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). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Introduction: Reading Literature and the Ethics of Criticism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.