Metablogging: Three Interesting Posts

Like conventional academic criticism, lit-blogging is subject to fits of self-consciousness culminating in metablogging. While a few years ago such posts were likely to be forward-looking and exploratory, about the possibilities of blogging as a new frontier in criticism, the latest round of posts from Dan Green, Scott Esposito, and Steve Mitchelmore are more equivocal. Actually, Dan Green is pretty much just negative:

Literary blogs are (unwittingly, I hope) abetting the capitalist imperative to get out “product” as quickly as possible. New books appear, are duly noted, presumably consumed, and then we’re on to the next one. While sometimes lit bloggers consider an older title, it’s usually by an already established author or a “classic” of one sort or another. Little time is spent considering more recent books that might not have gotten enough attention, or assessing a writer’s work as a whole. Once the book has passed its “sell by” date, nothing else is heard of it and every book is considered in isolation, as a piece of literary news competing for its 15 seconds. The more potential readers come to assume that this is the main function of lit blogs, the less likely it is that the literary blogosphere will have any lasting importance. Literary blogs might let you know who reviewed what in the New York Times, but that The New York Times might not be the best place to go for intelligent writing about books is not something they’ll have the authority to suggest. (read the whole piece here)

Stephen Mitchelmore’s response is almost elegaic, but there’s still a hint of that early utopianism:

I have to admit that for years I was mystified why my blog writings have gone apparently unnoticed, at least in terms of page views. While the most popular blogs were getting thousands a day, I was lucky if This Space gathered 300. I thought, isn’t my review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones better than almost all the others, and didn’t my post on a road traffic accident say more about life’s relation to literature than any journalist’s exposé of an author’s life? Perhaps, however, these explain why it is relatively unpopular. Anyway, I have a difficult relationship with praise and criticism, with self-effacement vying for dominance with aggressive resentment. It is probably best to write, as in those early days of Spike, as if nobody is watching. After having published a dozen or so reviews in print media, I’m nowadays genuinely happier to work for weeks on long reviews or essays and have them disappear into the gaping void. Finding a way to talk about the reading experience is, I’ve realised, the greatest pleasure of writing; where it ends is of no importance. Still, over the last fourteen years of online work, I’ve seen the names of my key writers – Thomas Bernhard, Maurice Blanchot and Gabriel Josipovici – become familiar whereas before they were marginalised. If I have had only a minor role in this, it has made the effort worthwhile.

Yet I still like to imagine an ideal literary website in which the design, the writing and, most of all, the editorial vision offers a unique and dynamic approach to literature and culture in general, countering the banalities of commercial literary sites. So what might it look like? I have an idea but it requires an exceptional amount of work by people who have to earn a living elsewhere. Perhaps such a website is only ever the green ray as the sun sets on one’s hopes. Such a feeling is nothing new and we may learn something from previous attempts in strikingly similar times. (read the whole post here)

Scott Esposito picks up the thread:

I’m not sure how ironic Stephen was being about not understanding why his reviews were lesser-known than those elsewhere (and generally his are of much higher quality that what you’re likely to find in other places), but it’s not too hard to explain. Likewise, the method of building a literary site with high amounts of traffic is not mysterious. Go have a look at the Huffington Post books section, where every week you can find gossip about celebrity memoirs and counter-intuitive lists along the lines of “10 Most Outrageous Outfits From New Book ‘Critical Mass Fashion’ (PHOTOS).” Just make sure to have enough important names within your h1 header, say something contentious but not terribly complex that will generate a billion links, and keep it all short and with a lot of photos. Copy that with your own stable of writers, and you too can build a fairly well-trafficked site. This is not rocket science.

Obviously, some people would shoot for other things in a site besides high traffic, and this points out the problem with focusing on hits as a measure of a website, even though the first question anyone ever asks me about my sites is how many hits they get. But as Stephen’s site demonstrates, you can be influential even without getting major traffic. So choose what you want your site to be, and then do it. (read his whole post here)

