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What Kind of Person Should the Critic Be?

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In his essay “On Translating Homer” (1861), Matthew Arnold wrote that “the critic […] should have the finest tact, the nicest moderation, the most free, flexible, and plastic spirit imaginable […].” To our contemporary culture such characterizations can seem very presumptuous. Yet normative ideas about what kind of person the critic should be are actually not so easy to escape: this essay will examine recent debates on these issues through analysis of such texts as Rita Felski’s Limits of Critique (2015) and Joseph North’s Literary Criticism (2017). The essay ends by arguing that the condition of literary criticism will be helped by its practitioners thinking more frankly and more directly about what kinds of values they are trying to embody in their own practices.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-71139-9_9
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  1. 1.

    Celikates and Jensen, “Reclaiming Democracy.”

  2. 2.

    Rustin, “Why Study English?”

  3. 3.

    For example, see Trachtenberg, Making Citizens; Dewey, Democracy and Education; Heater, Education for Citizenship.

  4. 4.

    See, for example, “Our Students among UK’s Most Satisfied,” on the Durham University website.

  5. 5.

    Arnold, “On Translating Homer,” 89.

  6. 6.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 6.

  7. 7.

    Eagleton, “Not Just Anybody.”

  8. 8.

    Hazlitt, “Pleasure of Hating,” 308.

  9. 9.

    Readers may be interested in the piece “Sad Professor” by the academic and critic John Sutherland, where he speculates that the “lit professor” in the song may be based on him, having met the lyricist, Michael Stipe, at around the time of the song’s composition: “I would like to think it’s me.”

  10. 10.

    Eagleton, “Not Just Anybody.”

  11. 11.

    During, “Literary Academia.”

  12. 12.

    Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 263.

  13. 13.

    Shakespeare, Hamlet, IV, 4, 33–34, 65–66.

  14. 14.

    Brown, Neoliberalism, 27.

  15. 15.

    Quoted in Baldick, English Criticism, 134.

  16. 16.

    Quoted in Baldick, 148.

  17. 17.

    Quoted in Baldick, 148.

  18. 18.

    Baldick, 153.

  19. 19.

    Anderson, “Components of the National Culture.”

  20. 20.

    Stevens, “House Was Quiet,” ll. 1–10.

  21. 21.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 22.

  22. 22.

    Greif, Against Everything, x.

  23. 23.

    For example, see Bailey, “Anthony Seldon’s Producer Interest.”

  24. 24.

    Arnold, “On Translating Homer,” 89.

  25. 25.

    At this point it would be possible to launch into a long discursus on the relationship between “critical personas” and the actual people who underly them. I won’t be doing that: as suggested at the beginning of this essay, I do not wish to be prescriptive about the “actual people.” However, if “the style is the man,” then there is likely to be some relationship between the two entities, although this relationship is likely to be complex. In the age of MeToo and Black Lives Matter, unsurprisingly a series of debates have sprung up about the tone and conduct of academic life, as expressed in different disciplines and contexts: see, for example, Nagypál, “Economics Needs Reconciliation”; a very thoughtful reflection on the field of economics. These issues are as important in literary criticism as they are in any other discipline or indeed in any other part of society.

  26. 26.

    Roth, “Tokens of Ruined Method.”

  27. 27.

    Ashbery, “For John Clare,” 103.

  28. 28.

    Collini, “Lot to be Said.”

  29. 29.

    Roth, “Tokens of Ruined Method.”

  30. 30.

    Here I am recalling the titles of Chris Baldick’s The Social Mission of English Criticism, 18481932 and of Christopher Hilliard’s excellent book on the Leavises and their broader impact, English as a Vocation: The “Scrutiny” Movement.


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Correspondence to Simon Grimble .

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Grimble, S. (2021). What Kind of Person Should the Critic Be?. In: Sridhar, A., Hosseini, M.A., Attridge, D. (eds) The Work of Reading. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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