The Art of Telling

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Frank Kermode writes with an awareness that the New Criticism that dominated literary analysis in academic circles from the 1930’s through the 1950’s has experienced an eclipse. Indeed, he studiously avoids the commonplace expressions of the New Criticism—ambiguity, point of view, tone, irony—preferring a new and more arcane set of analytical terms. Even at the height of its influence, the school initiated by Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, and I. A. Richards, among others, revealed limitations. It treated literary texts as artifacts, isolated from the periods and cultures that produced them, and it advocated intensive analysis. As a result, the novel suffered critical neglect, because it is too unwieldy and amorphous to lend itself readily to close analysis. Kermode’s chief interest lies with the novel, and so it is natural that he should turn to newer theories.

No clearly dominant school, however, has emerged to replace the New Critics. Instead, there developed in the 1960’s a reexamination of the use of theories and methods from other fields—anthropology, linguistics, psychology (Freudian), political science (largely Marxist), folklore and myth—to illuminate literary texts. Ways of interpreting reality that theorists devised for these fields shaped the theory of criticism in the direction of new movements, notably the Structuralist and Deconstructionist movements that originated in France. At the same time, a few critics—the best known in this country being Stanley Fish and Louise Rosenblatt—turned from the text (or poem) to the reader (or audience) to examine in thorough detail the experience of reading. Others, such as Northrop Frye, intensified their exploration of texts from the perspective of myth.

Kermode’s measure of independence from new theoretical currents is secured by three factors prominent in the book: his stated awareness that he is seeking a neutral ground amid the battles being waged by advocates of various schools; his continuing interest in literary history, including the history of genres, interpretation, and reading; and an inclination, long conspicuous in his work, to analyze beginnings of lengthy texts. The book makes an extended plea for careful, yet pluralistic, readings of novels, first by tracing changes in the genre and then by exploring the varied responses of readers and critics. Throughout his work, Kermode incorporates memorable aphorisms or sentences on the nature and purpose of literary criticism—criticism being to him an ethical act that has illumination as its main function. He is inclined to accept a range of modes as contributing to this end, though he has serious reservations—both theoretical and pedagogical—about Deconstructionism. He is fond of quoting important expressions of critics and gauging the extent to which they are true or useful.

The title of Kermode’s book, it might be observed, does not suffice. It is more clearly about the art of reading or the art of critical interpretation than the art of narrative, though it does in fact include important ideas on the subject. The subtitle, Essays on Fiction, indicates more accurately the nature of the book’s contents, which derive from lectures and papers written over a period of a dozen years or more. All of the material, except for a lengthy prologue, has been previously published, though Kermode has made revisions for the present volume. The book has two major thrusts: the theoretical influence and the formal (or institutional) influence on interpretation. The second concerns university faculties and their influence over canon (texts that are selected for analysis) and hermeneutics (critical methods and approaches).

To clarify a few of the theoretical problems involved in interpreting the novel, Kermode selects data for an examination of the genre. In his first chapter, “The English Novel, Circa 1907,” he turns to once popular but now forgotten works. Kermode’s analysis reveals that novelists of that period were seeking to incorporate contemporary themes of importance to society—sex, the class struggle, imperialism—into their works instead of relying upon history and romance, a thematic development which Kermode names “the condition of England.” The more significant novelists of the period, however, were those concerned with innovation not in theme but in technique, in the craft of fiction. Here, the names are neither obscure nor forgotten—Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford—novelists who blazed a trail leading away from more traditional men of letters such as John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and G. K. Chesterton. The innovators made special demands upon their readers by withdrawing or withholding authorial guidance, by making their narratives indirect and complex, and by relying upon symbols and subtle patterns of repetition and allusion.

The nature of complex narrative is further clarified in the second chapter,...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Christian Science Monitor. January 17, 1984, p. 20.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 8, 1983, p. 46.