“Choose what you want your site to be, and then do it” strikes me as excellent advice. Like every blogger, I wonder at regular intervals what I do this for. I think it’s disingenuous for bloggers to suggest they write purely for themselves: no need to post online, in that case. We all write online in the hope of getting readers. But it doesn’t have to be thousands, or hundreds, to be a satisfying experience (in my case, I average barely 100 hits a day, at least based on the Sitemeter tracking, and we all know that not every hit is an actual reader). If you take Scott’s advice and write what you want–and invest in Mitchelmore’s insight that “finding a way to talk about the reading experience is … the greatest pleasure of writing,” which I think is a large part of the truth–your site will have integrity and reflect your own values as a reader and critic. Then the readers you get will be those you want to enter into conversation with, and the extension to criticism represented by your site will be sincere. I think Dan Green’s disappointment stems from his having had very specific hopes or ambitions for lit blogging. His was one of the first blogs I started reading, and the seriousness with which he took the work and the potential of blogging as an alternative form of criticism was really important to my own developing sense of what the form might allow, what purpose it might serve. While he’s right that there’s a real loss if the overall direction of the ‘litblogosphere’ is towards commercialization and marketing, the form itself remains infinitely malleable. The risk (indeed, the likelihood) is that the good stuff–the thoughtful, independent, eclectic voices–will be drowned out by the louder ones that pander and preen and sell (out). So here I agree with Scott that it’s no good to ‘persist in this “take your ball and go home” attitude.’ The New York Times may not be the be-all-and-end-all of criticism, but it would be nice to be able to harness some of the power of the prestige print publications, now all with notable online presences. If only their blogs and reviewers would play nicely with others and actively seek out interesting independent voices online who represent serious critical alternatives, showcasing them rather than insisting on the tiresomely reductive ‘critics vs. bloggers’ debate. If they really care about the condition of criticism in the present day, they would join in the effort to sustain good discussion, which–whatever its provenance–actually supports their own work by continuing to take books seriously.

Blogging, Criticism, Reviewing

A recent discussion at The Reading Experience raises questions related to some I have raised before here and have been thinking about a lot again as I try to imagine how best to direct the energy I have put into blogging–issues such as whether ‘litblogging’ is at its best when used as a form of literary journalism or reviewing (focusing on the new), what kind of writing about ‘classic’ or old literature has appeal or relevance to modern readers, whether (or how) blogging can also serve as a medium for popularizing or making literary expertise accessible, or whether there really is any comfortable middle ground between academic specialization and standards and the interests and habits of common readers. From Dan’s original post:

What the litblogosphere promises to offer is the possibility of multiple sources of well-supported reviews and commentary (many more than have been available in print publications, whose numbers are only continuing to decline, anyway), which can only enrich the discussion of current fiction (and poetry) and in turn encourage writers to believe their work is getting serious attention.

And from the comments that followed (all are excerpts; other comments also appear in the original thread):

Which is precisely why I grumble over the fact that an awful lot of Litcritbloggage (not the majority, probably, but a worry-worthy chunk) seems wasted on texts long-established in reputation (and thoroughly colonized by academics; in some cases for centuries), not to mention being relatively impervious to casual analysis. (Steve Augustine)

But has it ever occurred to you that people who blog about texts that are “long-established in reputation” do so because they are new to them? Because they didn’t read them in school? And that the odds that they have been exposed to much of the critical apparatus is rather small? Are you suggesting that one should first read all the extant literature before deciding whether something ought to be blogged? (Richard)

Bloggers discover as we discover (not everyone’s put paid to the canon the way you have); their essential charm (I think it’s charming) is that they flatten the mountaintop elevating the critic-priest above the rabble and allow us to watch them form and respond to ideas. In other words, their discovery of Austen or James at the age of X is crucial to *them*, if not to us, it provides answers to questions *they’ve* wondered about, fills holes in *their* knowledge that they (well, some of them) are happy to admit to having had. I don’t think it’s necessarily a critical form, I think it’s often a form of self-expression, and I suppose that to gripe about someone’s preoccupation with Thomas Hardy when there’s so little attention going to Jerome Charyn is to cast that someone in a role they haven’t sought out. (Chris)

I find classics blogging among “serious” litbloggers (ie, those positioning themselves to take the baton when periodical print collapses) relatively useless; not because of the medium, but because there are already metric tons of readily accessible critical analysis of Shakespeare, Homer, you name it, in print. Seeing centuries-old opinions on Hamlet rehashed (or mutilated) online in a not-entirely-serious fashion doesn’t float my boat. If I have to read civilian (non-academic) takes on Hamlet, I prefer to read something that Anthony Burgess or Victor Pritchett or George Steiner sweated over for weeks or months… otherwise, the results are fairly back-to-High-Schoolish…I’d just like to see more critical litbloggers who take themselves seriously step up to the plate and provide more of the kind of content that *really can* give the best of what we called “print” (past tense because I’m thinking of a Golden Age) a run for its money… (Steve Augustine again)

