Professor Valentine Cunningham

  • Coventry, Warwicks


Valentine Cunningham is Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, and Tutor and Senior Fellow in English Literature at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

He has lectured widely around the world and has been a Visiting Professor in the USA, Australia and Germany (where he was Permanent Visiting Professor at the University of Konstanz for ten years). He reviews widely for various British and American journals and newspapers, and broadcasts regularly for BBC Radio on literary and musicological topics. He has twice been a judge for the Booker Prize (1992 and 1998), and was a Regional Chair for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region) in 1999 and 2000.

His most recent books are Victorian Poetry Now: Poets, Poems and Poetics (2011) and The Connell Guide to Shakespeare's King Lear (2012).

Critical perspective

Cunningham is a refreshingly outspoken literary critic, a dedicated debunker of fashions who at times appears to teeter on the verge of the reactionary, but who cannot easily be dismissed as another fuddy-duddy Oxford don.

Whether or not you agree with his often deliberately provocative and personalised statements on literature, criticism and theory, Cunningham’s keen, critical and scholarly intelligence demand to be taken seriously. His passionate commitment to literature and interpretation, combined with his searing wit (and more subtle, ever present irony), make for engrossing reading, forcing the reader to take a side, to smile, to develop an opinion. This can only be a good thing in an age of increasing academic timidity. Cunningham’s work confidently communicates what is at stake in literary studies, and why it matters. In this sense he reminds us of an earlier generation of public intellectuals, such as Raymond Williams, capable of engaging a wider audience by matching complexity with clarity.

Given his remonstrative style, it is not surprising that Cunningham’s earliest work was on dissent in the Victorian novel: Everywhere Spoken Against (1975). As Vineta Colby put it in a review for Modern Philology, it is as if 'the author had taken his title literally.' Colby goes on to say that 'Cunningham offers an admirable survey of the history of dissent in England, distinguishing among varieties, the overlappings and crossings-over, that have so obscured the record for most of us'. Early on then, Cunningham was establishing a reputation for his scholarly rigour, and his forensic attention to the details of both text and context. This is a mark of much of his writing, and it often manifests itself in the sheer scale of his projects, such as The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics (2000), a book which spans over 1,000 pages, and British Writers of the Thirties (1988) which spans over 500. The latter was described by Alan Robinson as an 'Herculean' effort: 'He has read more exhaustively in the period than any other literary historian and his cornucopia of source material is exhilarating and constantly suggestive.'  These scholarly skills have also made Cunningham a popular editor (see his edition of Adam Bede, 1996, with its richly illuminating notes); anthologist (see Victorian Poetry, 2002); and most recently, biographer (see The Life of Charles Dickens, 2008).

In many ways, Cunningham represents and extends the empirical tradition historically associated with British intellectuals. As a reader he is a positivist, as a thinker, anti-theoretical. In British Writers of the Thirties he challenges the poststructuralist logic of the text as a self-referential linguistic object in order to foreground the contextual. However inward looking some of the writings of the thirties seem to be, 'history’s spittal lards the writing of this … period' according to Cunningham,. Similarly, in In the Reading Gaol: Postmodernity, Texts and History (1994), Cunningham seeks to emphasise the referential qualities of language and literature. Thus, the title of his book satirizes the Derridean proclivity for slippage and deferral. ‘Reading’ is at once a textual act of consumption and the location of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, a stopping point on a journey taken by Derrida on his way from Oxford to London, and the origin of a tin of biscuits featured in Conrad’s writing (a scene to which Cunningham turns in In the Reading Gaol). His argument will be familiar to those who have read Cunningham’s earlier work: 'Much of the most influential reading theory and practice of our time … would confine texts to themselves … Language is proposed as self-referring, and so are texts … Reading is reading. By contrast, the argument of this book is that reading can never be simply reading. Reading is, for example, also Reading.'

Cunningham’s most elaborated theory of reading emerges in Reading After Theory (2002), a passionate, accessible, often provocative book published in the Blackwell Manifestos series. Once again here, Cunningham vents his spleen on theory and what he perceives to be its excesses. Having acknowledged there is no way of reading outside theory, that we must inevitably read after theory, he goes on to make a powerful case for the view that, in the end ‘Theory, quite evidently, distorts reading. Theory does violence to the meanings of texts’. When it comes to the crunch Cunningham only seems able to stomach theory in theory. As a kind of abstraction, yes, he can concede its uses, albeit with strong qualifications. In practice however, Cunningham can’t abide it. If theory is, in Cunningham’s terms, abusive, his book does not hesitate in dealing out abuse to the theorists: 'appalling tosh' is how he describes William A. Cohen’s reading of Dickens; 'truly dreadful' he states of Lacan’s reading of Victor Hugo; 'piss-poor' he concludes regarding Greenblatt’s reading of 15th-century painting. Paul de Man’s theory of reading disfigures and defaces, while Edward Said’s reading of Conrad is little more than a stock response.

To read by theory is a bit like reading a map, Cunningham suggests. It involves reduction, abstraction and sets up a certain distance between itself and its object. While maps are a useful short hand, their outlines cannot attend to the plenitude and complexity of the real terrain of literature. In contrast to this mechanical and distanced hermeneutics, Cunningham argues for reading as something tactile and ‘touching’. Reading After Theory is essentially a manifesto for reading as an ethical act which needs to go beyond the rigid confines and mishandlings of theory. Where the latter dehumanises the reader, real reading is a humanist, even quasi-religious experience. Where the theorist rewrites, and masters, true reading is subservient and respectful.

Dr James Procter, 2008


The Connell Guide to King Lear
Victorian Poetry Now: Poets, Poems and Poetics
Reading After Theory
On Modern British Fiction
Victorian Poetry
The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics
Adam Bede
In the Reading Gaol: Postmodernity, Texts and History
British Writers of the Thirties
Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War
The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse
Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel