102(I didn't count) Indispensable(??) Works of Literary Criticism
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A Literary Criticism Library
– first run at the list, Mar. 7, 2016
– added a four or five left out since first posting, Apr. 2, 2016
Recently there was offered on Literary Hub by Jonathan Russell Clark a list of "102 Indispensable Works of Literary Criticism." It is, unfortunately for those who might read it, a more than questionable list, as not that much of it would fall under what one might consider literary criticism and the vast majority of it would not be considered scholarly. It is more, as a friend pointed out, a list of books of essays – and pop crit essays at that. As for the idea of "indispensable," the claim is patently absurd. Most of the texts offered are actually quite dispensible as regards the study of literature; indeed, most of them are probably interchangeable. Beyond even that, the presence of such as Stephen King, and far far more indicting, Stephen Pinker, reveals the list as so indiscriminatory and uncritically selected the idea of calling anything on the list "indispensable" becomes whole ungrounded: to wit, a list by the boy who cried "indispensable."
But, there is an inherent absurdity to the phrase "indispensable works of literary criticism" for the field of literary criticism – leaving out the massive body of pop criticism – is too broad for the term. Indepensible to what? Indispensable to a broad knowledge of the field? Indispensable to one particular field of study? To give a simple example, most of the works that might be considered "indispensable" to Marxist criticism will probably have little value within someone who, like myself, studies literature not as a social artefact but as an aesthetic object, and, if to a lesser degree, vice versa: the two fields may overlap but not by much, and mostly within the general.
So, finding the list laughable, prompted by half-in-just, across the globe prompt on Facebook, I've decided to once again try my hand at such a list.
I have started such lists before for fun, at times for personal use, but they have always failed because I have been too discriminatory, too focused, trying to create a list of "the best of the best" or "the most valuable" when such a list is really impossible. This time, again prompted by suggestion, I will instead create not a list of the "indispensable," which is absurd, but a list of "some of the most valuable"; not one that attempts to distill the whole of criticism and theory, but but a more personal list of works that I consider to have high value for anyone who might seriously pursue the study of literature. As said, my own study of literature has always been focused upon literature as an aesthetic object (which includes the pursuit of the writing of literature as an aesthetic object), and the list below will reflect that. Though, in no way are the works below limited by that personal focus.
As well, while the majority of the list below would fall safely within the idea of "literary criticism and theory" I will make no effort to limit myself thereto. As such, the list includes works that fall under philosophy, art and art criticism, mythological theory, social theory, queer theory, and even psychology. (To note, presently the inclusions from those fields will be short as many of my books I own in those fields are currently in boxes; thus, I lack prompts. If music seems missing, my readings in music have been too scattershot or too focused upon particular works to include here.) What is common to every book, however, is that I have found each of them, even when I did not wholly agree with their conclusions, as having high value toward prompting thought and exploration and toward the development of sophistication within the discourse of literature in general and the literary work as an aesthetic and symbolic object in particular. While the books below may not be found in the literature section in a library, they are all still very much part of the discourse of literary criticism.
The vast majority of the works below I own or have a great familiarity therewith. Most I have read through, some multiple times. Those I have not read through I have yet used well enough or often enough as resource. There are a couple that I own (or are familiar with) but have never read or know only casually, but still consider of high merit based on how they are appraised in other criticism. (They are marked by a †.) I will not list every book by any thinker, only those that I myself have found exceptionally fruitful. That a book is absent though its author is named means nothing. Of course, there are some major writers that can simply be generally recommended. Rather than making an overly long list of their works I will limit myself to but a few, an offering in the nature of recommendations to someone new to the writer.
Not all of these works do I agree with in their base assumptions; and, you will find works here that speak against each other. The point is not the conclusions of any specific book but the value of the book in creating positive and strong energies within the discourse of literature and the aesthetic. One of the difficulties of such lists such as this lies in the issue of what is implied – if accidentally – by books being not present on the list: the question always lingers whether they are absent because the list-maker was not familiar enough with them to include them or whether they are intentionally left off as not making the cut. To help with that I will include at the end a very short of list of works that are well known within lit crit and lit theory yet which I consider of detrimental value to newcomers, either because the arguments within are so fallacious that they will mostly harm discourse, not promote it, or because the value I found in the book lay primarily in taking arms against its arguments. Such books may have value to someone who is already grounded within the discourse of literary criticism, for whom the books can serve as counter ideas to be explored, but would create false and fallacious ideas within the thought of persons not grounded enough to be able to see the fallacies within the arguments. (A perfect example is Stephen Knapp's and Walter Benn Michaels's "Against Theory": an essay which may have caught a lot of popularity in the American pragmatist backlash – or should I say flailing – against continental theory, but whose arguments fall apart under any serious scrutiny.) That said, it should also be understood that no single work in this list should be used on its own: the value of the works below lie in their generating energies within the broader discourse. While there are some books in the list that I consider seminal, grounding (though I will not point out which), in truth every book below should be read against every other: the discourse of any subject is always what lies between. Thus the halmark of great literary criticism, as F.R. Leavis puts it in English Literature in our Time and the University:
|And actually when one is engaged in analysis one is engaged in discussion, even if only implicitly. That is a point I made in saying that a judgment has the form, 'This is so, isn't it?'|
Some comments on method:
Books that are commentary on books listed will follow that primary book. Though, it should be noted, such books are included not solely because they are commentary on a highly valuable work but because they themselves offer sufficient discursive energies to be included in the list. This, outside of large anthologies, will be my only break from an alphabetical listing. I will generally refrain from works that are too directly about any one literary writer or writers, and include those below because they speak also to broader subjects. I will not divide the list into topic categories at all. Not all of the works below might be considered major works of criticism or theory: again, the inclusion of any book is not because of its recognition value, but wholly because I found it personally very valuable (or consider it very valuable) within and toward the explorations, thought, and discourse of my own studies in literature. In short, in silly encapsulation, every work below I might offer to someone with the phrase: "I found this really interesting."
In the future, I would like to add essays such as what is found in anthologies (which, in truth, should be included in such a list). Also honorable mentions: books that were not that valuable to me particularly but are nonetheless obviously worthy of inclusion in such a list.
Anthologies – a short list of major anthologies; subject or event oriented anthologies are in the primary list
The Off List
Books considered so fallacious or counter-productive to developing a sophisticated discourse they not merely absent but intentionally left off the list.