The Idea of a Literary Review
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762 ] The Idea of a Literary Review1 The New Criterion: A Quarterly Review, 4 (Jan 1926) 1-6 The existence of a literary review requires more than a word of justification . It is not enough to present a list of distinguished contributors; it is not enough to express a cordial zeal for the diffusion of good literature; it is not enough to define a “policy.” The essential preliminary is to define the task to be attempted, and the place which may be occupied, by any literary review; to define the nature and the function. Many reviews and periodicals qualified as “literary” have proved deficient not so much by their failure to carry out their purposes as by their failure to conceive these purposes and possibilities clearly. This note, therefore, will be concerned less with the point of view of The New Criterion, compared with that of other reviews, than with the definition of the literary review in general, and the precise application of the term “literature” in such a periodical. There are two pairs of opposed errors, into which a “literary review” may fall. It may err by being too comprehensive in its selection of contributors , or by being too narrow. Or it may err by including too much material and representing too many interests, which are not strictly literary , or on the other hand by sticking too closely to a narrow conception of literature. It is obvious that most literary periodicals follow one of these four deviations, which I shall call for convenience 1 (a) and (b), and 2 (a) and (b); and that it is possible for a periodical to exhibit one error out of each pair. 1 (a). The review which makes up its contents merely of what the editor considers “good stuff ” will obviously have the character of a miscellany, and no other character whatever, except the feeble reflection of the character of a feeble editor. To miscellanies which acknowledge their nature I raise no objection; there is a place for such publications, but they are not reviews. A review which depends merely on its editor’s vague perceptions of “good” and “bad” has manifestly no critical value. A review should be an organ of documentation. That is to say, the bound volumes of a decade should represent the development of the keenest sensibility and the clearest thought of ten years. Even a single number should attempt to illustrate, within its limits, the time and the tendencies of the time. It should have a [ 763 The Idea of a Literary Review value over and above the aggregate value of the individual contributions. Its contents should exhibit heterogeneity which the intelligent reader can resolve into order. The apparent heterogeneity of the present number of The New Criterion is, therefore, not without a plan – at least an intention. 1 (b). The miscellaneous review is negative: the review which propagates the ideas of a single man, or the views and fancies of a small group, is more evidently obnoxious. In the realm of action, of political or theological controversy , a small and compact body of troops, or even a single leader, may accomplish useful work. But in the world of ideas, no individual, no small group, is ever good enough or wise enough to deserve such licence. Of messianic literature we have sufficient. From what has been said it should appear that the ideal literary review will depend upon a nice adjustment between editor, collaborators and occasional contributors. Such an adjustment must issue in a “tendency” rather than a “programme.” A programme is a fragile thing, the more dogmatic the more fragile. An editor or a collaborator may change his mind; internal discord breaks out; and there is an end to the programme or to the group. But a tendency will endure, unless editor and collaborators change not only their minds but their personalities. Editor and collaborators may freely express their individual opinions and ideas, so long as there is a residue of common tendency, in the light of which many occasional contributors , otherwise irrelevant or even antagonistic, may take their place and counteract any narrow sectarianism. 2 (a) and (b). The solution of the second dilemma – that of being either too general or too strictly “literary” – involves a working notion of the term “literature.” Too wide an inclusion of subject matter is a fault similar to that of indiscriminate inclusion of contributors and needs no further elucidation . The vice of making a review too narrowly literary is not...