The value we ascribe to a literary work is as much an effect of its continued circulation in contemporary culture as its artistry. I wish books like Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without were more common, providing productive criticism of works whose value may be overstated. Negative criticism can be destructive but done with discernment contributes much that is useful.
Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne are not in the least bit awed by the ‘greatness’ of any writer and for the most part don’t fall into the object-subject confusion that devils a lot of criticism of canonical writers. No living writers were chosen for their scrutiny (back when the book was published in 1967) so they can also be forgiven for the cold-bloodedness and insensitivity of the criticism. It is perhaps only readers at risk of being torn away from favourite works by cool and intelligent appraisal that risk hurt feelings.
I laughed aloud at the suggestion that Hemingway be recognised only as “a footnote to the minor art of Gertrude Stein, an appendix to the biography of the great novelist Scott Fitzgerald,” as posterity seems to be granting The Big Man that status anyway. I enjoyed the butchery of Melville as “an annotator and labeller” and agreed wholeheartedly that, ” we could easily do without the entire oeuvre of William Faulkner”.
Delicately I agreed with much of the TS Eliot appraisal, even chuckling at this footnote:
General Note. It may be that the means whereby T. S. Eliot prevailed upon the world to mistake him for a major poet was the simple but efficient confidence trick of deliberately entitling one or two of his verses, as though thereby to differentiate them from the rest, ‘Minor Poems’.
I saved until the end witnessing Woolf’s To the Lighthouse being dragged to the abattoir:
But what is the artistic achievement of reducing human experience to the gossipy level of the shallowest layer of consciousness? We are all conducting Virginia Woolf novels inside ourselves all day long, thinking how the sunset clouds look like crumbling cheese, wondering why the dinner party guests don’t go, puzzling about children growing up, noticing for the first time the colour of a bus ticket. This famed sensitivity is everyone’s birthright; and probably Virginia Woolf was applauded by those who were delighted to find literary expression of their own commonplace associations. To have those put in a book and called a novel . . . Only dots can do justice to their delight.
I’ll argue that Woolf’s method of immersing us in her character’s minds went further than gossip. There are nuances that the critics here seem to miss or ignore; Woolf’s voice offers a fluidity that gives a seamless quality to the stitching together of many different perspectives. The same argument is made of jazz, that it is pure ornamentation without any inward beauty. Nevertheless there are limitations to Woolf’s method and the argument sends me back to To The Lighthouse to think further, which is the value of such a book (even when almost 50 years old). In today’s sensitive environment though it ought to come with a health warning.
That is an interesting and dangerously compelling argument about Woolf – I’m glad to hear you argue somewhat against it (as I would, too), but it does rightfully ask a reader to be a bit more objective when looking at Woolf’s “project” – especially To the Lighthouse, such a favorite.
I’m eager to read Brophy after your introduction of her. Thank you.
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My pleasure as always Michelle. I look forward to discussing Brophy with you. The short but fascinating argument against To the Lighthouse is highly compelling and while cringing inwardly I welcomed the profound insight.
“The value we ascribe to a literary work is as much an effect of its continued circulation in contemporary culture as its artistry.” Are you sure this is the whole picture, Anthony? It’s easy enough, surely, to flip it around and say that its continued circulation is down in part to its artistry. People don’t just continue to read classics simply because they are there, in print, circulating, appearing on lists and the curriculum. Not all readers are the passive victims of tastemakers and received wisdom. As for Brigid Brophy dismissing Melville an “annotator and labeller” – I’ve read almost every word of fiction that Melville published and I have no idea how such a comment relates to, say, Typee, Pierre or Billy Budd. Moby-Dick is certainly taxonomical, but it also rather more than that … I’m sorry to say this all strikes me as very silly. In the end, who is Brigid Brophy – a minor and barely-remembered writer – to dismiss Emily Bronte, Melville, Whitman, etc? The idea that 19th century American literature could do without Leaves of Grass, Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn is not really supportable. Criticise by all means, but to say we could “do without” smacks of an aesthete’s ignorance of history.
