There are two kinds of literary criticism: reviews in magazines like the TLS and the LRB which inform the reader about newly published books and provide a critical opinion on them; and academic criticism published in learned journals and monographs from university presses.
The former might be termed useful criticism. It is for the most part ephemeral but a valuable guide to what is new. I often buy a book on the strength of a review especially if it is by a reviewer whose work I know and trust.
Academic criticism is different. Driven by whatever theory of literature is in fashion, it is academics talking among themselves. One of its main functions is to further careers by fulfilling publication quotas. It is very difficult to get published unless you subscribe to the dominant theory and utilise its jargon. Criticism of this kind is therefore generally esoteric, often unreadable, and of no interest to the general reader.
For a brief period between the 1930s and 1960s there was another kind of criticism, exemplified by F.R. Leavis and A. Alvarez. This was well written in an accessible style. Works like Leavis’s D.H. Lawrence: Novelist and New Bearings on English Poetry were part of a literary debate that went well beyond academia. In a similar vein, Alvarez used his position as poetry editor and critic for The Observer to create a taste for poets who were emerging in the early 1960s, above all through his anthology The New Poetry (Penguin, 1962) with its influential introductory essay ‘The New Poetry, or Beyond the Gentility Principle’, which was widely read. Criticism of this kind inevitably becomes historical, but New Bearings and ‘The New Poetry’ can still be read with pleasure for their style and their literary insights.
There is also a form of writing which is not criticism as such, but which has a bearing on it. This might be called poets explaining how they work. The locus classicus is Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads, followed by Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry and the letters of Keats. T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ is a twentieth-century example, as is Ezra Pound’s ‘A Retrospect’. They provide insight into the creative mind and the processes that bring forth poetry.
Then there is literary history and biography. As time passes, an introduction to the world in which a poet or novelist wrote can deepen the reader’s understanding. Biography, which is a specialised kind of history, does this too, though in some academic circles this is denied: the author, it is claimed, is ‘dead’; there is only the ‘text’ and the penetrating mind of the academic theorist. Interpreting a work through the writer’s life, or seeking to identify the author’s intention, is anathema. The shallowness and arrogance of these claims are self-evident.
When I was an undergraduate, I read a great deal of criticism. The degree course in English Literature at Birmingham University was very demanding. Students were expected to read hundreds of pages a week. I am a slow reader, and at the time felt very insecure in my own judgement. So I fell back on criticism to help me out. The trouble was I came to see Pope, or Swift, or Wordsworth, through the eyes of the critic. My experience was mediated, it was not my own.
When I taught at Copenhagen University I continued to read criticism, but after I left academia I gave it up. I read reviews, as I say, but the thought of an academic paper or monograph makes me groan. I don’t believe I could muster the effort. Relying on my own judgement means, no doubt, I miss nuances, but I gain the pleasure of immersion in the worlds of, say, Katherine Mansfield, or R.S. Thomas, and in the play of language which makes those worlds dance.