13 October, 2017Issue 3535.1Literary Criticism

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What do you think of it?

Gabriel Roberts

Catherine Belsey
Profile Books
£8.99 (pbk)






Small books on big topics are big business. The extraordinary success of Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions, which now number over 500 (aided by OUP’s decision to publish works from the earlier Past Masters series—itself very like the still earlier Fontana Modern Masters series—under the Very Short Introductions label), have spawned a range of competitors and spin-offs, including One World’s Beginner’s Guides and Profile’s Ideas in Profile. Profile have followed OUP closely (several of their writers, including Simon Blackburn, Roger Scruton, and Belsey herself, have already written very short introductions), but they have also found a niche in the market by making their books chattier and more personal than OUP’s, which can read like extended encyclopaedia entries.

Despite their appeal with readers and publishers, however, small books on big topics are risky. There are classics of the type—Bernard Williams on morality or Harry Frankfurt on bullshit, for instance—but dozens of others which peter out into empty generalisations, offer nothing more than a high-speed, famous-sayings history of previous thinking on a topic, or make headway only by demarcating the issues more specifically than the excitingly general title suggests. They can also result in mismatches between what readers want and authors provide. Readers seeking a quick introduction, something to get them through an essay or provide fodder for intellectual small-talk, often find themselves with a venerable expert still vacillating on page 170 between providing an impartial survey and giving their own particular take.

Belsey’s book has traces of all of this. She begins by setting the angle wide, characterising criticism as something we do every time we air an evaluative opinion or choose something rather than another. Quickly, however, the subject narrows. Criticism is first restricted to human-made objects and then to written fiction, with the occasional example brought in from art. But even this is not quite right, since the book turns out not to be about the everyday discussion of fiction, but the expert study of it—what is normally called literary criticism.

Within this, Belsey identifies three main currents: the evaluation of works of fiction; the attempt to derive moral or ethical truths from them; and the idea that they should be studied with reference to their authors. A large part of the book is a clear, accurate, and readable history of these currents, including many of the most famous thinkers and quotations. There is Plato expelling the poets from his republic, Aristotle unhelpfully alluding to catharsis as if everyone knows what he means, the predictable fast-forward past the middle ages, Sir Philip Sidney praising poets for making a golden world where nature offers only a brazen one, Wordsworth defining all good poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling, Shelley identifying poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and Roland Barthes killing the author. The narrative involves an unexpected loop, where the reader gets as far forward as Stephen Greenblatt before going back to William Empson, whose Seven Types of Ambiguity is identified as the watershed between non-theoretical and theoretical approaches, but much of it combines the best features of a timeline and a thematic map.

This is not true of the section on theory, which Belsey characterises as a cluster of approaches centred on the decoupling of the meanings of texts from the intentions of their authors. Here the exposition becomes tangled. Belsey suggests, for instance, that because some words represent imaginary things (Martians, replicants, dragons, etc) and some represent relationships (because, although, despite, etc), writing may not bring about communication. But it is not clear from this why people cannot communicate about imaginary things or relationships, why all the words that do not represent imaginary things or relationships do not still enable communication, or why communication is modelled on the exchange of representations of physical things between minds. Nor is it clear whether Belsey is explaining the reasoning which led critics to embrace theory or personally endorsing it.

What Belsey does seem to endorse, however, is a conception of criticism in which critics demarcate the range of interpretations which a fictional text makes available to readers rather than isolating a single, authorised interpretation. Not just anything will do, but nor is there is just one right answer. She does not spell out exactly what determines the range of legitimate interpretation, but it seems to be the meanings of the words at the time the text was written and the grammatical and other interpretive conventions which obtained. Critics, she suggests, need to be cultural historians, alert to the contexts in which texts were written, beyond the mere biography of the author.

So much for interpretation. But criticism, as Belsey conceives it, has an evaluative side as well. By reading works of criticism and studying the cultures that gave rise to them, she suggests, we can acquire skills of interrogation which can be applied to contemporary culture to challenge its practices and beliefs. In this way, the book describes a shift from the evaluation of individual fictions to the evaluation of cultures. But as the book reaches its closing pages, it becomes apparent that many salient questions that a reader might ask about the evaluative dimension of criticism, such as how objective critical judgements are, how critical discussions move towards them, whether some people are better qualified to make them than others, and whether objects of criticism should be assessed on their intrinsic or formal properties or in terms of their effects on the world, are not going be considered.

Because of this, Belsey is also silent about what is surely one of the most pressing questions about criticism now, which is where it sits in relation to other forms of evaluation and particularly those which involve gathering large volumes of data and testing products, institutions, and people against metrics. These forms of evaluation are increasingly integral to how the world works and people may be increasingly inclined to ask when someone makes a critical judgement whether they are saying something which is in principle testable against data—for instance, a book’s sales figures, the proportion of readers who finished it, how long they took, what proportion would recommend it to a friend, and how they would rate it out of ten. If the evaluative dimension of criticism is to have a future, experts like Belsey will need to be much more willing to answer this kind of question. As it is, Criticism is silent about this because it is built on the high-speed history model of what a small book on a big topic can be. As an example of this, it does very well, but at the cost of being sufficiently responsive to the factors affecting criticism now.

Gabriel Roberts completed a D.Phil at Oxford in 2015. He now works in London. He is a former editor of the Oxonian Review.

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