The Age of Criticism, Martin Amis once wrote, started in 1948 and ended with OPEC.
That is, it started with the publication of F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition – the book that, more than any other, is synonymous with a narrow and elitist English canon – and ended in economic crisis.
For Amis, this was a giddy utopian time in which everybody who was anybody agreed that literature mattered. For the Leavisites, literature was a depository of shared human values – of “felt life”. For the intellectuals of the New Left, it was a potent source of social-cultural arguments.
Either way, Literature – not writing, or English, or textual studies, but big “L” literature – was the central cultural formation around which everything turned.
Until, that is, the Age of Criticism ended abruptly in the global stagflation of the early 1970s. And all the hippyish young men – and let’s make it clear, they were invariably men – discovered that literature was “one of the many leisure-class fripperies”, as Amis puts it, that the world could do without.
By the end of the 70s, literary criticism crawled back into the academy to contemplate its own death – or worse, its own irrelevance. In the public imagination, literature gave way to film, television and music, and, subsequently, the rise of the Internet, as central repositories of cultural meaning.
By the end of the millennium, English – no longer English Literature – became a weird sort of sub-cultural pursuit, which academic Simon During once evocatively likened to “trainspotting” (in the sense of lonely dysfunctional men clad in anoraks standing in the rain at train stations). Literature, said During, was less and less a canonical cultural formation and more and more a pile of mouldering old books.
But even for the self-confessed “trainspotters” safe inside the universities, literature through the 1980s and 1990s seemed to be losing relevance. The words on the page were suddenly insufficient. The study of writing gave way to the study of Ideology and the study of Theory.
There is absolutely no doubt that literature has a long history of being employed as an ideological extension of the State. It was co-opted into the “Civilising Mission” of colonial bureaucrats and became part of the jingoistic imperatives of the “Nation-Building Project” of pre and post war Australia.
As intellectual ventures, then, deconstruction and reconstruction were long overdue. The canon is, after all, a fiercely contested body of work that scholars – for one fiercely contested reason or another – have decided was influential in shaping the history of western culture. If one way to define the canon is “what gets taught”, then it became clear that “what gets taught” had to change.
In the 1980s, the Feminist Canon was consolidated, posing a formidable challenge to the Masculinist Canon. And then, in the bitterly contested Culture Wars of the 1990s, the Great Tradition itself was finally unmasked – not only were all the Great Men Dead but all the Feminists Were White.
But as the Death of the Human followed the Death of the Author, literature – whether Australian, Comparative or Post-Colonial – began to look less like a living corpus and more like a corpse.
One aspect of the problem – perhaps – was that in their haste to unmask the hidden cultural allegiances of the canon, academics appeared to lose interest in the practice of writing.
The dilemma is aptly satirized in David Lodge’s novel Changing Places (1979), in which it propels the maniacal ambitions of Professor Morris Zapp (often read as a thinly disguised caricature of the literary critic Stanley Fish).
Zapp’s project – first cast in the 1970s, but developed through Lodge’s trilogy of campus novels through to the 1980s – was to start with Jane Austen then work his way through the canon in a manner calculated to be “utterly exhaustive”.
The object of the exercise, Zapp said, was “not to enhance others enjoyment and understanding” of writing, still less to “honour the novelist herself”. Rather, it was to put a “definitive stop” to anybody’s capacity to say or enjoy anything. The object was not to make the words live, but to extinguish them.
And yet, if literature has been, as Lodge mischievously argued, thoroughly “Zapped” – that is, consigned to the dust heap – then why is it that three decades later there are still few things better calculated to end in tears and acrimony than an essay on the English canon?
“Dead white women” replaced by living men
Of course, literature is not just a pile of musty old books. It is also a dense network of cultural allegiances and class beliefs. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the processes of list-making that have been fuelled by curriculum building and accountability projects.
In an era of TEQSA and the AQF, with its CLOs and TLOs, its ERAs and QILTs (forget about the meaning of these acronyms – for Marxists, read “alienation”; for Romantics, read “soulnessness”) academics everywhere are being asked to make lists (and more lists), of what their students ought to read and ought to master.
They are then asked to benchmark those lists and set them (like murdered corpses) in concrete.
