Monday, 20 November 2006

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Received Wisdom: Empson and the New Critics (x-posted from The Valve) Article #1: In the 1950s, the New Criticism, championed by F.R. Leavis, I.A. Richards and, ironically, the troilistically inclined Empson, was the dominant literary ideology. This insisted that the text and only the text mattered; the life was nothing. Subsequently, literary theories such as structuralism went further, claiming there was no such thing as an author; texts were written by the culture, not the individual. Article #2: So it was with what he called the Wimsatt Law, which maintained that the intention of an author should be of no concern to the interpreter; if the poet succeeded, all the relevant evidence of intention was there in the poem. Wimsatt regarded the poem as a ‘verbal icon’: an autonomous verbal structure, an aesthetic object independent of the truth or morality of whatever it says. This places Wimsatt on the Richards side of the argument with Empson, who found the Wimsatt Law disgusting: it violated his strongly Romantic notion of what poetry is and does; and he thought he saw that the entire profession of literary criticism, on both sides of the Atlantic, had been corrupted by it. Which is the correct account of Empson’s relation to the New Criticism? The author of the Times article—not to mention people who have or desire employment in an English department—should read Mark Jancovich’s The Cultural Politics of New Criticism. For once, the Amazon description of an academic book is pithy and cogent: In this book, Mark Jancovich concentrates on the works of three leading American writers—Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate—in order to examine the development of the New Criticism during the late 1920s and early 1930s, and its establishment within the academy in the late 1930s and 1940s. This critical movement managed to transform the teaching and study of English through a series of essays published in journals such as the Southern Review and the Kenyon Review. Jancovich argues that the New Criticism was not an example of bourgeois individualism, as previously held, but that it sprang from a critique of modern capitalist society developed by pre-capitalist classes within the American South. In the process, he clarifies the distinctions between the aims of these three Southern poets from those of the next “generation” of New Critics such as Cleanth Brooks, Warren and Welleck, and Wimsatt and Beardsley. He also claims that the failure on the part of most contemporary critics to identify the movement’s ideological origins and aims has usually meant that these critics continue to operate within the very professional terms of reference established through the New Critical transformations of the academy. Empson and Richards don’t factor largely in Jancovich’s account, which is my point—the term “New Criticism” transforms all literary scholarship written before 1968 into a caricature of second generation of American New Critics. Much of what passes for the “political” in literary scholarship relies on the contradistinction between the current face of literary studies and that caricature. I share with those who commented...
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He Liked to Imbibe the Old Booze; or, the True Crimes against Style; or, the Thesaurarial Tipping-Point If you ever want to enjoy the true crime genre, don't let this be your introduction to it. The artful construction and subtle characterizations will render the rest unreadable. I say this as someone whose standards for insomnious reading material rival those of an illiterate fourth grader. As dawn threatens to break, I want books with broad strokes and—in a perfect world—pictures. Gruesome, preferably, to assuage the animal instincts four sleepless nights can stoke. With this criteria in mind, consider this well-reviewed, highly-recommended "account of rape, torture and murder on the California coast." Broad strokes? Check. Pictures? Check. Gruesome pictures? Check. Sounds perfect, no? Not so much. This book contains prose so poor and so clichéd I initially thought it artful. How better to deflate the pretensions of a walking superiority complex with a penchant for folksy speech than to stuff sentences like "he liked to imbibe the old booze" in his head? Isn't that why they invented third-person omniscience? Alas, the effect is not intentional. If you count the number of appearances the word "drink" makes in the previous paragraph, you have raw data enough to begin a statistical analysis of what I'll call The Thesaurarial Tipping-Point. By which I mean, the number of times a word can appear before a writer is driven to thesaurize his prose like a penurious fornicatress. While the pressures of undergraduate life can partly explain my previous lexigraphical lament, from a well-published author in an award-winning book, such brobdingnagian pettifogging is completely unacceptable. Especially when the book in question is perused to extricate the reader from the pencil-in-hand, professorial pose of the professional English professor. Infelicitous prose alone is not enough to warrant condemnation. All the "penetrating of the soil" aside, this book would not be the literary cesspool it is without the death of a couple of clichés. What if the subject of a true crime novel imbibed a little of the old booze then raped, tortured and murdered Barbie? Wouldn't that be incredible? Well... Rachel [X] and Aundria [Y] had led lives of beauty, hope, and trust. They sought to better themselves in one of the most gorgeous locations in the entire United States. They had dreams and wishes they were on the verge of fulfilling. Instead, they ended up in shallow graves beneath piles of trash on one man's property. Can you believe that? These perfect girls led perfect lives. They would've married perfect husbands, birthed perfect children and won perfect divorces. Amazing how human they seem. Who better to marshal my sympathies for than people who exist only in the moment their deaths are reported on the local news? That I had more sympathy for the murderers in Capote's In Cold Blood than the victims whose last hours Corey Mitchell chronicles in Dead and Buried speaks to some sort of massive generic failure. I would say more, but I've whinged enough for one night...

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