Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Criticism’s returns

In an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein concludes that literary scholarship has reached the point of “diminishing returns,” and a “redistribution” of efforts is in order, “particularly toward teaching” (h/t: Nigel Beale).

The problem, according to Bauerlein, is that an upsurge in scholarly “productivity”—fueled by universities’ policy of rewarding nothing else—obliged young scholars to look everywhere for an angle, a new and untried “approach” (in the English department’s jargon) to old and sorely tried literary texts, in order to satisfy the traditional scholarly requirement of making an original contribution. Over the past five decades, Bauerlein reports elsewhere, scholarly publications in language and literature have increased fivefold from thirteen thousand to seventy-two thousand a year. At same time, the audience for literary scholarship has shrunk to the vanishing point. Sales of academic books average about three hundred copies per title. What happened? “The audience got bored,” Bauerlein says. But what bored them? Here Bauerlein is somewhat less persuasive.

Some time in the late ’seventies, the conception of criticism as the explication of a difficult text was replaced by the self-inflating notion of criticism as performance. “The old model of the critic as secondary, derivative, even parasitical gave way to the critic as creative and adventuresome,” Bauerlein says. And certainly there is much truth to the complaint that the rise of literary theory led directly to a decline in the quality of literary criticism. Even by the time my own essay on the subject was reprinted in Theory’s Empire in 2004, critics were yawning that the arraignment of literary theorists on the charge of bad writing was fit to drop. Bauerlein himself said the same year that “Outside the tiny group of academic theorists, the question is closed.” Under the influence of theory, literary scholars now write badly, and there’s an end on ’t.

Yet Bauerlein’s history is confused. The real shift that steered criticism away from generally well-educated readers interested in literature but not professionally consumed by it occurred earlier. In fact, the shift can be summed up in Bauerlein’s own phrase: criticism-as-explication. The Anglo-American new criticism, celebrated by John Crowe Ransom as “a kind of literary criticism more intensive than a language has ever known,” spelled the doom of the “life-and-works” essay that was once a staple of general-interest magazines. Historical background and biographical information came to be held as irrelevant to literary criticism, because any claim for their relevance was theoretically incoherent. Prior to a close reading of a text no knowledge of what is necessary for understanding it is even possible, and consequently, the text is the whole context of understanding.

Although the literary theorists who emerged in the late ’seventies declared their independence from the doctrine of “close reading,” and though the next wave of theorists triumphantly announced the arrival of a new historicism in literary criticism, they cleaved as tightly to the close details of a literary text as their predecessors.

It is instructive, for example, to compare the “approaches” of the earliest and most recent full-length critical essays on the same author. In 1923, the University of Chicago professor Percy H. Boynton published a 3,000-word introduction to Edith Wharton in the English Journal. He begins by locating her in the American tradition, relating her to this country’s widening “expression of national self-consciousness”; then he discusses her upbringing, education, travels, and social class and ideals, mentioning four of her first eight books in passing; he devotes about a paragraph apiece in the next section of his essay to The Age of Innocence, The Custom of the Country, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, connecting the books to Wharton’s overarching social themes; and in the last section he delivers a verdict on her “work as a whole,” based primarily on Wharton’s prose style, dialogue, and characterization.

By contrast, last month Nick Bromell published an 8,000-word essay in American Literature comparing Wharton’s House of Mirth to Nella Larsen’s much slighter 1929 novel Passing,

not because they are representative of a historical moment or because they constitute an instructive genealogy, but because they have a striking power to engage readers in a perplexing problem of democracy. That is, they not only depict the “practices of listening” undertaken by their characters, but they also require such practices of their readers, schooling us to perform better than the characters by understanding what they do not: that knowing others means knowing them through—and not just despite or in terms of—their differences. Indeed, it is in the felt experience of their readers that these novels most fully activate their democratic pedagogy.This propositio is delivered only after Bromell has completed a careful two-page warmup, which establishes his theoretical stance and loyalties. When he finally gets around to it, his section on The House of Mirth is a third again as long as Boynton’s entire essay, and glances at none of Wharton’s other books. (He quotes her handbook on The Writing of Fiction once.)

