The last of the great critics

Great British literary critics are like heavyweight boxing champions. No one bothers to know their names any more. Lit-crit used to be big time.
No longer.

The greatest living British critic is Frank Kermode, now in his ninth decade. Sir Frank was ennobled for services to literary criticism. Something that makes him a rather lone figure among the sovereign’s doughty band of knights.

Kermode’s résumé would supply those of a dozen lesser dons. He is among the most distinguished Shakespeareans of his age. In the late 1960s he almost singlehandedly injected French theory into the torpid bloodstream of British academic discourse. With Randolph Quirk (they were at school together on the Isle of Man), he devised the so-called “New Syllabus” at University College, London, the most elegant and challenging course of undergraduate study ever assembled.

As lit-crit fenced itself into “field specialisation”, Kermode spread his wings into such areas as biblical narrative. He has no “specialism” and in consequence, as he has sometimes lamented, “there are no Kermodians”. He is now professor emeritus and has, over the past two decades, devoted himself to higher journalism in the London Review of Books, a journal that, with Karl Miller, he helped set up, and the New York Review of Books.

Looking back over the field he has dominated for half a century, Kermode’s words are unminced. Universities, he says, “are being driven by madmen”. And education in general “is being run by lunatics”.

The recent public examination statistics, I point out, would indicate that at one level, at least, his subject is increasingly popular. “Well,” he replies, “I don’t know what they call ‘English’ now. I can understand the attractiveness of it. But I don’t hold the view that reading English is a soft option, or at least it shouldn’t be. It should be a severe option, restricted to those people who are qualified to do it. I’ve been out of touch with student life for a long time, but I don’t believe that many people nowadays get many visible benefits from studying English. It doesn’t do them any harm, of course.”

Is he suggesting that English should be re-engineered to be more in line with currently unpopular “hard” subjects—such as physics? “Yes. I discovered just today, for example, that it’s no longer compulsory to take a foreign language. This seems to me to be a monstrous decision.”

I remind him of a staff meeting at University College where, gloomily, he acquiesced to the administration’s instruction that Latin be dropped as a requisite for incoming students. “We had no choice. Latin has been getting abolished now for two generations.”

In one of his recent London Review of Books pieces he recollects a period in the 1950s when studying English literature was not just regarded as important, but as the most valuable intellectual and moral activity a civilised man or woman could pursue. What went wrong? Does he feel any personal responsibility?

“I don’t suppose I could claim either credit or blame for the collapse of my subject. It’s partly the extinction—no, that’s too strong a word—the fading of the influence of figures such as FR Leavis [the Cambridge critic]. The notion that the study of English had powerful ethical implications, powerful social implications, has gone. We just don’t have it any more.

“Looking back at the study of English in universities over the years, the first thing that occurs to me is how important the subject once seemed. In America, the New Criticism—a school led by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren—argued that the close study of poetry was a supremely valuable thing. This was a view that was then accepted generally. And the leading academic literary critics were, in those days, very famous people.

“Think, for example, of Northrop Frye. Frye’s is now a name that you never hear mentioned, but which was then everywhere. CS Lewis, who is now famous for fairy stories, was then famous for being a scholar. Tolkien, too, was famous for being a scholar, not for elves and so on. There is no prestige associated any longer with being a good critic. There are people writing now who seem to me likely to be as good as those critics I’ve been mentioning, but they won’t be as famous or as influential. There’s some good scholarship in the subject still going on. There’s also an immense amount of rubbish.”

Kermode revolutionised English studies in the late 1960s with the introduction of what was called “Theory”—specifically, post-structuralists such as Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, or post-Freudians such as Jacques Lacan, critics who stiffened the discipline in a scientific (or, some would say, pseudo-scientific) way. What are his feelings about Theory nowadays? “I don’t regret it.” The influence of Theory was most obvious in Kermode’s The Classic (1974), while his recent work has moved away, or back, to what one might call the British Common Sense School of literary criticism.

“[Theory] attracted quite a lot of opprobrium. I never thought it should be taught to undergraduates. In those days teaching graduates what was then essentially French theory was exciting, as long as you were in control of what you were doing. I’m reminded of what Wayne C Booth [another of those once-famous critics] said: ‘The really difficult thing is to understand why one has to work so hard to understand something that you do every day without the slightest difficulty’—reading a book, that is.

“I don’t at all think that the time we spent on Theory was wasted. One of the great benefits of seriously reading English is you’re forced to read a lot of other things. You may not have a deep acquaintance with Hegel but you need to know something about Hegel. Or Hobbes, or Aristotle, or Roland Barthes. We’re all smatterers in a way, I suppose. But a certain amount of civilisation depends on intelligent smattering.”—Â

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