Culture Magazine

GOAT Literary Critics: Part I, What Do You Mean, Literary Critic?

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

Back in October of this year, the 23rd to be exact, Tyler Cowen posted a link to a book he’d just written and put on the web, along with connections to current LLMs (large language models) one could use to explore it. The book: GOAT: Who is the Greatest Economist of all Time and Why Does it Matter? I decided that reading it might help me fill a major gap in my education, economics. So I downloaded it, took at look at the end to see who wins (I’m not saying) and then put it aside ‘till next year, for I figured much of my time this year would be consumed with making sense of my work with ChatGPT – over 100 posts so far, not to mention the raw records of all my sessions with the Chatster.

Then, yesterday, when I was coming down the homestretch on my current essay for 3 Quarks Daily, on the current state of AI, I decided, of all things, to think about answering his book with a post on the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) literary critics. So I jotted down some quick notes, and set them aside to complete my essay. Once I’d uploaded the essay I came back to the GOAT critics – a very Girardian notion, BTW, as one could give “GOAT” a Straussian reading as the sacrificial goat, the pharmakos, of ancient ritual, see also (from my dictionary) Greek tragōidia, apparently from tragos ‘goat’. To that end I put the question to ChatGPT – my gesture, one of them, toward the use of modern technology in this essay. I looked at its initial answer, prodded it some, and decided that I had enough for my purposes.

Here's the plan. First I’m going to present those initial thoughts, just as I jotted them down. Then I’m going to discuss those thoughts in relationship to ChatGPT’s response to my probing. I’ve attached that response as an appendix. That’s enough for this post. I may or may not get around to writing further posts. If I do here’s my most likely title: GOAT Literary Critics: Part 2: Frye, Penn Warren, and Coleridge. If I get that far, then maybe I’ll write this: GOAT Literary Critics: Part 3: Digital Humanists Map the Territory.

We’ll see.

Initial thoughts

The fact is that Tyler is obsessed with the question, Who’s on first? in a way that I am not, and that, to be honest, I find a bit suspect, if not foolish. I’m pretty sure he would understand my reservations about this kind of activity, even if he emphatically does not share them.

With that, why not? Whatever else it is, it’s an interesting exercise.

I really shouldn’t be doing this. I’m not qualified. The man who should do it is my teacher, Richard Macksey. But he died a few years ago.

And then there’s Adam Roberts.

Which is to say, whereas economists are clearly separate from the economy itself as a social structure and mechanism, the separation between literary criticism and literature itself is not so clear.

But if you asked me to set up a committee to look into the matter, here’s a list of people I’d ask them to consider.

I. A. Richards
Russian Formalists?
Robert Penn Warren
George Lukacs
Leo Spitzer, Kemp Malone?
William Empson?
Dare I put Harold Bloom on the list?
Northrop Frye
Wayne Booth
Jacques Derrida
Rene Girard?

Finally, take a look at the Wikipedia article on literary criticism. The article itself isn’t much, but it has a long list of literary critics from ancient times through the present. 160 total, 79 in the twentieth century. That’s worth looking at. Take my small list, that large list, and begin connecting the dots: Who’s read who? Who’s been influenced by who? Perhaps as well, who met who, talked with them, or at least corresponded with them? That last will require you to add many names to the list, and perhaps hypothesize the existences of individuals who are lost to history. The result will be a large web. Somewhere in there you’re likely to find your literary GOATS.

And we’ve now got the computing technology to help us locate them.

Hopkins Handbook of Lit Crit will help you flesh out the list.

What do I think of what ChatGPT ‘thinks’?

As I was looking through ChatGPT’s responses it occurred to me that Cowen made a big deal out of specifying criteria by which he would be judging economists. I’d given some thought to that in making my notes, but hadn’t really listed any criteria in those notes, save for this sentence: “Which is to say, whereas economists are clearly separate from the economy itself as a social structure and mechanism, the separation between literary criticism and literature itself is not so clear.” That’s an issue, and I’m not sure just how it works out. I suppose that’s one of the things this exercise might reveal.

