In Defence of the Literary Critic

Literary criticism is casting off its stultifying, exclusionary shackles. Its redefinition as something more personal meets the reader on equal terms in a quietly defiant act.

A women's literary salon.
A women's literary salon. Credit: history_docu_photo / Alamy Stock Photo

A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again, Joanna Biggs, Orion (£18.99)

‘Readers may be divided into four classes: I. Sponges, who absorb all they read, and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied. II. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing, and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time. III. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read. IV. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also.’ — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Another term to describe a reader who ‘profit[s] by what they read, and enable[s] others to profit by it also’ is a literary critic — at least, any literary critic worthy of the title should aspire to be such a reader. That so many of our literary critics, entombed in university departments and the labyrinthine corridors of institutional life, often fail to convert their reading into insights from which others might also profit is largely because they no longer aspire to share their knowledge, but to wield it like a weapon. To read literary criticism of this ilk is to be beaten over the head with prose so dense and impenetrable that it bludgeons rather than enlightens. But all hope is not lost, for outside the universities’ thick walls, a group of disaffected critics are busily redefining and reinvigorating their craft.

Among this group is writer and critic Joanna Biggs, whose new book, A Life of One’s Own: Nine Writers Begin Againis refreshingly accessible. Following the death of her mother and the collapse of her marriage, Biggs turns to the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison and Elena Ferrante for guidance, but also for company as she tries to forge ‘a life of [her] own’.  The book represents Biggs’s attempt to convert this reading journey into something that might benefit others, too. It is her contention that, contrary to the ‘message passed down to [her] at Oxford’ that a ‘proper critic’ writes from a position of learned authority, literary criticism ought to be much more like a ‘conversation’; an exchange between readers who want to be ‘transformed’ by the books they read.

Biggs is far from the first critic to question the role of literary criticism; it is a form that has been open to interpretation since its inception. Matthew Arnold thought its purpose was ‘to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas’; F. R. Leavis saw the critics’ role as being an arbiter of morality; and for Harold Bloom the critic becomes a ‘Freudian analyst’, charged with mediating between oppressive fathers and aspirational sons. It makes sense that in our age of Goodreads, Substack, and Twitter, Biggs reinterprets the role of critic. What is most notable about Biggs’s approach to criticism, however, is that it is resolutely personal. It is the opposite of disinterested — it is self-interested.

In an essay for the Norwegian online literary magazine Vinduet, Ryan Ruby writes that this type of ‘personal criticism’ is on the ascendency. He attributes its rise to a number of factors, including Twitter and blogging sites, but largely to ‘the dire state of literature departments in universities […] which have begun to haemorrhage talent and cultural capital’. Outside the confines of the university, he writes, the critic finds themself liberated from the ‘stultifying’ restrictions placed on them by academia; they are free to make ‘aesthetic judgements’ and to take up a ‘narrative persona’ — as opposed to hiding behind the veil of objectivity; they discover the personal is critical and vice versa, that however hard we might have tried to extinguish the self from literary criticism, it stubbornly persists.

As a nascent form of literary criticism, there are inevitably moments when the personal approach falls on its own sword. When Biggs invites us to watch her cry in the bath over the breakdown of her marriage, or re-examine childhood friendship dynamics, readers understandably might regret that the editing process had not been more ruthless. But in its more successful moments, the injection of personal feeling raises the stakes of criticism and gives it renewed purpose at a time when the value of an English literature degree is being called into question. Having lost her mother to Alzheimer’s, Biggs is particularly good on Virginia Woolf’s character Mrs Ramsay (an elegiac portrait of her own mother). Though insightfulness into mothers is not the preserve of those who have lost them, Biggs’s experience does heighten her reading of Mrs Ramsay, who she argues is a reminder that ‘a mother is always a mystery; she has lived so much of her life before you were even born’.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about personal criticism, however, is that it introduces a layer of humbleness absent from its more academic counterpart. Biggs recounts how intimidating she originally found Woolf, for example, and how it took her several attempts to get to grips with writing which felt ‘blurry’ and ‘distant’. Her treatment of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is similarly modest, and arguably much more in tune with Eliot’s original moralistic intentions. Though Biggs is perfectly capable of tracing the influence of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species on Eliot’s novel, or giving us a structuralist interpretation of its web-like construction, she focuses instead on the ways Middlemarch works to ‘extend our sympathies’ and how it encourages us to identify with characters.

By laying down the conventional tools of contemporary criticism, that arsenal of theories and various lenses (Marxist, feminist, Lacanian etc.), Biggs meets us on equal terms, as a fellow reader — a quietly defiant act. As the poet Randall Jarell writes in his essay ‘The Age of Criticism,’ so often critics would have us forget that behind their ‘big words, great weighty sentences’ and references to ‘Freud and Jung and Marx and myths and neo-Calvinism and Aristotle and St. Thomas’, they are ‘naked human beings’, ‘fallible creatures who are what the accidents of birth and life have left them’. Biggs makes no attempt to conceal her fallibility but seems to simply say: ‘I am a reader who has enjoyed and learnt from these books. Perhaps you might too.’

There is a danger, of course, that in correcting the sometimes grandiose and unnecessarily intimidating tendencies of academic criticism, personal criticism might veer too much toward overly simplistic readings, or, worse, allow the personal to eclipse the critical. While Jarrell is scornful of the weapon-wielding critic, he is equally disparaging of the critic who is unable to ‘get away from his self-as-self’. Too much self in criticism, he writes, risks the imposition of ‘prejudices and disabilities and predilections’. Though Biggs, perhaps tellingly, does not address this aspect of Eliot’s work, Middlemarch is also centrally concerned with the distorting power of the self. Eliot’s heroine Dorothea Brooke must learn to see past the ‘blot’ or ‘troublesome speck’ of the self, if she is to see clearly. Personal criticism is also liable to create such distortions, particularly if the ‘troublesome speck’ is given room to grow into a large smudge. But when the self is kept in check, as it is in A Life of One’s Own, its presence works to remind the reader that literary criticism is written by a human being just like them, not a disembodied brain floating above us all.

To their detriment, very few academic literary critics manage, or even want, to reach a broader audience. Yet, without such an audience, made up of both academics and general readers, literary critics are prone to stray too far from their original job description, which requires, very simply, as Jarell puts it, them to be ‘an extremely good reader –– one who has learned to show others what he saw in what he read’. If personal criticism like Joanna Biggs’s A Life of One’s Own succeeds in returning the craft to its original purpose, and thus to a larger audience, then it is very welcome.


Charlotte Stroud