Finding My Voice: Posts on Criticism

I’ve been doing some housekeeping here on Novel Readings, setting up some index pages to make my archive of old posts accessible. I’m organizing them according to the categories you see on the tabs above: Academia, Criticism, Fiction, and Teaching. That’s not everything, but it turns out to be quite a lot! The process has been interesting and invigorating, because as I review and update the links I realize not just how many posts there are but how they reflect the evolution of my thinking about literature and criticism, as well as of my habits and practices as a critic. Most of the posts on criticism show me wrestling with my desire to reconcile the values inculcated over many years of academic training with a strong wish to write in a different way, with a different sense of purpose and for a different audience. In early 2008, for instance, I wrote a post for The Valve on “Literary Criticism in/and the Public Sphere”  that drew on my reading of scholars including Brian McRae, Morris Dickstein, and Ronan McDonald. When I wrote it, I wasn’t sure what criticism that lived up to some of its closing suggestions might look like. Now, however, I can point to my recent essay on Gone with the Wind at Open Letters as an example of the kind of thing I had in mind, what I called a “renewed and theoretically updated Victorianism”: a close reading with an emphasis on ethics but supported by an engagement with form. The Gone with the Wind essay also represents a step towards the goals I expressed in a more recent post about metacriticism and my sense that the conversation in academic blogging was going in circles:  “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.” I know I haven’t finished developing as a critic or a reader, but it is exciting to realize that I have moved forward and begun actually practising criticism differently, including speaking more as myself. Working on the index pages has really brought home to me how important blogging has been to this process.

The old post from The Valve is linked to from the ‘On Criticism’ page, but I thought I’d re-post it here (with updated links) as well in case anyone would like to comment on it (I don’t post at The Valve any more). It’s a bit long so if you want to read the whole thing be sure to click on the ‘read more’ link!

Literary Criticism and/as the Public Sphere

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. (Walt Whitman)

It is a commonplace of the history of literary criticism that the character of criticism changed when and because criticism entered the academy and became professionalized, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century (and ever after). The nature and consequences of this change have been examined and re-examined often over the years, in books such as John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), Morris Dickstein’s Double Agent: The Critic and Society (1992), Geoffrey Hartman’s Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars (1991), Christopher Knight’s Uncommon Readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, and the Tradition of the Common Reader (2003), or the essay collection Grub Street and the Ivory Tower: Literary Journalism and Literary Scholarship from Fielding to the Internet (1998)–to name just a few.

Brian McRae’s Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (1990) is certainly among the more lively and provocative books I’ve read on this topic. As his title suggests, McRae frames his consideration of English departments as professional and institutional spaces with arguments about what features in the work of Addison and Steele “render it useless to critics housed in English departments”–not, as he is quick to add, that “their works are without value, but rather, that they are not amenable to certain procedures that English professors must perform” (11). The short version of his story is that professional critics require difficult, complex, ambiguous texts to do their jobs (e.g. 146); the “techniques of simplicity” that characterize Addison and Steele propel them, as a result, out of the canon. As he develops his argument, McRae offers an interesting overview of the 19th-century and then 20th-century critical reception of Addison and Steele. He explains the Victorians’ admiration for these 18th-century predecessors largely in terms of the different understanding that prevailed about the relationship of literature, and thus of the literary critic, to life. Rightly, I’d say (based on my own work on 19th-century literary criticism), he sees as a central Victorian critical premise that literature and criticism are public activities, that their worth is to be discussed in terms of their effects on readers; hence the significance attached, he argues, to sincerity as well as affect. Especially key to McRae’s larger argument is his observation that the 19th-century writers were not “academicians” or “specialists in a field” (89):

For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline–housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition–not in English literature–justifies the existence of the English department. (92)

As McRae tells the story (which in its basic outlines is pretty similar to that told in other histories of criticism), this decline in the critic’s public role has had both significant costs (among them, the critical ‘death’ of Addison and Steele) and significant benefits. At times the book has a nostalgic, even elegaic sound:

People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors. (147)

Not that McRae thinks they should–and indeed we can all share a shudder at the very idea. But to me one strength of McRae’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McRae says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics–otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public” (164-5). In Democracy’s Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics (2002), John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself” [65]. In A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (2005), Dickstein too remarks that “Since the modernist period and especially in the last thirty years, a tremendous gap has opened up between how most readers read if they still read at all, and how critics read, or how they theorize about reading” (1).

