David Lodge on Literary Criticism

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“Criticism as the expression of subjective response is of course an essentially romantic idea and implies a romantic theory of literary creation as self-expression. It is often associated with the lyrical and impressionistic, musing-in-the-library style of critical discourse, which I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, and the American New Critics, sought to discredit and expunge from academic criticism from the 1920s to the 1950s. But more recently the idea that there is no essential difference between creation and criticism has been given a new academic respectability, and a new sophistication, under the aegis of post-structuralism, and especially the theory of deconstruction, which questions the very distinction between subjective and objective.” (p.103) He continues on the following page:

“A fundamental tenet of deconstruction is that the nature of language is such that any discourse, including a literary text, can be shown under analysis to be full of gaps and contradictions which undermine its claim to have a determinate meaning. If poems and novels have no fixed, stable, recuperable meaning, then clearly criticism cannot pretend to have a duty or responsibility of truth-telling towards them, but is inevitably involved in producing their meaning by a process to which Jacques Derrida gives the name ‘play’. In this perspective, criticism is not complementary to creative writing, but supplementary to it, with ‘supplement’ used in a double sense to denote that which replaces what is missing, and that which adds something to what is already there. The absence that criticism fills up is precisely the illusory fixed stable meaning of traditional criticism, and what it adds is the product of the critic’s own ingenuity, wit, and resourcefulness in the exercise of semantic freeplay.” (p.104, italics in original)

I particularly like this citation of Barthes… “Roland Barthes suggested in a pregnant little essay called ‘Criticism as Language,’ published in 1963, that

the task of criticism… does not consist in ‘discovering’ in the work of the author under consideration something ‘hidden’ or ‘profound’ or ‘secret’ which has so far escaped notice… but only fitting together… the language of the day (Existentialism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis)… and the language of the author… If there is such a thing as critical proof it lies not in the ability to discover the work under consideration, but on the contrary on the ability to cover it as completely as possible with one’s own language.'” (p.105)

I also liked Lodge’s observation that: “One reason why literary creation continues to fascinate us and elude our attempts to explain it is that it is impossible to, as it were, catch oneself in the act of creation.” (p.109)

“Writers discover what it is they want to say in the process of saying it, and their explanations of why they wrote something in a particular way are therefore always retrospective extrapolations, working back from effect to cause – wisdom after the event. It is this inevitable deferral of meaning in discourse that the deconstructionists seized upon to destabilise the whole concept of meaning.” (p.110)

Ref: David Lodge (2002) Consciousness & the Novel: Connected Essays. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA

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