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).

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