Frye: Anatomy of criticism

Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism was published in 1957. This is not only a bibliographically necessary nugget of information for when you want to compile a list of works cited, but also an important touchstone when reading the book. A great many things have happened since 1957, and it is interesting to waltz through the realms of criticism as it were back then with the knowledge of how it turned out later. Armed with the knowledge of the future, returning to this writ is akin to a tour of what might have been. The present back then was contingent in a way that our present is not.

To take an example: at length, Frye gestures to the emerging trend of replacing criticism proper with the act of producing ranked lists, and the inherent methodological problems of such an approach. For one, merely ranking things is not a critical act, it is merely the application of a more or less explicitly defined set of criteria on a limited set of objects. Going through the motions of such a procedure does not increase our understanding of the works in question, or even why they were included in the ranking process to begin with. With the modern phenomenon of listicles firmly in mind, we can look back on these musings and nod an extended agreement. Not to mention the trend of modern mission statements to replace grammatical structures in favor of disjointed yet prominently displayed keywords, where even the pretense of an overarching organizational principle has been abstracted out of the picture.

To take another example: while delineating the different roles of critics and authors, Frye makes a joking aside that Dante, who proclaimed that a certain poem was the best he had ever written, was in so doing an indifferent critic of Dante, and that others had gone on to write better critiques of said poem. Little did Frye know that a mere decade later, the whole death of the author hubbub would flare up in earnest when Barthes kicked the hornets nest. And then kept it going for quite a spell.

A funny third example is how Frye points out how there were no standard introductory books on criticism. He then goes on to speculate what the first page of a potential such book would say, pondering that perhaps it might modestly begin with the question “what is literature?”. Then, he ventures that the second page might expand on this question, in terms of verse and rhythm, and that subsequent chapters then deal with the complexities of genre and other nebulous yet necessary literary terms. Terms which, although recognizable in action and principle, seems strangely resistant to being theoretically explicated.

It is funny in the sense that there are now several such books, who do not necessarily agree with each other on the finer points of what criticism actually is. It is also funny in the additional sense of a reader being able to go to their local university library, scour the shelves of every book that looks vaguely introductory to the enterprise of literary criticism, and empirically investigate how Frye’s prediction turned out. So I went and did just that. Here follows, in the order of which they stacked up next to me after I had done the aforementioned scouring, the results.

First out is Persson (2007), titled Varför läsa litteratur? (Why read literature?). An introductory title if there ever was one. The book begins by mentioning that merely asking this question is seen as blasphemous in certain context, almost taboo. Persson then continues to outline that, in practice, this very question has had a variety of responses throughout the ages, relating to the building of such things as character, nationhood and a (well-read) democratic citizenry. He then gestures towards the contemporary trend within organizations to demand a justification (a stronger word than an explanation) for everything that happens within it. Thus, being prepared with answers with slightly more rhetorical and conceptual bite than “it’s a traditional value held throughout literally all of recorded human history (more often than not constituting said history)” is a modern virtue.

Next up is Barry (2009), with Beginning Theory. It opens up with the observation that the “moment of theory” has passed, and that we now find ourselves in the “hour of theory” – the enthusiastic fervor with which theory was introduced has been replaced with the slightly less enthusiastic aftermath in which we can look back upon what has gone before, and calmly set to work organizing and cataloging the aftermath. Theory, literary theory among them, has become a day-to-day business, and thus it needs standardized books like this one so everyone in said business are, as far as such things are possible, on the same page.

Observant readers will note that “criticism” seems to have been replaced with “theory”. Just theory in general, with “literary“ added on as a reminder that books are somehow involved. Culler (1997) picks up this theme on the first page of Literary Theory, where he differentiates between capital-T Theory in general and literary theory in particular, and then goes on to discuss how the two have been so thoroughly intertwined over the last decades that keeping them separate is a fool’s errand. Non-literary theory (defined broadly) has impacted on how literature has been written, which has then affected how criticism of said literature has taken form, which in turn has influenced literary theory, and to fully understand it all a modern readers has to know a little about every step of this series of events to keep up. Basically, a critic also needs to be a theorist, in order to understand the books they claim to critique.

