The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
The full title of this chapter is The Short Story and the New Criticism. In this section Hills provides a historical basis for many of the artistic freedoms authors enjoy today, as well as an explanation of why the short story as a literary form is uniquely positioned to take maximum advantage of those freedoms.
By separating questions of intent and effect from the question of merit, the New Criticism introduced:
….an aesthetic that considered a work of literary art as more or less an independent object, and denied the relevance of its effectiveness as either an expression of the author or as a communication to the reader.
The core argument in support of this perspective is compelling. If a work of art can only be understood by considering its historical context, or the mindset and intent of the author, or the effect on people who experience the work, then what is the value of the work itself? In a literary context this question is a bit difficult to grapple with because artists and critics use the same medium: language. It is easier to see the point in the visual arts, and particularly in abstract works. If a free-form sculpture means nothing without context, how can any work of art actually be a work of art? If an abstract painting requires historical relevance or biographical importance in order to be understood as a painting, then who is the author of that work — the artist that creates it or the critic who provides that context?
To insist that art is context may seem almost absurd today, but that was the dominant critical view at one time across a variety of schools, and it still remains a popular way of responding to art. By treating art as object the New Criticism put the question of merit squarely on the work itself, denying even the role of the artist. At first blush this might sound equally absurd, but note: it’s not credit being denied but the relevance of context. New Criticism simply asserts that each work stands on its own apart from who the author is, and I don’t think that’s a particularly radical notion even among the general public. Whatever criteria you use to judge any artist, you probably perceive qualitative differences in their individual works regardless of your feelings for that artist, even if you make no claim to critical objectivity. In focusing on art as object New Criticism takes this idea to its logical conclusion by denying the influence of everything from commercial and popular success to an author’s persona or biography. What’s good is good because of qualities inherent in the work. [ Read more ]