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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Posner on the “Decline of Literary Criticism”

In the most recent issue of Philosophy and Literature, Richard Posner reviews Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic (discussed previously here):

The problem with “criticism conceived as magistrate”—the problem that McDonald not only does not solve, but does not acknowledge—is that there are no objective criteria of aesthetic distinction. The reason is that there is nothing that all great works of literature have in common but lesser works of literature do not. When critics propose criteria that they think will distinguish the great from the non-great, they end up narrowing the canon of great literature in arbitrary ways, as T. S. Eliot attempted to do with Milton and Shelley. There is no need to develop a litmus test for great literature. Critics can point to the features of literary works that they like or dislike without assuming the authority to tell people what they should read. And Croce was right: you don’t need evaluative critics in order to have a “canon” of great literature. The canon evolves in Darwinian fashion; writers compete, and the works that are best adapted to the cultural environment flourish.

I fear that McDonald has succumbed to the cliché that the enemy of my enemy is my friend: the cultural studies crowd is against evaluative criticism, so McDonald is for it, provided it is objective—but he does not show how literary criticism can be objective. But the problem is not that modern-day literary criticism is not evaluative; it is that literary criticism aimed at increasing the readership of great literature has been displaced by literary theory, on the one hand, and by literary scholarship for literary scholars only . . . on the other hand.

Though I might take issue with some of Posner’s specific points, I agree with him that “the dearth of evaluative criticism” is not what accounts for the diminished significance of literary criticism. He concludes that “If there were less pretentious literary theory and no evaluative criticism, but more readable literary criticism in the style of Cleanth Brooks or F. R. Leavis, the literary culture would be in a lot better shape than it is.” I’ve been reading a fair number of books that attempt to offer “readable literary criticism“; it’s not that such books aren’t out there, but perhaps that often they aren’t often as intellectually challenging or rhetorically exhilirating as the examples Posner gives–often they seem to me to underestimate their intendend audience. The two books I’m reviewing on the 19th-century novel (Case & Shaw and Levine) are actually pretty good options of this kind, but they are overtly aimed at a student audience and so unlikely, I’m guessing, to reach very far out into the world. I admit, “readable literary criticism” with the effects Posner describes (work that “quickens” the reader’s interest in reading literary works) is pretty much the kind I would like to write one day… “literary criticism that helps people understand and enjoy serious literature,” which is why the kinds of debates he and McDonald are engaged in are of such interest to me.

The Death of the Critic, Reprise

Bill Benzon kindly pointed out this Salon piece to me:

Louis Bayard: The signs are ominous, Laura. Book reviews are closing shop or drastically scaling back inventory. Film critics at newspapers all over America are getting tossed on their ears. TV reviewers are heard no more in the land. All the indicators suggest that America’s critics are becoming an increasingly endangered species.

Or maybe something a little more than endangered, judging from the title that’s just come across our desks: “The Death of the Critic.” Ronan McDonald, the author, is a lecturer in English and American studies at Britain’s University of Reading, and he’s particularly exercised by what he sees as the loss of the “public critic,” someone with “the authority to shape public taste.” It’s only in the final chapter that the mystery behind the critic’s disappearance is solved. The culprit is none other than … cultural studies! (With a healthy assist from poststructuralism.) By treating literature as an impersonal text from which any manner of political meaning can be wrung, cultural studies professors have robbed criticism of its proper evaluative function — the right to say this is good, this isn’t, and here’s why.

So, Laura, it seems that, if we aren’t quite dead, we critics are on something like life support.

Laura Miller: I suppose it’s only natural that McDonald, being an academic himself, would blame the academy. He believes that substantive scholarly criticism acts as a foundation for serious non-scholarly criticism — such as reviews and essays in newspapers and magazines — lending credibility to the idea that criticism (specifically, literary criticism) is a job for trained experts. When academia falls down on the job of, as you put it, saying what’s good and what’s not, then all criticism starts to look arbitrary and dispensable. We don’t have celebrated “public critics” now because critics don’t care about the public, not because the public doesn’t care about critics. What do you think: Is criticism responsible for its own demise?

I didn’t see any great revelations in their discussion, but there are some good moments. Here’s one I liked:


Bayard: I like that phrase “go home with” because, when I think about the critics I love the most, they’re not necessarily the ones I agree with, they’re the ones I’d like to date. I argue with them, but when they’re gone, their music is still bopping around in my brain. Many years ago, Susan Sontag, in “Against Interpretation,” argued for “an erotics of art.” Is it time now for an erotics of criticism? Instead of bemoaning the decline of literature, should we be doing a better job of showing people what they’re missing: the excitement of unexpected insights, the thrill of new voices, the sex of ideas? That sounds like a lot more fun than figuring out which fiefdom we’re going to defend in the Theory Wars. (I’ve a hunch Ronan McDonald would be on our side.)

Miller: You’re right! Why pillory theory, when even the people who used to espouse it are saying it’s dead? Let’s talk about what makes for a good critic. I often think that there are two kinds: the ones whose taste I find simpatico — the ones I come to for recommendations on what to read — and the ones who are themselves terrific writers, irrespective of what they recommend. Sometimes there’s an overlap, but not often.

There are critics, like Wood, that I go out of my way to read, although I have no intention of ever opening the books they tout. That’s indicative of an additional aspect to criticism besides evaluation (which McDonald wants to bring back to academic criticism) and interpretation (that is, elucidating the work and its many meanings, which we could use more of in journalistic criticism). It’s the literary worth of the criticism in and of itself, and the chance to see a sophisticated reader at work.

Yes: “the chance to see a sophisticated reader at work”–that sums up a lot of the pleasure I too take in reading James Wood. And they also offer a couple of unusually reasonable remarks on the usual straw targets, bloggers and English professors:


Bayard: Yeah, the blogosphere is the elephant in the room that McDonald never really gets round to discussing, but to my mind, it’s a far more pressing issue for criticism than theory is. Why pay a professional critic to evaluate something when you have a gazillion volunteer evaluators ready to fire off at any given moment? . . . I myself don’t have any particular training or qualifications to be a reviewer, other than my own experience as a reader and writer, so I feel silly arguing that someone else isn’t qualified to deliver an opinion. And believe it or not, I’ve learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism. [that “believe it or not” seems gratuitous –why should it be hard to believe?]


Miller: . . . It hardly matters whether or not an English professor actually likes to read novels and poetry, does it? Books are the salt mine, and the academics are the miners. If anything, literary enthusiasm can be a detriment if your job is to prosecute books for their ideological crimes. When even English professors won’t stand up for literature, is it any wonder it’s failing? [Sigh!]

But in reply, Bayard: Well, it’s been a while since I was in college, but I do remember professors who loved English literature every bit as much as I do, so I don’t want to tar the whole profession out of hand. [Whew! Because I’m pretty sure some other people would be right there with feathers to finish the job!]

I wrote up some thoughts of my own about McDonald’s book here. McDonald and I share an interest in reviving the role of the “public critic,” but I can’t quite get on board with his emphasis on evaluation as the necessary method. I give some reasons for that here, in response to an inquiry from Nigel Beale–and, more facetiously, here!