Why Criticism Matters: An Interview with Catherine Belsey

How the practice of criticism can offer a way to rethink our assumptions about truth, history, and human nature

What exactly do we mean by the term ‘criticism’?

Catherine Belsey, Criticism (Profile Books, 2016)
Catherine Belsey, Criticism (Profile Books, 2016)

The publishers asked me that and I didn’t give them an answer! It’s a fair question but I’m uneasy about definitions. They’re a bit like written constitutions: they tie you down and exclude new possibilities. Definitions demarcate a legitimate area of activity – and close off other options.

In a general way, criticism is reflection on the stories, plays and poems we read (or see, or listen to). But in detail, it varies. For some people, it’s effectively a source of consumer advice: this film is worth going to; that novel is worth buying. Others might prefer to think about what differentiates genres, or the effects of different media. Does a play tell a story in the same way as a novel? Do novels tend to works as films, say?

Then there’s fiction as a record of the way we think about the world, or our ancestors once thought about it. Criticism offers access to cultural analysis and cultural history.

My own current preoccupation is pleasure. Why is fiction so enjoyable, even when the stories it tells are unhappy ones? Why does tragedy attract audiences? Other people have other concerns: it can all be criticism.

Why do you resist the term ‘literary criticism’?

bookshelf-apartment-space

Because ‘literary’ demarcates and excludes yet again. ‘Literature’ divides the field of fiction in advance: ‘literature’ is worth serious attention; the rest is trash (aka popular culture). These distinctions are usually imposed by the previous generation but they’re hard to shift. In my view, a critic might want to look at any work, depending on the project. In my book on Desire, I wrote about Donne and Tennyson, as well as Jeanette Winterson and Julian Barnes, but I also brought in mass-market romance and the way its metaphors define sex as a disaster. I didn’t feel I was slumming when I read Mills and Boon, and I did think all those earthquakes, floods and tempests revealed something about our culture.

How did criticism become a discipline?

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Plato and Aristotle

Oddly enough, three separate strands converged. First, there was controversy. Plato pronounced fiction a bad influence; Aristotle disagreed, defending tragedy in ways that are still worth discussing. Second, practising authors began to compose advice for their fellow-writers. In their hands, Aristotle’s description morphed into a set of rules that should be followed to ensure success. And third, when education gradually turned its attention from Latin to the vernacular, samples of good writing were set before the children as models for them to follow in their own composition. In the eighteenth century, critics emerged in the public sphere as the arbiters of what was worth writing, reading and emulating. And in the nineteenth, university English courses were set up to provide a supply of schoolteachers by alerting their students to the instructive potential of fiction.

Why do we so often align literature with moral instruction or ethical truth?

Western culture is pervaded by a deep distrust of pleasure. Even Plato admitted that he enjoyed Homer but, for that very reason, Homer was suspect. Through the ages, the defenders of fiction have felt obliged to appeal to writing’s power to inculcate virtue. And once fiction entered the educational system, it was inevitable that the works on the syllabus would have to be morally, as well as stylistically, admirable.

“I think it’s time we got over this and stopped feeling we have to justify our tastes and preferences on moral grounds.”

I think it’s time we got over this and stopped feeling we have to justify our tastes and preferences on moral grounds. In fact, the ethical values people find in Shakespeare or George Eliot are often obvious, or banal, or both. There’s more to life than piety – and much more than piety to writing.

Your book favours an approach to criticism that is ‘more reflective than evaluative’. Could you say a bit more about that?

samuel-beckett-handwriting

Because of its history – in controversy, advice to writers, or education – criticism has adopted evaluation as its first task. I have no problem with tastes: I have my preferences too. But the danger is that justifying preferences starts to fill all the available space for discussion. We rush to judgement, and then rush to defend our judgement, isolating those elements of the work that support that response. Criticism is reduced to arguments in support of likes and dislikes.

“My idea is that we get more out of a work if we bracket judgement, at least as far as possible, in order to reflect on what it’s doing and how, what it says, who it’s addressed to, what it tells us about its moment. Criticism as a set of value judgements tends to get in the way of all that.”

My idea is that we get more out of a work if we bracket judgement, at least as far as possible, in order to reflect on what it’s doing and how, what it says, who it’s addressed to, what it tells us about its moment. Criticism as a set of value judgements tends to get in the way of all that.

How can criticism help to shed light on the way we read human nature?

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Photograph: Nick Walton.

Human nature is a dangerous thing. The belief in universal human characteristics or behaviour patterns has been used to support every nasty practice under the sun: competitiveness, aggression, hierarchy, discrimination, xenophobia … ‘it’s just human nature’.

“Attention to the fiction of the past can dethrone human nature. Even our most intimate practices turn out to have a history: love and marriage, sexuality, friendship, attitudes to death.”

