The autumn catalogues of some very enterprising publishers announce as many books as usual under the rubric Literary Criticism, or possibly more, but few have titles of a sort that, even ten years ago, would have been found there, and virtually none that would have much interest for the non-academic public that once read old-style literary criticism. This development is welcomed in some academic quarters as a triumph of technology, but it appears that certain persons of importance are beginning to wonder whether the hightech, jargoned, reader-alienating image of the modern product may not have some disadvantages. Of course it can be argued that there can be no going back, the old criticism having been declared intellectually deluded, dishonest and collusive with political authoritarianism. 'With the advent of Post-Structuralism and the "death of literature",' says one current blurb, 'the opposition between high and popular culture became untenable, transforming the field of enquiry from literary into cultural studies' - incidentally, a fair sample of newera, defiantly messy prose. For, as everybody likes to say, there has been a Kuhnian paradigm-shift, and to be installed on the far side of it is to feel comfortable with the idea that it is no longer necessary to think about literature at all. Among the ancient assumptions now discounted is the notion that one piece of writing might somehow be better than another: and if you believe that, you lack much inducement to write decently, whatever that might mean, yourself.
LRB 21 November 1991 | PDF Download