Shuffling around Waterstones recently, I was stopped in my tracks by the bright-red spine of Raymond Williams’s classic The Country and the City, sandwiched between two novels, staring out at me. It is neither a novel nor a collection of poetry but a work of literary criticism. In fact, this is the first time Vintage Classics have published an author who was predominantly a literary critic in paperback form – Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, whose critical works are available under the Classics label, were predominantly novelists, after all.
Naturally I started thinking about the sales figures for the book – with an air of trepidation. How many people describe works of literary criticism as classics? Come to that, how many English Literature students do? Undergraduates have little time on their hands during term, and holidays are often spent catching up on fiction and poetry. Yet, literary criticism is what they are tasked with producing. It surely pays, then, to have a few classics – classics of literary criticism – under the belt.
To that end, I asked members of the English, Classics and Modern Languages departments what critical works they would urge students to read. As Williams’s The Country and the City shows, there are wonderfully readable works of criticism out there, works which deserve inclusion in any ‘best books’ list. The Country and the City, being a survey of sorts, has a narrative arc – a beginning, a middle and an end – tracing literary notions of the rural and the urban from Hesiod to Chinua Achebe. Ian Watt’s page-turner The Rise of the Novel has a similar arc, and is essential reading for all critics of the novel.
Dr Simon Grimble, who numbers The Country and the City among his favourites, also recommends William Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age, as well as two further essay collections, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (especially ‘Notes on Camp’ and ‘On Style’) and Christopher Ricks’s The Force of Poetry.
Other approaches than surveys and essay collections are also valuable. Take Jonathan Wordsworth’s The Music of Humanity, for instance, which comes highly recommended by Professor Michael O’Neill for ‘its stylish concision and affective power as it talks us through the experience of reading ‘The Ruined Cottage’, an early version of what became Book 1 of The Excursion.’ According to Professor O’Neill, ‘It’s a book by an individual, in the strong sense of that word.’
Some works of criticism are difficult to categorise, like Professor Simon J. James’s choice, Roland Barthes’s S/Z: ‘most critical books approach a text from the point of view of having read it; S/Z is unique in showing what the experience of reading might be like.’
Before his death, Barthes admitted regret that he had not written a novel. Of course, it doesn’t follow that all novelists can write good criticism, although there are wonderful exceptions: Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is a ‘must read’, according to Dr Jenny Terry. Those interested in another great novelist/critic, Virginia Woolf, will welcome the news that Vintage plan to reissue The Common Reader next year.
Professor Jonathan Long, of the Modern Languages and Cultures department, has recommendations in English and German: Sir Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending ‘helps us to understand why storytelling is one of the few genuine human universals, taking in everything from the Bible to the nouveau roman.’ Julia Encke’s Augenblicke der Gefahr: Der Krieg und die Sinne 1914-1934 (Moments of Danger: War and the Senses, 1914-1934) is ‘a fascinating look at vision, tactility and hearing – and the media of vision and sound – in the conduct and culture of the First World War.’
Dr Jennifer Ingleheart, of the Classics department, recommends Stephen Hinds’s Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry, which ‘shows students how Latin texts operate as part of a broader system where they are related to and riffing off other texts, both Greek and Latin.’
Barthes pops up again, this time for Mythologies, as chosen by Dr Gerald Moore: ‘Most of the essays in Mythologies are 2-3 pages long, so like another great work of criticism I’d recommend, Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, they make for a stimulating way to pass a bowel movement. Pay particular attention to the last paragraph in each one – as with many a session spent on the lavatory, Barthes tends to save his weightiest offerings until towards the end.’
To end with a ‘weighty offering’, Vintage are not stopping there. This April will see the rerelease of Shakespeare’s Magnanimity by Wilbur Sanders and Howard Jacobson, with a 2017 release for another Williams’s gem, Culture and Society: Coleridge to Orwell. Is it time to add a few more classics to your list?
My thanks to all those who generously contributed their thoughts, and thanks also to Charlotte Knight, Editor at Vintage, and Elizabeth Savage (formerly Drialo) for their assistance.
Image: Ginny, via Flickr