Attention to the fiction of the past can dethrone human nature. Even our most intimate practices turn out to have a history: love and marriage, sexuality, friendship, attitudes to death. There are continuities, or we could not make any sense of the works of other cultural moments. But there are big differences too. Criticism can choose between two distinct questions: how does this work represent human nature? or, what does this work tell us about cultural and historical difference? English departments used to dwell on the first. Now, I’m delighted to say, they’re moving towards the second.

What do you think is the role of criticism today?

Oh, that’s a tough one! With the sublime confidence of a Victorian sage, Matthew Arnold wrote an essay called ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’. Terry Eagleton, no shrinking violet himself, reiterated Arnold’s title in his book The Function of Criticism. My own view is that a little tentativeness goes a long way. Criticism can do whatever you want it to: make lists of Great Books; find support in written works for current orthodoxies; find support in written works for revolution; trace images in fiction of women, LGBT people, racial difference; expose the contradictions in works about women, LGBT and race ….

“Fiction comes as close as representation can to describing and defining strong feelings and intensely held values. These, I’ve suggested, change over time. Attention to those changes can show that things don’t have to stay as they are.”

That’s the joy of it. Criticism doesn’t have a single function and it doesn’t have to be what I want it to be. But if I have a preference, it is for exploring two particular issues. Fiction comes as close as representation can to describing and defining strong feelings and intensely held values. These, I’ve suggested, change over time. Attention to those changes can show that things don’t have to stay as they are. We are not stuck with our present convictions: times change – and can change for the better. Second, I want to know more about why, at least for some of us, curling up with a novel of our choice, or going to a movie, can be so enjoyable. Why do all cultures we know about have stories? What makes fiction one of the best things in life?

Could you say a little bit about your interest in French Theory? What can it offer us?

In the first instance, post-war French criticism and philosophy distinguished itself by its account of language. Words, it held, were not instruments of ideas or the world, not a means of access to something else that lay on the other side of language. Speech and writing were not, in short, a medium between minds and things. On the contrary, language divided up the world for us, and introduced us to ideas we acquired in the process of learning the words and their meanings. Language is the place where our world takes shape.

This has significant implications for culture and cultural difference. It indicates that distinct attitudes and values are learned, not innate, or programmed, or hard-wired. That is why they can – and do – change.

It also has implications for fiction. The language of the work doesn’t depict characters and events with an independent existence on the other side of it. Nor does it convey the thoughts of the author. Instead, it exists as the material of criticism in its own right. Language itself is creative; it generates attitudes and confirms or defies what we take for granted.

Why are some critics so difficult to read?

Difficulty is mainly a matter of familiarity. I’d have difficulty in reading an economics textbook, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve resolutely started Introducing Einstein …. Criticism has its own vocabulary, just like any other intellectual discipline, and when people get accustomed to that way of talking, it doesn’t seem hard.

“Difficulty is mainly a matter of familiarity. I’d have difficulty in reading an economics textbook, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve resolutely started Introducing Einstein …. Criticism has its own vocabulary, just like any other intellectual discipline, and when people get accustomed to that way of talking, it doesn’t seem hard.”

In the light of what I’ve just said about language, it becomes apparent that we can’t easily do justice to new ideas in old words. The assumptions reaffirmed in the old words will militate against the newness of the thinking. If criticism is to make us think new thoughts, the vocabulary needs to be unfamiliar.

Some theoretical writing is hard because it’s been appropriated for criticism from other fields – linguistics, philosophy, psychoanalysis. We don’t share the range of reference, for example.

“On the other hand, you can never entirely exclude a propensity to narcissism: ‘Look at me; I’m so brilliant I can baffle you’. I personally have no patience with this.”

On the other hand, you can never entirely exclude a propensity to narcissism: ‘Look at me; I’m so brilliant I can baffle you’. I personally have no patience with this. More and more, I try to speak and write in as plain a manner as I can, even at the risk of betraying some of the difficulty of the ideas themselves. There’s always a price to pay but I don’t like to see people frightened off by what at first seems impenetrable.

How do you approach writing?

My own, you mean? With trepidation. Writing is difficult. If it comes easily, that’s because I’m not thinking hard enough. I find writing perplexing and exciting, delightful and stressful, agonising – and a privilege.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a book about ghost stories. What interests me there is the pleasure people still seem to derive from tales about what we don’t (can’t) know for sure. We live in an information age: we’re bombarded with facts; all knowledge can be googled. And yet ghost stories depend on what remains unverifiable, indefinite, uncanny, undecidable. And besides, ghosts, it turns out, have a history of their own.

Criticism is available from Profile Books.


About the Author

Catherine Belsey chaired the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University before moving to Swansea as Research Professor in English. Much of her work is on Shakespeare and cultural criticism. Her books include Critical Practice (1980, second edition 2002), Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction (2002) and A Future for Criticism (2011).

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