The Great War and Modern Memory is one of the finest books of literary criticism I’ve read, though I can’t say I’ve read many. It was probably only when I read that book that I started to get a sense of literary criticism as a literary form in itself. I took lots of English courses in college, but the kind where you read novels and poems, not books about novels and poems.
The copyright status here is questionable, but on the day of the man’s death it’s surely OK to link to a scanned copy of Fussell’s very funny essay on the ABM, or “Author’s Big Mistake” — the angry response to an uncomplimentary review. It’s been years since I read this, and reading it again just now I think about 60% of the paragraphs demanded to be read aloud to Mrs. Q.
Imagine what mortification it is for an author to pass through crummy discount bookstores and see great piles of his masterpiece stacked up on the remainder tables, marked down from $14.95 to $1.95, and moving sluggishly even then.
This is lovely — the high style of “pass through” swooping down to “crummy,” the syntactic insult of using “his masterpiece” as a mass noun, and of course the quiet suggestion of feces provided by the phrase “great piles.” Fussell was a g–d— pro, is what I’m trying to say, and I’m lucky to have come across him when I was learning to write.
Update: But I will say that changing “sluggishly” to “slowly” would sacrifice only a little vividness, and would make the end of that sentence scan much more cleanly. That’s the choice I would have made.
I agree with your rating of “The Great War and Modern Memory”, and that it is possible for literary criticism to become a literary form in itself. I can only think of a few on the same sort of level (of which Kenner is the most comparable: the others are arguably doing something a bit different):
John Carey – John Donne: Life, Mind and Art
William Empson – Seven Types of Ambiguity
Hugh Kenner – The Pound Era
Frank Kermode – The Sense of an Ending/Shakespeare’s Language
Christopher Ricks – Milton’s Grand Style/Keats and Embarrassment
George Steiner – After Babel/Antigones
The previous response was sent prematurely: I was going to ask what you thought of any of these you had read, and which others you would suggest.