‘Literature is for everyman’? Critical Quarterly’s democratic literary culture

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The inaugural issue of Critical Quarterly, published in March 1959, began with a short editorial in which founding editors C. B. Cox and A. E. Dyson stated, ‘literature is for everyman’. Cox and Dyson sought to democratise F. R. Leavis’s ‘minority culture’ by creating what they called an ‘expanding élite’. To do this, they sought to bring the specialist knowledge of an academic literary journal to a wider audience beyond the university, a readership which included schoolteachers, sixth-formers and general readers. CQ therefore published articles of varying depth and specialisation, from short close readings of single poems to surveys of recent criticism of canonical texts, which could be used as the basis for A-level English lessons. Cox and Dyson also organised regular Critical Quarterly Society conferences for this non-university audience (and archival research at the John Rylands Library in Manchester sheds light on how important these activities were to Cox in particular). The CQ project was broadly popular (in the 1960s the journal was sold to more than half the grammar schools in Britain), but it was not without its flaws: the word ‘everyman’ is emblematic of the early CQ’s dependence on male contributors, and the schoolteacher audience was drawn mainly from the grammar schools. Further, these non-specialists were seen more as a passive audience than an active base of contributors: to use the distinction made by Raymond Williams in the conclusion to Culture and Society (1958), CQ’s communication with this non-specialist audience was a one-way ‘transmission’ rather than a two-way ‘conversation’. After considering the CQ example, this paper asks how we might enact a similar project today, albeit one which gets closer to a democratic ‘conversation’ between academic literary critics or scholars and a non-specialist, non-university audience.
Original languageEnglish
JournalKey Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism
Issue number21
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2023

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