People still find it really odd that I should be able to conduct research on literature. For great swathes of the population, research is something that happens in a laboratory and involves test tubes. By contrast, books are a form of entertainment, something to be read and enjoyed (or not, as the case may be) and put aside; what more could you possibly do with them? Well, just as a petri dish of bacteria, when placed under the microscope, reveals itself as a swarming community of endless variety, so, too, does a university department of literary critics. In fact, it’s amazing how many different things there are to do with books, and how passionately people will defend their own approach.
When I first arrived in Cambridge I recognized there were multiple categories of critic but they were united in being exclusive and intimidating. Some delighted in taking their little scalpels to the text and extracting patterns or internal contradictions most general readers would miss. Some wrote dense, obscure critiques packed with technical or philosophical jargon. Over time my eye became more discerning and I noticed that some had axes to grind, some hopped onto whatever bandwagon was currently passing, and some had been so completely seduced by a theory or a cause that every book they read was simply another glaring example of that exact same point they’d been trying to make. Of course what people say about a book rarely feels like a decision between choices; critics would be more likely to insist that they talk about what’s glaringly obvious and wonder rather indignantly how other readers could possibly have failed to notice it. No, the approach we take to reading develops on the dark side of the mind. Which is a shame because how we read has so much to say about who we are. I do remember one decision I made very consciously, however. I can distinctly recall growing very impatient with the kind of critical study in which the writer takes umbrage with some, often minor, point that another critic has made, and proceeds to spend the next 250 pages disemboweling that point, along with the critic who made it. It struck me as a form of intellectual antler-clashing, literature as a battlefield in which puffed-up egos competed for the flag, and I had no interest in it. I felt, and still feel, it’s a waste of perfectly good creative energy.
But critical overkill is a very popular approach still to writing about books. Only recently did I put two and two together and realize that it was in fact one of the original approaches to writing about books, back in the 1920s and 30s when the study of English literature not only emerged as a respected discipline but forged ahead of the field as the vanguard of civilization itself, and thus morally superior to law, science, philosophy or history. You may have heard of a man called F. R. Leavis. He taught at Cambridge and was deeply involved in boosting the popularity and the perceived value of studying literature. He made a big and lasting fuss about two things: 1) close reading was the essential skill when it came to writing about books and 2) there was a distinct canon of authors good enough to study and vast tracts of literary darkness where there were only monsters. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence made the cut, and not much else. He called it the Great Tradition, in the manner of all great traditions begun yesterday but insisted upon with belligerent determination. Furthermore, Leavis edited an important literary magazine entitled Scrutiny, published prolifically, and produced a curriculum for teaching that was so stringent and rigorous that many schoolmasters across the country adopted it, thus spreading Leavis’s preachings far and wide. He had tremendous influence and was instrumental in shaping the study of English literature for many decades to come.
He was also a living nightmare of hostility; he argued with everyone, dissenters and disciples alike. His aggression assumed titanic proportions but was often expended on the pettiest disputes. This was essentially because he was so dogmatic; he brooked no opposition, and yet his judgements were sweeping to say the least: ‘Except for Shakespeare, the Elizabethans don’t matter’ his lecture notes read. ‘The Prophetic Books [by Blake] a disaster. Nothing in them.’ So crude and unjustified a dismissal can hardly warrant the name of criticism, and yet these were edicts for Leavis, and if you didn’t agree with him, you were against him and in for an extremely unpleasant time. Authors, books, other critics, were so many skittles lined up and waiting for the bowling ball of Leavis’s criticism to mow them down, but the one person who escaped all analysis was Leavis himself. He fell completely beyond the arc of his waspish brain and acid tongue and so he seemed utterly confused by the reception he sometimes got. It took twenty years before Cambridge University actually gave him a lectureship, a fact that left Leavis baffled and embittered rather than regretting the disputes he had scattered in his wake and that had cost him a number of teaching jobs. As he grew older, paranoia inevitably took its toll, and the true underlying nature of Leavis’s vituperation became apparent in the later writings in which he was simply unhinged and unreadable. Once the insight had been lost, only the relentless aggression remained.
The spirit of Leavis lingers on in Cambridge, but my response to it has changed radically over the years. I ceased to find grumpy critics intimidating and discovered instead a reflex reaction of pity and distaste. They seem to stand for all I think is wrong with writing about literature, arbitrary disputes laced with hysteria, the creation of pointless ghettos, self-righteous sneering thinly disguised as intellectual superiority, tantrums about issues so unimportant in the global scale of things that I start to wonder myself about the point of what we do. But looking back at Leavis’s life, it’s actually easy to see what the histrionics gained him. Before he came along, the study of literature was in the hands of aristocratic dilettantes, and it was a mushy, unimpressive sort of intellectual discipline. Leavis came from a very different class to those old men of letters; he came from a social stratum of grafters and fighters, where you had to push for what you wanted and keep an eye out for all the people who would bring you down. By picking fights over what literary studies ought to be, he not only drew attention to those studies, he started to get people hot under the collar about them. For instance, if I said to you that your liking for Virginia Woolf showed poor taste, that she was a pointless and puerile writer without a shred of worth in her novels, that she mangled English syntax and had no interest in any of the important issues of her time, you might well be offended. Not to mention defensive of poor old Virginia. In fact, if you had any feelings in the matter at all, it wouldn’t be long before you were hastening to the shelf to fetch your copy of Mrs Dalloway and flicking through to the scenes where Woolf advocates powerfully for the victims of shell-shock, or blowing the dust off Orlando to prove that she was interested in gender politics. If I told you, as Leavis argued, that your moral worth could be gauged by the sensitivity of your literary responses, and that together we were protecting society from its barbaric elements by celebrating the glory of literature, then the stakes of any little dispute would rise sky high.
I don’t think for a moment that Leavis consciously calculated the effect he had. He suffered terribly from shellshock after the First World War, in which he was a medical orderly, and the experience both destroyed part of his character and elevated literature in his mind to the role of saviour. Like so many sensitive people who feel the horrifying approach of madness, I think he kept himself sane by turning that creeping negativity outwards. But he did confuse literature with religion, and made his studies into a sect and his students into disciples. What fell outside the reach of his teachings was inevitably heresy and those who disagreed with him were instantly excommunicated. It’s hard to distinguish the work of spirituality in such circumstances from the baser quest for power. And power-mongering, while it may make critics feel special, is also what keeps them isolated, embattled and friendless, as the case of Leavis so comprehensively showed.