The Human Condition:

The New Criticism and the Politics of Identity – May 17, 2015

Book of Kells

A page from The Book of Kells

I studied English literature at Penn State University in the late 1960s. My classmates and I were the inheritors of a type of literary analysis called “the New Criticism.”1 What the “old criticism” might have been and how this new approach remedied its failures was something about which the generation that preceded mine must have wrangled. By the time I was in the classroom, the New Criticism was the method taught, sometimes overtly but more often by example. It was accepted as the way you studied literature.

If memory serves—and I might be missing some of the nuances these fifty-odd years later—the essence of the New Criticism was and is “Read the text.” Treat the book—or the poem, play, song, or script—as a “found object.” What matters, what counts in your analysis is what you can read on the page and what it says to you, right there, in print, on the page. The New Criticism ruled out of bounds—or to be treated only anecdotally and not as part of the analysis—the author’s stature, life history, and political persuasions. Also out of bounds was the literary tradition or style in which the author wrote, whether the 19th-century Metaphysical, Romantic, Gothic, or Transcendentalist movements, and its associated canons and quirks. For today, the demarcations would be genre: Romance, Mystery, Science Fiction, or Fantasy. Yet the method remains the same. Don’t compare the text. Read it.

Explicitly out of bounds are the author’s stated intentions for the work. If the author has to write a foreword or introduction to tell the reader what to expect, his or her skills become suspect. All such preemptive preparation falls under the heading of special pleading. As a general principle, the author, having produced the work, must then let it go. It must go out into the world and stand on its own, because the work itself is all that the reader, once deep into the pages and engrossed in the story, will be able to receive.

And indeed, the author is not necessarily the expert on what he or she has produced. For example, sometimes after writing a passage I will go back, read it afresh, and only then discover that some object or action or comment from a character symbolizes, foreshadows, reinforces, or expands on something elsewhere in the book. I didn’t plan on this, but it’s there for the reader to perceive and appreciate. An author generally can’t create and plant such connections ahead of time—they’re something that just bubbles up from the subconscious mind and its involvement with the story.2

And so what exactly is the goal of this “close reading” of the text? Simply to establish its quality. Not whether the book adheres to the author’s principles or politics, or represents his or her best work, or fits well into its claimed literary tradition or genre. Quite simply, does it exhibit quality?

That’s a funny concept, “quality.” Of course, it’s the goal of every writer: to write a good book. Some of us measure quality in terms of sales: if enough people buy the book and recommend it to their friends, it must be good, right? And then along comes a literary phenomenon like Love Story or Fifty Shades of Grey, and all of us English majors are shaking our heads over the notion that commercial success equals quality. But often enough commercially successful novels do possess quality, as a close reading of many bestsellers from past years will show. And we’ve also seen that all the hype in the world can’t make a lackluster effort fly off the shelves. The readers generally know what’s good. At least, they know what works for them.

Robert Pirsig thrashes out the concept of quality fairly completely in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was first published shortly after I graduated from the university. In the end, he arrives at quality in terms of the ancient Greek concept of arête, which means simply “excellence on its own terms” and sometimes “moral virtue.” Achilles had excellence because he was a ferocious and unmatched warrior. Hector had excellence because he represented the ideal of love of family, city, and country, or civic virtue. But Pirsig’s argument is kind of circular, isn’t it? “Quality” equals “excellence.” You can get that from a thesaurus.

In my experience of business, most recently in the biotech industry and our grappling with the principles of Six Sigma,3 I discovered a new concept of quality: “fitness for purpose.” An instrument has quality if it performs its detection functions accurately, quickly, efficiently, or according to some other specification valued by the user. Similarly, a car has quality if it drives well, transports the desired number of passengers and/or cargo, operates reliably, gets good gas mileage, pleases the eye and other senses, or meets some other specification valued by the buyer.

We can apply this concept directly to literature. It’s a good book—or poem, play, song, or script—if it delivers on its promise and pleases the reader. From there, you can begin to fill in the blanks. Is the language—in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure, required level of external experience—appropriate to the intended audience? Are the characters appealing, intriguing, or complex enough to keep the reader emotionally involved? Does the story structure reveal enough information, give it fast enough, but still keep certain key facts hidden, and yet provide enough clues, all to keep the reader intellectually involved? Does the subject matter make the book and whatever new insights or truths the author has to impart make the reading worth the reader’s time and effort? Does the story resolve itself in a way that leaves the reader’s imagination, sense of right and wrong, expectations, and emotions satisfied?

You might take the position that all of these questions must be answered from within the framework of the author’s intentions. Therefore, the New Criticism fails, because we must ask the author about the audience for which he or she wrote the book and what he or she wanted to achieve with it. But I would insist that’s not the case.