The alienation of academic criticism from the broader reading public is in fact a common theme among many of the books I’ve cited. Writing approvingly of his three main subjects, for instance, Knight notes that “they refuse the retreat of a discipline’s discourse and think it imperative that the scholar find a way to engage the larger educated public in conversation” (8). In Double Agent, Dickstein posits the alienation between professional critics and a non-academic readership as a central problem in the discipline: “the main task for criticism today is to recapture the public space occupied by the independent man or woman of letters not only between the wars but throughout the nineteenth century. The first step,” he continues, “would be to treat criticism as a major form of public discourse” (6), making the critic a “mediator between art and its audience” (7).

But why, McRae asks, should we expect such cross-over between our work–our professional lives and discourse–and our personal lives? McRae’s answer to this question (we shouldn’t) puts the professionalization of English studies into the context of professionalization more generally, which he argues (drawing on sociological studies) was a key feature of American society during the last half of the 20th century. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of McRae’s book, in fact, seems to me to be his insistence that, in this respect at least, ‘professing English’ is (or has now become) just another job, and indeed that its success at establishing itself professionally at once accounts for and has depended on its investment in theory and metacommentary: “The ultimate step in the aggrandizement of any professional group is for its members to get paid to talk about how they do what they do rather than doing it” (17). If one result is isolation from and (perceived) irrelevance to the broader public, including the reading public, the gains for criticism and even for literature are also, McRae argues, substantial:

Rotarians no longer look to us for uplift, future presidents no longer turn to us to increase their ‘stock of ideas,’ nor do ex-presidents attend our funerals, undergraduates no longer found alumni associations around us, family members can no longer read our books, and plain English has disappeared from our journals. But professionalization has liberated us from a cruel Darwinian system in which one white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male emerged at the top while others struggled at the bottom, grading papers in impoverished anonymity. It has liberated us from the harsh economic realities of eighteenth-century literature . . . while [today’s critics] might wish to share Steele’s influence, I doubt they would want to share his life. He practiced criticism in a world in which there was no tenure, a world devoid of university presses, National Endowments for the Humanities, and endowed university chairs in literature. . . . (213)

In a society in which no one outside the classroom reads Pope, professors can earn handsome incomes by being Pope experts. The five top Pope experts compete with each other, but probably not with the Tennyson experts, and certainly not with the Chaucer experts. The quest for autonomy has cost us Addison and Steele, has cost us the ability to treat literature as a public, moral, emotional phenomenon. But it has left us with a part of literature, with a canon of works complicated in their technique and tone, and with a classroom in which we have a chance to teach those works, to keep them (and whatever value they hold) alive. (215)

Provocative, as I said, not least in reversing the oft-heard line that (undergraduate) teaching is the price professors pay for the opportunity to do their research and as much as declaring that, to the contrary, academic criticism is the price they pay to preserve literature and its values.

I find McRae’s conclusion at once plausible, depressing, and in some respects inadequate. Probably the least defensible reason I recoil from it is that I’m not personally at ease with letting up what McGowan calls my “allegiance to literature.” Like Ihab Hassan, I became an English professor “to live in the vicinity of that joy” (“Confessions of a Reluctant Critic,” NLH 1993): my intention, however naïve, was to merge, not divide, my personal enthusiasms and my professional life. But another reason is that I lament what seem like lost, or even forfeited, opportunities to participate in a wider public life of the mind. Evidence abounds of public contempt for academic criticism; some serious-minded people have even made the case that literature should be taken away from English departments altogether. Much of the negativity stems from misinformation or knee-jerk assumptions about the kind of thing that goes on in a typical English class. Some of it comes from bad experiences, or from high-profile but atypical examples of extreme classroom or critical approaches. But some of it also, surely, comes from the disconnect between what most readers experience and care about when they read and what academics do with what they read, at least when they are engaged in reading that they hope will yield publishable results. Most of our professional critical work is of no perceptible use or interest to most other readers. Should this situation concern us? Here’s Dickstein again, from Double Agent:

Meanwhile a large, excitable, but easily distracted audience, unwilling to follow the abstract critic down this path, has a genuine claim to make: it wants something concrete, it wants to hear about the real world, it yearns for something with dash and liveliness that might have a bearing on the way we live. (23)

Many academics might agree with McRae (though some, no doubt, for different reasons) that academic critics should have no expectation, and should certainly feel no obligation, to suit their professional practice to the interests or ‘yearnings’ of the general public. For those of us who feel otherwise–who would like to offer their expertise in a form that might have some ‘bearing’ on more than a tiny audience of fellow specialists–what might such a public form of criticism involve or focus on, and how could it be reconciled with the requirements of professionalization?

In The Death of the Critic (2007), Ronan McDonald has proposed aesthetic evaluation as the missing link between the academy and a “wider public”:

If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connection with a wider public. This is why it is cultural studies, more than any other academic phenomenon, that has led to the death of the critic. To command public attention, the critic needs to write as if the stakes matter. . . . If we do not attend to value in the arts, then how can we attend to the value of the arts?

Dan Green (though he is not interested in making academic criticism more accessible but in liberating literature from its grasp) also points to the turn away from aesthetic judgment as “probably the ultimate reason why ‘academic criticism’ as specifically an act of literary criticism is not likely to survive much longer.” In The Practice of Reading (1998), Denis Donoghue also calls for renewed aestheticism–but in the interests of an enhanced ethical engagement: “the purpose of reading literature is to exercise or incite one’s imagination; specifically, one’s ability to imagine being different” (56). My own impression of what the broader public is interested in–and also of where they might both need and appreciate ‘expert’ guidance–would be ethical as much as aesthetic criticism, at least of fiction. Amateur book bloggers, Amazon reviewers, Oprah’s viewers, even many newspaper book reviewers are preoccupied with plot and character, with what happens to and to whom and why, and with judging the people, their decisions, and the results. Academic criticism may have moved away from Victorian preoccupations, but perhaps a renewed but theoretically updated Victorianism would be a way to reach out to a reading public that still seems inclined to approach literary art as “the nearest thing to life.”

(Originally posted at The Valve, April 27 2008. This post combines and revises some earlier posts from Novel Readings.)

3 thoughts on “Finding My Voice: Posts on Criticism

  1. Amateur Reader October 7, 2010 / 12:36 am

    I think you’re seeing something real – I see it in your writing, too. The Gone with the Wind piece was excellent, and I hope it reaches a lot of readers.

    How big do you think that “broader public” is, the one in the last paragraph of your 2008 piece? Who is in it?


  2. Rohan Maitzen October 7, 2010 / 4:21 pm

    I see it in your writing, too

    Thanks: it’s nice to have some confirmation (and affirmation!).

    Those are good questions about that imagined public. How many people really are interested in thoughtful discussion of books? Lots, as evidenced by the flourishing of online book writing, book clubs, etc. (though of course degrees of thoughtfulness vary)–but still probably a relatively small portion of the population overall! As for its composition, I think I would no longer discuss the reading public in such homogenizing terms. But I know a lot of people (in real life as well as on-line) who are avid but not (or not necessarily) academic readers–smart, curious, open-minded, interested in reading as a mode of thinking as well as a diversion, and in literature as an important part of their real lives–and when I imagine who I’d like to write for, it’s people like them. Perhaps they are already well served, but then, a lot of what’s around that passes for reviewing and criticism is kind of disappointing, and in between Amazon and the NYRB or TLS there’s a lot of room, or could be. Those established publications, also, are something of a closed circle, and they don’t necessarily reflect the variety and idiosyncrasy of readers’ lives and interests.


  3. Amateur Reader October 7, 2010 / 10:04 pm

    I have no idea who the readers of book blogs are – the ones who aren’t also writing. I’m sure learning a lot about who the writers are! For most of this crowd, the NYRB and so on barely seems to exist. Although, now that I think of it, I read it (some of it) and almost never mention it. So who knows. But maybe that online audience is big enough, and interested enough, to be receptive to the kind of thing you’re describing. It will only get bigger, surely.

    kind of disappointing – You’re so gentle!


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