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Especially in modern Europe, literary criticism has occupied a central place in debate about cultural and political issues.Sartre’s own (1947) is typical in its wide-ranging attempt to prescribe the literary intellectual’s ideal relation to the development of his society and to literature as a manifestation of human freedom.Because critics often try to be lawgivers, declaring which works deserve respect and presuming to say what they are “really” about, criticism is a perennial target of resentment.
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A critic is socially useful to the extent that society wants, and receives, a fuller understanding of literature than it could have achieved without him.
In filling this appetite, the critic whets it further, helping to create a public that cares about artistic quality.
Similarly, some prominent Lionel Trilling, Kenneth Burke, Philip Rahv, and Irving Howe, began as political radicals in the 1930s and sharpened their concern for literature on the dilemmas and disillusionments of that era.
Trilling’s influential Such a reconciliation is bound to be tentative and problematic if the critic believes, as Trilling does, that literature possesses an independent value and a deeper faithfulness to reality than is contained in any political formula.Without sensing the presence of such a public, an author may either prostitute his talent or squander it in sterile acts of defiance.In this sense, the critic is not a parasite but, potentially, someone who is responsible in part for the existence of good writing in his own time and afterward.In Dialectical materialism does not necessarily turn the critic into a mere guardian of party doctrine, but it does forbid him to treat literature as a cause in itself, apart from the working class’s needs as interpreted by the party.Where this utilitarian view prevails, the function of criticism is taken to be continuous with that of the state itself, namely, furtherance of the social revolution.More strictly construed, the term covers only what has been called “practical criticism,” the interpretation of meaning and the judgment of quality.Criticism in this narrow sense can be distinguished not only from aesthetics (the philosophy of artistic value) but also from other matters that may concern the student of literature: biographical questions, bibliography, historical knowledge, sources and influences, and problems of method.One of criticism’s principal functions is to express the shifts in sensibility that make such revaluations possible.The minimal condition for such a new appraisal is, of course, that the original text survive.Criticism can antagonize authors even when it performs its function well.Authors who regard literature as needing no advocates or investigators are less than grateful when told that their works possess unintended meaning or are imitative or incomplete.