Beyond Criticism: New ways of thinking about literature
Alongside the publication of two new books by Boiler House Press, editors Katharine Craik (Oxford Brookes) and Simon Palfrey (Oxford) explain the thinking behind the ‘Beyond Criticism’ imprint.
Beyond Criticism Editions is a series of publications that discovers new forms for new thinking about literature. The idea is to publish literary criticism that is itself literary, speaking to anyone who thinks that reading matters. We want to break down false divisions between scholarship and imagination, accountability and adventure - we believe that to think critically is to think creatively; to think creatively is to think critically.
Historically many of the most important works of theory and philosophy have taken literary forms. Plato wrote in imaginative dialogues; More’s Utopia and Bacon’s New Atlantis offer political philosophy in narrative fiction; Leibniz’s Theodicy is encapsulated in a dizzying fable that is itself parodied in Voltaire’s satiric philosophic fiction, Candide; Kierkegaard’s vision is expressed through ironic surrogate personae, and Nietzsche’s through poetic or polemical aphorism. Renaissance humanism developed a rich tradition of imitation, parody, and re-writing; the German Romantics Schlegel and Novalis modelled a fragmentary criticism, richly developed by Benjamin, Adorno, and others; Oscar Wilde knew that criticism is always an act of fancy, of imaginative larceny; Virginia Woolf read her characters’ minds like she read the journal of Dorothy Wordsworth.
The tradition continues, well-beyond the post-structuralist adventures of Barthes, Cixous, Irigiray and Derrida. Contemporary writers such as Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer, Benjamin Friedlander, Peter Gizzi, Susan Howe, Maureen McClane, Denise Riley and Ali Smith collapse the supposed binary of creative and critical forms and thinking. Various kinds of hybrid writing are increasingly popular, blurring divisions between criticism, gender theory, and memoir (Maggie Nelson) art criticism and poetry (Max Porter).
Beyond Criticism builds on these traditions. In particular, it seeks to revivify such work within the academy – where so much of the most exciting thinking is now taking place – and in doing so to reach out to communities of readers beyond the cloister. There is a hunger among wider reading publics for ideas, argument, experiment, for fearless thinking and theorising that does not simplify or condescend. In both practice and spirit, the division between academic and non-academic humanities is a fiction.
Our two latest titles are a case in point. Tara Blake’s Archive Fevers is a challenging and personal response to Jacques Derrida’s path-breaking Archive Fever (1995). The book takes the form of a fictional email exchange between a young queer scholar, Scarlett Durand, and her psychotherapist, Hannah Kublitz. Over the course of their correspondence between 1997 and 2011, Scarlett’s intellectual and personal life unfolds alongside her growing archival delirium. Scarlett’s childhood memories, adolescent traumas, dreams of a ‘mystery woman’, and reflections on her mother’s slow death become mixed with her research into ethnographic and political events of the 1930s and beyond. Published at the same time, Dear Knausgaard by Kim Adrian sets forth a searing feminist critique of My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard in a series of letters. What starts out as an engaging response to a work of literature that has become genre-defining, later morphs into a compelling and necessary interrogation of the social and cultural forces behind Knausgaard’s work. Throughout, Adrian provides us with fertile ground for a celebration of the act of reading itself.
Inside universities much is already changing. The teaching of creative writing is expanding swiftly. Creative writers are ensconced within university departments, their work becoming classified and evaluated as research. Innovative new programmes focus on the ‘creative-critical’, raising questions such as: What might it mean for a novel, a poem, or a play, to be ‘practice-based research’, or to form part of a PhD asking critical or intellectual questions? And how does the act of critical understanding feed creative writing? How can students at all levels be taught criticism in a way that enriches and is enriched by creative practice, so that the two sides of departments of literature are drawn together?
Crucial here is the written form that our thinking takes. Our mission is a positive one, designed to inspire new writers and new readers, new readings and new writings. We are not interested in pouring thoughts into standard templates. We want to liberate critical thinking and writing from obedience to dominant models. We encourage any kind of formal adventure: analytical, aphoristic, archival, autobiographical, citational, confessional, descriptive, dialogical, dramatic, fantastical, fictive, graphic, historical, imaginative, ironical, metaphysical, miscellaneous, mythical, palimpsestic, parasitical, philosophical, poetical, polemical, political, probational, riddling, theological, theoretical, ventriloquial. Our only criterion is that it discovers.
Find out more about the Beyond Criticism series on the Boiler House Press Website.