I’ve been keeping an eye on the fairly new site ARCADE developed by (and, it seems, primarily for) folks at Stanford. It’s an ambitious and complicated site; it’s interesting to me in part because it organizes and institutionalizes some of the usually more freewheeling features of “Web 2.0,” particularly blogging. I don’t much like the feel of things over there for just that reason: it takes the fun out, somehow, when there’s an editorial board rather than a blogroll. It also doesn’t seem as if the Arcade folks are much interested in linking up with the rest of the existing blogosphere–and there’s not much sign, either, that they have trawled around in it, including in its archives, to see how they might add to conversations that have gone on already, or to contextualize their site and its intentions against, say, key statements about academic blogging such as John Holbo’s launch post for The Valve. I think it would be a bigger draw for people who have been blogging for a while if its contributors seemed interested in what’s been going on in this form for the last several years. Of course it’s their place, and of course they can do what they want. It’s just a bit wearing to see posts like the latest one by Gregory Jusdanis called “Professors are from Mars, Journalists are from Pluto” and see that it sets up the same dance around the same maypole we’ve been around before. Indeed, this is the same set of concerns that got me started in blogging in the first place–so my objection is not that the questions about the relationship between academic criticism and what Jusdanis calls “journalistic” criticism aren’t important or interesting. I also know better than to pretend that my own forays into this territory were groundbreaking: for me, as for Jusdanis, presumably, a time just came when I wanted to think about the purpose and audience of literary criticism, to understand and contextualize my own dissatisfaction with the academic ‘research’ culture that (as a number of the professional histories I went on to read make very clear) is the result of a range of forces many of which have little to do with literature and a lot to do with economic and institutional developments. I think a lot of literary academics look sort of wistfully out of their office windows and wish their career hadn’t led them so far away from the wider public conversation about books and culture; they publish in dryasdust peer-reviewed journals but linger over the TLS and the NYRB hoping that some day they will write something that people will read by choice, not because they need to fill out their own list of works cited. And a lot of them (Jusdanis and me both included) look at James Wood and wonder why he has the cultural authority–even, as far as this is possible for a book critic–the celebrity, while their hard-earned credentials (and believe me, I appreciate that they are hard to earn) earn them no ‘street cred’ at all. In fact, as I was surprised to discover, holding a Ph.D. in literature is as likely to make non-academics resent your input on their reading (or worse) as seek it out.
So I am in sympathy with Jusdanis’s desire to explore the differences between what “we” do and what “they” do…except that I’ve been exploring that for some time, including looking pretty closely at books of criticism for general readers by both academics and non-academics. I’m not complaining that Jusdanis has not looked at any of my previous posts on this–though he might have looked around, as I tried to do as I was getting underway, to see who else is talking about these questions. Blogging is all about the linking, and I think he’ll find it’s a livelier and more varied conversation than he presupposes in all of his generalizations about what “we” do (some of us are, actually, “attuned to the language and style of those who make their living by writing literary criticism” and do not at all “prefer our colorless cell of functional writing”). But for me, now, having done this dance before, I don’t think I want to do it again. One of my earliest posts (and one of my snarkiest ones) was a lament about the infinite regress of metacriticism that characterizes so much academic work today. That wasn’t my finest moment as a blogger, but the claustrophobia it expressed continues to overwhelm me when I open another scholarly book and contemplate the obligatory ‘methodology’ discussion. We call this ‘rigor,’ and it is, in a way, but its value to our understanding of literary texts is not self-evident. Will I read Jane Eyre wrong, somehow, if I haven’t cleared a way through the lumber-room of recent criticism on the Brontes before hazarding an opinion? The risk is rather that I will fail to acknowledge or respond to someone else’s argument about what the novel means or how it works, but that’s a rather different thing. The debates may be interesting, but often they are more revealing about divisions or trends in academic criticism than about the works in question, so we’re inevitably talking both to and about each other. No wonder ‘outsiders’ don’t care. Frankly, I’m not that interested in us anymore, and I’m certainly not interested in scrabbling around to find some new angle on Jane Eyre or Middlemarch in the manner of what I’ve called the pickle approach to criticism. At this point I just want to get on with it: trying to find a critical voice, and to hone and articulate perceptions that reflect both rigorous reading and a more personal, affective, and engaged vision of criticism.
It has been surprising and exciting to me to realize how blinkered I was about non-academic book culture, and chastening to realize how little use my own specialized reading has been as preparation to join in. At the same time, I think it’s true (as Jusdanis implies) that the academic habits of research and argumentation, the contextual knowledge accumulated through years of study and teaching, and the years of experience as a writer and editor, are, in other ways, valuable preparation, if only I can learn to ‘wear’ them lightly enough. Jusdanis is right that it is “hard to shift up and down.” Despite my three years of practising here on this blog, for instance, where I have self-consciously tried to free myself to write in a more personal way, my review of Jane’s Fame for Open Letters is (as the editors pointed out) “straightforward”–I should feel free, they said pleasantly, “to digress.” I know what they mean: I read with admiration and envy some of the pieces by, say, Lydia Kiesling at The Millions (this one, for instance), or, to look to OLM for an example, something like Sam Sacks’s review of Andre Aciman’s Eight White Nights–what a beautiful balance they achieve of personal revelation or response, reflective commentary, and precise analysis. But digression, personal revelation, even visceral response are all typically anathema to the conventions of academic criticism. I have some academic projects on the go, and it’s essential to me professionally (I think) that I keep working on them. But I’m also going to set myself some other goals that take me outside my critical comfort zone in a more deliberate way than my blog posts do–though they will likely begin as, or appear in, posts along the way. I’m thinking of a phrase in an essay by Lee Edwards: she concludes the essay by saying that Middlemarch is no longer one of the ‘books of her life.’ That specific conclusion is, of course, unacceptable to me! But I like the idea of the ‘books of our lives.’ What are mine, and what will I say about them? Stay tuned!
Image from Women Working, 1800-1930(Open Collections Program, Harvard University Library) (Digitized historical, manuscript, and image resources selected from Harvard University’s library and museum collections that explore women’s roles in the US economy between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the Great Depression)