I certainly agree with those who don’t think there’s any call to be prescriptive about these issues: individual motives for writing and reading blogs vary widely, and the distinctive features of the form are precisely its accessibility to all (internet-connected) people and its adaptability to all voices, styles, and agendas. The questions I raise above, then, really have to do with my own interests and aspirations as a blogger and a critic: what can or should I in particular be writing out here, particularly if I want to identify this blog as part of my professional work in more than a very peripheral way? I’m not an expert on, or even an avid reader of, contemporary fiction, particularly of the more experimental kind for which Dan Green is such a persistent advocate. I can contribute only as an amateur reviewer, then, where new releases are concerned, and while I enjoy writing up comments on my recent reading and sometimes feel I have found something of interest to say, I can’t afford the time (and lack much incentive) to turn these posts into genuine thought-pieces. I’m in a better position to talk knowledgeably about Victorian fiction, but Steve is certainly right that there are “metric tons of readily accessible critical analysis” on all the classic texts, including any on which I feel qualified to opine. So here my contributions will be better-informed, but they are not likely to be especially original–meaning the key issue becomes purpose and audience. If I aim for the kind of originality necessary for a scholarly publication, I’ll be back to writing esoterica for fellow academics, and the claustrophobia that practice induced was what drove me to the blogosphere in the first place. But is it any more useful or productive–any more of a contribution to literary understanding–to add my own 2-cents worth to what’s already available to a general reader (including on the internet) about Middlemarch or Jane Eyre? Someone like Michael Dirda or James Wood has the ‘street cred’ (or market appeal) to do this (though I’m currently reading Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure and I think the same questions could quite reasonably be asked about the need for or value of his contribution as well). I think a key point, made by a couple of the comments quoted above, is that the classics are in fact new to everyone at some point, so there is genuine pedagogical value in critical material that helps them make the most of their reading experiences. In the classroom (or in the right internet context) there’s always a good reason to explain (again) ways of reading and thinking about Middlemarch

I realize that this is to put a fairly solipsistic spin on a more abstract discussion. But, hey, this is my blog, after all! Here are earlier some of the versions of this semi-internal debate, showing that, after over a year of blogging (and blog-reading), I have not moved very far ahead on these questions:

Literary journalism differs from literary criticism, it is usually assumed, in being prompted by an occasion needing a fairly prompt response to give it relevance. Criticism takes more of a long view. But without that occasion, that immediacy, what appeal does criticism have for the non-academic reader, especially in a medium like the internet? Is there an audience online for writing about Dickens or George Eliot? And what could be said that would matter, or appeal? The kind of stuff that gets written for academic audiences apparently (unsurprisingly) alienates almost everyone else, while the kind of stuff that gets written for popular audiences often seems trivial or redundant to those who read the academic stuff. And yet…books such as John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel or Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do get published, so there is presumably some interest out there in enhancing one’s experience of reading “the classics.” One approach might be to look for the contemporary relevance in past authors, as I attempted to do with my paper on George Eliot as “Moralist for the 21st Century.” But that means only highlighting authors and texts that lend themselves to modern purposes, which gets pretty tendentious and unsatisfactory pretty fast. (“The Occasion for Blogging,” May 24, 2007)

Of course, when past works are the ones at issue, there’s presumably no longer any question of reviewing them–or is there? Actually, that’s an interesting question, and one linked to my ongoing musings about the potential role of something like a blog in my own work. How or why could writing about a ‘classic’ be relevant, useful, desirable to a contemporary audience? I still hold to the fairly simple distinction that reviewing is a form of literary journalism that requires a specific occasion as an incentive, while criticism has more abstract (longitudinal?) interests. (“More on the Purpose of Criticism,” June 20, 2007)

The high degree of specialization in academia is one of the main reasons academic research is not particularly accessible, never mind interesting, to broad audiences. My own interest in blogging is motivated largely by a desire to escape or redefine the limits of specialization, not to reproduce them in an alternative medium. Cohen’s account of what makes a blog successful exacerbates my ongoing concern, though, that there’s not much point competing with thousands of other blogs for readers’ attention unless your own site offers something distinctive, some angle or attitude they can’t find anywhere else. To use my own blog as an example, I enjoy writing up my latest reading and I find it useful posting about subjects related to my embryonic project on ‘writing for readers,’ but if my ultimate goal is to provide something that will, in Cohen’s words, “frame discussions on a topic and point to resources of value,” I’m going to need to narrow, or at least define, my focus–ideally, in a way that still satisfies my desire to get out of the ivory tower and into a wider conversation. (“Professors, Start Your Blogs…,” July 18, 2007)

