By the seventies it was evident too that economic divisions were not the only barriers to a common culture and that other distinctions of race, gender, ethnicity, age, and region would be articulated forcibly in the eighties, bringing with them the recognition that identity is not determined through labour alone.
Such recognitions produced something of a crisis in the teaching and study of literature, for, in the new world of multicultural difference, to insist on the superiority of one variety of culture was to invite accusations of elitism, ethnocentricity, sexism, racism or class authoritarianism.
Increasingly after the mid-seventies, the concept of representative democracy was to come under strain as more and more social groups claimed the right to speak for themselves within their own terms and with their own distinctive voices. The idea that ‘great literature’ is great because it speaks for all would be attacked from a variety of new positions.
There, from the conclusion to this book – in a nutshell – we have the reasons why the study of Literature, especially in the US and UK hit a crisis period from – say – around the mid-1980s from which it yet has to fully recover. One of the main reasons for the decline of academic literary criticism into its current moribund irrelevance is – of course – post-modernism, a stance that this book, mostly, shares and promotes.
Although, in Waugh’s defence, I must say there is not too much of the polysyllabic babbling that made post-modernism into nothing more than its own parody. Po-mo created a situation where modern lit crit was lost and rudderless in the doldrums of its own sea of ‘ism’ and ‘significances’. A place where the merit of a work was calculated by the number of PC boxes it ticked on the academy’s list of right-on attitudes and ideas, and the number of worthy causes the academy currently decreed as worthy of its support.
There is too, a disappointing amount of evidence to support that other great criticism of Po-Mo, the way that its adherents – and in this book Waugh is typical of the species – indulge in an almost gleeful misunderstanding of science, and the fervour with which they indulge in misapplications of those scientific principles to literature and society. Presumably, this is done in an attempt to shore up the trite and obvious banality of post-modern ‘insights’ with a spurious and appropriated ‘scientific’ authority. Ironically, an authority that the vapid concoction of post-modernity denies to all ‘grand theories’, except – of course – itself.
Post-modernism, like all recent academic fashions in the humanities, social sciences et al is a product and creature of the Left. The Left worldview has a problem with literature: novels, poetry, plays and so forth are all the products – at least initially – of the individual mind. An individual mind thinking freely, beyond the bounds of what the Left allows its adherents to think and/or believe (hence the vigour with which correct though – Politically Correct – thought is policed) can be a dangerous beast.
The Left is collectivist and can therefore only see literature as a tool for representing groups such as the Left’s currently favourite victim groups: women, ‘other races’, the poor, the ‘dispossessed’ and ‘marginalised’ and so forth. Or, as representing the Left’s enemies such as conservatives and others who defend – despite its obvious faults – the current social order and do not wish its destruction and replacement with something that is almost bound to be worse. For example, a woman writer must be pro-feminist – good or anti-feminist – bad. She is not allowed to be both or neither, or – indeed – anything else that goes beyond these patronising labels to create the fully-rounded human being. Just as a black writer must write about the ‘black experience’ or run the risk of being labelled a traitor to the cause.
For when ‘the personal is political’ then the personal – the individual – is subsumed into the collective – the political and thereby ceases to be an individual, becoming a mere statistic.
So, in consequence, turning to a book like this to learn about English literature from the 1960s to the 1990s will, unfortunately, tell you very little about the literature itself, but rather more than you would wish to know about how various special interest groupings have interpreted and used that literature for their –often almost propagandist – purposes. This, again, shows the intellectual aridity of the Left worldview that sees things like the arts – if not elitist and therefore to be condemned outright as tools of the oppressors – as merely instrumentalist tools for the inculcation of correct views into the populace.