In a review of A. Alvarez's The Writer's Voice and James McConkey's The Telescope in the Parlor, Christine Thomas writes:
For though Alvarez and McConkey's criticisms are distinct, they both agree on a condemnation of New Criticism. Despite his spurning of the cult of personality, Alvarez sees that "the sin of the New Critics was [treating] writers as second-class citizens whose function was merely to provide the raw material that the critic then dignified with meaning and relevance." McConkey, likewise, believes it "impossible to interpret any text as a thing-in-itself, a work separate from the knowledge we bring to it through previous readings or anything else we carry in memory." For both, the text is ultimately more than just words, and they each seek to find its essence, which, as writers, is inevitably entwined with their own lives.
Now what in the world could it possibly mean to say that it is "impossible" to interpret a literary work as autonomous, a "thing-in-itself"? What makes it impossible? If I so choose to regard a poem or novel in this way, as something made, something embodied, something lying before me as indeed a "thing" waiting to be experienced, does this mean that in doing so I am performing something that literally can't be done? Has it been an illusion, something I didn't really do but only fooled myself into thinking I'd done? Is my reading per se to be dismissed out of hand because I shouldn't have done it in the first place? Have I violated the McConkey rule?
Even more bizarre, at least to me, is the notion that "the text is ultimately more than just words." What else is it then? Radio broadcasts? Chicken noodle soup? Is it something invisible, something being manipulated by Venusians who are too small for me to see? What could a text's "essence" be? Is this something like what Dr. Strangelove's Jack D. Ripper calls his "purity of essence" being polluted by flouride? Are the "words" just pollution, something obstructing or destroying the work's purity? Writing as flouride? I confess I always find this sort of talk about literature's presumably mystical qualities, so far out of the grasp of the mere literary critic, just plain loopy. It's the kind of thing that makes onlookers from other, non-literary perspectives think writers and critics aren't worth their time.
Although it's not, to say the least, phrased very felicitously, presumably what both Alvarez and McConkey are getting at is what Thomas suggests in describing this "essence" as "inevitably entwined with [these writers] own lives." (But really, does no one edit these things to eliminate the most obvious howlers?) This is probably some version of the idea, usually promulgated by those who don't really like reading anyway (too many words), that literature is just a way of representing the writer's own life, that biography is destiny. Steve Mitchelmore, at Splinters, has nicely formulated this notion as "a book is a person." Steve also provides the best response to this idea, so I won't try to improve on it: "The interesting question is: what is left over after a biographical reading? One might say any reading. The answer, I would say, is literature."
Finally, however, what probably annoys me the most about the above quoted passage, as well as other similarly know-nothing comments about the New Criticism, is the degree to which New Critical formalism continues to be regarded by some (whether, in this case, by the two critics at issue or by Christine Thomas--I have to rely on her characterization since I haven't read the books) as an over-intellectualized, reader-unfriendly method of interpretation. Actually, New Criticism was not "interpretation" at all, since the very enabling idea of the New Criticism was that great works of literature resisited unitary, theme-focused interpretation. New Criticism was an approach that encouraged a real reading of works of literature, reading that was alive to literature's inherently non-discursive nature. Ambiguity and complexity, both of which New Criticism urged readers to value rather than deplore, are hardly the sorts of things to appeal to the truly imperious literary critic. Far from treating readers as "second-class citizens," New Critics, at their best, sought to instruct such readers how to find "meaning and relevance" for themselves.
As for McConkey's admonition that we not try to approach a work of literature "separate from the knowledge we bring to it through previous readings or anything else we carry in memory": How trivial can you get? We can't do much of anything separate from our established knowledge and previous experiences. Why does this invalidate the observation that a text is a text and not a person? McConkey is working from a false premise. He is correct that "the imaginative participation of the reader" is required to complete what might be called the literary exchange. But the participation of the reader joins with the original creative act of the writer, which is embodied in the text. McConkey wants to skip the text altogether and go right to "knowledge of the author, her memory and experience" (Thomas). He wants to find the writer behind the text. Good luck.