Designed to enhance accountability, these list-making exercises have not always been accountable. They take what are often fiercely contested ideas – like the literary canon – and turn them into numbers. I am not alone in having seen unit outlines conspicuously devoid of women and indigenous writers.
At school level, the problem gets worse. Recently, the wife of the Victorian Premier Catherine Andrews called for increased gender equality in the selection of texts for inclusion in the VCE. In 2014, 68.5 percent of the books on the list were written by men. (Last year, it dropped to 61 percent.)
A swift study of high school literature curriculums undertaken in the same year revealed that many other Australian states and territories had published high school English curriculums featuring up to 70 percent of texts by male authors.
This is not the intellectual legacy of the historical fact of patriarchy. Rather, in reading through the density of curriculum documents, an uneasy sense emerges that as the old Feminist Canon – comprising Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes, for example – comes off the curriculum, the so-called “dead white women” are not being replaced by contemporary female – let alone Indigenous or poly-ethnic – authors but by contemporary male ones.
In NSW, the gender count of HSC English texts has actually gone backwards. While male writers made up 67 percent men in an earlier curriculum they comprised almost 70 percent in the one most recently published.
This reflects the material reality of a literary sphere in which – as successive Stella counts have shown – books written by men get disproportionately more reviews than books written by women.
It is useful to note, if only for purpose of comparison, that in the heyday of the elitist Leavisites, exactly half of the four “great writers” he catalogued in The Great Tradition were women. As Leavis wrote,
The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad.
The blunt instrument of the Stella text count may shed some light on the problem of gender relations, but there are more difficult issues at stake when it comes to questions of ethnicity and race. Anita Heiss, for example, has written about the Indigenous writers who ought to be studied in the school curriculum but currently are not.
In NSW, the Board of Studies responded to criticisms about gender bias in the curriculum by stating that the books had been chosen on the basis of “quality”.
Which merely leaves one wondering how on earth the great women writers – from Toni Morrison to Alice Munro – failed to make the cut. It also leaves one wondering whether the curriculum builders – a committee apparently composed largely of women – were oblivious to the ideological content of the thing they benignly call “quality”.
And what of the universities that were responsible for their education? When students are taught that literature is an ideological space in which redemption through male genius masquerades as rigour and analysis, for example – or that literature enacts a benign silencing that naturalises the ascendancy of white European culture – are they also being taught the skills required to detect such silencing and masquerading in themselves?
It is not just a question of what to read, but also how to read – of teaching students to read critically and carefully.
Paying close attention
Of course the canon should be taught. It is not the function of a university to foster ignorance in the name of politics. Like it or not, the canon is part of our cultural heritage. It is a powerful, and culturally influential body of work. In choosing not to teach it – or, rather, in refusing to critically engage with it – you are actually disempowering students.
The question is not whether or not it should be taught, but how.
I do not teach the canon. But this is not because I do not want my students to read those books – indeed, I actually do.
I do not teach the canon because I am not a teacher of English, let alone English Literature, but a teacher of writing. Struggling through four or five “great books” over the course of a semester is simply not as valuable for my students as working through 50 or 100 different writers, writing in 50 or 100 different styles, for 50 or 100 different reasons – not all of them for Literature.
Where another lecturer may see a canon in need of fortification or demolition, I content myself with a single passage. I want my students to understand it deeply and critically, at the level of the sentence. Why and how is a certain word used, and to what effect?
I also teach Adaptation, focusing attention on writers adapting work from out of the canon, or ‘writing back’ to it. This might include adaptions of Jane Austen, from Rajshree Ojha’s Aisha to Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (2004).
It might include novelistic adaptions such as the Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Jean Rhys’ haunting portrait of Bertha Rochester, better known as the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) (who resurfaces yet again as the eponymous character in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938)).
In this way canonical works are brought into dialogue with the works of a dozen different writers, taught flexibly and openly, with a weather eye to change and re-evaluation. Teaching minor and popular works can actually be more challenging and therefore revealing for students. It also shows the students just how alive and influential these stories are.
But once the books are torn apart, I also want my students to tidy up and put the books back on the bookshelves – by which I mean understand the diversity of traditions and cultural perspectives from whence they came. I want them to make critically independent judgments.
