September 9, 2007

Mad as Hell--at Literary Critics?

This particularly virulent comment appeared quite promptly after excerpts from my previous post appeared at Footnoted (see also update below):
Lit crit should finally die the death it so much deserves. Lit departments have floundered for decades because they have forgotten the text. Instead, they have pandered to the politically correct idiots who can neither read with sense nor write with style. May they ALL be flushed down the toilet where they belong.
Hostility towards literary critics is an interesting subcategory of what Tim Burke discusses at intelligent length on his blog as "Anger at Academe". Now, I started writing on this blog in part because of my own frustrations with some aspects of academic literary criticism; I have vented once or twice about particular examples of it, here and in print; and I've spent a fair amount of time recently looking at books, journals, and blogs that inquire into it from a variety of historical, theoretical, sociological, and what I might call 'readerly' perspectives. I think it's not only fine but desirable for people both inside and outside 'lit departments' to ask questions about the nature and condition of our discipline. But I have been frequently surprised by just how angry or dismissive some people are--and not just anonymous "trolls" such as the Footnoted commenter, but also some prominent figures in contemporary literary culture, such as Cynthia Ozick, who in her essay "Literary Entrails," writes the following:
(Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multi-syllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since, unlike the hardier customer reviewers, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.)
(For some previous discussion of Ozick's essay, see here.) As I noted in another earlier post, "Daniel Green of the blog The Reading Experience ... writes about 'academic schoolmasters, who now only serve to inflict the miseries behind the thick walls of their suffocating scholastic prisons'...Ouch." Francine Prose is another in this chorus, though her language about the academy (while equally dismissive) is at least somewhat more temperate.

An anonymous commenter on one of my own less temperate posts remarked that "The mere existence of theory-driven, 'difficult' literary criticism does not rob the amateur book lover of one micron of reading pleasure. " I think s/he is is right about this, but some of the hostility directed at us does seem to come from a sense that academics have betrayed or spoiled something that these lovers of literature cherish. As some of the scholarly work I've been reading also suggests, there is a grain of truth to this (see, for instance, the quotation from John McGowan's Democracy's Children included in this post). And that leads me to wonder how far I agree with that same commenter when s/he asks why academic literary specialists should be expected to write for a general audience any more than "specialists in quantum mechanics" should be expected to "write up their research in such a way that fans of Stephen Hawking can understand it." It does seem to me that there are important differences between literature and quantum mechanics as areas of study, though pinning them down at all (much less in an uncontroversial or tendentious way) may be challenging. I guess I'd start by pointing out that the texts we study in 'lit departments' typically originate as acts of communication aimed at readers or other forms of a general audience, not scholars, often with urgent purposes (whether aesthetic, social, political, or other). I realize that this does not at all render them inappropriate objects of study or theory--but it does mean that non-scholars have a different relationship with our primary materials than with subatomic particles. Does this justify such vitriolic response to our professional work? Not at all, but it may be the seed of at least a preliminary explanation for it, and some justification for making sure at least some of our work reaches beyond the academy.

Update: There's more, and no better. And these are readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education website, not Guns and Ammo or something, though it appears that they visit the site only to fan the flames of their antipathies:

It is in academia where you DO NOT find down to earth people. It is academia the home of obnoxious, arrogants who can not read for pleasure but can destroy a good book or poem through stupid literary criticism.
Most academic critics are irrelevant because they publish enough for the world to know what they think and how they think.
I understand why people interested in a reasoned discussion are not jumping in over there, but what's a girl gotta do to get some discussion going on over here? (September 10)


Anonymous said...

Freedom to rant? :) I'm 26, and criticisms of current academic practice make me wonder what it was like, back in the olden days, when literary criticism was supposedly not as 'theoretical', shall we say, a time in which literary critics catered to readers who could appreciate a good book rather than ritics' trying to impress one another... a time when people revered literature professors as the wardens of high culture instead of demonizing them as crusaders for pop & pulp? How golden was the golden era of academic literary criticism really?