Both critics attend to the social theme. But where Boynton speaks of Wharton’s uninterest in “social institutions of any kind,” “the social game of hide-and-go-seek as it is played in respectable society,” Undine Spragg’s “meteoric ascent in the social world,” and the novelist’s reluctance to venture “outside the social pale” except to invoke “forces of fate,” Bromell introduces his central term in this way:Cognizant of the need to understand more richly what it means to know an Other, political theorists are starting to produce phenomenological accounts of intersubjective communication or what I will call “social knowing.”A footnote directs the reader, if there is any, to a further elaboration of the term. Bromell uses it twelve times in the section on The House of Mirth alone: “The erotics of conjectural social knowing,” “successful social knowing,” “constitutive of social knowing,” “[George Herbert] Mead’s and [Donald] Davidson’s sunny conceptions of the self and social knowing,” “difference as an immutable obstacle to social knowing,” et cetera.

The source of literary criticism’s “diminishing returns,” in short, is not merely an upsurge in “productivity” nor a shift to criticism-as-performance. The problem is with a kind of literary criticism more intensive than a language has ever known, a kind of criticism that has only grown more intensive since Ransom’s day. Its microscopic focus, the stretching of its subject to excessive lengths, its fervid humorlessness, its exclusive concern with a text’s inner tensions to the utter neglect of literature’s extensions—the references and even the applications to a world outside the text—have narrowed the appeal of literary criticism and quite naturally cost it readers.

The solution, as I have suggested before now, is to return from interpretation (which includes both criticism-as-explication and criticism-as-performance) to a more traditional scholarly conception of literary study. Scholars do not seek merely, in Bauerlein’s phrase, “to write something new and different”; they seek to contribute something new and different to knowledge. They are not satisfied with new “approaches.” They demand new facts, new sources, new intelligence.

Literary criticism has been narrowed, not merely in its “approach,” but in its subject matter. When I took up the question of Richard Russo’s Catholicism in Empire Falls yesterday, I consulted the MLA Bibliography to find the previous criticism on the novel. Eight years after its publication, only three articles on it have been published—and one of those, by Joseph Epstein in Commentary, was a review-essay on it and Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections. In the same period of time, sixty-four publications have appeared just on The Sound and the Fury.

I have come to believe that what literary scholars abuse as the canon—the “established canon,” the “fixed, restrictive canon”—is an image in the mirror. It exists only in the scholars’ own decisions of what to study, teach, and write about. Few literary critics display the scholarly instincts of Miriam Burstein, whom I recommend to all young graduate students as a model of the scholarly life:DAD THE EMERITUS HISTORIAN OF GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT: Is that a good book?
ME: No.
DAD: So . . . you’re going to write about it.
The motto of her blog The Little Professor, Burstein quips, is: “I Read These Things So You Don't Have To.” Why should that not be the ambition of literary scholarship in an age of diminished returns? Rather than another intensive examination of The Sound and the Fury, perhaps some news about Faulkner’s contemporaries and the novels they published the same year—Edmund Wilson’s I Thought of Daisy, Cornell Woolrich’s Times Square, Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs, Wallace Thurman’s Blacker the Berry, Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy, Joseph Hergesheimer’s Swords and Roses, Robert Nathan’s There Is Another Heaven, Elizabeth Moorhead’s Clouded Hills, DuBose Heyward’s Mamba’s Daughters, O. E. Rolvaag’s Peder Victorious, Myron Brinig’s Singermann—might increase criticism’s returns.


R. T. said...

First, let me cite your comment:

"Rather than another intensive examination The Sound and the Fury, perhaps some news about Faulkner’s contemporaries and the novels they published the same year [. . . ]"

Perhaps some of the problem can be found in the course content of many English departments; the tried-and-true canonical texts are properly required reading, and that often leaves little time and space within a course or a program of study for the overlooked, noncanonical works that you suggest are "news"[worthy] for either published or thesis-level literary criticism. There is, in my humble opinion, a tendency to avoid deviations from the canon (which means you have too many articles and books about Faulkner and too few about his noteworthy contemporaries because students have never been exposed to the latter and remain more comfortable with revisiting seemingly inexhaustible materials). Even in graduate school programs, students tend to focus mainly on the orthodox canon, which they then go on to teach when they move to the front of the classroom as instructors/professors. So, with that having been posited, doesn't it seem correct that the academy must do a better job of incorporating the new canon (whatever that might be) and judiciously marginalizing the more traditional canon? Now, with that having been suggested, is that even possible in English department environments where the limited amount of time for students must be focused at a minimum on the traditional texts? I don't know the answer to the tension between the two approaches. Any suggestions?

D. G. Myers said...

Why must literary scholars teach the same books they write about? Or, better put, why does it never occur to them to venture beyond their own reading lists—something they criticize their students for failing to do—in writing criticism?

