"An Actual Literary Critic"?

Thanks to Dan Green for pointing us to this thoughtful piece on James Wood. Though I have read only some of Wood’s extensive critical output, I have certainly been impressed at both his compelling close reading and his commitment to taking literature and its forms and effects seriously; as I mostly share his apparent prejudices in favour of realism, character, and moral seriousness, I don’t really mind what DG calls his ‘aesthetic conservatism’ (frankly, in these “everything’s a text” days, I find it refreshing) and I’m certainly in sympathy with the idea that whatever his prejudices, the ‘evangelical zeal’ he brings to his criticism raises the level of the debate for all of us. As usual, I find myself fretting when I read comments like this:

In a world in which it seems that every year there are fewer and fewer readers, perhaps any serious dialogue about what makes good literature good and bad literature bad is, after all, good. In an interview, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist of The Hours (and director of the program where I am pursuing an MFA in fiction) Michael Cunningham said that “in the scattershot climate of contemporary literary criticism,” he is thankful for “an actual literary critic.”

I guess that makes a lot of us ‘virtual’ literary critics? But I think I understand the standard Cunningham is invoking here. If you conceive of a critic as someone with a public role, a kind of intellectual and literary intermediary between writers and their broadest audience, there’s no doubt that most academic critics do not fit this model. Most histories of criticism acknowledge that ‘once upon a time’ the situation was different; here’s Brian McRae, for instance, from Addison and Steele are Dead:

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.

Of course, writers of this history vary in their attitudes, some celebrating, some accepting, and some deploring the development of today’s highly specialized, professionalized ‘discipline’ of literary criticism. But there’s no doubt that one result of it is that academic criticism has become largely uninteresting and irrelevant to a lot of readers. Most of the time we do write for a kind of ‘virtual’ world, hoping that some day someone will happen across our small contribution to some sub-field and find it valuable. I’ve been challenged before to explain why our scholarly work should be expected to appeal to non-specialists when the research of academics in other fields is not. I’m still thinking about this question, which I still believe is not adequately answered by pointing to current disciplinary norms or professional demands.

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