The Grumpy Critic

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.


18 thoughts on “The Grumpy Critic

  1. Academics are sort of funny in their intellectual arguments. Do you sometimes feel like they lose track of the real world? Leavis sounds like he went a bit far, but considering his personal history it’s not surprising maybe. If nothing else he must have been a great catalyst for others to form their own theories. Do you have a particular theory you subscribe to?

  2. Thanks for this, Litlove. I always enjoy your thoughts on literary studies and literary culture. Leavis had an indirect but significant on New Zealand literary criticism in its early days (the 1930s and 40s in particular). The cultural and literary historian E.H. McCormick had been a student of the Leavises at Cambridge in the 20s and wrote a history of New Zealand literature up to that time, at their suggestion. He later expanded it into the seminal Letters and Art in New Zealand, which was published for the 1940 centennial.

    Other modernist critics here went about their practice in a similar way, questioning the taste, maturity and indeed psychological wellness of those writers and critics with whom they didn’t agree. The celebrated poet Allen Curnow was the main example of this up to around 1960 in particular. He cast a large shadow over the generation he taught at university, most of whom are now reaching retirement.

  3. What an excellent post! I remember (vaguely!) learning about Leavis at university, but having read your post about how unpleasant he is, I kinda think I might have to learn more about him. I am rather judgmental myself and I feel sympathetic to other judgmental people. 😛

  4. Ah Litlove, you’ve done such a nice job of sympathetically painting a portrait of that grumpy old critic. I couldn’t help but thinking though that Harold Bloom sounds remarkably similar in many respects except Bloom really is brilliant which makes his grumpiness a bit easier to tolerate.

  5. Hi,

    Your blog has been nominated for a BBAW (Book Blogger Appreciation Week) award, and we need to send you some info related to that. Please reply to this comment via e-mail to 3.rsblog AT Gmail DOT com (TODAY if possible), so we’ll have your contact info and can follow up on your nomination.


    for the BBAW Awards

  6. Hello! I’m writing to let you know that you have been nominated for a Book Blogger Appreciation Week Award for Best Literary Fiction Blog. Please email me ASAP at for more information on your nomination. (FYI – the deadline is Friday, August 21.) Congratulations!

  7. What a funny coincidence that you’re being nominated for a book blog award (yay litlove!) when you’re blogging about that “worthy” grumpy old critic! My dad still speaks reverentially about the Great Tradition but it’s nice to see FRL debunked like this. Did you ever read The Pooh Perplex in which Winnie the Pooh is analysed according to different styles of criticism? The FR Leavis rip-off was brilliant (but they were all pretty funny).

  8. Danielle – you are so sweet! Oh yes indeed, academics do lose sight of reality, often! or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they have an unusual perspective on it, one that is partial and very emphatic and true in some ways but distorted in others. I don’t subscribe to any particular theory, although I’m most interested in psychoanalysis. When I write about a book, I suppose what I want is to say something true about it, something that might resonate with anyone who has read it. That’s hard enough! 🙂

    Harvestbird – thank you for your informative and fascinating comment. It WAS a generational thing, wasn’t it? I remember the French department when I first joined it, had a number of academics who behaved in the same way, but gradually they have been retiring and the new wave are simply too busy and too tired to expend energy on that kind of fight!

    Jenny – lol! Leavis would be so thrilled to have your support! There was a biography of him out a few years ago, but it was written by an ex-student who remained loyal and respectful and lots of other critics felt he pulled the punches rather. Still, it would be an intriguing read, I expect.

    Stefanie – you’re spot on. Bloom comes from very much the same tradition, which I guess arose in an era when it was essential to make literary studies look essential, if you see what I mean. I’ve never read Bloom because that anxiety of influence thing hasn’t ever really attracted me. But if you like him, I’ll certainly give him a go.

    Florinda and Elizabeth – I’m honoured and delighted to have been nominated. Thank you! I hope very much you’ve received my emails by now. And a huge thank you to whoever nominated me. You made my day!

    Doctordi – he must have been sad at basis. It’s odd because his early life was generally content. People speculate that something must have happened that escaped documentation. But it was also a certain style, I think, that emerged in universities. To fight to the death for the arts. I sort of feel we ought to do more of it, if we could do it without the hysteria…

    Pete – how about that – your dad still likes the Great Tradition. How very loyal of him! I haven’t read The Pooh Perplex but I do own a copy. I am going to have to read that chapter – it sounds hilarious! And thank you for the kind words. It’s nice to be nominated!