One aspect of this situation that I’ve been thinking about is the tension between generalization and specialization that academic blogs perhaps illustrate. It’s difficult to provoke comments on a specialized topic, except from other specialists. Non-specialists may be interested in reading or using your material, but they are unlikely to add to it. (I’m thinking, for instance, of the posts on The Little Professor about Victorian anti-Catholic texts: this is just not a topic on which many people can, or would, chime in, though now I know where to go if I want to learn something about them.) But if your offerings are general enough to interest a lot of people, they may lose their value in establishing a community of expertise, or in contributing to the development of your professional work. . . . Further to that last point, I’m starting to notice a divide in blogging between two kinds of literary sites, which I would roughly divide into ‘bookish’ and ‘academic’–and the academic ones really don’t seem that literary, in the sense of talking about, well, literature, as opposed to politics, philosophy, theory, and criticism. (I know, I know: talking about literature always involves politics, philosophy, and theory, etc….) I ‘m thinking especially at this point of The Valve, subtitled ‘A Literary Organ,’ after all. The bookish ones seem quite contemporary in their focus, so for those of us who spend most of our time reading loose baggy monsters from the 19th century, well, once again but for different reasons, we aren’t really equipped to jump in–and there too, I don’t see that much discussion, to return to my first point. (“If a Blog Falls in the Forest,” October 22, 2007)

Criticism as ‘Coduction’

I have remarked a couple of times that Wayne Booth‘s idea of ‘coduction’ seems to me to capture something important about the way thoughtful literary criticism unfolds. I was reminded of this yet again reading Dan Green’s lastest posting on the ethics of book reviewing, in which he proposes that any review that aspires to the status of criticism must take into account what other reviewers have said. As discussed in my previous post, one distinction between reviewing and criticism is that the critic may be aiming at explication rather than evaluation, while the main expectation most of us have of a review is that it will culminate in and justify a judgment. I think Booth would argue that criticism is always at least implicitly judgmental. In any case, here’s some of what he says about the process by which “we arrive at our sense of value in narratives”:

Even in my first intuition of ‘this new one,’ whether a story or a person, I see it against a backdrop of my long personal history of untraceably complex experiences of other stories and persons. Thus my initial acquaintance is comparative even when I do not think of comparisons. If I then converse with others about their impressions–if, that is, I move toward a public ‘criticism’–the primary intuition (with its implicit acknowledgment of value) can be altered in at least three ways: it can become conscious and more consciously comparative…; it can become less dependent on my private experience…; and it can be related to principles and norms…. Every appraisal of a narrative is implicitly a comparison between the always complex experience we have had in its presence and what we have known before. (The Company We Keep, pp. 70-71)

It’s not that the ‘primary intuition’ (especially of a reader with an already rich ‘personal history’ of literature and criticism) is invalid; it’s that putting that intuition into dialogue with other ideas enriches it and complicates it, and makes it better–more “serious,” to use Green’s word.

Just as a bit of an aside, this idea that criticism is not finite or absolute but always in process, part of an ongoing conversation, is what makes a medium such as a blog seem appropriate for it. Conventional academic publishing inhibits any real exchange of views, first because its pace is so unbelievably slow that by the time anything you write appears in print you can barely remember what you said or why you said it, and second because you have to at least sound as if you think what you’ve said is definitive. Hardly anybody reads most academic criticism, either, even within the academy (half the time it seems the real audience is the person who reads only the title, on your cv…).

More on the Purpose of Criticism

Some time ago I posted some thoughts on Cynthia Ozick’s Harper’s essay “Literary Entrails” (see “Academic Criticism Criticized”). Belatedly, I notice that there was a good posting in response to it at Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading which concludes that “Ozick’s better criticism . . . would add another reason to read, a further way to engage a book once it had been closed and to continually re-think and re-evaluate books that have been around for a while. This might not bring any new readers into the fold, but it might make better readers out of those who already do so. Over time, I think that would make books better for everyone.” I like the idea that the critic’s role is to keep us engaged and to encourage us to “re-think and re-evaluate” what we have read; as both this author and Ozick emphasize, the pace of reviewing can be too hasty to allow for a “slower, more contemplative critical approach to literature.” For myself, I have been finding it exhausting trying to keep pace at all with the texts and topics addressed in litblogs and literary journals: I’m starting to look forward to the start of the teaching term in September because I will be back to worrying obsessively over a small handful of books, and to feel grateful for “the canon,” however unstable or elastic its definition, if only because the very idea of a canon implies that there is no obligation to pay attention to everything!

