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  • The Cost of Criticism
  • Daniel Cook (bio)
Literary Criticism: A New History by Gary Day. Edinburgh University Press. 2008. £50. ISBN 978 0 7486 1563 6

Gary Day has made a thought-provoking and highly readable contribution to one of the most difficult categories of critical writing: a history of literary criticism. Such a task is harder, as Rene´ Wellek once put it, than building a mountain out of melting ice. But who needs a mountain of ice? If indeed 'criticism has no history', as Day himself asserts, does such a narrative history have any critical or even market value (p. 1)? Few students have any real interest in the development of their discipline, even if they continue to rely on and even reiterate a number of iconic critical tenets. And many educators have been caught up in the so-called rise of the cultural sciences, a broadening out of the already elastic discipline of English. This is of course appealing, certainly as a response to the most persistent charges held against histories of literary criticism, that of [End Page 397] disciplinary insularity and obscurantism. As Day succinctly demonstrates, English literary criticism has always pirated other intellectual disciplines, even though he tactically avoids the encroachment of literary theory on what was once termed 'polite learning'. In fact, literary criticism, as a composite of rhetorical and grammatical criticisms, existed long before the various critical vocabularies were invented. This is certainly not a new insight, and derives largely from Raymond Williams and others. But Day's personalised 'take' on the subject is highly instructive. For instance, the author embeds within his narrative the grand narratives of Darwinism, the rise of Protestantism, and the like, in order to draw out various attempts at the shaping of literary criticism in its social and intellectual contexts rather than to contain them. He does not rely on seismic events, such as the invention of the printing press or the toothbrush, to tell the story as such. These are background characters, not plot lines.

He even embraces, in a carefully detached way, the market forces that have long driven literary criticism. Rather than prudishly lament the notion that money and criticism are bound together these days, Day reveals that criticism has always relied on consumerism. He challenges, for instance, the traditional view that writing criticism for money occurred suddenly in the eighteenth century, a period associated with the development of periodical criticism. In the fifteenth century, Aldus Manutius propounded the principle of 'hurry slowly', festina lente, and produced books that modern commentators have described as 'scholarly, compact, handy and cheap' (quoted in Day, p. 132). Far from an eighteenth-century bastardisation of the faculty of criticism, as some eighteenth-century thinkers argued, the economic basis of judgement has always shaped literary criticism. Certainly, the narratives of the decline of patronage and of the rise in literacy in this period cannot be disputed, and Day is canny enough to embed such grand narratives within his subtler approach. Yet, even if the grand narratives are masterfully kept in check, sometimes they seep through the seams, as in the teleological remark that 'the new emphasis on personal experience in writing . . . eventually becomes dominant in romanticism' (p. 143). But the lesson is sound: once we fully acknowledge that literature and criticism have always been grounded in economic as much as in symbolic exchanges, then we can take control of the situation. Pitching his history to students as much as to scholars, the author relies on a number of widely available electronic texts and sources, both scholarly and commercial, thereby siding with the very tool that seeks to undermine the authority of the critic. But, with a vast number of web-based guides increasingly available, the need for a renewed faith in the authoritative literary critic is more pressing than ever. There is one [End Page 398] important caveat: he or she must acknowledge their limitations and the limitations imposed upon them, as Day himself does.

Inevitably, perhaps, Day resorts to the periodisation adopted by the great if somewhat dated George Saintsbury and Rene´ Wellek. Beginning with the Greeks and Romans he moves on to medieval criticism, the English Renaissance, the English...


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