Let me say just a word by way of indicating why that’s an issue. I put Coleridge at the top of my list. He’s best known as a poet, for two poems when it comes down to that (“Kubla Khan,” and “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”), but he was a prodigious essayist and he wrote some excellent and influential books and essay about the nature of literature and literary experience and about specific works (Shakespeare in particular). There are others who straddle the line between criticism and writing as well.

That’s why I suggested Adam Roberts as someone who could make an interesting job of nominating GOAT literary critics. While he’s best known for his speculative fiction, he’s a PhD-trained literary scholar, a romanticist I believe, and has made a wider range of contributions to literary culture than just about anyone I can think of. While’s he’s a creative writer, he’s also done that most fundamental of critical tasks, prepared editions of texts (e.g. Coleridge’s Biographa Literaria), written literary biography (of H.G. Wells), literary history (of science fiction), written who knows what standard-issue academic literary criticism, written reviews and other pieces for venues like The Guardian, and, of all the crazy-ass things, collaborated with Google Translate to translate Finnegans Wake into Latin. Imagine that. You take a book many have claimed to read, but haven’t, and translate it into a language hardly anyone bothers to read. Finally, I know from our tenure together at the now-defunct group blog, The Valve, that he’s a congenial and helpful colleague. He’s far more qualified as lit crit GOAT whisperer than I am.

But I digress. This is about GOAT criteria. What are they? I don’t know, perhaps I’ll figure out. Anyhow, here’s the criteria Cowen set out for his economics (p. 8):

To qualify as “GOAT the greatest economist of all time,” I expect the following from a candidate. The economist must be original, of great historical import, serve as a creator and carrier of important ideas, have a hand in both theory and empirics, have a hand in both macro and micro, and be “not too wrong” on the substance of issues. Furthermore, the person also must be a pretty good economist! That is, if you sat down with the person and discussed economic issues, you would be in some way impressed.

It could be debated how much weight should be assigned to each category, but that is better considered through concrete comparisons than in the abstract. My inclination is to take each category as a kind of absolute requirement.

You see, there’s that idea that the economists have to score well on each category of judgment. What are the categories we’re to use in judging literary critics? In particular, what are the categories of activity? In economics we’re got “theory and empirics” and “macro and micro.” In what little I skimmed through in the last chapter he also talked about policy recommendations, which doesn’t seem to appear on that list. Should our GOAT literary critics be both creative writers and commentators. How do we weigh academic criticism against journalist criticism? What about the high-class and absolutely necessary scut-work of editing literary texts (known as textual criticism)? These are real issues, and I don’t know how to deal with them.

Having said that, let’s get on with it.

Why, in the first place, would I even consult ChatGPT on the matter? Pretty much for the same reason I consult it after I’ve watched a movie I’ve liked: calibration and provocation. I don’t consider myself qualified to list the GOAT literary critics. Yes, I’ve got a degree in literature, but long ago I went off the rails into cognitive science and literature and whatnot, so I just don’t have a good knowledge of a wide enough range of literary critics to make those calls. On the other hand, ChatGPT has “read” everything. I’m willing to rely on it to produce a kind of “least common denominator” answer to the question. Between the two of us we should be able to come up with some kind of interesting list to present to the GOAT Committee.

Let’s look at what ChatGPT did. It gave me ten critics: Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Roland Barthes, Edward Said, Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault, Cleanth Brooks, and Lionel Trilling. I recognize every one of them and have read at least something by every one of them except Cleanth Brooks and Lionel Trilling.

But there’s only one critic that’s on both ChatGPT’s list and my quick and dirty list: Northrop Frye. And Chat’s listed the crucial book: Anatomy of Criticism. That’s very interesting, in part because, as far as I can tell, hardly any academics read Frye anymore. I’ll return to Frye in a later essay.