Meanwhile, at The Reading Experience, Dan Green has some good things to say about the distinction between reviewing and criticism: “The essential task of criticism is not to evaluate fiction. It is an essential task of reviewing, but criticism can take place entirely outside the context of judgment and evaluation, or at least it can take place in a context that assumes evaluation and judgment have already taken place. Some of the best criticism attempts not to argue for the merits of a particular work but to describe and analyze a work the critic already values and wants to “read” more closely. Sometimes this results in convincing readers of the quality of the work, but doing that has not been the critic’s primary task.” I like to think in terms of appreciation rather than evaluation, because it sidelines the issue of taste. I can appreciate a work of fiction for being artful, well-crafted, original, historically significant, etc. without actually liking it (Pamela, anyone?). Yet I am unlikely to devote a lot of critical time (or classroom time) to any text that I am not personally convinced has value, whether artistic, intellectual, social, or some combination. We value different books for different reasons, after all. I’m not sure I’d want to convince anyone of the quality of, say, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, though I enjoy reading and teaching it and consider it an important example of Victorian social problem fiction. On the other hand, I find I am prepared to expend a great deal of energy convincing people of the value of Bleak House or Middlemarch! Of course, when past works are the ones at issue, there’s presumably no longer any question of reviewing them–or is there? Actually, that’s an interesting question, and one linked to my ongoing musings about the potential role of something like a blog in my own work. How or why could writing about a ‘classic’ be relevant, useful, desirable to a contemporary audience? I still hold to the fairly simple distinction that reviewing is a form of literary journalism that requires a specific occasion as an incentive, while criticism has more abstract (longitudinal?) interests. In any case, I like Green’s comment that criticism is “a way of paying attention and of perhaps assisting others in the effort to pay closer attention.” Like the comments at Conversational Reading, this one reminds me of Booth’s idea of “coduction,” which seems to me an excellent model of the way our judgments of literature are in fact formed and reformed.

The Occasion for Blogging

There has been a lot of public discussion recently about blogs in the context of the decline of book sections and book reviews in newspapers; much of it has consisted of attacks on literary blogs from more traditional writers and sources and defensive responses from bloggers (see, for instance, this response on The Reading Experience to an LA Times column that promised contemptuously to write “in language even a busy blogger can understand”). I have sympathies on both sides of this fence, as I agree that while anyone can write a book review or literary commentary, not anyone can write one that has interest and merit. In general, my position is simply the more people out there reading books and writing about them, the better all round. The more specific issue I’ve been wondering about is whether blogging is really only suited to be a form of literary journalism, focused on new releases and current authors in the way that book reviews are, or whether it is possible or useful for blogs also to write more in the spirit of literary scholarship or criticism of past literature. I’m also thinking more about the nature of literary blogs more generally, while well aware that so far I have still become aware of only a fraction of the options and styles out there.

One typical feature of successful blogging is apparently that it is incessant: unless they are constantly updated, it seems blogs lose their currency, their momentum and, presumably, their readers. I have already found that, at least for someone with other work to do, the rapidity of thinking and writing required to put up new posts even once or twice a week makes drafting and polishing impossible, which inevitably affects the kind and quality of writing you can do. This situation would differ, of course, for someone working full-time on a blog. It could also be overcome, or ameliorated, by writing off-line and not posting anything until it has been tidied up, though this too assumes that blogging is not a sideline to a “real” job. It may be as well that depending on the kind of site and voice you are trying to establish, you can take your time and post longer, more thoughtful pieces. It’s not as if there are deadlines, after all, and besides, who’s really reading most blogs all that frequently anyway, much less one like mine that hardly anyone even knows about? I started quite deliberately writing without a lot of second thoughts, to free myself up from academic hyper-self-consciousness, but all those first impressions are starting to seem inadequate, especially when the book at issue (The Map of Love, for instance) is quite complex, formally and thematically. I’m reaching a point at which I need to consider what I hope to accomplish by writing my posts in the first place and maybe experiment with some more in-depth analyses. But to do that, I would have to take the time and justify it professionally.

