F. R. Leavis J. B. Priestley

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J. B. Priestley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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There could be, no doubt, a standard of literary values so high, so icily severe, that in its sight a Virginia Woolf would possess nothing but a slender talent. But from this height a Dr. Leavis would not exist at all. His loudest screams could never be heard. His claim to write even one sentence worth reading could not be accepted. This is where the arrogantly dogmatic, absolutist critic, behaving more like the Grand Inquisitor or Calvin than a sensible man of letters, walks into a trap. For if our time is so precious that we should not waste it reading a hundred reputable authors, from Fielding to Day-Lewis, then why should we waste any time reading or listening to Dr. Leavis? This question may not occur to undergraduates, who are impressed by fierce dogmatism, because they are themselves inclined towards intolerance, sweeping generalisations, knock-you-down judgments, hell-for-leather criticism, and sit up half the night opening bottles of beer and roaring this stuff at one another. So when Dr. Leavis tells his audiences that Mr. Auden has never advanced beyond the undergraduate stage, he should be careful, for his own success with undergraduates might be explained by the fact that his critical methods and temper have much in common with those of the average second-year man. It is the critic that is not conducting a permanent quarrel with everybody, that has sensible relative values, that does not divide writing into literature and rubbish, that knows that authors worth reading have many different virtues, who cannot have an easy success with undergraduates, just because he does not behave as they like to do, because he asks them to make an effort and civilise themselves.

The truth is that Dr. Leavis, though possibly an excellent teacher, is not really a literary critic at all. He is a sort of Calvinist theologian of contemporary culture. To be an author, in his view, is to invite damnation, for only a few—D. H. Lawrence, himself, and a favourite pupil or two—will be saved. The rest of us are not just a lot of chaps trying to get by, doing no particular harm to anybody, writing as well as we know how, but a gang of impudent or sinister charlatans, probably sitting up at night plotting against him. The very title of his critical journal, Scrutiny, suggests that in it authors will have to undergo some kind of customs and passport examination, that the editor and his contributors will be there with narrowed gaze, tight lips, service revolvers. Scrutiny may have vanished, but Dr. Leavis and his disciples are still on the job scrutinising, refusing bribes, closing the frontier to all the scribbling riffraff. Even when he produces an enthusiastic study of Lawrence, which contains some admirable chapters, he forfeits our sympathy by behaving as if he were conducting a scholarship examination for a single place, as if the writing of fiction were entirely competitive, as if you cannot pass Lawrence without failing Arnold Bennett or Mr. Forster. He makes one feel that he hates books and authors, that his astonishing severity does not come from exceptional fastidiousness but is the result of some strange neurosis, as if he had been frightened by a librarian in early childhood. His solemnity is not the usual donnish conceit, from which he is free, but suggests the neurotic theologian. He is an unusual man, with genuine gifts, hard and passionately at work on the wrong job.

For the last twenty-five years, both here and in America, especially in the universities, bad criticism has been driving out good criticism. It is always absolutist, never relative. Either something is literature, we are told, or it isn't. There are no innumerable fine shades between very great writing, at one end of the scale, and silly nonsense at the other. Everything is all or nothing. There is only one kind of excellence, one set of literary virtues. If Smith is in, then Brown is out. Whatever it cannot praise with solemn rapture, this criticism instantly and...

(The entire section is 1,175 words.)