Two of its suggestions, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, are known primarily as creative writers not critics. As far as I know Susan Sontag didn’t produce any academic writing at all (she didn’t have a PhD). I’m not sure that Foucault has done any literary criticism at all, or only in passing; but he certainly has influenced a lot of post-structuralist critics. Harold Bloom is controversial within the academy, which is perhaps neither here nor there, and his contribution to academic literary criticism will likely rest of the fate of The Anxiety of Influence (I read it years ago). But he’s written a lot for the general public, including big fat books on Hamlet and on The Western Canon, and he’s done a lot of editing. I believe Lionel Trillingis best known as an essayist and though he didn’t have a degree, he had a post at Columbia. Roland Barthes, a wide-ranging philosopher and semiotician, who wrote some very important work specifically about literature. Edward Said, an important critic for sure, but also an important public intellectual who was very active on behalf of Palestinians (he’s Palestinian himself). Cleanth Brooks, why not?

There’s the issue, though, what kind of intellectual production should we take into consideration when assessing literary critics for GOAThood? We might settle on academic literary criticism. That eliminates Sontag, Eliot, Woolf, and Trilling, though he held an academic post. Do we really want to do that? Bloom’s extra academic output may be more important that his academic output. It’s an issue.

Let’s continue on. Since ChatGPT missed all of my candidate save one, I gave him a list to consider:

What about Samuel T. Coleridge, I.A. Richards, Robert Penn Warren, Michael Bakhtin, Gerard Genette, William Empson, Wayne Booth, Rene Girard, Jacques Derrida, and perhaps one of the Russian Formalists from the early 20th century?

Absolutely, your additions are excellent and further enrich the list of influential literary critics.

You can read its characterizations of those critics for yourself. They’re reasonable. For what it’s worth, I’ve only read a bit of Richards, Penn Warren, Empson, Gennett, Booth and Girard myself, and none of Bakhtin. But I do know the lay of that land even if I’ve not walked its full extent.

Finally, I asked it for six more suggestions. I gave me Walter Benjamin, F.R. Leavis, Paul de Man, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and once again, Edward Said. It justified the duplication, but I don’t know if I should believe it. As for the rest, I know all the names, but have only read de Man, and only an essay or three of his.

On the whole I regard this consultation as a success. First, it suggests that I do have a reasonable grasp of names for the list, even if my reading of those critics is rather skimpy. Second, it does a nice job of what I regard as the central issue: Who counts as a literary critic for the purpose of nominating GOATS?

The fact is, ever since I’ve been involved with the academic discipline, starting with my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins in the 60s, the discipline has been trying to figure out what it’s (supposed to be) doing. On the one hand, it’s the central institution for the preservation of the nation’s literary heritage. In that capacity its job is to teach those texts to undergraduates and to provide accurate editions to publishers. Note, though, that of the dozen or so people in the English at Hopkins back then, only one was an Americanist. In what way and why are British texts supposed to supply an ethical foundation (think more in terms of ethos than morality) for American civic life? There is an element of nationalism inherent in the idea of academic literary criticism. What about world literature? What about the literatures (oratures?) of indigenous peoples? Can we disentangle literary criticism from nation-promoting civic virtue? Should we?

The second issue is about the nature of commentary on those texts. What function does it serve? Who is the audience? Undergraduate students, the general public, other academic critics? Those audiences have different needs. As critics move through “what’s it mean?” to “how does it work?” the questions change. Is there something here that merits study and attention of a kind that is not strictly subordinate to serving civic virtue? Is there a real honest-to-God intellectual discipline here? If so, what’s it about?

Appendix: ChatGPT on GOAT critics

Who do you think should be nominated for consideration as the greatest literary critic of all time?