Leavis wasn’t shy about making judgments. Indeed, he ought to be as famous for the canon that he trashed, as for the canon that he sanctified. He trashed Milton. He trashed Shelley and Keats. He called Dickens a mere “entertainer”. He said there was no English poetry worth reading since John Donne – with the exception, that is, of Gerard Manley Hopkins and (of all people) Thomas Carew.
What was valuable in the work of Leavis was clearly not any value-ridden “judgments”. Still less his almost evangelical mission to uncover the “human life” expressed in the writing. Rather, what Leavis and the New Critics in the United States did was replace the then predominant encyclopedic and bibliographic approach to writing with an attention to the meaning and texture of words on a page. Though Leavis roundly declared that he had absolutely no time for the teaching of writing, he read technically and fluidly, anxiously and probingly, as a writer reads.
This was the substantial intellectual legacy of Leavis. It was not in his moral seriousness, or his earnest and occasionally joyless pronunciations on the canon, but in his deployment of “Practical Criticism” or close and detailed reading as the means to critique it.
Skimming, or reading quickly to grasp ideologies or theories will not teach a student about the use of language, not when the real revelations are located between the words, in the structure of the sentences, and in the relationship between sentences and the world.
“Practical Criticism” means reading with closer critical attention to the way words mean and deceive, disturb the mind, power the emotions, tell truths or merely masquerade as them.
Here is yet another reason to teach the canon. The canon is quite simply the largest repository of exhilarating and disturbing words we have.
To recognize that words have a weight and a materiality and an affective power is not to believe that they are somehow free of ideology or politics – that they are torn loose from culture or history – but quite the reverse. It is to understand in a more nuanced and substantial way how writing works.
In a world that still conducts much of its life and its business in words, this is – as the curriculum builders say – the “transferrable skill”.
Students are asked to write literary analysis essays because this type of assignment encourages you to think about how and why a poem, short story, novel, or play was written. To successfully analyze literature, you’ll need to remember that authors make specific choices for particular reasons. Your essay should point out the author’s choices and attempt to explain their significance.
Another way to look at a literary analysis is to consider a piece of literature from your own perspective. Rather than thinking about the author’s intentions, you can develop an argument based on any single term (or combination of terms) listed below. You’ll just need to use the original text to defend and explain your argument to the reader.
Allegory - narrative form in which the characters are representative of some larger humanistic trait (i.e. greed, vanity, or bravery) and attempt to convey some larger lesson or meaning to life. Although allegory was originally and traditionally character based, modern allegories tend to parallel story and theme.
- William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily- the decline of the Old South
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- man’s struggle to contain his inner primal instincts
- District 9- South African Apartheid
- X Men- the evils of prejudice
- Harry Potter- the dangers of seeking “racial purity”
Character - representation of a person, place, or thing performing traditionally human activities or functions in a work of fiction
- Protagonist - The character the story revolves around.
- Antagonist - A character or force that opposes the protagonist.
- Minor character - Often provides support and illuminates the protagonist.
- Static character - A character that remains the same.
- Dynamic character - A character that changes in some important way.
- Characterization - The choices an author makes to reveal a character’s personality, such as appearance, actions, dialogue, and motivations.
Look for: Connections, links, and clues between and about characters. Ask yourself what the function and significance of each character is. Make this determination based upon the character's history, what the reader is told (and not told), and what other characters say about themselves and others.
Connotation - implied meaning of word. BEWARE! Connotations can change over time.
- confidence/ arrogance
- mouse/ rat
- cautious/ scared
- curious/ nosey
- frugal/ cheap
Denotation - dictionary definition of a word
Diction - word choice that both conveys and emphasizes the meaning or theme of a poem through distinctions in sound, look, rhythm, syllable, letters, and definition
Figurative language - the use of words to express meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves
- Metaphor - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme without using like or as
- You are the sunshine of my life.
- Simile - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme using like or as
- What happens to a dream deferred, does it dry up like a raisin in the sun
- Hyperbole - exaggeration
- I have a million things to do today.
