Mad as Hell–at Literary Critics?

This particularly virulent comment appeared quite promptly after excerpts from my previous post appeared at Footnoted (see also update below):

Lit crit should finally die the death it so much deserves. Lit departments have floundered for decades because they have forgotten the text. Instead, they have pandered to the politically correct idiots who can neither read with sense nor write with style. May they ALL be flushed down the toilet where they belong.

Hostility towards literary critics is an interesting subcategory of what Tim Burke discusses at intelligent length on his blog as “Anger at Academe“. Now, I started writing on this blog in part because of my own frustrations with some aspects of academic literary criticism; I have vented once or twice about particular examples of it, here and in print; and I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently looking at books, journals, and blogs that inquire into it from a variety of historical, theoretical, sociological, and what I might call ‘readerly’ perspectives. I think it’s not only fine but desirable for people both inside and outside ‘lit departments’ to ask questions about the nature and condition of our discipline. But I have been frequently surprised by just how angry or dismissive some people are–and not just anonymous “trolls” such as the Footnoted commenter, but also some prominent figures in contemporary literary culture, such as Cynthia Ozick, who in her essay “Literary Entrails,” writes the following:

(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.)

(For some previous discussion of Ozick’s essay, see here.) As I noted in another earlier post, “Daniel Green of the blog The Reading Experience … writes about ‘academic schoolmasters, who now only serve to inflict the miseries behind the thick walls of their suffocating scholastic prisons’…Ouch.” Francine Prose is another in this chorus, though her language about the academy (while equally dismissive) is at least somewhat more temperate.

An anonymous commenter on one of my own less temperate posts remarked that “The mere existence of theory-driven, ‘difficult’ literary criticism does not rob the amateur book lover of one micron of reading pleasure. ” I think s/he is is right about this, but some of the hostility directed at us does seem to come from a sense that academics have betrayed or spoiled something that these lovers of literature cherish. As some of the scholarly work I’ve been reading also suggests, there is a grain of truth to this (see, for instance, the quotation from John McGowan’s Democracy’s Children included in this post). And that leads me to wonder how far I agree with that same commenter when s/he asks why academic literary specialists should be expected to write for a general audience any more than “specialists in quantum mechanics” should be expected to “write up their research in such a way that fans of Stephen Hawking can understand it.” It does seem to me that there are important differences between literature and quantum mechanics as areas of study, though pinning them down at all (much less in an uncontroversial or tendentious way) may be challenging. I guess I’d start by pointing out that the texts we study in ‘lit departments’ typically originate as acts of communication aimed at readers or other forms of a general audience, not scholars, often with urgent purposes (whether aesthetic, social, political, or other). I realize that this does not at all render them inappropriate objects of study or theory–but it does mean that non-scholars have a different relationship with our primary materials than with subatomic particles. Does this justify such vitriolic response to our professional work? Not at all, but it may be the seed of at least a preliminary explanation for it, and some justification for making sure at least some of our work reaches beyond the academy.

Update: There’s more, and no better. And these are readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education website, not Guns and Ammo or something, though it appears that they visit the site only to fan the flames of their antipathies:

It is in academia where you DO NOT find down to earth people. It is academia the home of obnoxious, arrogants who can not read for pleasure but can destroy a good book or poem through stupid literary criticism.

Most academic critics are irrelevant because they publish enough for the world to know what they think and how they think.


2 thoughts on “Mad as Hell–at Literary Critics?

  1. Glenn Russell June 1, 2015 / 11:56 am

    Thanks for your insightful essay.

    One of my favorite book reviews is Nabokov, particularly his essays on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I deem this as a book review rather than literary criticism since he has no footnotes.

    Question: what literary critic would display an equal insight into books?



    • Rohan June 2, 2015 / 7:43 pm

      I’m not quite sure how to answer your question, Glenn! There are lots of literary critics who are very insightful, so it depends on what you want to read about. I haven’t read Nabokov’s critical essays, but I expect they are more than reviews. Footnotes tend to signal scholarship, or research-based academic criticism, which has its own conventions and requirements. James Wood is an insightful non-academic critic, if that’s what you’re asking for. (Well, technically he does have an academic appointment, but he doesn’t do academic research! These boundaries are all a bit porous.) Sorry if I’ve missed your point!


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