Why, for that matter, is interpretation not merely the dominant mode but the exclusive mode of literary study in the classroom? What my students need, I have found, is a wider acquaintance with literature: wider than I can possibly give them, by assigning books for them to read, in a single semester. Why shouldn’t my lectures provide the literary background they can’t get on their own?

Mark McGurl’s recent history of the American novel since the Second World War, The Program Era, has garnered a lot of attention precisely because McGurl screws on a wider lens. I don’t agree with many of his conclusions, but I admire his sweep and ambition.

R. T. said...

I take it that your questions are rhetorical. Nevertheless, let me ask a series of question that may or may not be perceived as rhetorical: Do some (or even many) literary scholars avoid new territory because there is so little in the way of secondary sources which they can use (either through contrast or comparison) to further their own arguments? Aren't undergraduate and graduate students (as English majors) trained to apply secondary sources to their thesis? Isn't your experience with seeking out other critiques of Russo's novel some sort of evidence of what I am suggesting in the first two questions? Now, with those questions thrown out there, for whatever they might be worth, I would say that I agree with you that literary criticism ought to focus more on newer and different texts; however, the points I was attempting to make in the earlier posting (and in this posting) are observations about the status quo and the reasons for the problems. Let me take all of this in a different direction: if I had proposed an unconventional (non-canonical) text or topic for my M.A. thesis, I would have had no success in getting it approved within the department (with the staffing as it was at the time), so--with an understanding of the conservative, canon-loving realities--I comfortably settled upon Flannery O'Connor's WISE BLOOD because (in part) of almost all that I have previously noted. No, I could not be a maverick in that situation. Yes, I and others could and should be mavericks after the graduate school constraints have been removed. Still, though, the curriculum of an English department and the constraints of a semester force me to make choices based on those same old limitations.

R. T. said...

As a postscript to my earlier comment(s), and as anecdotal evidence of the problem(s) in graduate school, I knew not long ago of a student who wanted to base her thesis on Arundhati Roy's THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, which had just previously won the Booker Prize; the student's thesis proposal was rejected (not on the merits of the novel, which I am not planning to either defend or attack in this anecdote) because it was too new and had not yet generated sufficient criticism (beyond reviews) in the field. This example may not be completely indicative of what I was talking about earlier, but the incident at the time seemed unfair to the student and unnecessarily dismissive by the thesis committee. Should the student have been permitted to succeed or fail in her effort? Was the nonexistence of secondary sources directly related to Roy's novel a substantial reason for the thesis committee's summary judgment? Now, with a decade gone by, I wonder about the mindset of the student (now an instructor at a junior college); perhaps she is a bit wary of new territory since she was reined in so abruptly and forced to focus on something canonical rather than the novel that powerfully held her interest.

NigelBeale said...

Here's a non-rhetorical question: Doesn't it make obvious sense, if 'new' thinking, new 'intelligence' as you put it (this term requires clarification if you are to base an entire argument on it)...is the objective, to achieve it by examining 'new' works?

This practice you speak of smacks of the bureaucrat afraid to take any risks/too lazy to come up with original thinking for fear of being mocked...or fired.

R. T. said...

Nigel . . . there is, indeed, in my humble opinion, safety in not venturing beyond accepted, tried-and-true approaches in academia. The paradox is, I think, in the fact that academia is ostensibly a bastion of liberalism but the tenure-track professor who does not conform to the accepted patterns of research, writing, and publication runs the risk of losing out on tenure and retention. However, as I am not in the tenure-hunt, perhaps someone more familiar with the pitfalls and challenges of the process can correct any of my inaccuracies (especially with respect to the old publish-or-perish chestnut as I have described it above).

D. G. Myers said...


I most decidedly do not mean “new thinking.” I mean new facts, new information, new circumstances, new principles, new conclusions arrived at on empirical grounds. I mean the previously unknown, including newly published or newly rediscovered texts and new corrections of old mistakes.

I mean “new” in the sense that J. V. Cunningham meant the word: “There is less to be said about literature than has been said,” he opens the Introduction to his Collected Essays, “and this book adds a little more. What it adds is, or was when first published, new, though it would take a lifetime of biliographical search to be sure.”

In the book, Cunningham famously establishes, for example, that Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is written in the form of a logical syllogism, that Nashe’s oft-praised line Brightness falls from the air must be corrected to “Brightness falls from the hair,” that Shakespeare learned the laws of tragedy from his schoolbooks, et cetera. He did not merely reinterpret Marvell, Nashe, and Shakespeare. He added substantively to our knowledge of them.

The texts need not be new, but the knowledge—not merely the interpretation—of them must be.