Again with the metacriticism? Time to get on with it.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the fairly new site ARCADE developed by (and, it seems, primarily for) folks at Stanford. It’s an ambitious and complicated site; it’s interesting to me in part because it organizes and institutionalizes some of the usually more freewheeling features of “Web 2.0,” particularly blogging. I don’t much like the feel of things over there for just that reason: it takes the fun out, somehow, when there’s an editorial board rather than a blogroll. It also doesn’t seem as if the Arcade folks are much interested in linking up with the rest of the existing blogosphere–and there’s not much sign, either, that they have trawled around in it, including in its archives, to see how they might add to conversations that have gone on already, or to contextualize their site and its intentions against, say, key statements about academic blogging such as John Holbo’s launch post for The Valve. I think it would be a bigger draw for people who have been blogging for a while if its contributors seemed interested in what’s been going on in this form for the last several years. Of course it’s their place, and of course they can do what they want. It’s just a bit wearing to see posts like the latest one by Gregory Jusdanis called “Professors are from Mars, Journalists are from Pluto” and see that it sets up the same dance around the same maypole we’ve been around before. Indeed, this is the same set of concerns that got me started in blogging in the first place–so my objection is not that the questions about the relationship between academic criticism and what Jusdanis calls “journalistic” criticism aren’t important or interesting. I also know better than to pretend that my own forays into this territory were groundbreaking: for me, as for Jusdanis, presumably, a time just came when I wanted to think about the purpose and audience of literary criticism, to understand and contextualize my own dissatisfaction with the academic ‘research’ culture that (as a number of the professional histories I went on to read make very clear) is the result of a range of forces many of which have little to do with literature and a lot to do with economic and institutional developments. I think a lot of literary academics look sort of wistfully out of their office windows and wish their career hadn’t led them so far away from the wider public conversation about books and culture; they publish in dryasdust peer-reviewed journals but linger over the TLS and the NYRB hoping that some day they will write something that people will read by choice, not because they need to fill out their own list of works cited. And a lot of them (Jusdanis and me both included) look at James Wood and wonder why he has the cultural authority–even, as far as this is possible for a book critic–the celebrity, while their hard-earned credentials (and believe me, I appreciate that they are hard to earn) earn them no ‘street cred’ at all. In fact, as I was surprised to discover, holding a Ph.D. in literature is as likely to make non-academics resent your input on their reading (or worse) as seek it out.

So I am in sympathy with Jusdanis’s desire to explore the differences between what “we” do and what “they” do…except that I’ve been exploring that for some time, including looking pretty closely at books of criticism for general readers by both academics and non-academics. I’m not complaining that Jusdanis has not looked at any of my previous posts on this–though he might have looked around, as I tried to do as I was getting underway, to see who else is talking about these questions. Blogging is all about the linking, and I think he’ll find it’s a livelier and more varied conversation than he presupposes in all of his generalizations about what “we” do (some of us are, actually, “attuned to the language and style of those who make their living by writing literary criticism” and do not at all “prefer our colorless cell of functional writing”). But for me, now, having done this dance before, I don’t think I want to do it again. One of my earliest posts (and one of my snarkiest ones) was a lament about the infinite regress of metacriticism that characterizes so much academic work today. That wasn’t my finest moment as a blogger, but the claustrophobia it expressed continues to overwhelm me when I open another scholarly book and contemplate the obligatory ‘methodology’ discussion. We call this ‘rigor,’ and it is, in a way, but its value to our understanding of literary texts is not self-evident. Will I read Jane Eyre wrong, somehow, if I haven’t cleared a way through the lumber-room of recent criticism on the Brontes before hazarding an opinion? The risk is rather that I will fail to acknowledge or respond to someone else’s argument about what the novel means or how it works, but that’s a rather different thing. The debates may be interesting, but often they are more revealing about divisions or trends in academic criticism than about the works in question, so we’re inevitably talking both to and about each other. No wonder ‘outsiders’ don’t care. Frankly, I’m not that interested in us anymore, and I’m certainly not interested in scrabbling around to find some new angle on Jane Eyre or Middlemarch in the manner of what I’ve called the pickle approach to criticism. At this point 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.

