(I'm elevating this long comment to a post because it's germane to what I'll be posting later about Cerebus. It is somewhat sketchy—and by no means original—but I think it captures the
double-bind deadlock of conservative critics of literary studies.)
When I wrote this, I didn't have a problem wondering what I meant by "conservative." I thought "whatever Kline was angling at" would suffice. Sure, it's incoherent, but so is the predominantly liberal theory we have today. On the one hand, I think it absurd to hold a prospective conservative scholarship to different standards those by which we abide; on the other, since (as Luther notes) one of Kline's objections is the inherent pluralism of contemporary literary studies, I don't think those standards even apply. Building on Waxbanks' elegant defense of Bloom, I think we know where we can start:
Conservative literary theory cannot be based on a particular canon. The Culture Wars and the foetid miasma of its trenches will do us no immediate good, since few believe that Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Melville shouldn't be taught—that'd they're somehow inadequately "literary" in some regard—only that they should be taught alongside Behn, (George) Eliot and Stowe.* That Dickens has acquired literary imprimateur suggests that the criteria are malleable. As does the inclusion of any novels, which until the modernists were considered hybrid beasts; capable of fleeting moments of literariness, but on the whole mere prose, constructions of the sort anyone who could read a newspaper could write. All of which is beside the point, as the article Paul Cantor article Andrew linked to lays plain. Still, even Cantor relies on a pluralistic model of cultural production:
The historicist model of culture is fundamentally flawed. Far from being self-contained and monolithic, most cultures are open to outside influences and as a result become multivalent and hybrid in character.
Shakespeare is universal because he embraced cultures and traditions outside his own—although his argument suffers here from being too quick on the triumphalism. Not that he's necessarily wrong—I have a friend working on the appropriation of Shakespeare by Nigerian authors in the 19th and 20th centuries—only that Shakespeare translating well in Germany, the former Soviet Bloc and Japan is not evidence of universality. The fact that Kurosawa's Ran translates King Lear into 16th century Japan may say more about plots involving the abdicaton of power in clan societies; such plots may only resonate "universally" in those countries in which clan obligations are symbolically operative, a source of nostalgia in largely alienated lives. It could be many things, none of them necessarily having to do with the universal quality of the Shakespearean text.
But then there's the problem of what else should be included in the canon. We all agree that Shakespeare should, but what about all those books written by brown people who live on islands we've never even heard of. Can they possibly produce great literature. This is where arguments like Cantor's can easily be reversed: if the power of an individual voice living in a culture in which multiple traditions vie for cultural supremacy is what it takes to make a Shakespeare, there's absolutely no reason Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home couldn't be a work of "universal" genius. Were someone to argue that "our" cultural tradition isn't represented, the claim to universality could be wielded as a multicultural cudgel: It doesn't matter, we could say, swinging, because it tells a universal story, as applicable to us and our lives as any native Jamaican.
Kline, I assume, would not be impressed. Frankly, this is because he's intellectually dishonest. He would claim the elevation of Brodber to Shakespeare's status is unjustified, the result of a godless theoretical pluralism finding more value, more complexity, in a work than it actually contains. (He would say this despite elsewhere having trumpeted Dickens, about whom many of the complaints he would make about Brodber were made—and by far superior thinkers.) Complaints about deconstructionism would surface, followed by multiple references to the Sokal Affair, and that poll indicating that Gavin P. Albright is the sole remaining conservative employed by an English department in the United States. In other words, when it came to the difficult questions—that is, when it came to that most difficult of questions, namely, the definition of literary, he would retreat into tradition instead of philosophical aesthetics, engaging in rear-guard offenses all the while.
None of this proves that a political conservative couldn't practice a politically conservative literary theory, only that none have up to this point. By which I mean, none of the usual critics of academia have attempted to define the literary in such a way that Shakespeare and Dickens are in, but Brodber and the rest are out. Or, they could have the courage of their convictions and say that if Shakespeare and Dickens are in, so are Brodber and the rest, but I haven't seen that argued either—and doubt I will, since doing so would run contrary to notions of tradition.
In this respect, I think the multiculturalist have cornered the cultural traditionalists, forcing them into a position either visibly incoherent (the false universalism of Shakespeare) or spectacularly racist (Dead and White, That's What's Right! Dead and White, That's What's Right!). The latter's utterly untenable in this political climate; the former's philosophically incoherent and intellectually dishonest in the extreme. They may have people whose goals seem consonant with theirs, like Harold Bloom, but were they to read Bloom, they'd find him equally objectionable to the critics they'd hoped he'd replace.
Where do they go from here?
*I'm being flip. Practical issues obviously abound. I'm talking about the hypothetical canon here, not what can be covered in a ten or eighteen-week survey.