By traditional literary criticism, we usually mean the type of response to literature typified by, say, F R Leavis, which is highly judgmental, informed by a great deal of reading and thought and usually highly prescriptive. The Great Tradition would perhaps typify that series of attitudes.
For me this school of criticism grew out of the periodical reviews of current literature in the 19th Century, which are sometimes derided – how often did I hear the phrase in academia yes but it is just a review? – but which had a number of clear qualities that were translated into valuable criticism. I think of RH Hutton’s bi-monthly reception of Middlemarch between 1871 and 1872 in The Spectator which seem to me to rise above any sense of a being just a review to be a living, engaged, vital response to a ground-breaking novel. How about this from June 1872 to give you an insight into the excitement, enthrallment and sheer pleasure that reading Book 4 of Middlemarch gave Hutton:
We all grumble at Middlemarch; we all say that the action is slow, that there is too much parade of scientific and especially physiological knowledge in it, that there are turns of phrase which are even pedantic, and that occasionally the bitterness of the commentary on life is almost cynical; but we all read it, and all feel that there is nothing to compare with it appearing at the present moment in the way of English literature, and not a few of us calculate whether we shall get the August number before we go on our autumn holiday, or whether we shall have to wait for it till we return.
The social insights in this paragraph were amazing for me and my interests – look at the meaning of the word we – and look at the insights too – about, for example, Eliot’s cynicism. Is that a valid understanding of the novel – and does it provoke thought about the book in so many different ways? That is the strength of this conventional type of criticism.
Leavis was heavily influenced by Henry James, who regarded himself as the worst of critics because all he wanted to do was re-write the novels he read (and he did so with Daniel Deronda which became his The Portrait of a Lady) and whose highly judgmental approach seems quite odd now. (He, for example, regarded Romola as Eliot’s greatest novel and Deronda a failure. I don’t share the latter view and almost no-one would share the former.)
Out of this mixture, we get Leavis, who admired Deronda, and had Eliot in the canon of great literature – he eventually admitted Dickens too – but who wanted to carve out a different novel from Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth. Leavis showed much sensitivity in his critical writing – something that is a real strength of his type of criticism, but once it becomes so authoritative, dictatorial and judgmental, this type of criticism becomes, for me, little more than ego.
What I am looking for from criticism is insight and a different perspective that can open up different aspects of a work of art so I can understand it – and myself – better. When it becomes a set of prejudices – really no matter how well argued, but I tend to find the arguments rather tendentious – it becomes something else. And loses the strengths that a highly sensitive response to words can display. I always had a soft spot for practical criticism, which I heard one wag describe as neither practical (which it hardly is) nor criticism – which I suggest it can be. It demonstrates a responsiveness to words, meaning and associations that can be illuminating. I guess it falls over and shows its weakness as when I.A.Richards – its first proponent – argues that the use of the phrase green house should obviously NOT be a glass house. There is a good reason for what he writes but he isn’t thinking that not knowing that would be common.
On the positive side for conventional literary criticism there is the huge sensitivity to words, meaning and context, to character and psychological meaning, and to causality. On the negative side, that judgmental superiority.
For me in the end it can be stimulating to read, but I would look for something deeper, something more intellectually grounded and which is engaged with the essence of being human – rather than some aesthetic excursion.