In a recent post, Rohan Maitzen suggests that responsible criticism (she has academic criticism in mind, but the point would seem to apply to generalist criticism as well) should concentrate not on "comparative measures of ‘worth’" but on "seeking out the measures that fit the particular case." She continues:
One of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms--trying to understand how to read it so that it best fulfills its own potential. This means not holding it up to a particular, preconceived standard of excellence ("good novels do this“), whether that standard is formal or ideological. Now, depending on the occasion, there may be a second phase in which you move back from internally-generated norms and question them against external ideas; often, in teaching, this kind of questioning arises just from moving to the next book on the syllabus and discovering that its norms differ widely from--and thus, implicitly or explicitly, challenge--the ones we’ve just left behind (reading North and South right after Hard Times, or Jane Eyre soon after Pride and Prejudice, for instance, will certainly have this effect). But it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre. It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.
Rohan seems to assume that because in my posts both here and at my own blog I defend the view that "philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are unimportant (even undesirable) in the novel, or at least far less significant than aesthetic effects" (really more the latter than the former) I would not accept the approach to literary criticism she is describing. But in fact I wholeheartedly endorse Rohan's critical pragmatism; indeed, this kind of pragmatism is at the very core of my philosophy of criticism, along with John Dewey's insistence that it is the aesthetic experience of literature that is the immediate object of critical appreciation, an experience that can be satisfied in a multitude of ways. I do not agree with Ronan McDonald and others that "if [literary criticsm] is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative" Even if I acknowledged that criticims needs "to reach a wide public" (which I emphatically do not), I could, I think, make a plausible argument that this "wide pubic" would be better served by a descriptive mode of criticism that seeks to carefully elucidate the manifest qualities of a given text than by an evaluative act that in effect disclaims the reader's own powers of judgment by rendering them unnecessary.
I would also agree that it isn't the case "that reading a novel on its own terms should always be the end point of criticism," although I do maintain--this is really what my allegiance to "aestheticism" finally amounts to--it is a indispensable and necessary beginning point. And I also assume that the act of writing a novel is inescapably an aesthetic endeavor. There would be no point, except in the crudest forms of propaganda, to write fiction in the first place if the primary goal was not to produce a work that succeeds most immediately as art. Since novels and short stories inherently equivocate, unavoidably qualify and make ambiguous anything that might be straightforwardly "said," anyone who wants to "comment" on social life or engage in philosophical speculation would be well advised to do so more directly than fiction allows.
Which is why I can't agree with Rohan that approaching "a novel in which philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are extremely important" is simply a matter of adjusting critical focus away from aesthetic considerations and toward the "something said," judging it by the non-aesthetic criteria it seems to propose for itself. At this point, the pragmatic impulse threatens to become an all-purpose excuse for whatever aesthetic lapses are deemed irrelevant to the larger goal of "philosophizing, politics," etc. It comes close to allowing that some novels don't need to offer "aesthetic effects" at all, if this means interfering with the "philosophizing, politics, or social commentary" with which they are principally concerned. Even if you emphasize "how the form and artistic strategies of the novel serve those [ulterior] purposes," as Rohan suggests, this is a pretty tepid measure of the work's literary value. If the primary requirement is not that the work engage us through "form and artistic strategies" above all, its ulterior purposes aside, it is hard for me to understand why fiction should be distinguished from other modes of discourse in the first place, why it should be included with poetry as part of "literature" at all.
Rohan says she's "wondering about the relationship between what I’m calling the 'pedagogical' habit of trying to find the best reading tools, the right measures, for any given example, and other critical strategies or purposes." I believe that by now the "pedagogical habit" has subsumed all other "critical strategies or purposes," to the extent that the need to adapt literature to the academic curriculum has become the overriding consideration in academic criticism. Periodization makes it necessary to find a "place" for texts "in which the form and aesthetics are far less impressive" than others and to accentuate "the contingency of different standards." The rise of theory made it necessary to situate the text in the framework of external schemes that supposedly broaden the context in which literary works can be studied. While it is true that a literary criticism not bound to academe might still give attention to "philosophizing," et.al., it is hard to imagine that such criticism would so willingly apologize for aesthetically inferior work as academic criticism in its current guise is forced to do. It's possible that literary criticism might one day free itself from the pedagogical imperatives with which the academy has burdened it. When that happens, "artistic merit" might not be as dispensable as many academic critics want to find it.