To make the poem or the novel the central concern of literary criticism has appeared to mean cutting it loose from the author and that author’s particular hopes, fears, interests, conflicts, etc. A criticism so limited may seem bloodless and hollow. To emphasize the work seems to involve severing it from those who actually read it, and this severance may seem drastic and therefore disastrous. After all, literature is written to be read. Literary works are merely potential until they are read: that is, that they are re-created in the minds of actual readers, who vary enormously in their capabilities, their interests, their prejudices, their ideas. Moreover, it may appear catastrophic to ignore the poem’s roots in historical context, past or present, or to neglect the audience which reads the work, including that for which it was presumably written.
But the principles of criticism define the area relevant to literary criticism; they do not constitute a method for carrying out the criticism. Accordingly, the formalist critic is concerned primarily with the work itself. Speculation on the mental processes of the author takes the critic away from the work into biography and psychology. Such studies describe the process of composition, not the structure of the thing composed. Exploration of the various readings which the work has received also takes the critic away from the work into psychology. Such work, valuable and necessary as it may be, is to be distinguished from a criticism of the work itself. As such, the formalist critic rejects two popular tests for literary value. The first proves the value of the work from the author’s “sincerity” (or the intensity of the author’s feelings as he or she composed it). We discount also such tests as the intensity of the critic’s reaction.
The formalist critic makes two assumptions: (1) that the relevant part of the author’s intention is what the author actually put into the work–that is, the critic assumes that the author’s intention as realized is the “intention” that counts, not necessarily what he was trying to do. And (2) the formalist critic assumes an ideal reader to find a central point of reference from which to focus on the structure of the poem or novel. There is no ideal reader, of course. But for the purpose of focusing on the poem rather than on the critic’s own reactions, it is a defensible strategy. (The alternatives are desperate: Either we say that one person’s reading is as good as another’s, and thus deny the possibility of any standard reading, or else we take the lowest common denominator of the various readings that have been made–that is, we frankly move from literary criticism into social psychology. To propose taking a consensus of the opinions of “qualified” readers is simply to split the ideal reader into a group of ideal readers.)
That each literary work is a document which can be analyzed in terms of the forces that produced it, or manipulated as a force in its own right, is a fact it would be futile to deny. I know of no critic who does deny them. Literature mirrors the past, and may influence the future. But the reduction of a work of literature to its causes does not constitute literary criticism; nor does an estimate of its effects. Good literature is more than effective rhetoric applied to true ideas–even if we could agree upon a philosophical yardstick for measuring the truth of ideas or the effectiveness of the rhetoric. Literature has many “uses” and new uses are continually proposed, some of them exciting and spectacular. But all the critical uses to which literature can be put rest finally upon our knowing what literary criticism “means”. That knowledge is basic.
Adapted from “The Formalist Critic” by C. Brooks. Published by The Kenyon Review. 1951.
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