Now, I do believe that the dogma "to make it new" changed academic literary criticism for the worse, for outsiders as well as insiders. The idea that literary criticism has to produce new insights on books that have been read again and again and again for hundreds of years has lead academics (a) to resort more and more often to desperate measures, such as the use of dubious research rhetoric to cover up the fact that they haven't really produced new or interesting insights, and (b) to neglect their role as educators. I suspect a lot of academics would love to play the part of the expert in a renaissancy-humanistic sense -- well-read, eloquent, treasure hoards of knowledge, wardens of aesthetic taste, all that jazz -- as opposed to being a expert-specialist for some tiny little research niche. However, the "make it new" dogma doesn't allow for the renaissance-type of critic any more, because general knowledge of literature is no longer a tradeable good in academia (or is it? has it ever been?). So these critics are relegated to blogs and other publication venues. And I think that's a pity; after all, "make it new" doesn't just mean make it new, but make it new as well -- that is to say, take what's there and cast it in a new form, bring it to the table again, paraphrase it in your own words, get people to talk about it, discover a new facet of the subject you and your readers haven't really grasped yet. Literature is a living experience, and experiences do not become old all of a sudden just because some critic from the 1920s has written a definitive monograph on the subject: literature has to be re-experienced, and these re-experiences have to be articulated again, and again, and again. Your blog, for example, "makes it new" -- if nothing else, for yourself and most of your readers (me definitely). And in my opinion, this simple fact about literature is being suppressed in current academic practice. End of rant.

Toast said...

Not sure what anonymous wants to say, but "make it new" is a pretty oldfangled slogan -- Ezra Pound wrote that almost a century ago, and he was not thinking about giving folks a renaissancy-humanist living experience of the great works; he was all about knocking that kind of Romantic blather on the head.

In any case, I wanted to respond to the point Rohan makes, that "there are important differences between literature and quantum mechanics as areas of study ... the texts we study in 'lit departments' typically originate as acts of communication aimed at readers or other forms of a general audience, not scholars, often with urgent purposes (whether aesthetic, social, political, or other)." That is certainly the case, but think about some other fields of study: psychology, anthropology, or economics. All those fields of study take as their objects actions and interactions that are thoroughly everyday and non-academic. Scholars in those fields feel no qualms about discussing ordinary human actions in terms that are vastly more complex and theoretical than the lay reader is qualified to understand. And they seldom have to answer for it. Our task as literary critics is not to reinforce the common pleasures of reading and our task as educators is not to teach students how to enjoy those pleasures or indulge them in the classroom. That is the fantasy of people who believe that university education is nothing more than refining the palates of people who will soon have the leisure and money to spend their idle hours imagining themselves as amateur Wordsworths or Walter Raleighs. We seek to promote literacy, from basic levels to the very advanced and we do not hamper or damage the common pleasures in any way, in fact we participate in them ravenously -- as you demonstrate with your blogging.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I think the first commenter was picking up my own casual use of the phrase 'make it new' in another post, and the distinction s/he draws between the challenge of saying something new or different at a professional level (i.e. something publishable) and the work of making literature newly meaningful for students or other readers is a good one.

I'd be happier with a definition of my task as a literary critic and an educator if it did not (as yours seems to) characterize finding or cultivating "common pleasures" as strictly an after-hours or amateur activity. Aesthetic engagement is a complex and worthwhile project, surely, that need not be reduced to "refining the palates." Isn't part of our task to reinforce and then build on, enhance, complicate, and question the common pleasures of reading? Is pleasure always/only an indulgence? Isn't introducing students to new literary pleasures one among many goals most of us have in the classroom?

As you say, there are other fields that take up ordinary activities, but, as you also say, "they seldom [ever? I wonder] have to answer for it." Part of what I'm wondering about is why not.

Toast said...