Every book—or poem, play, song, or script—exists in the real world and falls into the reader’s hand, whether by choice or chance. Sometimes, the book is just sitting there on the shelf as the reader passes by, and he or she becomes intrigued with the title, cover art, or blurb. The reader picks it up and samples the first page, or a page from somewhere in the middle. The book either catches the reader’s attention, or it doesn’t. Perhaps the reader at age twelve picks up The Odyssey because it has a title that suggests an adventure or the cover depicts a helmeted warrior with spear and shield. She starts reading and discovers that, first, it’s non-rhyming, unmetered poetry; second, it’s about people and places she doesn’t know or care about; and third, nowhere in the first ten pages does she see an adventure begin to form or meet that helmeted warrior. Does this mean it’s a bad book? Of course not. In the hands of a reader with the right expectations, adequate external experience—such as a previous interest in Greek myth and history—and appropriate vocabulary, it’s an excellent book.

Not every book is for everybody. But by reading sympathetically—and working purely from the text—the literary analyst can determine what kind of book the author was striving for and whether or not it fulfills its premise and its promise. Having established the intended age or reading level from the book’s vocabulary and use of language, and the story’s meaning from its treatment of the subject matter, we can begin to dissect the book’s structure and level of reveal, its use of dialogue and development of character, and its story arc and movement toward resolution. We can then see if all these elements work well, or if they leave the intended reader dissatisfied.

In recent years, the method of the New Criticism has come under attack. No one names or targets it directly, but it’s clear that many people want to ignore it, downplay it, and push it aside. People with a political agenda want to take over the literary world and its marketplace just as they want to dominate other aspects of life and culture.

In a political sphere where a person’s ethnos, experience, personal story, and opinions are considered most vitally important—what has come to be called the “politics of identity”—we lose sight of the fact that we are all basically human beings with a common human nature. In this environment, many people believe that a person from one particular background only cares about stories written from within that background and shared experience. That is, to use a nonjudgmental euphemism, Greeks will only care about stories concerning other Greeks and their culture. And in a world where everyone is trying so hard to sell their own books, Greek authors have become the sole inheritors, arbiters, and representatives of Greek culture and experience. It’s not just that non-Greek authors can’t adequately express the Greek viewpoint and ideals. They can, of course, but they probably have to work harder at it, be more sympathetic to it, and perhaps bring insights that a natural Greek might not develop on his or her own—just as a fish can’t tell you much about the nature of water. But more to the point, this political value says it’s insulting and morally wrong if a non-Greek even tries to tell a Greek story.

I find that viewpoint to be a prelude to tragedy. It says we are not all human beings together, that we can’t understand each other, and that Greek and non-Greek will remain mutually unintelligible for all time. That teaching is a closing in and shutting off rather than an opening outward.

Another element of the new politics aims to limit the appropriate sphere of literature. Once, while I was sitting on a panel at a science fiction convention in Portland, Oregon, an older man in the audience thundered to the room at large, “What other basis for stories is there but class war, gender war, and race war?” In other words, stories that don’t serve a Progressive, Marxist, revolutionary purpose are pointless and shouldn’t be published. I don’t think I can live inside a world that small.

Let’s see: love and how to share it; expectations and how to deal with them in a disappointing world; the act of discovery and how to proceed with its consequences—to name just a few themes worth communicating. These are issues with which every human being must grapple. And the story of that grappling is internal, personal, and works outward from the viewpoint of an established character. The political themes of class war, gender war, race war are external and social. To be sure, the literary world has a place for socially based stories and examination of the individual’s place in his or her society. But such stories are not the whole field.

Worse, an exclusive focus on these themes would make the reader intentionally colorblind—in the original meaning of that word: able to perceive in only certain colors or shades. For example, if you believe that class war, gender war, race war are the only basis for a good story, what do you make of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Is it a play about a youth fighting corruption in the 16th-century Danish state? Not entirely. Is it about the male oppression of Gertrude and Ophelia? Not exactly. Is it about the oppression of Yorick as holder of a disrespected occupation—the court jester—and possibly as a dwarf? That would be pushing it. Hamlet is about power and powerlessness, but it’s far more personal than that. Those political and gender themes are hardly grace notes to the story. The attraction of the Hamlet story lies not in them, but in the young man’s moral dilemma, his choices, how he deals with them, and how that story resolves itself.

The New Criticism does not care if an author is Greek—or African, Asian, female, rich, poor, or abused as a child. This method of analysis discards the author’s experience and politics as metadata, peripheral, and extraneous. Instead, does the book work as a whole? Does it satisfy its intended purpose? To begin with, can you perceive that purpose—not from what the author says, but from what he or she has put on the page? And then, is the book faithful to what it is and where the story goes? Does the book have meaning for the reader? Does it satisfy a reader who has little, some, or great experience with the subject matter? Does the story resolve itself in a way that feels morally and emotionally right?

And the only way to answer these questions is to read the text itself.

1. I’ve addressed the New Criticism peripherally several times before, specifically: Art and Mystery from August 12, 2012; Separating Ego from Work from September 25, 2011; and The Value of a Liberal Arts Education from February 6, 2011.

2. See Working With the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.

3. See The Zen of the Machine from May 4, 2014.