The distinctive features of F.R. Leavis’ prose style

Frank Raymond Leavis (July 14, 1895 – April 14, 1978) was an influential British literary critic of the early-to-mid-twentieth century. He taught for much of his career at Downing College, Cambridge. F.R. Leavis is an excellent figure in the history of 20th-century literary criticism, but his style in writing, as revealed in the essay “Literature and Society,” appears to be cumbersome and tortuous. A common complaint some critics and readers level against his writing style is that it is clumsy and incomprehensible on first reading.

More Notes: Literature and Society

In his essay “Literature and Society,” F.R. Leavis mainly focuses on the study of literature and points out how the study of literature is essentially social. According to him, literature studies “the complexities, potentialities and essential conditions of human nature.” What he insists on throughout the essay is the social nature of the literary study and the social nature of artistic achievement. Leavis adopts the method of close textual analysis of a piece of literature. Because of this, he is regarded as one of the New Critics of his time. But he differs from his contemporary New Critics in the sense that he is more interested in structural rather than verbal analysis of any text. 

Leavis’s criticism has a markedly personal touch.  Although he was capable of objective analysis’, his criticism revealed his personal behavior. He frequently uses his pet expressions again and again in his writing. Expressions such as “social,” “judgment,” “value,” “sensibility,” “realization,” “reality,” and “art of living” are notable in the essay “Literature and Society.” Again in his treatment of Eliot’s idea of Tradition’, in his rejection of the Romantic notion of literary creation and the Marxist attitude to literature, he seems to be guided by personal likes and dislikes.

The qualities of good composition are clarity, simplicity, precision, and availability, but these qualities are rarely seen in the writings of FR Leavis.  He overuses ‘parentheses,’ and these parenthetical comments give the impression that he has failed to make his points clear to the readers. Instead, they give rise to some obscurity in his writing. This is evident in the following quoted lines:

“The ‘society’ implied in this ‘social’-and (which is, of course, my point) in the idea of Tradition is not the Marxist concept, and the difference is what I have my eye on.”

The sentences in Leavis’ writing are very long, making it difficult for the reader to understand the meaning.  A sentence, almost as long as a paragraph, with parentheses and punctuation, hinders comprehension for ordinary readers.

Another feature of Leavis’s critical approach is that he almost always relentlessly pursues his goals.  He repeatedly quotes examples from different authors and texts to establish his ideas. This method, of course, makes his points stronger. In the essay “Literature and Society,” he cites examples from William Blake and John Bunyan, and quotes from both of their works to establish his point that tradition plays the role of “social collaboration” in the author’s making.

To conclude, Despite his shortcomings, Leavis occupies an essential position among twentieth-century literary critics. He’s a little aggressive, but he can’t be pushed aside just for this little mistake. He cannot be ignored just because he strongly supports ideas and beliefs.

Rashedul Islam
Rashedul Islam

Hi, This is Rashedul. Researcher and lecturer of English literature and Linguistics.

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