Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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References to the New Criticism as a homogenous body seems to be becoming more common these days, usually as a mannequin on which to pin those hoary notions about "the text itself", etc. But the names usually brought out (that is, if any are actually brought up; Wikipedia helpfully gives us: Eliot, Empson, Leavis, Warren, Ransom, Brooks) and values that are attributed them are baffling (sometimes outrageous: I've seen suggestions, usually in broad accounts of the post-structuralist development, that the New Critics apparently believed in in fixed meaning, or even the authority of the author). It seems to me that in general the critics above have more points of argument than common theoretical grounds (I suppose one could make an argument for common approach, body of techniques, etc., rather than theory -- but if Richards, say, and Empson, are both fairly central figures, then this is problematic as well).

Actually your observation about an operative metaphor between drama and the act of reading may be one of the few theoretical points that is mutual.


As a writer, I have found Harold Bloom useful at various points in my life. I have found his 'list'--and yes, it has been used as a cudgel against him--useful as well. Most of all I have found his passion for literature and his belief that wonderful books make us more alive to be heartening in an era when publishing has been dominated by demands for "breakout books" and high profit margins, destructive to literature.

Elsewhere in the past few decades, a great many critics have not been the friends of writers or of literature.

Tom Lutz

Here's what I actually said:

"Like professor Prose, professor Harold Bloom, in "How to Read and Why" (2000), has the same antagonists, albeit more legion. Like Prose, he upbraids wayward academic critics, especially those "who believe all of us to be overdetermined by societal history" and who "regard literary characters as marks upon a page, and nothing more." Huh? I've spent a horrendous amount of time in the halls of academe, and I've met some real numskulls, but never anyone who fits that description. "Marks upon a page, and nothing more"? What does that even mean? I don't want to stir up the dying embers of the theory wars or the culture wars, but why do Prose and Bloom open their guides with attacks against these mythical creatures? Bloom has them organizing into "covens" of gender and sexuality and multiculturalism. These boogeymen and boogeywomen and boogeytransgenderedpeople have destroyed reading, Bloom argues, by destroying irony, and "the loss of irony is the death of reading, and of what had been civilized in our natures." Itself sorely lacking in irony, this kind of talk sets up a dire narrative in which what Bloom calls "the restoration of reading" is needed, not just because literature is worth saving, but because civilization is at stake. This is a somewhat whorish old story, pressed into all kinds of service over the last century and more, not always to the most savory ends.

To save civilization, Prose and Bloom turn to that New Critical mantra any seasoned reader first heard in English lit 101: "the text itself." The phrase is one that all the most crotchety English professors have used over the last 30 years to counterattack the critical rabble like me and my old pals who dethroned the old guard with our malevolent theories. The conceit that Prose and Bloom share is that these new kids (however grayed at this point) are all looking at something besides the text itself, by which they mean a book that is read without theory, without reference to other values, and without mediation of any kind."

I notice you made no reference to "How to Read and Why," nor did you disagree with my reading of it. I stand by my reading of it, and I don't bring up Spingarn to say that Bloom doesn't practice what he preaches. I have been reading Bloom my entire professional life and I know he practices and preaches a lot of diffeent things. I don't think "The Anxiety of Influence" is egregiously stupid or "New Critical" just because I think "How to Read and Why" is egregiously stupid and panders to its readers by invoking the new critical pieties that I mention, and invoke them he does, however much he may have resisted them 35 years ago.

And to call Mencken's piece on Spingarn "witless"--was that supposed to be funny?

Take a look at my "Cosmopolitan Vistas: American Regionalism and Literary Value" (Cornell UP, 2004) if you want a serious argument about literature and why we read.

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