The Dead (Critics, That Is)

Dan Green alerts us to William Deresiewicz’s essay “Professing Literature in 2008” in The Nation, in which the author draws some dire conclusions about the profession of English literature from the evidence of this year’s MLA job listings:

This year’s Job List confirms the picture of a profession suffering from an epochal loss of confidence. It’s not just the fear you can smell in the postings. It’s the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990. Nor has any major new star–a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold Bloom–emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a sense of intellectual adventure. The job market’s long-term depression has deepened the mood. Most professors I know discourage even their best students from going to graduate school; one actually refuses to talk to them about it. This is a profession that is losing its will to live.

Twenty years after Professing Literature, the “conflicts” still exist, but given the larger context in which they’re taking place, they scarcely matter anymore. The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.

I’ve also just finished reading Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic–hmm, suddenly I don’t feel so well! Both authors present their material in what strikes me as an unfortunately tendentious way. Deresiewicz, for instance, in arguing that the “profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers,” apparently does not entertain the possibility that departments might be genuinely embracing the priorities he sees reflected in the latest wave of job ads, rather than cravenly appeasing their undergraduates. McDonald similarly attributes most changes in critical practice to everything but the conviction that the method in question might have intrinsic merit, as when, discussing the establishment of English “as a university discipline” in the early 20th century, he says that the critics of the time “sought to imbue [English] with some procedural and disciplinary muscle” (89). No doubt showing that English could have “procedural and disciplinary muscle” was crucial to proving its academic credibility, but McDonald repeatedly implies the primacy of self-interest over scholarly commitment–a move which in turn bespeaks a hermeneutics of suspicion on his part to match any he might point to in ‘cultural studies.’ Both of these writers, in other words, seem to consider their colleagues and peers singularly unprincipled and opportunistic–or (a bit more generously, as they might prefer to be interpreted) they see them as particularly susceptible to fads because they lack foundational commitments (Deresiewicz) or have tried too hard for too long to appear what they are not, namely scientists (McDonald).

Still, both Deresiewicz and McDonald are describing features of this profession (historically and currently) recognizable to anyone working within it, even if we might quarrel over how they are characterized or explained. That priorities in teaching and scholarship have changed often, sometimes dramatically, is not news; neither is it a revelation that English as a discipline seems particularly prone to self-doubt, internal convulsions, and obsessive self-scrutiny and meta-criticism. Is it on its death-bed, though? In my own department we are going through yet another round of curriculum reform–the third or fourth since I was hired just over a decade ago. I have come to see we aren’t actually moving towards any final goal but that each such round is part of an ongoing, probably never-ending process driven by many things, from our own changing research interests and strengths to the ever-mutating condition of the ‘canon’ of material and methods we feel responsible for presenting and the fluctuating needs and interests of an evolving student population. How far is this instability a symptom of disease, and how far is it a healthy process, warding off stagnation and sustaining our connection with a wider (and itself endlessly evolving) life outside the academy? To be honest, at different times I have felt both ways about it myself, depending on just what’s on the table and how closely I am involved! Overall, though, surely it does not make sense to expect talk about literature to be the same now as it was 10, 20, or 50 years ago. Neither Deresiewicz nor McDonald provides particularly convincing evidence for the conclusion that criticism (as either a practice or a profession) is in a far worse state right now that at other times, and the pressure they both apparently feel towards polemical generalization means they obscure all kinds of qualifications and nuances as well as many potential signs of life.

That said, there are certainly some features of McDonald’s argument with which I do find myself in sympathy, or which ring changes on themes that have preoccupied me for some time. Key among these is his interest in closing, or at least bridging, the gap between “the academic critic and a wider public audience” (ix). Though every history of criticism notes the same phenomenon and agrees with McDonald that it dates more or less from the early 20th century, with the professionalization of literary study and the bifurcation between criticism and literary journalism / reviewing, I think McDonald’s specific diagnosis is distinct: he blames critics’ abandonment of evaluation for the alienation of the wider public:

The question in which the reading public would have taken a primary interest – ‘Is this book / artwork worth my attention and time? Is it of any merit?’ – was not one that exercised the cultural theoretician. (23)

“If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public” (134): this loss and its roots in the history of criticism are the book’s major focus, though McDonald also considers other phenemona that have contributed to the diminished relevance of academic critics, particularly the democratization (or relativization) of criticism, or attitudes towards critical expertise, enabled by new media such as blogs or Amazon-style customer reviews. His focus on evaluation is reiterated in his prescriptive closing section, which calls for a renewed aestheticism and concludes,

Perhaps the critic is not dead, but simply sidelined and slumbering. The first step in reviving him or her is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. ‘Judgement’ is the first meaning of kritos. If criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative. (149)