It has been surprising and exciting to me to realize how blinkered I was about non-academic book culture, and chastening to realize how little use my own specialized reading has been as preparation to join in. At the same time, I think it’s true (as Jusdanis implies) that the academic habits of research and argumentation, the contextual knowledge accumulated through years of study and teaching, and the years of experience as a writer and editor, are, in other ways, valuable preparation, if only I can learn to ‘wear’ them lightly enough. Jusdanis is right that it is “hard to shift up and down.” Despite my three years of practising here on this blog, for instance, where I have self-consciously tried to free myself to write in a more personal way, my review of Jane’s Fame for Open Letters is (as the editors pointed out) “straightforward”–I should feel free, they said pleasantly, “to digress.” I know what they mean: I read with admiration and envy some of the pieces by, say, Lydia Kiesling at The Millions (this one, for instance), or, to look to OLM for an example, something like Sam Sacks’s review of Andre Aciman’s Eight White Nights–what a beautiful balance they achieve of personal revelation or response, reflective commentary, and precise analysis. But digression, personal revelation, even visceral response are all typically anathema to the conventions of academic criticism. I have some academic projects on the go, and it’s essential to me professionally (I think) that I keep working on them. But I’m also going to set myself some other goals that take me outside my critical comfort zone in a more deliberate way than my blog posts do–though they will likely begin as, or appear in, posts along the way. I’m thinking of a phrase in an essay by Lee Edwards: she concludes the essay by saying that Middlemarch is no longer one of the ‘books of her life.’ That specific conclusion is, of course, unacceptable to me! But I like the idea of the ‘books of our lives.’ What are mine, and what will I say about them? Stay tuned!

Image from Women Working, 1800-1930(Open Collections Program, Harvard University Library) (Digitized historical, manuscript, and image resources selected from Harvard University’s library and museum collections that explore women’s roles in the US economy between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the Great Depression)

13 Comments to Again with the metacriticism? Time to get on with it.

  1. June 2, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Agreed re: Arcade. I imagine they’ll figure out blogging eventually, but at the moment the rhetoric of that post just seems so organically connected to the larger obliviousness to the blogosphere it demonstrates. A post bemoaning how it needn’t be so that blissfully ignores all the places where it *isn’t* so just seems so, I don’t know, symptomatic.

    Without making any speculations about that author in particular, I would make the more general observations that a great many academics who make this kind of complaint are really saying something more like “why don’t the popular presses want to publish me?” and tend to hold what the popular presses *do* want to publish in such low esteem as to perpetuate the divide. And maybe they’re right to do so, which is why the whole argument is so stale; there are real reasons why that divide exists, and I’m not convinced all of them are bad (though I certainly share your “books of my life” sense of vocation).

  2. June 2, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I know just how you feel. It was always my great guiding intention to take what I’d learned academically and make something intriguing and engaging out of it. That’s the real joy of blogging – the replacement of methodology with a richer blend of heart and mind. I couldn’t get through the opening salvo at The Valve because it had that academic mania running through it of chasing the last droplet of argument around the bowl, although I know what has been done there since is often impressive.

    I tend to feel that the great discipline of blogging is that it is a short form. Whereas academics tend to go on (and on) for far too long, in the rigorous hope that everything should be said, even when everything doesn’t need to be said. Well, I am on a break at the moment and hoping to return in the autumn with a new approach to reading about books as I was tiring of the old one. Good luck to you, Rohan, as you move forward. I appreciate you hugely for tackling the in-between ground with integrity and zeal.

  3. June 2, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    The interesting thing is that wider pushes for “relevance” including pressures on universities to recognize work that speaks to an audience beyond the discipline and even academia may support the kind of openness to different ways of working that you desire.

  4. steve donoghue's Gravatar steve donoghue
    June 2, 2010 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    Ah, the books of our lives! I often think every single passionate reader in the world ought to sit down in front of their bookshelves with a pad of paper and a pencil and LIST the books of their lives. The real heart-wood of their personal reading. I think it would be fascinating (and probably hold a few surprises). I don’t think a person can have more than about 15 such books -the true lifesavers, life-definers, the load-bearing supports.

    I stand ready to name – and praise, right there on Stevereads for all the world to see! – my 15 if anybody will join me!

  5. June 3, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    This is lovely. It may sound strange, but I had very similar reasons for leaving the science “academy.” Although the disciplines are different, the main problems are more similar than one might expect.