Another notable feature of the blogs I am most familiar with so far is their focus on fairly new releases and on the state of the current book and literary worlds. A next step for me will be looking around for people who write about the literature of the past. Literary journalism differs from literary criticism, it is usually assumed, in being prompted by an occasion needing a fairly prompt response to give it relevance. Criticism takes more of a long view. But without that occasion, that immediacy, what appeal does criticism have for the non-academic reader, especially in a medium like the internet? Is there an audience online for writing about Dickens or George Eliot? And what could be said that would matter, or appeal? The kind of stuff that gets written for academic audiences apparently (unsurprisingly) alienates almost everyone else, while the kind of stuff that gets written for popular audiences often seems trivial or redundant to those who read the academic stuff. And yet…books such as John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel or Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do get published, so there is presumably some interest out there in enhancing one’s experience of reading “the classics.” One approach might be to look for the contemporary relevance in past authors, as I attempted to do with my paper on George Eliot as “Moralist for the 21st Century.” But that means only highlighting authors and texts that lend themselves to modern purposes, which gets pretty tendentious and unsatisfactory pretty fast.

A number of my posts have been in the spirit of “work in progress” notes, thinking aloud though (maybe oddly) in public–partly in the hopes, of course, of eventually getting some input (a fading hope). At this point, especially with my sabbatical coming to an end, I need to start putting my thoughts together about what I’ve been learning by reading and (in this modest way) writing outside the academic box.

Denis Donoghue, The Practice of Reading

The Practice of Reading lies somewhere in between standard academic literary criticism and the more populist ‘books about books’ that I’ve been reading for my ‘writing for readers’ project. I suppose its main audience is an academic one, but its project and contents are quite miscellaneous and so it contributes more by modelling Donoghue’s idea of good reading across varied examples than by intervening incisively or extensively into any particular critical or theoretical debate. That said, Donoghue does present his ideas about reading and criticism in some detail in the first few chapters, and his broad aim is to make a case for aesthetic criticism (according to his careful definitions) against the various ideological versions he tags as the “New Thematics.” He advocates an aesthetic criticism that restores due emphasis to the ‘lived experience’ of reading texts, or to the element of ‘performance’ (qualities or properties that can’t be sustained in a paraphrase or plot summary). He calls for a “recovered disinterestedness,” a putting aside of our immediate selves and prejudices in order to release the imagination: “the purpose of reading literature,” he says at one point, “is to exercise or incite one’s imagination; specifically, one’s ability to imagine being different”–an ability inhibited, he argues, by the pressures of identity politics, among other forces. While I am in sympathy with much of this strain of his argument, I have questions (answered, perhaps, in his other writings) about what knowledge, experience, or education he thinks is required to achieve a “lived experience” of a text that deserves being written up or shared with others. He points out himself that, for some texts, our selves are insufficient for good readings–“information is required.” Some knowledge of literary history and genre is certainly necessary for the kinds of readings he offers, and yet at some points he seems to take sides against those who insist on the relevance of historical context. How well does his version of aestheticism work on texts that, themselves, look out to their historical world, novels such as Bleak House, for instance? (How far is his a “poetics” for poetry only, or literature of a certain kind only, that is not itself overtly social or political?)

I liked his breakdown of critical modes into Arnold, Pater, and Wilde (interesting that his prototypes are all from the 19th century), and he is convincing about the way much criticism driven by “High Theory” follows the ‘Wilde’ approach in which the work of art ostensibly under examination becomes a “suggestion for a new work of [the critic’s] own” (here he is quoting Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist”). He goes on to suggest that such criticism (including much of Derrida’s, for example) is best understand as a separate literary genre–perhaps autobiography. In a slightly different context, he argues that recent critics of Macbeth “reveal what is happening in criticism more clearly than what happens in Macbeth.” I think he is right, but both conclusions might prompt the student of literature to wonder why she would bother with this kind of criticism, the lives of critics or the history of criticism being rather separate inquiries.

Most interesting and potentially useful for me are the ways he distinguishes between criticism that (taking an Arnoldian approach) attempts to talk about what the text is overtly about (“the object itself as it really is”–admitting all kinds of complications, of course) and those whose critical goal is to “rebuke” the text for not being something else, or at any rate to evaluate it based on an external standard. His discussion of Marjorie Levinson on Wordsworth reminds me of the discussion of Spivak in Freadman and Miller’s Re-Thinking Theory (also on Wordsworth), and his line on recent critics of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” is my favourite in the book for the way it captures a particular (today, almost ubiquitous) approach to a literary text: “Yeats is not allowed to have his theme: he must be writing about something else.” So too is Charlotte Bronte often not allowed her themes in Jane Eyre, or Jane Austen, lately, in Mansfield Park, or George Eliot in Middlemarch in some recent readings (Elizabeth Langland’s, for instance).

I wonder if Donoghue offers the kind of aesthetic criticism Daniel Green (of “The Reading Experience”) would like to see more of.