Academic Criticism Criticized (and Defended)

Recently, Daniel Green wrote a response on his blog to a piece by Cynthia Ozick in the April 2007 issue of Harper’s. The Ozick essay, called “Literary Entrails,” is itself a follow-up to two earlier discussions of the fate of the novel in the modern era: one by Jonathan Franzen (Harper’s, April 1996) and a reply to Franzen by Ben Marcus (Harper’s, this time in October 2005). So far I’ve read the Ozick and rounded up the Franzen piece, to be read soon. I’ve also been prompted, mostly by things Ozick says about him, to look up the work of James Wood, about which I expect I will be posting soon.

My main interest in this thread is that both Green and Ozick are roundly dismissive of academic criticism (as distinguished from literary criticism or reviewing). As noted in previous posts, I’m rounding up discussions and evaluations of these different modes of writing about literature. Also as noted in previous posts, despite my own dissatisfaction with much academic criticism, I bristle (and also wonder) at the harsh tone taken towards literary academics. Here’s Ozick, after a paragraph on book clubs (she finds them sort of sweet, it seems, innocent amateurs) and then one on Amazon’s anyone-can-do-it method of customer reviews (“a fetid sea, where both praise and blame are leveled by tsunamis of incapacity”):

(Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multi-syllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since, unlike the hardier customer reviewers, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.)

Green considers this desciption “accurate” and hopes her prediction (of our immanent dissipation) will be fulfilled.

There are many different possible responses to such sweeping polemical condemnations, as well as to the many other arguments and observations made in both essays. My own recent article in English Studies in Canada makes some related points, too–and also works a little with a fog metaphor. For now, though, I want to point out a contribution that at least some of the “dons and doctors” make to a project Ozick and Green support: the development of a thoughtful reading audience for literature, of readers (not just critics or reviewers) capable of engaging with literature responsibly and substantially, at the level of form (what I take Green to mean, more or less, when he asks for more attention to “aesthetics”) as well as theme and plot. Ozick in particular talks at length about the decline of readers–and she quotes a passage from a recent essay by Denis Donoghue that I think would ring true for most English professors, as it certainly did for me:

When I started teaching … many years ago, I urged students to believe that the merit of reading a great poem, play, or novel consisted in the pleasure of gaining access to deeply imagined lives other than their own. Over the years, that opinion … seems to have lost much of its persuasive force. Students seem to be convinced that their own lives are the primary and sufficient incentive. … they want to talk either about themselves or about large-scale public themes, independent of the books they are supposedly reading.

Franzen, Ozick says, believes the new generation of students “will never evolve into discriminating readers.” Yet, though teaching can include this kind of dispiriting encounter with “egotism and moralizing politicized self-righteousness,” literature classes also provide a great opportunity to challenge these limitations, to bring students into contact with not just “deeply imagined lives” but crafted forms that can startle them into looking again, at themselves, at their world, at language. I too find much recent published criticism pretty unappealing, and many aspects of professional academic discourse alienating, for a range of reasons. But I don’t think what goes on in my classroom, or in the classrooms of a great many “dons and doctors,” deserves to be so sweepingly ignored or distorted. Here’s a similar bit from the “statement of purpose” with which Green launched his blog: “the academy, once entrusted with the job of engaging with works of literature, has mostly abandoned it altogether in favor of ‘cultural studies’ and other forms of political posturing.” Again, however accurate this may be as a description of academic criticism (and that’s surely arguable), “the academy” (not, of course, monolithic in the way Green implies) does a lot of other things too, much of which involves exposing students to a variety of writers and styles, thinking about literary history and the history of genres, learning a vocabulary to talk about how writers get different kinds of things done and to what ends–aesthetically, ethically, and yes, also (but not exclusively) politically. One thing those of us in “the academy” do is send at least some of our students out into the “real” world excited and inquring and serious about literature, and equipped with some knowledge and some expertise as readers. I like to point out to my students that they will be assigned “required” reading for only a small fraction of their reading lives–after that, the choices will be theirs, the engagement and the satisfaction only as deep as they choose to make it. It’s my goal to give them some tools and strategies to go deeper if they want to, as well as to broaden their textual horizons. Ozick (rightly, I think) laments that “Amazon encourages naive and unqualified readers…to expose their insipidities to a mass audience.” You don’t need an English degree to be insightful about books–but some education as a reader is surely one way to become the kind of reader novelists such as Ozick (or, for that matter, critics such as Green) hope to have.

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