Literary Criticism offers a concise overview of literary studies in the English-speaking world from the early twentieth century to the present. Joseph North steps back from the usual tangle of figures, schools, and movements in order to analyze the intellectual paradigms that underpinned them. The result is a radically new account of the discipline’s development, together with a trenchant argument about where its political future lies.
People in today’s literature departments often assume that their work is politically progressive, especially when compared with the work of early- and mid-twentieth-century critics. North’s view is less cheering. For when understood in relation to the longer arc of the discipline, the current historicist and contextualist mode in literary studies represents a step to the Right. Since the global turn to neoliberalism in the late 1970s, all the major movements within literary studies have been diagnostic rather than interventionist in character: scholars have developed sophisticated techniques for analyzing culture, but they have retreated from systematic attempts to transform it. In this respect, the political potential of current literary scholarship compares poorly with that of earlier critical modes, which, for all their faults, at least had a programmatic commitment to cultural change.
Yet neoliberalism is now in crisis—a crisis that presents opportunities as well as dangers. North argues that the creation of a genuinely interventionist criticism is one of the central tasks facing those on the Left of the discipline today.
[A] bold, lively, engagingly polemical account of academic literary criticism in the Anglo-American world.
[North’s] effort to disentangle the progressive possibilities of aesthetic cultivation from the reactionary forms it has assumed may well help to rejuvenate the discipline. After all, it is entirely possible to expose students to complexity and nuance without reaffirming the old-school canon of dead white men or the reactionary politics that the canon was made to serve. North’s style is disarmingly lucid and self-assured; his reminds me of the work produced by an earlier kind of scholar, the sort who imagined a general audience. As devastating as it is meticulous, North’s analysis is a tour de force demonstration of what close reading can bring to light and why it would be a tragedy if the discipline ever gave it up.
[There is] a great deal to learn from this highly informed, articulate, bold and quietly passionate book.
[North] is a courteous and charming narrator whose book is an absorbing addition to the history of literary studies, and future researchers will be indebted to him.
An exemplary venture in a leftist politics of culture…Literary Criticism is what its title claims for it, a book of quite general significance that should be read and considered by anyone, in or outside the academy, with a serious practical interest in the politics of literary culture today.
Utterly absorbing, revelatory, and inspiring in equal measures…A challenge to received wisdom…An exhilarating, sweeping, and hopeful narrative of literary studies’ pasts and possible futures. Anyone who wants to do literary studies in the coming years must read it.
This book is really a remarkable achievement: the best thing I have ever read about the history of criticism. North has read so much, thought so judiciously, and achieved a tone that is at once bold and modest, extraordinarily respectful of others’ achievements, while calmly showing that they have not fully understood what they are doing. North skillfully demonstrates that criticism’s best hope of bringing cultural change lies not with the historicist-contextualist critics who seek knowledge of cultures, but with the critics who seek the enhancement of the imaginative faculties of readers. This book gives us a different way of thinking about criticism.
Joseph North offers a bold and counterintuitive perspective on the history of criticism: that the turn toward reading texts in cultural-historical contexts is not a sign of the radicalization of literary studies but rather the opposite. North argues for a return to criticism—defined as a concern with aesthetic education and the cultivation of subjectivity—in order to revitalize literary studies and reconnect it to social and political life. Literary Criticism sparkles with intelligence and is assured and incisive throughout. A real pleasure to read.
- 272 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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