Determining the greatest literary critic of all time is subjective and depends on personal preferences and opinions. However, I can provide you with some names that are often regarded as influential and significant in the field of literary criticism:

1. Harold Bloom: Renowned for his work in literary theory and his concept of the "anxiety of influence."
2. Northrop Frye: Known for his contributions to archetypal literary criticism and his influential work "Anatomy of Criticism."
3. T.S. Eliot: A poet and critic whose essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" had a profound impact on literary criticism.
4. Virginia Woolf: An influential writer and critic, known for her essays and reflections on literature, including "A Room of One's Own."
5. Roland Barthes: A French literary theorist whose works, such as "Mythologies," had a significant impact on literary criticism.
6. Edward Said: Renowned for his post-colonial perspectives, particularly in his work "Orientalism."
7. Susan Sontag: Known for her essays and criticism on a wide range of topics, including literature, art, and culture.
8. Michel Foucault: While primarily a philosopher, his ideas have influenced literary criticism, particularly through his exploration of power and discourse.
9. Cleanth Brooks: A key figure in the New Criticism movement, known for his close reading of literary texts.
10. Lionel Trilling: An influential literary critic and essayist, known for his insights into the intersection of literature and culture.

These are just a few examples, and there are many other notable critics who have made significant contributions to the field. The "greatest" literary critic often depends on one's perspective and the particular approach or school of criticism they find most compelling.

What about Samuel T. Coleridge, I.A. Richards, Robert Penn Warren, Michael Bakhtin, Gerard Genette, William Empson, Wayne Booth, Rene Girard, Jacques Derrida, and perhaps one of the Russian Formalists from the early 20th century?

Absolutely, your additions are excellent and further enrich the list of influential literary critics. Let's briefly highlight their contributions:

1. Samuel T. Coleridge: Known for his literary theory and criticism, especially his concept of the "willing suspension of disbelief" and ideas on the imagination.
2. I.A. Richards: A key figure in the New Criticism movement, Richards emphasized close reading and the importance of the text itself in literary analysis.
3. Robert Penn Warren: A poet, novelist, and critic, Warren contributed to New Criticism and co-authored "Understanding Poetry" with Cleanth Brooks.
4. Michael Bakhtin: His work on dialogism and the theory of the novel has had a profound impact on literary theory, emphasizing the importance of context and multiple voices.
5. Gerard Genette: A French literary theorist known for his contributions to narratology, particularly his work on narrative discourse and structural analysis.
6. William Empson: An important figure in the development of modern literary criticism, known for his book "Seven Types of Ambiguity."
7. Wayne Booth: An American literary critic, Booth is known for his work on rhetoric and narrative ethics, particularly in "The Rhetoric of Fiction."
8. René Girard: His mimetic theory, exploring the role of imitation and desire in human behavior, has influenced literary criticism, especially in the study of myths and narratives.
9. Jacques Derrida: A prominent figure in deconstruction, Derrida's work has had a profound impact on literary theory and philosophy.
10. Russian Formalists: While not a specific individual, the Russian Formalists, such as Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson, made significant contributions to the study of literature, focusing on form, structure, and language.

These scholars have played crucial roles in shaping the landscape of literary criticism, and their ideas continue to influence scholars and readers today.

Could you name, say, a half-dozen more?

Certainly! Here are six more influential literary critics, each known for their unique contributions:

1. Walter Benjamin: A German literary critic and cultural theorist, Benjamin's work, such as "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," has had a lasting impact on literary and cultural studies.
2. F.R. Leavis: An influential figure in the field of literary criticism, Leavis was associated with the "Leavisite" movement and emphasized close reading and moral seriousness in literature.
3. Paul de Man: A key figure in deconstruction, de Man's work, particularly in "Blindness and Insight," has been influential in literary theory.
4. Julia Kristeva: A Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, and psychoanalyst, Kristeva has contributed to the fields of semiotics, psychoanalysis, and literary theory.
5. Hélène Cixous: A French feminist writer and literary critic, Cixous is known for her contributions to poststructuralist feminist theory, emphasizing the importance of women's writing.
6. Edward Said: While mentioned earlier, it's worth reiterating his impact as a literary critic, particularly in the field of postcolonial studies with works like "Orientalism."

These critics have left a lasting imprint on the study of literature and have influenced diverse areas such as cultural studies, feminism, postcolonialism, and deconstruction.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog