As the current FT top 100 films suggests, there are two principles available on which to base lists of cultural artifacts. You can be arbitrary, and pretend to be being something else, or you can be arbitrary, and admit it.

James Wood, reviewing Randall Stevenson’s vol. XII of the Oxford Literary History of England in the LRB wishes the author had taken the first option, when in fact he has taken the second. Many of his comments on the gap between academic and literary writing, and the decline of a generalist culture of criticism, seem fair to me, although he neglects the parallel rise in half-baked theory-saturated critical slop prevalent in almost all criticism not directly intended for wider public consumption (Baudrillard this, Nietzsche that, Deleuze the other: step forward denizens of the blogosphere!).

But his fundamental point seems to be that Stevenson has not made the kind of value judgements which would consign his own work to history pretty sharpish. His preferences appear to be made fairly plain in the book, at least so far as one can judge without having read it (thirty quid!!) and Wood duly regales us with them (complaining when Stevenson does not judge, then complaining when he does?), suggesting that one author at least realises that there is still some room left for the aspiration to neutrality, with attendant confessions of partiality.

I’d be sorry if Stevenson relies as heavily on the lame old critical supermarket trope as Wood suggests he does, but surely the very point of a book like this is to try and be inclusive (and let history judge) rather than lay out a personal top 5/50/500/whatever. (Stevenson as Chuck Eddy, or even Robert Christgau, rather than Nick Hornby?)

The Brown Wedge