You can flip it around, Mark, for the same result. Works persevere either because they deserve to, or because they are labelled ‘classic’ as part of received opinion. The three writers of this book realise they are ‘as liable to error as the opinions they claim to correct’. The guiding principle of the book is Coleridge’s ‘Praises of the unworthy are felt by ardent minds as robberies of the deserving’. In writing that we could “do without” certain works, nothing gets destroyed. I’ve picked out certain fragments of the book that I thought might evoke a response but quite a lot of the book consists of literary appreciation, suggesting ‘which the blooms are for whose sake’ they wish to ‘clear the weeds’. I enjoyed the attempt to demolish books that are either revered or considered back in 1967 or now as required reading. I wish more critics would do the same rather than holding great books in perpetual reverence. If you feel their opinions are silly, discount them as three minor figures against the whole weight of received opinion.
Ironies abound here. Is there any book in history more apposite for Coleridge’s “Praises of the unworthy are felt by ardent minds as robberies of the deserving” than Moby-Dick? – a book first published in 1851 that did not achieve “classic” status until either the 1920s or the 1940s, depending on your point of view. No “modern” book with that big a reputation has had to swim so hard against the tide of “received opinion”: Moby-Dick might be an established classic now but hardly because it had such a status conferred upon it complacently, quite the opposite. So “perpetual reverence” hardly applies.
I spent years reading lit crit on a daily basis (when I was working on my PhD). The project of much of the most influential literary theory & criticism from the 1950s/60s onwards has been the total opposite of what you suggest. There is no reverence left in the literary world for literary masterpieces. It’s not individual “great books” that have had their reputations challenged, but the very idea that there is any such thing as a great book at all. Cultural relativism, courtesy of postmodernism, poststructuralism and deconstruction, has collapsed hierarchies and erased the distinction between high and low, good and bad. There are, however, a few renegades left out here, refugees from what has, in fact, become an academic orthodoxy, that wonder if the consequences of all of this are truly desirable.
This book is aimed, in my opinion, at the young intelligent reader of 1967 who decides he or she is done with the classics because of the tripe that gets force-fed into undeserving pupils of English Literature classes in England. I bear the scars from the pitifully bad Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and the turgid Titus Andronicus. It is an outdated book as many of its targets fell from the canon before poststructuralism did its damage within the academy. It is comic in tone and had I read it as a young reader, would have been inspired to try a great many of the works it appreciates.
The debates you mention, even now, are not conversation pieces amongst average readers. Discourse within the academy, particularly on obscure topics such as postmodernism, poststructuralism and deconstruction, has undoubtedly had an impact on wider culture but the average reader is still happily exploring what received opinion deems Great Books. You only have to look at the discussion and debate online about ‘The 100 greatest British novels’: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20151204-the-100-greatest-british-novels – to see that there is still much interest in Great Books. On that list are some bad books that I’d love to see a modern edition of this book demolish to make way for the deserving.
I take your point on Moby Dick though it is not to my taste.
That list is preposterous – as are ALL such lists, in my view, even lists of overrated books, which is one of the reasons I have taken against your Brophy et al. book. That said, I am curious: do they mention any of the “blooms” that would benefit from a clearing of the “weeds”? (Ah, yes, Hamlet – that well known literary bramble … Oops, sorry!)
Many “blooms” are shown appreciation including Chaucer, Donne, Marvell, Milton, Pope, Keats, Beaumont, Fletcher, Marlowe, Webster, Wilde, Coleridge, and Austen; also specifically works like James’s Golden Bowl, Shaw’s Saint Joan, Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Sonnets. (The argument that Hamlet is minor Shakespeare – though not as turgid as Titus Andronicus – is one of the better chapters.)
Cleo over Hamlet?:
I cannot fight upon this argument;
It is too starved a subject for my sword.
My Brophy books are in storage, though I did read her novel Flesh many years ago. I must dig them out and take a look.
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I’m curious: what do they say about Wuthering Heights?
It is one of the shorter pieces of criticism, which it doesn’t sustain its argument very well, but essentially they question its psychological truth and emotional coherence.
It’s official, I love these writers. 🙂
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Who is anyone, to claim the pronoun “we” to this exercise in bile and willful misreading?
‘We’ being the three critics that put their name to this work.
Please tell me Middlemarch is on their list.
No, Caille, and my guess would be that Brophy is a fan of George Eliot, judging by generally appreciative comments.
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T and C much neglected. Ulysses’ speech on order (“The specialty of rule hath been neglected” is a masterpiece). I would very much like to join this discussion and those like it — calling myself Eigenshaft, from Musil — address is email@example.com Please help me hook up with youse guys. Retired Comp.Lit professor.
Yes, much neglected. So much fine writing in the drama including Ulysses’ speech.
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