The reason that those other fields don't often have to answer for their scholarly activities is partly because they don't make the mistake that you sometimes (and other anti-academics more frequently) make of assuming that appreciation and sophisticated analysis are inimical to one another. When I refer to "common pleasures," I mean that fraudulent idea that there is a kind of reading that is commonsensical, unencumbered by politics, and distinct from the otherworldly jargoneering of wicked academic criticism. Critics and readers who see themselves as participating in this kind of reading that is "living" and free of "meta" solipsism are fooling themselves. Cynthia Ozick and her pals are just as obscurist and elitist in their relationship to the everyday as any academic critic. More so, in fact; academic scholars are in constant contact with inexperienced and ordinary readers. We don't stop those readers from enjoying common or uncommon pleasures. We enable appreciation as well as interpretation. Writers, on the other hand, love to retreat to writers' colonies where they can produce their wondrous works without having to endure workaday reality.

I don't suggest for a moment that pleasure has no place in the classroom. I am infuriated by the idea of readerly pleasure that spurns complexity, history, and politics as harmful to the reading experience. These assaults on academic criticism have nothing to do with improving literary culture or making reading more pleasurable. They are symptoms of unexamined anti-intellectualism, refusal to acknowledge privilege, and nostalgia for a comforting literary world that never existed. If English departments need to be shut down because some or many academic critics write badly, then I would suggest that the literature industry is even more ready for demolition. It produces mountains of garbage every year. Those who stand on top of that pile should look at what it's composed of before they tell us our little mound is less than pristine.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Toast-- You say, "The reason that those other fields don't often have to answer for their scholarly activities is partly because they don't make the mistake that you sometimes (and other anti-academics more frequently) make of assuming that appreciation and sophisticated analysis are inimical to one another."

Who's "they" in this scenario--the academics or their prospective critics in the wider public?

For the fields you mentioned before--psychology, anthropology, economics--who is out there arguing in favour of "appreciation"? What would "appreciation" of their objects of study look like? I still see a difference between these fields and literary study in that I can't think of an 'amateur' alternative to their professional versions. One of our problems (or, one of the problems people have with us) is that superficially, our chief activity looks just like what anyone does with a book--except it's not actually, as anyone who ventures into the scholarly realm quickly learns. And in fact, many academics do look down on those who approach the process unselfconsciously--you say yourself you are "infuriated" at those who do not share your own more complex understanding of "readerly pleasure," for instance. So, again, there's a grain of truth in the complaints against us, as in many ways we send the message that ordinary readers are doing an inadequate (or worse) job at an activity they both enjoy and value. I suppose we can simply dismiss these complaints, and I'm sure you're right that some of them are driven by "anti-intellectualism" and some by "nostalgia," but I don't think this is true of all of them (there are serious academics, after all, who make some similar complaints). And one of the things I'm trying to think about is whether the fact that we do have a kind of "shared ownership" of literature with its broader public should encourage us to respond to these criticisms in some way, whether to demystify our practice or theirs. You're right that we are in constant contact with ordinary readers, but--assuming you mean in the classroom--that's already a fairly privileged and selective group.

Just to be clear, I don't at all see "appreciation and sophisticated analysis" as inimical to each other, though I often don't appreciate some of what passes for sophisticated analysis today. :-)

Toast said...

But you do see appreciation and sophisticated analysis as inimical — every time you read my responses as value judgments about the quality of non-academic reading practices, every time you imply that "shared ownership" of literature means we might be poor stewards of our property, and especially when you continue to maintain that literary scholars ought to have a special relationship to their object of study that no other discipline requires. All of these examples cede ground to the poisonous idea that certain types of reading damage other types of reading or even literature itself. They do not, not in any way. We are not different from other branches of the humanities; just like them we study things that have a role in human life and culture. A Psychologist tries to explain why a shoe may provoke erotic desire; a literary scholar tries to explain why love and death seem to coincide in American novels. The only real change we wreak on the texts we study is to ensure that texts continue to be published and read that would probably otherwise vanish from print.

