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The Impact of Evaluative Criticism is felt most at the Threshold of the Canon

These thought provoking ruminations from Rohan Maitzen:

"A reader committed to McDonald’s "aesthetic evaluation" might well reject these novels [Middlemarch, Mary Barton] as poor examples of the genre. But it could be argued that such a reader is simply making a category mistake (as James is with Scott or Trollope) and thus doing a bad job of reading (and thus evaluating) the books. As a teacher, I would not let such a mistake alone but would instruct the student who faulted Gaskell, for instance, for sentimentality, to consider the kind of book she’s writing–the purposes she has for her novel–and then how the form and artistic strategies of the novel serve those purposes. My purpose would not be to coerce the student into liking Mary Barton, but to help him or her achieve an appreciation of Gaskell’s accomplishment–an understanding of what the book is and does. That, to me, would be the basis of any responsible literary criticism. Even on aesthetic grounds, I would want to take into account the contingency of different standards, too, and to consider whether our affective response to something like John Barton’s death isn’t also a matter of art.

I’m not altogether sure where I am going with these ruminations. I guess I’m wondering about the relationship between what I’m calling the "pedagogical" habit of trying to find the best reading tools, the right measures, for any given example, and other critical strategies or purposes. How typical is this pluralistic approach, among teachers or among readers? Is there a way in which such an approach really does disable evaluation? Or is it the means for an informed evaluation? Does evaluation inevitably imply prescription about what "the" novel should do, or what readers should prefer? What are the limits of the kind of sympathetic, ‘from the inside out’ reading strategies promoted by Case and Shaw’s book?"

My take on this may be a bit of a cop out. The works Rohan identifies all belong to The Canon. They all have enough merit to be considered great, based both on their own and on ‘objectively’ determined terms. Comparing their relative merits, while fruitful, isn’t really where it counts though; isn’t where rubber hits road…or to get away from cliche…isn’t where real bullets are used. The pain ( or pleasure) occurs for arbiter and author at the point where a work is either included or excluded from the Canon. Where a difference exists between the effective and ineffective use of the means to please. As Samuel Johnson put it:

"It is … the task of criticism to establish principles; to improve opinion into knowledge; and to distinguish those means of pleasing which depend upon known causes and rational deduction, from the nameless and inexplicable elegances which appeal wholly to the fancy, from which we feel delight, but know not how they produce it, and which may well be termed the enchantress of the soul. Criticism reduces those regions of literature under the dominion of science, which have hitherto known only the anarchy of ignorance, the caprices of fancy, and the tyranny of prescription."

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2 Responses to “The Impact of Evaluative Criticism is felt most at the Threshold of the Canon”

  1. Rohan Maitzen Says:

    "The pain (or pleasure) occurs at the point where a work is either included or excluded from the Canon."That’s true–but "The Canon" is a pretty fluid thing, more vexed and contentious than you suggest, even given these examples. George Eliot’s reputation was low early in the 20th century and has risen so that Middlemarch now seems unquestionably canonical–but it wasn’t always. Mary Barton is even now not ‘canonical’ to some, and would not have been anywhere near Leavis’s list of great novels. Only our more pluralistic notion of greatness has made room for many previously underestimated, ignored, or perhaps misunderstood writers in the always-changing list of ‘must read’ books or novelists. The effort of comparison goes on and on. Now, it’s true you don’t see me making an effort to appreciate Bulwer Lytton, but who knows: his day may come!

  2. Nigel Beale Says:

    If immortality is the goal, Bulwer’s there. Not only did he give us ‘It was a dark and stormy night’…he also produced "the great unwashed", "pursuit of the almighty dollar", "the pen is mightier than the sword"… and if this still doesn’t cut it…he dressed divinely. 

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