There seem to be some internal inconsistencies in McDonald’s analysis of criticism’s decline in public significance. His chief grievance with the movements he groups together as ‘cultural studies’ is that they treat literature instrumentally, as a means to other (usually political) ends. On his own account, though, most major critical movements have done some version of this, from promoting or sustaining civil society to “fill[ing] the breach left in religion’s absence” (69), and in fact the whole idea of ‘evaluation’ always has to be grounded in a set of extrinsic standards which (again on McDonald’s own account) have almost never been strictly aesthetic (if such a thing is even possible). Though McDonald believes that emphasizing aestheticism will bring about a “rapprochement between academic and non-academic criticism,” and thus, apparently, between critics and general readers, aesthetic evaluation is surely as problematic as any other kind. Further, McDonald actually praises Virginia Woolf precisely for “enrich[ing] aesthetic formalism with political and gender consciousness” (86)–so Paterian obsession with the immediacy of the aesthetic encounter is presumably not his ideal. So what is it, exactly, that he means to invoke with his mantra of ‘evaluation’? He objects to the levelling effects of considering every cultural artefact equally worthy of critical attention (“To be concerned with everything is, ultimately, to be concerned with nothing” [127]), but he resists the notion of an unchanging canon (“Who would not welcome the rediscovery of unjustly forgotten women writers, or the efforts to hear the voices of the marginalized and disempowered . . . ?” [21]; “the criteria for admission [to the ‘canon’] needed to be renovated . . . ‘quality’ is not an eternal and unchanging facility, but rather one that mutates along with the cultural evolution of a society” [23]). Once you’ve acknowledged the ‘problematics’ of literary judgment, how then are you supposed to answer what he proposes is the common reader’s key question (“Is this book … worth my attention and my time?”)? For what it’s worth, I think most academic critics would in fact be quite happy to answer that question about any book, but first we would all want to develop the question further (along the lines I laid out here, for instance).

Still, I share McDonald’s concern about the isolation of academic expertise from today’s reading culture more generally. I was struck particularly by his note that “Vintage are launching a new series of classical novels to rival Penguin, but they have decided to use journalists and novelists, not academics, to write the ‘Introductions'” (25). If true, this certainly marks a change and a lost opportunity for scholars interested in demonstrating the interest and value of their work to a wider readership. (Journalists and creative writers certainly dominate the book review section of Canada’s “national” newspaper, The Globe and Mail.) I think, too, that he is right to be looking at questions of judgment and how they are understood and articulated as one of the flashpoints for misunderstanding or resentment between academics and other readers. I just don’t see how his prescription to be more evaluative is an adequate response, unless (at the minimum) it is accompanied by a commitment to showing why the question “Is it of any merit?” requires substantial complication before a worthwhile answer is possible. The responsibility here is not all ours: ideally, readers would want, not to be dictated to, but to be engaged in debate worthy of the books they are considering. Imagine a reader who takes this position, for example:

[Great thinkers can] rouse, excite, and elevate our whole natures—set us thinking, and therefore enable us to escape from the fetters of ancient prejudice and worn-out platitude, or make us perceive beauty in external nature, or set before us new ideals of life, to which we should otherwise have been indifferent. But we have to co-operate in the result, if it is to be of any real value. We are not passive buckets to be pumped into . . . mere receptacles for ready-made ideas, but fellow-creatures capable of being roused into independent activity.

Such a reader wants, not to be told whether a book has “any merit” (McDonald’s formulation), but to collaborate in forming a judgment–and accepts responsibility for his or her own “independent activity.” Now there’s a hope to get even the most moribund critic up off her sickbed! (The quotation, by the way, is from Leslie Stephen’s 1881 essay “The Moral Element in Literature.”)

One final note: McDonald points to James Wood as an example of a new wave in critical possibilities, “an avowed evaluative critic of the novel” who has “moved not from academia to journalism . . . but rather from journalism to the university” (147). (In my text, he notes that this is not “the usual root” [sic]–one of many egregious editing errors in the volume, including missing words and faulty punctuation.) Wood is certainly an interesting example of someone who approaches criticism as a serious public task requiring both insight and erudition, judgment and learning. Is the highest standard of criticism, though, to be someone with strong opinions and the erudition to explain them well? Is Wood’s evaluation of novels really what makes his criticism important, or is it his ability to analyze literary particularities while taking into account (as McDonald argues Woolf does) the situatedness of the work in history and life? I would say the latter; even Wood has trouble articulating his standards (such as his foundational assumption that everything valuable in the modern novel begins with Flaubert) without their seeming like prejudices that ultimately add little to our ability to understand and appreciate other kinds (as the exceptions he often admits to in How Fiction Works seems to confirm–oops, for instance, but then there’s Dickens!).

Update: I just noticed John Mullan weighing in (favorably) on McDonald in the TLS here: “there has been something comical about the eagerness of academics to scorn the notion that some books are better than others…” Honestly, (setting aside objections to the incessant pretense that all ‘academics’ speak with one voice), surely these smart, literate people know that “better” is a meaningless measure unless we can explain better at what? You just can’t take the next step in the conversation without refining the question (and simply revising it to “better written” will not do). Shouldn’t readers and critics alike have to scrutinize, articulate, and defend the grounds of their evaluations? And isn’t the conversation itself, as much as (maybe even more than) the conclusion what will be exciting, revealing, instructive? Finally, is it so terrible to take time for something that is interesting or important, even if on some measures you might conclude it is not the best, even of its kind?

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