The Cost of Criticism

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    Gary Day has made a thought-provoking and highly readable contribution to one of the most difficult categories of critical writing: a history of literary criticism. Such a task is harder, as René Wellek once put it, than building a mountain out of melting ice. But who needs a mountain of ice? If indeed ‘criticism has no history’, as Day himself asserts, does such a narrative history have any critical or even market value (p. 1)? Few students have any real interest in the development of their discipline, even if they continue to rely on and even reiterate a number of iconic critical tenets. And many educators have been caught up in the so-called rise of the cultural sciences, a broadening out of the already elastic discipline of English. This is of course appealing, certainly as a response to the most persistent charges held against histories of literary criticism, that of disciplinary insularity and obscurantism. As Day succinctly demonstrates, English literary criticism has always pirated other intellectual disciplines, even though he tactically avoids the encroachment of literary theory on what was once termed ‘polite learning’. In fact, literary criticism, as a composite of rhetorical and grammatical criticisms, existed long before the various critical vocabularies were invented. This is certainly not a new insight, and derives largely from Raymond Williams and others. But Day's personalised ‘take’ on the subject is highly instructive. For instance, the author embeds within his narrative the grand narratives of Darwinism, the rise of Protestantism, and the like, in order to draw out various attempts at the shaping of literary criticism in its social and intellectual contexts rather than to contain them. He does not rely on seismic events, such as the invention of the printing press or the toothbrush, to tell the story as such
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)397-401
    Number of pages5
    JournalCambridge Quarterly
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2009


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