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,
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:
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: So . . . you’re going to write about it.