Literary Criticism: Emotion and Not-so-Objective Criteria

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 29 May, 2018

Following up on my last post, which defended happy emotions as not being any less profound than sad ones, here's a quote from a new book by Catherine Butler which discusses the implications of "most literary criticism [...] rhetorical[ly] positioning [...] the critic as an objective observer and analyser" (54):

one method of marginalising affect in criticism is to exclude from serious critical consideration genres seen as designed to elicit strong (or “crude”, or “manipulative”) affective reactions: popular romances and horror stories are obvious examples. When Aristotle kickstarted Western literary criticism more than two millennia ago, he did so in part by analysing tragedy’s affective power over the emotional state of its audience; but one might contend that the mode of affective engagement elicited by Oedipus Rex and Fifty Shades of Grey are sufficiently distinct to warrant a degree of critical triage. However, such arguments, especially when applied to whole genres rather than to cherry-picked texts, tend to be sustained by question-begging assumptions about what kinds of emotional experience are worthwhile, complex, profound, life-enhancing and so on. Approaches of this type are both arbitrary (excess is more critically “respectable” in Gothic texts than in modern horror, for example) and orientated so as to privilege the tastes of certain groups of readers (men over women, educated over uneducated, adults over children). (46-47, emphasis added)


Butler, Catherine. Literary Studies Deconstructed: A Polemic. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.