The function of criticism: to be ‘a trifle temperamental’.

This has been a rather disruptive few weeks as building and repairs were carried out on the house. As a consequence a couple of pieces I’ve been pondering for blogposts have had to be put on ice, including one on a volume of stories by Cees Nooteboom which I recently finished reading. So here are a few literary morsels which I hope will whet the appetite for more substantial fare in the near future…

With the painters and plasterers working indoors I had to stash most of my books away in boxes, limiting what was accessible to me to a few random texts. The other day, having finished the Nooteboom, I could find nothing that took my fancy from the few titles still on my last available little shelf, except for an old paperback Peregrine copy of F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit, and Italo Calvino’s essays in a collection called The Literature Machine, first published in Italian in the early 80s, and published by Vintage in paperback in 1997.

N Curry Jul 14 025My literary training in the 70s, first at A level then as an undergraduate, was very much in the Leavisite ‘close reading’ tradition – those who’ve read any of these posts may well recognise the approach. I know it’s no longer fashionable, but it’s the one I’m comfortable with. When I carried out postgrad research into medieval hagiography at Leavis’s old college, Emmanuel, in Cambridge in the 80s the structuralists were in the ascendancy, and I found some aspects of their work of interest, as we shall see when I turn to Calvino in a future post.

This battered old Peregrine book was first published by Penguin in 1962 (but the essays in it first appeared in Leavis’s review, Scrutiny, a decade or so earlier; this edition is dated 1969). I first encountered it at Bristol University in the early 70s, when required to read the seminal essays on Milton, Swift, Pope and Shakespeare (among others scrutinised in the volume).

What caught my attention as I started re-reading it last week, not having looked into this text for several years, was the preface, where Leavis explains the source of its title: it’s taken from T.S. Eliot, The Function of Criticism, and his passage about the ‘quiet corroborative labour’ which the serious and objective critic should strive for in debate with colleagues and ‘fellows’ in ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’. Unfashionable, maybe, but those words still resonate for me.

The other passages I’d like to reproduce here remind me that FRL’s reputation as being a humourless curmudgeon is unmerited. His epigraphs include this from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Goodbye to All That:

At the end of my first term’s work I attended the usual college board to give an account of myself. The spokesman coughed and said a little stiffly: ‘I understand, Mr Graves, that the essays that you write for your English tutor are, shall I say, a trifle temperamental. It appears, indeed, that you prefer some authors to others.’


In one of two epigraphs Leavis includes from the letters of Henry James there’s this, to WD Howells:

From the website of The Leavis Society

From the website of The Leavis Society

They are, in general, a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantile lines – as against the so almost universal Anglo-Saxon absence of these things; which tends so, in our general trade, it seems to me, to break the heart.

If ‘our general trade’ – those of us who have the temerity to offer our critical judgements in places like this blog, and those who read and comment on them – is Discrimination and Appreciation applied to our careful readings of literary texts, then gods stand up for bastards, as Edmund so succinctly puts it in King Lear. Why shouldn’t lit crit be ‘practical’? What’s so terrible about being discriminating, provided it’s done in a spirit of probing, honest scrutinising corroboration with one’s fellow critics and readers?