    Anyhow, I liked your review of Jane’s Fame . Although I also like the tone of the two reviews you linked to, I would say that the distinction is also about levels of formality instead of only levels of personal-ness.

  6. June 3, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    That’s an interesting comment about the sciences, Maire. I wouldn’t have quite expected that, and yet I realize some of the institutional factors are necessarily the same.

    You’re right about formality being one of the differences between my review and the others. I’m basically pleased with the review I wrote: it’s a pretty good example of the kind of piece it is, if that makes sense. What I realize now, though, is that my assumption about the kind of thing it could or should be was kind of narrow. But then, the book itself is pretty straightforward and didn’t evoke any particular personal response, so maybe it just wasn’t the occasion for a different kind of writing, not by me, anyway. If I were an avid ‘Janeite’ (or the opposite) I might have been differently inspired.

  7. June 4, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post, Rohan.

    I had a certain moment of recognition in your comment about academics who linger over NYRB while dutifully working on filling out Works Cited articles for peer-reviewed journals that no one will read (except perhaps for others filling out their own Works Cited).

    Sigh. Back to my Works Cited.

  8. June 4, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post, Rohan. I’ve liked James Wood in The New Yorker, but I didn’t find his How Fiction Works as useful as Harold Blooom’s How to Read and Why – perhaps the why makes the difference. But I wonder if Wood is in the tradition of Updike and Edmund Wilson. I still enjoy reading Wilson, and find him relevant and useful. Also, with regard to your point that linking is important, I wonder if you’ve followed the Nicholas Carr discussion on de-linking (I think it’s silly, but an interesting aside). It’s here: http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2010/05/experiments_in.php
    Finally, if yr still looking for a movie, you might check out The Visitor, about a veteran academic who has lost his passion – it’s only tangentially on topic here, but a great movie and maybe contains a fundamental truth that drives this discussion but isn’t quite stated.

  9. Amy's Gravatar Amy
    June 6, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Things the Internet needs: a button that I press, and you, the author, can hear my applause.

  10. June 7, 2010 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Amy!

    By way of a follow-up, here’s a hint for anyone in the mood to just get on with it: don’t pick Scott’s The Antiquary as your next book! Sigh. Although there was a duel recently, so things are picking up.

  11. Gregory Jusdanis's Gravatar Gregory Jusdanis
    June 16, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    As the author of the piece in ARCADE that Rohan Maitzen commented on , I want to add a few words. First of all, Rohan Maitzen, I appreciate your observations. Yes, some of us are new to this world of blogging and I, at least, have much to learn. But as I read over the responses to the piece, I was disappointed to see the usual criticism of academic writing.

    I tried to bring across the idea that a divide has existed for some time between how academics write about literature and how people in the popular press approach the matter. Yet, the authors posting their comments seem to put the blame entirely on the academy, bringing forth the usual and by now tired accusations (footnotes, works-cited section etc). Yes, there are certain conventions to academic presentation. But does this make it irrelevant? Can anyone believe that Derrida, a notoriously difficult writer, has not had any influence because he writes in a style understood primarily by academics? I am sorry to say that there is a certain anti-intellectualism in many criticisms of the academy.

    What I tried to argue in my Arcade post is that the divide in literary criticism has much to do with the professionalization and compartmentalization of modern life (an argument I develop more fully in my Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature, 2010). Blogging may certainly help this but it does really address the problem of literature today, a problem that has to do with wider cultural and social developments: the decline in the importance of print, the loss of prestige for high culture, the gradual disappearance of the class that had created literature as a category and so on, change in reading habits, the rise of the web and so on.

    Complaining about academics, does nothing to counteract these developments. If only academics alone could be responsible for the situation of literature today!

  12. June 17, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Gregory, thanks for weighing in. Speaking at least for myself, blame is irrelevant. I certainly understand your point about the ‘divide’ between academic writing and other kinds of critical writing. The reasons you give (professionalization etc.) are entirely plausible and are consistent with the ones others have given, including those I wrote about in the post at The Valve linked to in this post (on criticism in/and the public sphere) and more recent commentators like Louis Menand. I don’t disagree; I’m just less interested, at this point, in doing (or reading) any more description, analysis, or theorizing about that divide and its causes, consequences, benefits, and hazards than I am in finding a critical voice that feels to me both rigorous and relevant.

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