Mon 18 November 2019
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A novel idea about art
Despite prevailing orthodoxies, creative writing is stealthily reviving liberal humanism, says Jonathan Taylor

Despite prevailing orthodoxies, creative writing is stealthily reviving liberal humanism, says Jonathan Taylor

A friend once said that if you want to be "radical" in an English literature department these days, you should become a liberal humanist. Many literary academics, he claimed, still seem to think that feminism, Marxism, poststructuralism and new historicism are revolutionary theories, changing the ways we read texts and the world. They seem to be stuck in the ideological wars of the 1970s - in fact, many are stuck in the fashions of the 1970s - fighting against what they see as literary studies' dominant culture of liberal humanism.

But these academics - or so my friend claimed - are now fighting ghosts. Like the soldiers discovered decades after the Second World War, still manning their outposts, literary academics are often shooting at no one. There are almost no critics left in universities whose ideas you might describe as "liberal humanist". Ideas that literature might encompass the "human condition", that literature might be a force for good, that there's such a thing as great literature and that literature speaks to us as individuals are all dead and gone. Staff and students alike would laugh if you dared suggest that Shakespeare or Dickens were "Great Authors" who "transcended" their historical moments to speak universally to everyone.

No, you can use terms such as "universality", "great", "authorship", "human condition", "F. R. Leavis" and, indeed, "transcended" only in inverted commas. Lectures on critical theory, for example, might start with these outmoded terms, only to explode them with the bombs of Marxism, poststructuralism, new historicism or feminism. "Readers and critics were naive in the past," says the lecturer, "but now we know better because of Marxism/poststructuralism/new historicism/feminism."

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Times Higher Education

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