A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.
In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”
Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.
Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.
Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.
No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.
Elaine Scarry, although she writes less literary criticism these days.
I’ve read part of On Beauty and Being Just, and have Dreaming by the Book to read. Are there particular works you’d recommend ?
Dreaming by the Book.
Wonderful, I have that on my shelves. Thanks, Christine.
If you haven’t already encountered it, take a look at Franco Moretti’s work, especially Volumes 1 and 2 of The Novel, as well as his more recent Distant Reading.
Here’s a good Symposium on the latter, and here’s the essay by Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” that James F. English cites in the Symposium.
I am very torn about Moretti, though I’ve never read one of his books cover to cover. At the bookshop I sit down with his books and get drawn in, but cannot imagine reading to the end, so never buy them.
Understandably In fact, I can’t imagine reading any book cover to cover (except perhaps a Dostoevsky novel). That’s why I suggested only that you take a look at Moretti’s books. I imagine he’d agree: “We know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.” Where better to begin not reading texts than with Moretti’s? 😉