Franzén (2015), in Grundbok i litteraturvetenskap, (Introduction to literary science), take a slightly more analytic approach, and defines theory in the scientific sense of being a comprehensive set of ideas relating to something; the ‘something’, in this case, is literature in its many forms. Franzén notes that there has been a move from writing about literature in a normative sense – i.e. how it should be – to writing in about it in a descriptive sense – how it actually does what it does. The book then proceeds to outline a number of themes in this straightforward manner.

Eagleton (1996) opens up Literary Theory with the striking formulation “[i]f there is such a thing as literary theory, then it would seem obvious that there is something called literature which it is the theory of”. After this opening salvo, Eagleton takes a closer look at what the category of “literature” includes (e.g. the Illiad) and what it, more importantly, does not include (comic books), and how this selective applicability affects the theory which claims to be about those things included. What is literature indeed.

Peck and Coyle (2002) introduces Literary Terms and Criticism with the assertion that “literary criticism is primarily concerned with discussing individual works of literature”. The authors then immediately clarifies that aspects slightly less particular to an individual work, such as its genre or its historical context, also play into the process of criticism. The tension between books always being singular, unique and one of a kind, and also very possible to group together with other similar monads, is as of yet one of the unresolved questions of theory, literary or otherwise.

Next up is Norton’s monumental tome the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2010), which features 2758 large pages of small print, covering just about every aspect of theory and/or criticism there is. It starts off by proclaiming that there are those who claim to be anti-theory, who hold the position that all this circumlocution is a mere distraction from the real work of getting it done. Slyly, the anthology then points out that this in itself is a theoretical position, whose assumptions can be critically examined and thus better understood. Not said, but heavily implied, is that the following thousands of pages might be of some use in this critical endeavor.

Finally – it was a big stack, dear reader – Bennett and Royle (2009) begin their An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory by posing the rhetorical question: when will we have begun? From this provocation, the authors then set out to problematize the beginning of a text. Do early drafts count, or shall we limit ourselves to the finished publication? What about marginal notes, commentary, public reception or influential works of criticism? When, indeed, can we with confidence proclaim that we have read and understood enough to finally get on with doing either literature, criticism or theory?

It is tempting to say that Frye is still correct in his assertion that there is no standard introductory work on criticism. The prevalence of many introductory works, plural, only serves to underline this point, albeit probably not in the spirit with which Frye made it. But I reckon it would be more fruitful to say that there is indeed a standard of introductory works, and that what unites them is an unwillingness to once and for all proclaim what literature (and the criticism of it) actually is. Literature is at once both the baseline of human expression (in its many forms), and the gradual expansion of the possibilities of human expression. We all agree that there is such a thing as literature, and then immediately start to argue about the finer points beyond this first principle. Establishing a firm definition of what literature is invites future authors to blur the line by new and creative literary feats, and criticism must always – lagging behind as it is – try to keep up with whatever tools it can get its hands on, theoretical or otherwise. Which is indeed a hopeful thought to take into an uncertain future. It certainly makes the present ever so slightly more contingent.

Works cited

Barry, P. (2009). Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bennet, A., & Royle, N. (2009). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Culler, J. (1997). Literary Theory: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eagleton, T. (1996). Literary Theory: an Introduction. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Franzén, C. (2015). Grundbok i litteraturvetenskap: historia, praktik och teori. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Frye, N. (1957). Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Leitch, V. (ed). (2010). The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Peck, J., & Coyle, M. (2002). Literary Terms and Criticism. Basingstroke: Palgrave.

Persson, M. (2007). Varför läsa litteratur?: om litteraturundervisningen efter den kulturella vändningen. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Frye: Anatomy of criticism

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