- Personification - giving non-human objects human characteristics
- America has thrown her hat into the ring, and will be joining forces with the British.
Foot - grouping of stressed and unstressed syllables used in line or poem
- Iamb - unstressed syllable followed by stressed
- Made famous by the Shakespearian sonnet, closest to the natural rhythm of human speech
- How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
- Spondee - stressed stressed
- Used to add emphasis and break up monotonous rhythm
- Blood boil, mind-meld, well- loved
- Trochee - stressed unstressed
- Often used in children’s rhymes and to help with memorization, gives poem a hurried feeling
- While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
- Anapest - unstressed unstressed stressed
- Often used in longer poems or “rhymed stories”
- Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
- Dactyls - stressed unstressed unstressed
- Often used in classical Greek or Latin text, later revived by the Romantics, then again by the Beatles, often thought to create a heartbeat or pulse in a poem
- Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
The iamb stumbles through my books; trochees rush and tumble; while anapest runs like a hurrying brook; dactyls are stately and classical.
Imagery - the author’s attempt to create a mental picture (or reference point) in the mind of the reader. Remember, though the most immediate forms of imagery are visual, strong and effective imagery can be used to invoke an emotional, sensational (taste, touch, smell etc) or even physical response.
Meter - measure or structuring of rhythm in a poem
Plot - the arrangement of ideas and/or incidents that make up a story
- Foreshadowing - When the writer clues the reader in to something that will eventually occur in the story; it may be explicit (obvious) or implied (disguised).
- Suspense - The tension that the author uses to create a feeling of discomfort about the unknown
- Conflict - Struggle between opposing forces.
- Exposition - Background information regarding the setting, characters, plot.
- Rising Action - The process the story follows as it builds to its main conflict
- Crisis - A significant turning point in the story that determines how it must end
- Resolution/Denouement - The way the story turns out.
Point of View - pertains to who tells the story and how it is told. The point of view of a story can sometimes indirectly establish the author's intentions.
- Narrator - The person telling the story who may or may not be a character in the story.
- First-person - Narrator participates in action but sometimes has limited knowledge/vision.
- Second person - Narrator addresses the reader directly as though she is part of the story. (i.e. “You walk into your bedroom. You see clutter everywhere and…”)
- Third Person (Objective) - Narrator is unnamed/unidentified (a detached observer). Does not assume character's perspective and is not a character in the story. The narrator reports on events and lets the reader supply the meaning.
- Omniscient - All-knowing narrator (multiple perspectives). The narrator knows what each character is thinking and feeling, not just what they are doing throughout the story. This type of narrator usually jumps around within the text, following one character for a few pages or chapters, and then switching to another character for a few pages, chapters, etc. Omniscient narrators also sometimes step out of a particular character’s mind to evaluate him or her in some meaningful way.
Rhythm - often thought of as a poem’s timing. Rhythm is the juxtaposition of stressed and unstressed beats in a poem, and is often used to give the reader a lens through which to move through the work. (See meter and foot)
Setting - the place or location of the action. The setting provides the historical and cultural context for characters. It often can symbolize the emotional state of characters. Example – In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the crumbling old mansion reflects the decaying state of both the family and the narrator’s mind. We also see this type of emphasis on setting in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
Speaker - the person delivering the poem. Remember, a poem does not have to have a speaker, and the speaker and the poet are not necessarily one in the same.
Structure (fiction) - The way that the writer arranges the plot of a story.
Look for: Repeated elements in action, gesture, dialogue, description, as well as shifts in direction, focus, time, place, etc.
Structure(poetry) - The pattern of organization of a poem. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Because the sonnet is strictly constrained, it is considered a closed or fixed form. An open or free form poem has looser form, or perhaps one of the author’s invention, but it is important to remember that these poems are not necessarily formless.
Symbolism - when an object is meant to be representative of something or an idea greater than the object itself.
- Cross - representative of Christ or Christianity
- Bald Eagle - America or Patriotism
- Owl - wisdom or knowledge
- Yellow - implies cowardice or rot
Tone - the implied attitude towards the subject of the poem. Is it hopeful, pessimistic, dreary, worried? A poet conveys tone by combining all of the elements listed above to create a precise impression on the reader.