Readers who don't enjoy scholarly criticism don't have to read it. Students who are expected to read it in the classroom are taking part in a specialized activity that cannot ruin their appreciation of literature. It might bore them or upset them, but pretty much any class can do that. The regular student complaint that a professor has spoiled the text is just another variant on this pernicious lament that you're indulging. The professor has not spoiled any text, simply taken up some time that the student might have spent differently. The student who voices that complaint demonstrates in doing so that she has not absorbed any of the corrupting influence of that professor.

In passing, the classroom is not a particularly privileged community, really not more so than the community of people who own computers and participate in literary blogging. And this too: my whole involvement in this debate began when I objected to your complaint about meta-criticism. I noted in my first post, and I'll note again: it seems that just about all you do is meta-criticism.

My main motivation in writing these posts has been to defend the work I do against a variety of attack that is wrong, pernicious, and has consequences that are entirely unrelated to the health of literature and reading. You are lucky enough to catch my scolding because you are one of our number, yet you grant substance to accusations that are both false and serve our profession very poorly. The political will to eliminate literary studies from university curricula altogether is frighteningly strong and I'm begging you to stop offering nourishment to that will.

Although you have refrained from calling me an elitist, you have repeatedly implied that I look with contempt on readers I perceive to be beneath me. To distinguish my reading activities from non-scholarly reading activities with the term "ordinary" or "everyday" indicates no such contempt. There is nothing elitist about complex analysis phrased in difficult language. Elites are conglomerations of power and wealth and the principle that academic criticism is elitist serves specifically to mask the locations and actions of genuine power. It's a variation on the claim that political correctness is somehow oppressive. It is not and I am not a member of any kind of elite.

Please stop paying lip service to accusations that are based on false assumptions. We do not have to apologize constantly for pursuing challenging arguments about texts that are themselves endlessly challenging. We do not even have to apologize when our arguments or our techniques fail us. We do not have to equivocate over the way we view non-scholarly readers and readings. We are not harming anyone or anything, unless we choose to harm ourselves.

I know that your yourself feel attacked by my vociferous responses, and more importantly by what you perceive to be hostility within academia to your approach to criticism. But it is a terrible mistake to take that conflict into a public forum and connect it to this other, much more virulent, hostility. You only provide aid and comfort to attackers who are ultimately just as hostile to your variety of critical practice as to mine. That's like inviting a gangster to help you with a schoolyard rivalry. Our profession, our discipline, is in retreat already and our annihilation will not do literature any good, nor the culture/cultures as a whole.

Rohan Maitzen said...


I don’t feel attacked, but I do feel that your anger and vehemence are out of proportion to the occasion. The hardest thing to control in exchanges like this is tone: I think you may have misread mine at times as being more combative than was intended. I think, too, that perhaps you are reacting to me as a symptom of something larger (about which you are clearly deeply concerned) rather than reacting more locally to what I’ve actually said. I don’t know if we can come to a better understanding (or if you are even interested in doing so, particularly given your dislike of this public forum), but I would like to hazard a reply to at least some parts of your impassioned post.

First, here’s what you’d said in your previous posts about ‘common pleasures’: ‘Our task as literary critics is not to reinforce the common pleasures of reading and our task as educators is not to teach students how to enjoy those pleasures or indulge them in the classroom’ (September 11 comment, emphasis added); ‘When I refer to "common pleasures," I mean that fraudulent idea that there is a kind of reading that is commonsensical, unencumbered by politics, and distinct from the otherworldly jargoneering of wicked academic criticism. Critics and readers who see themselves as participating in this kind of reading that is "living" and free of "meta" solipsism are fooling themselves’ (September 12 comment, emphasis added); ‘I am infuriated by the idea of readerly pleasure that spurns complexity, history, and politics as harmful to the reading experience’ (September 12 comment, emphasis added). Perhaps it is wrong to read these as ‘value judgments about the quality of non-academic reading practices’ (September 14 comment), but you can see, I hope, how you could have given that impression. (It may be that you meant to direct these value judgments solely against academics who you think are ‘fooling themselves’ in these ways.)

