Thursday, November 13, 2008

The muddle of literary evaluation

It is not entirely clear what is at stake or even at issue in the recent back-and-forth between Rohan Maitzen and Daniel Green. Both of them, after all, reject evaluation as the final cause of literary criticism, and both dangle an enticing substitute.

Maitzen affirms what she calls “the ‘pedagogical’ habit of trying to find the best reading tools, the right measures. . . .” And each literary text requires different tools, different measures. The goal is the Jamesian one of “reading a novel on its own terms”—or, in the words of The Art of Fiction (1884), “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.”

As a consequence, “it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre,” Maitzen writes resignedly. “It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.” The only real alternative, she concludes, is “trying to understand how to read [a novel] so that it best fulfills its own potential.”

In replying to her, Daniel Green agrees that evaluation is not the purpose of criticism, saying that he prefers description. At least if criticism is to reach a “wider public,” which he isn’t sure that it should.

But perhaps I should let Green speak for himself. What he would like to see is “a descriptive mode of criticism that seeks to carefully elucidate the manifest qualities of a given text than by an evaluative act that in effect disclaims the reader’s own powers of judgment by rendering them unnecessary.” I am not sure why evaluative criticism renders a reader’s evaluation unnecessary, since he is being invited to evaluate the evaluation—if only in terms of its relevance, thoroughness, and coherence.

No matter. Green is concerned primarily to call into question Maitzen’s pedagogical mode (“the need to adapt literature to the academic curriculum”) and to promote a counter-allegiance to “aestheticism” (the quotation marks are his). As he explains,

[T]he act of writing a novel is inescapably an aesthetic endeavor. There would be no point, except in the crudest forms of propaganda, to write fiction in the first place if the primary goal was not to produce a work that succeeds most immediately as art.So many questions are begged in this short passage that it is difficult to know where to begin. Let me hand the mike over to Maitzen. She would probably observe that Green has plopped onto essentialism or teleology as if it were an old sofa. That is, he holds “a set notion of what makes good fiction in general”—namely, it must be art (whatever that means), not propaganda or a teaching tool.

This difference between them is illusory, however. For both of our critics advance value terms that are treated (consciously or not) as if they were objective. Each of them has (indeed, no critic could operate without) a vocabulary of favored terms that pretend to refer to real attributes of the things they deal with.

Maitzen, for example, seeks a “responsible literary criticism.” Such criticism would apply only those “measures that fit” the novel under discussion. To misjudge “the kind of novel” that a novel is, after all, is a “category mistake,” which may result in an “inappropriate reading.”

Green, by contrast, wants a criticism that is freed from “the pedagogical imperatives with which the academy has burdened it.” Such criticism would recognize that every novel has its “primary requirement” (it must “engage us through ‘form and artistic strategies’ above all”) and only then its “ulterior purposes.”

Their mutual sweet tooth for pseudo-objective value shows that they agree more than they disagree. They agree there are end points and beginning points in criticism. They agree there is something called fiction. And that this is an evaluative rather than a denominational term is patent. For Green fiction is “distinguished from other modes of discourse”; for Maitzen it is so important that she devises the ultimate value test for it: it is the discursive mode for which there is no “good in general” (because as such it is good in general).

These are examples of what E. D. Hirsch Jr. once called “privileged criteria” in literary criticism. For the New Critics the criterion of privilege was irony or complexity. For Green it is artistry; for Maitzen something like textual uniqueness. This makes them, like the New Critics, practitioners of intrinsic criticism.

And in plain fact, both of them openly reject extrinsic criteria. For Maitzen there are no “particular, preconceived standard[s] of excellence”; for Green there are no direct statements about social life or “philosophical speculation[s]” in fiction that would enable it to be evaluated according to external standards such as, say, accuracy, truth, or worth-sayingness.

But the criteria are privileged because they are arbitrary. Irony or artistry or uniqueness are no more necessary to English-language novels than the convention that white gets the first move is to the game of chess. And this is why neither Maitzen nor Green is able to unmuddle the problem of literary evaluation. Where they explicitly offer evaluations (This succeeds as art! That fulfills its potential!) they say nothing very significant; where they are least aware of writing evaluatively they endorse objective values which are not the exclusive properties of literary texts, not even the ones they are discussing.

All that remains is extrinsic criticism—that is, evaluation that decides whether a novel is good or bad on the grounds of its external relationships, whether (as in Plato) it is good for the state or (as in Maitzen and Green) it is bad for the institutional practice of literary criticism.