Principles of Literary Criticism by I.A. Richards: reviewed.

This classic text covers an enormous amount of ground. It refers to a large number of other texts. Thought-provoking and informative, it remains a challenging read. Nonetheless, it is critical to think of the contentions made in the context of their time. Some of the theories might not be considered valid from a current perspective, while others may be conveyed in a less obscure way by a modern scholar.

These caveats notwithstanding, certain passages are as illuminating now as they were when they were penned. The section on the imagination is particularly rich, while the references to Aristotle, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Pater, and Shelley are still of great interest. Reading and responding to poetry is not as simple as some might believe, and the text suggests that there are specific reasons for commonplace confusions.

However, I.A. Richards did possess a somewhat grandiose view of the critic. He was scornful of the cinema, picky about mediocre sonnets, and elitist in his values. Nor could he restrain himself when it came to moving off-topic. Nevertheless, he should be given the last words in his defence:

“in the majority of social circles, to be seriously interested in art is to be thought an oddity.”

Criticism of Tolstoy’s criticism: I. A. Richards

In ‘Principles of Literary Criticism’, the influential literary critic I. A. Richards attacked the vision of Tolstoy without holding back. Richards believed that Tolstoy had been utterly overcome by religious and ethical sentiments. For Richards, the literary views of Tolstoy had been excessively coloured by his overwhelming desire to advance “the brotherhood of men.”

Richards was quite disdainful of the art that Tolstoy recommended. The work of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Victor Hugo was not much to the liking of the celebrated academic. Richards did not warm to the anti-elitism of Tolstoy and said that the great writer was an example of “how not to introduce moral preoccupations into the judgement of values.”

While a proper review of the position of the Richards text will follow, it is worth stating here that the one-dimensional approach taken to the contribution of Tolstoy is indicative of the fact that Richards was pursuing his own critical agenda. Perhaps it was Tolstoy’s lack of appreciation for Shakespeare which had really riled Richards; the academic mentioned this when condemning Tolstoy for possessing a “distorted” mind.

What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy (1896) reviewed

As was mentioned in the previous post on Shakespeare, Tolstoy developed concrete ideas about what he wanted from art. It is apparent that these were linked to his particular blend of Christian anarchism. However, the criteria by which he judged art in his later years were bold and may be of considerable interest to someone who is neither anarchist nor Christian.

For Tolstoy, great art had to have an “individuality of…feeling.” In addition, it had to be as clear as possible. Furthermore, it needed to embrace sincerity. According to Tolstoy, sincerity was the criterion which is decisive.

Judging work on its sincerity is not without significant problems. Tolstoy was content with “peasant art” and was scornful of “upper-class” efforts. However, a peasant may be insincere, while an affluent individual could express themselves honestly. Moreover, realist art might be untruthful, while abstract art can be sincere. With regard to abstraction, it must be remembered that Tolstoy devised his criteria in a particular historical context. It seemingly remains difficult to assess art without mentioning specific examples of it.

Shakespeare and the Drama by Leo Tolstoy (1906) reviewed

This long essay was written towards the end of the career of Tolstoy. By then, the great writer had developed firm ideas with regard to the purpose of literature. In this text, he claimed that Shakespeare was not a poetic artist of the first rank. To make this claim, Tolstoy focused on ‘King Lear’ in particular. However, Tolstoy also made several points about the way cultural values are transmitted in society.

It is not necessary to agree with Tolstoy with regard to the tragedy of ‘King Lear’ to appreciate that his essay made some valid points. Tolstoy correctly pointed out that the work of Shakespeare has gone in and out of fashion down the centuries. He accurately indicated that certain influential critics had played a big role in this. Furthermore, he was right to look at the original tales from which Shakespeare had drawn.

Nonetheless, while Shakespeare might have been excessively patriotic as Tolstoy alleged, the rest of the long argument has a few weaknesses. Tolstoy’s antipathy was primarily based on reading the plays. His moral and aesthetic objections will not convince every person who visits the theatre. Ultimately, this thought-provoking essay makes the reader think that Tolstoy was possibly too prescriptive in what he wanted from art.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan: reviewed

This novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, is quite an odd piece of work. It contains references to the likes of Homer, Basho, Issa, Trollope, and Kipling. However, at times it reads like a clumsy thriller, and at others like a tawdry romance. In terms of content, the narrative recounts the construction of a railway in Burma in the early 1940s. Prisoners of war suffered unimaginable torment as they tried to meet the demands of the Japanese Emperor, and many died.

The main problem with this novel is that a few of the fictional elements detract from the power of the historically accurate points. For example, the depiction of women throughout the story is largely based on their appearance. This undermines the so-called love story. Interestingly, the majority of the judges behind the decision to give ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ the prize were male.

Nevertheless, the ambitious nature of the book does mean that it has an impact on the reader. In addition, the author managed to switch his story backwards and forwards with genuine skill. It might be interesting to see what Richard Flanagan writes next.