It is over fifty years now since Eliot saw in literary criticism ‘a place for quiet, cooperative labour’. In the course of the last year 14 people from the University of Kent, interested in the Victorian novel, sought to put Eliot’s precept into practice by writing a book which, though containing chapters by individuals, would nevertheless, be the outcome of sustained, collaborative discussion. What follows are some reflections prompted by that experience, reflections concerned only incidentally with the particulars of the collaboration, more with the general conclusions that seemed to emerge and the light they cast on some aspects of current critical practice.
‘Quiet and co-operative’ may have been the mood which Eliot recommended for the practice of literary criticism, but he was crisp and clear about the purpose of that harmony. ‘Criticism’, he remarked magisterially, ‘must always profess an end in view, which, roughly speaking, appears to be the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.’ Eliot’s ‘rough speaking’ was, as he intended, to be precise, and ‘elucidation and the correction of taste’, an activity at once descriptive and judicial, passed into the bloodstream of the best 20th century critics. It is there, noticeably, in Leavis’ description of the characteristic appeal made by the literary critic, ‘...this is so, is it not? Yes, but…’ The rejoinder, ‘No, and...’ would not have been a breach of decorum, it would have rendered the activity impossible. Impossible, because literary criticism, however involved in disagreement, relies on a basic consensus, on an initial ‘Yes’ to what is at issue.
Behind this model of literary critical activity lay two related assumptions. The first is suggested by the famous clarion call for critical rigour, ‘the words on the page’, with its attendant implication that the text was ‘out there’, held fast for contemplation and interrogation. The second was that the reader