Introduction: Reading Literature and the Ethics of Criticism

By Davis, Todd F.; Womack, Kenneth | Style, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Reading Literature and the Ethics of Criticism


Davis, Todd F., Womack, Kenneth, Style


The very fact that Style has published such an issue as the one that now rests in the reader's hands will be disturbing to some in the field of literary study. Despite (or more likely because of) the fact that numerous journals in the field have supported, through publication, the efforts of scholars grappling with the role of ethics in the act of reading literature-PMLA and Salmagundi, like Style, have devoted entire issues to the discussion of art and ethics-the cry from many in the academy is that of blasphemy. I As a discipline that grew in large part out of a feigned innocence of aesthetics, many literary scholarseven those who accept or practice reading strategies that involve overtly ethical bases-seem to resist the idea that the literary artifact and its reader have ethical and moral lives that intersect at times, a relationship that does not result in mechanical responses, but rather, as with those living creatures we come to know in the texts of our lives, causes us to think in ways we would not have had we not encountered them.

In The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1998), Wayne C. Booth suggests that ethical criticism, because of its misuse in the past to censor and repress all kinds of literature deemed immoral by some, fell on hard times and was replaced by various formalist theories that ignored the very real ethical or political effects of literature. In recent decades, however, ethical criticism has enjoyed a revival of sorts, motivated in part, Booth argues, by the work of "feminist critics asking embarrassing questions about a male-dominated literary canon and what it has done to the 'consciousness' of both men and women; by black critics pursuing [ ... I question[s] about racism in American classics; by neo-Marxists exploring class biases in European literary traditions; by religious critics attacking modern literature for its 'nihilism' or 'atheism"' (5). Although much of the modern era denied the political or ethical nature of literature, claiming that in some mystical fashion art transcended the boundaries of politics or ethics, postmodern philosophy has demonstrated the folly in such a claim and argued that art is indeed political, a product of societal mores and power relations. The mispractice of ethical criticism has usually involved acts of judgment that in essence imply that a given literary work is somehow inferior because of its system of morality; such criticism, reductive in nature, often leads to censorship and produces no fruitful scholarship. What Booth, among others, wishes to establish is a form of criticism that examines a work of art in order to discover and make explicit the moral sensibility informing that work. In On Moral Fiction (1978), John Gardner argues that moral criticism is absolutely necessary for the health of English studies, and, despite his often sweeping generalizations about the value of certain artists, On Moral Fiction must be acknowledged as an important precursor to the revival of contemporary interest in ethical criticism. Gardner's rage against the English academy was fueled by his belief that the study of literature had become morally bankrupt and uninterested in what is most human about literature. Before his untimely death in 1982, Gardner used his influence as a noted writer of fiction and as a professor of English in an effort to move the tide of intellectual thought toward an affirmation of the mystery and beauty of life.2

If we are to accept the proposition that literature reflects human experience while at the same time it affects it, that literature is both a product of the social order and helps establish and maintain it, ethical criticism, in its desire to examine the moral and ethical nature of a work of art, clearly establishes an important bond between the life of the text and the life of the reader. This bond, however, should never be viewed facilely or reductively. Patricia Meyer Spacks contends that while fictional narratives offer opportunities for ethical reflection, they are not imperatives for behavior; rather, according to Spacks, "paradigms of fiction provide an opportunity for moral playfulness: cost-free experimentation" (203). …

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