As for your larger concerns, I think that the ‘grain of truth’ I have acknowledged in the complaints against academic criticism is not much nourishment for the enemy you fear; they certainly have much less ambivalent allies in much more public places, some of whom also are of “our number.” Part of what I meant to advocate in this particular post was a more concerted attempt on our part to refute the virulent attacks that are out there in the public domain by (as I said in my September 14 comment) ‘demystifying our practice or theirs,’ by which I meant both doing more to explain ourselves to the public that might see something like Ozick’s essay and have no ideas of their own about our work to counter it, and (similarly) trying to explain to a wider audience than our classroom audience how what many readers consider transparent or ‘innocent’ or non-political assumptions about literature are not (or not self-evidently) these things. As I said before, we have the option of just ignoring or dismissing criticisms of the sort I quoted, but is this our best strategy, even if--maybe especially if--we are already in retreat? Maybe, but aren’t there also risks in leaving them unanswered, at least when they come from high-profile sources in a mainstream publication such as Harper’s? We might both agree that head-shaking over the water cooler at work has not been the best response for academics if our aim is drumming up support or generating understanding among 'outsiders.'

I meant to be exploring, not maintaining, the idea that there are differences between our objects of study and those of other academic disciplines. Your comments on this have been helpful so far; I asked further questions not to be combative but because I felt the difference I had initially proposed had not yet been satisfactorily refuted (I’m still wondering: do people have the same kind of relationship with their shoes that they have with their books?). I raised these questions initially in the specific context of trying to figure out why non-academics feel so strongly about us, and even having proposed what seemed a plausible ‘seed’ for their hostility, I rejected it as grounds for attacking us in this way. If by ‘paying lip service’ you mean that I am granting these attacks more credibility than I actually think they have, for polemical or other purposes of my own, I think that’s not true. I’m just not assuming that there’s nothing for us to think or worry about when people say things like this about us, or that the only appropriate response is to ignore them. Of course I may be wrong about this strategically, but there’s nothing deliberately disingenuous about it. Probably I would dismiss them utterly, as I gather you do, as not deserving any reply, if I had no doubts myself about any aspects of our professional work. Even if I had no such doubts, though, I think the question of the best strategy for rebutting vitriolic or even just dismissive public attacks on our profession (such as those in Camille Paglia’s interview in the Globe and Mail this weekend) would still be open to debate. In context, I don’t think my metaphor of “shared ownership” implies anything about the quality of our “stewardship”--it certainly was not meant to; it was another step in my attempt to think through the triangular relationship of literary works, professional readers, and other readers, and I followed it not by suggesting we needed to change our practice but by suggesting that we need to explain it better to those who misunderstand and resent it. I’m certainly not asking for help from the likes of the Footnoted commentors or from Cynthia Ozick or the others I quoted in this post; as I think my post (and earlier ones too) makes clear, I’m puzzling over what I think is their misguided and excessive hostility towards us, and wondering how best to respond.

I find your closing sections very troubling in their “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric. I think (and I hope) that you don’t mean that being “one of our number” (by which I’m assuming you mean an English professor) means no dissent from some imagined uniformity of outlook on how our discipline should do its work, or a rigid adherence to current critical models and norms (this would be an oddly ahistorical view of English studies, for one thing, and would overlook the very wide variety of critical, political, and other viewpoints held by our colleagues). I think you are primarily concerned about my expressing my dissatisfactions publicly, but I honestly don’t see why I have given you such cause for concern. As I say above, there are other far more prominent “anti-academics” (though I don’t really accept that label for myself), including many in our own discipline, and many far less ambivalent than I, or for that matter many less inclined to defend us against public attacks. Further, many debates involving far more participants than this one have ‘aired’ on much better-known and more widely read blogs, in many journals (including peer-reviewed ones), and in books that have received a lot of publicity (in the New York Times Book Review just this week there’s yet another article on the canon wars). That dirty laundry, or family quarrel, or however you want to characterize it, has already gone public. Professionals disagree with each other; it’s not unprofessional for them to do so. Is our profession so imperiled that we should do so only behind closed doors? But in any case the barn door has been wide open for years and the horse is way out there on the streets. If you could, would you stop all English professors from participating in these public and well-publicized discussions unless they took a strictly “whatever is, is right” attitude?

