October 13, 2008

Critical Limitations

I couldn't have said this better myself. In fact, in the introduction I wrote for my forthcoming anthology of 19th-century novel criticism, I didn't say it better myself, though this is pretty much what I was getting at:
In the early twentieth century, . . . [a] more "professional" and more self-consciously theorized discourse about novels arose, as part of the movement whereby authors of "modern" fiction (above all Henry James) attempted to break free from the line of fiction it is the purpose of the present book to illuminate. This more "professional" kind of criticism became, with the passage of time, the basis for criticism of the novel as it was presented to students in schools and universities. It was useful for many purposes, among them a focus on the craft of the novel, on how novels create their effects. But a criticism based on a set of aesthetic priorities that were developed as part of a rebellion against the nineteenth-century social novel would seem likely to have certain limitations for those who want to understand nineteenth-century novels, not leave them behind.
That, and the nineteenth-century critics who came before didn't do such a bad job understanding "the nineteenth-century social novel" either.


S. Li said...

The passage you've quoted expresses something I've realized in retrospect about my time studying standard Victorian literature (under you). I think that some of my frustration with the Condition of England novels we read in "Dickens to Hardy" was that I was approaching these novels from a perspective focussed solely "'on a set of aesthetic priorities'"--I was so busy trying to complete formal pictures of the novels that I didn't actually spend much time thinking about their subject matter, with the exception, maybe, of Felix Holt. I think I even became confused sometimes about the novels' subject matter and messages because I was reading almost exclusively 'from the outside in,' or from what I thought were formal properties through to the conclusions I thought these properties should imply.

It was around the time that we had to read some nineteenth-century criticism for Sensation Fiction that I realized this*. There really was something, it seemed, to what some of the few critics we sampled had to say: suddenly, evaluative criticism did not seem so unreasonable. A related and simultaneous critical awakening was the realization that a criticism based in (ideas of) morals could take on a aesthetic life, something I hadn't really thought of or been exposed to (an obvious and maybe not wholly representative example of what I'm thinking of here might be the relationship between reader sympathy and character development).

*I know you're talking here about the "'nineteenth-century social novel'" and not sensation fiction, but as (I think) you showed us in studying SF, questions of the literary value of these two types of novel are related.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thanks for this very interesting comment, Samantha; it makes me think in some different ways about how I might set up some of the discussions in the 19thC fiction courses. I wonder if it would be tacky to assign my own anthology when it comes out...