  9. You’re right–it is sort of difficult. I like your posts because they are so even handed and open minded and you never leave a reader feeling that they’ve somehow read a text wrong yet you always offer insight into the book.

  10. I wouldn’t say I like Bloom, only that I appreciate his intellect. And sometimes through all puffery and sniping he puts forth insightful criticism. I like to read him from time to time when I’m in the mood to have my feathers ruffled 🙂

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  12. Danielle – that is just so nice of you, thank you! 🙂

    Stefanie – lol! If I’m having that kind of feathers-ruffling day, I will seek him out. 🙂

    Charles – apologies for being slow to get to your comment. Woolf is an intriguing reviewer as she always felt she had really suffered from missing out on the kind of formal education her brother’s received. When you read her reviews you realise that there was nothing more that an orthodox education could have given her. She writes them from the point of view of a writer and a modernist, in an era when the question of biographical vs formal approaches was very much in the air. I don’t think I could assign her in all honesty to any particular school, but I think her reviews should be considered proper literary criticism. I think she reviewed out of her own writing personality, her sense of what was right and wrong technically and ideologically. So they are well worth any reader’s time of day.

  13. How good to know that Leavis is remembered; how discouraging to learn that it is primarily for his bad temper. Can you have it both ways–Leavis was a “tremendous influence and was instrumental in shaping the study of English literature for many decades to come” and also “isolated, embattled and friendless”?

    Too bad that you didn’t offer samples of Leavis’s writings to show the “insight” you acknowledge. So let me quote from the first chapter, ‘The Line of Wit’ of his book, “Revaluation: Tradition & Development in English Poetry.” Talking about the experience of reading through the “Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse,” Leavis quotes the following”

    “I wonder by my troth what thou, and I
    Did, till we lov’d? were we not wean’d till/ then?
    But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?
    Or snorted we in the seven sleepers den?
    ‘Twas so; But this, all pleasures fancies/ bee.
    If ever any beauty I did see,
    Which I desir’d and got, ’twas but a dreame of/ thee.”

    And then he comments:

    “At this we cease readings as students, or as connoisseurs of anthology-pieces, and read on as we read the living. The extraordinary force of originality that made Donne so potent an influence in the seventeenth century makes him now at once for us, without his being the less felt as of his period, contemporary–obviously a living poet in the most important sense.”

    Leavis then specifies the nature of the originality that mankes Donne, a living poet, one connected to a line of other great poets–Ben Jonson, Thomas Carew, Andrew Marvell and ultimately Alexander Pope. So much for Leavis’s narrowness.

    And in his tone I don’t hear hysteria, agression, or hostility. What I hear is the poised, intelligent voice of the man who at his best was the finest literary critic to ever write in English.

  14. Walter – I never said that Leavis was bad-tempered in his writing. He wasn’t. He had huge influence as a teacher – quite the guru effect. But that didn’t mean to say that he wasn’t also capable of tremendous battles in his private relationships with colleagues and students. I feel you are trying to insist that I’m saying his hostility made him a bad critic, and I don’t think that was the point of the piece at all.

    Nor am I the only person to depict Leavis in this light. Here’s an American academic writing far more stringently than I have just done:

    And here’s another interesting article on Leavis in similar vein:
    The above explains quite clearly how it is possible that Leavis gained and maintained a following, but experienced himself as betrayed by the majority of his colleagues.

    Clearly you love Leavis, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or necessary to ignore the more rebarbative parts of his personality.

  15. It’s really nice to see Leavis still a subject of debate after all these years. I had pretty much given up on literature, after having read several Thomas Hardy novels for my ‘A’ Level English and hating all of them, and my career clearly headed for nothing but Science. Then I started reading Leavis’s ‘Great Tradition’ almost by accident. Suddenly literature seemed to have a point to it, which it never had before. I was spurred into reading more widely, and whilst studying for a Biology exam made full use of the university library’s literature section as well. To this day I feel I have a visible degree in Science and an invisible one in English Literature, and I remain grateful to Leavis for encouraging me to become a better reader. Judging by your blog though, it’s probably because I never met him! As they say, if you love the art, don’t meet the artist.

  16. omnimanofnothing – what a great comment! Thank you! I’m delighted to come across a reader who was inspired by Leavis. I get the feeling that he was tremendously charismatic, and many students adored him, and it was really only if you fell foul of him that he ceased to look quite so charming. In book form, it’s great to know that he still delights.

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