Is it the blog format that worries you particularly? It’s true that it does (or can) lend itself to off-the-cuff remarks or moments of venting exasperation that achieve a longer half-life than they are due because they get ‘published’ and thus, occasionally, circulated. I have been guilty of one or two such moments, but I don’t think this particular inquiry into why people are mad at literary critics falls into that category or works against our professional reputation or survival. I also don’t think the overall gist of my blog--its general character or purpose--does either. I have often expressed admiration for critics (academic or not) who put their specialized knowledge and expertise into compelling and accessible form (Denis Donoghue and James Wood, for example, but also Jane Smiley and Nick Hornby). I have frequently objected to what I see as unfair negative characterizations of literary criticism and literary academics. I have done some things to clarify, for those who don’t know, just what an English professor is typically up to, in the classroom and in her reading (for work and for leisure). I have also aired some of my own complaints about aspects or varieties of contemporary criticism that I don’t like. Some of this has been done quickly, some of it with great care--that unevenness is, to some degree, in the nature of this genre, as those who write in it and about it often point out. It’s true that I can’t be sure people who tune in for one post will pay any attention to the rest of what becomes, over time, a kind of archive of ideas-in-progress. But how different is this from someone picking up a book and citing it selectively? And bad ideas and arguments (or disputed ones) in a blog can accrete rebuttals and criticisms in a way that books and articles don’t (some who write about blogging have suggested that the form moves towards a kind of post-publication peer-review).

I have actually not felt attacked by “hostility within the academy to [my] approach to criticism," partly I expect because that “approach” has been pretty eclectic over the years, meaning that I have not (as far as I know) been pigeonholed as a particular kind of critic, and partly because many people I exchange ideas with in the academy are also interested in or concerned about the kinds of things I’ve been talking about on this blog. I’ve responded at length here to show that I have taken your objections seriously. I don’t know if my response will satisfy or reassure you in any way, or if in some way I haven’t anticipated I will have made you more, rather than less, upset. Of course, I hope I have not.

Notabene said...

Thanks for your blog and this interesting exchange.

Seems to me that you are engaging in an old debate over how literature is best taught…through close, exclusive reading of the texts, or through the examination of extra textual influences, with the argument centering on the degree to which one approach is emphasized over the other. New Criticism versus author intent/biography and all the isms…deconstructionism, post structuralism, structuralism, Marxism, Feminism, Colonialism, etc…
I prefer to emphasize the former. I think the best critics, academic and public, do too. What is objectionable is not that these extra textual influences are examined, but rather that they 1) often tend to take precedence over evident texts , and 2) are frequently written in poor, jargon-clogged, nonsensical language. Much of it is just dogmatic, hermetically sealed, intellectual onanism.
What I find interesting is that two of the greatest academic literary critics of the 20th Century, Frank Kermode and Harold Bloom, both eschewed this kind of language early on in favour of limpid, concise, logical prose. As a result they both became famous public critics. I’ve got a few ideas on why this happened, posted here ( and in several subsequent posts.
If academics are concerned about reaching audiences outside the classroom, all they have to do is follow the example of these two formidable teachers.

Rohan Maitzen said...


Thanks for the comment and for directing me to your posts on related topics too. I'm glad you like the blog; I've been poking around your interesting site already and am looking forward to spending more time there.