Meta-Criticism: A Complaint!

Often when I make good faith efforts to re-kindle my interest in and appreciation for academic criticism, I experience what I’ve come to think of as a “Reverse Godfather”: just when I think I’m back in, they keep pushing me out! In today’s episode, I was doing some catch-up on new releases in Victorian studies, with an eye to my upcoming course on sensation fiction, so [a new book on sensation fiction] caught my attention. Happily for me (I thought) its introduction is freely available online, so I start reading along, only to find my interest slipping away and my attention wandering as [the author] develops an argument that turns out to be every bit as much about criticism as about Victorian novels. In fact, for long stretches of the introduction she offers criticism of criticism of criticism–that is, she examines and critiques the premises and procedures of review essays on recent work in Victorian studies. Is it just me, or does this sound like a variation on navel-gazing in which the object of said gaze is just someone else’s navel? [The author] describes the book’s project overall as “literary criticism that reads itself reading the Victorians.” I’m sorry, but the thought of reading literary criticism reading itself reading the Victorians is just not appealing. I’m going to go read an actual book instead.

Follow-up: This little piece got a lot more attention than any other post I’ve put up here. I’ve been feeling uneasy, as a result, because it was meant more as an outburst of frustration with a genre (academic literary criticism) than an attack on [this] book in particular, but this distinction is blurred in my original post. As I said in a comment on Dan Green’s “The Reading Experience,” as an academic book, [this one] seems better than most (at least the introduction does, which is as far as I’ve read at this point). For starters, it makes an original argument and is clearly written. My impatience is with the layers of self-conscious meta-commentary that are now required in academic criticism: it can feel like you are looking at literature through bubble-wrap. [The author] has to do something like this to succeed professionally (though perhaps she’s fine with that, and would not do otherwise even if she had the choice). But at the same time such an approach pretty much guarantees that the book won’t be of much interest to anyone outside the profession. It is this double-bind that frustrates me the most and that has motivated me to engage in the meta-critical project I myself have underway, as I try to rethink how and why we write about books. (July 24, 2007)

Final follow-up: I continue to regret having singled out a particular critic in this post and it occurred to me belatedly that I could at least edit out the specific references. I can’t change the peevish tone of the post, but I hope there’s evidence elsewhere on this blog of my better self. I’m not done thinking about genres of criticism, but (though for different reasons) I agree with the last anonymous comment–“Enough!”–at least with this post as its starting point. (August 7, 2007)

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