a perfect example of this. I think that in these cases, the critic is effectively using the work as a springboard (or catalyst - pick whichever metaphor you prefer!) presenting his or her own ideas.

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