Daniel Pollack-Pelzner responds to Katherine Voyles

Katherine Voyles’s astute connection between the narrative unfolding of Jesse Rosenthal’s argument in Good Form (swelling to the form-breaking “large novel” in the study’s concluding chapter) and the scale and containment of narrative in Victorian realist fiction makes me curious for an ethical and aesthetic theory of Victorianist criticism as a narrative form. Rosenthal argues that for the Newgate novel, a crime’s moral valence depended on whether the episode was treated synchronically (a dangerous representation of vice) or diachronically (a stage in a narrative of punishment and redemption); could the same axis govern our appraisal of a critical argument? Just as criticism is composed from asynchronous parts (a reprinted article here, a revised chapter there), it’s often consumed out of its narrative sequence: I’ll assign Rosenthal’s section on the bildungsroman, say, detached from the chapters that precede and follow it. Ought we to assess a critical work’s ethical import less from its detachable pronouncements than from the sense that its readerly arc “feels right”? I wonder, too, if Rosenthal’s contention that we see ourselves in Victorian realist fiction where the protagonists recognize continuity with their past selves might also be true of our appraisal of scholarship: although we prize criticism that appears to break from the sensus communis, might we really embrace the scholars who give us the illusion of independent judgment while affirming that which we already, communally, know?

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