I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that in the "mainstream" print press, only new works of fiction or poetry will be discussed in anything like an approach that could be called "literary criticism." Most book reviews are long on unsubstantiated judgment and free-floating attitude and short on real critical analysis, but at least they do usually concern themselves with the book--the "text"--itself rather than other superfluous items related to the author's life or the sociological context in which the book was written. With most writers from the past--even the very recent past--the situation is quite different. Rarely are the books these writers actually wrote ever regarded as worthy of ongoing consideration in themselves. Instead we get only reviews of the seemingly endless stream of biographies of such writers, themselves a symptom of the way in which talk about writers' lives sadly substitutes for accessible but informed analysis of writers' work.
One might think that real criticism could be found in publications such as the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books, both generally considered "highbrow" sources of book discussion, but even these more intellectual book reviews more often than not confine their "criticism" to reviews of new biographies. Andrew O'Hagan's review of a new biography of Robert Louis Stevenson in the LRB is a good example.
O'Hagan practically admits that interest in Stevenson has been expressed almost exclusively through an obsession with his "life-story":
Robert Louis Stevenson’s afterlife has proved to be an adventure about an adventurer. Friends fought over his belongings, his writings, and the meaning of his character, from the minute he died, and people have never stopped imagining that his life tells a story of human endeavour mounted in the face of impossible odds. Every squeak and turn of his prose has been sounded out for evidence of the living man. . . .
Stevenson is certainly not the only writer whose work "has been sounded out for evidence of the living man." Encyclopedic, multi-volume, and serial biographies of novelists and poets have become commonplace products of the "book industry," and for many readers these biographies must take the place of familiarity with the novels and the poems. Why this should be so is something I don't entirely understand. I am tempted to conclude that "people" aren't finally much interested in works of the imagination, are really much more interested in hearsay and chatter and thus gravitate toward what Steve Mitchelmore in a related post calls "gossipy biographies."
O'Hagan remarks further:
Stevenson’s life has come to seem one that can offer unlimited insight into the mysteries of literary temperament, as if he, practically alone, a hothouse plant, can indicate exactly what it takes to make a human being into a literary personality. . . .
Perhaps this is it. We're more interested in "literary personality" than literature. In the pre-Hollywood past, this is perhaps the closest analogue to a movie star? And for bookish types, obsession with "literary personality" can be safely indulged without seeming as star-crushed as the similar obsessions of the vulgar sorts who read People?
. . .Stevenson’s was a life full of creative compulsions – including the compulsion to be compulsive – and more than other writers he stepped into the role, appearing always to delineate in theatrical detail what it meant to be a writer in the modern world. What it meant to be a male writer, at any rate.
For the psychologically inclined, then. "What it meant [or means] to be a writer in the modern world." I suppose this is more interesting (for some) than "what it means to be a carpenter in the modern world," but, myself, I can't think of a more tedious or inane subject. What it means to be a writer in the modern world is that one writes.
The following is as close to real literary analysis as O'Hagan gets, and, although disappointingly brief, it is exactly the sort of critical insight the further elaboration of which casual readers of Stevenson might appreciate:
For all his verses, his childhood vapours, his vagabond adventures, Stevenson’s real job was to enlarge the psychological potential of the novel. He has nothing in common with Rider Haggard or Jack London. Stevenson’s imagination was filled with the uncanny.
Robert Louis Stevenson is especially the kind of writer who could benefit from, whose books could benefit from, some focused textual analysis. (Not necessarily belabored or overly "academic" exegesis but some "close reading" with a lighter touch.) Too many people think of Stevenson as merely a writer of children's books. Those who have read (seriously read) Kidnapped or The Master of Ballantrae (or even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) know that this is a profound oversimplification. But biographies and reviews of biographies are not going to fulfill the need for extended critical appraisal, without which Stevenson's books may be consigned to the limbo of unread classics.
Are readers really allergic to the kind of modestly-ambitioned literary criticism I am talking about? Given that academic criticism has lost touch with literature itself, not to speak of the needs of general readers, is literary criticism that actually attends to the experience of reading works of literature to be dismissed as a quaint vestige of the past?