Academic Criticism

As a teenager, I kept a close watch over my response to music. I considered and reconsidered everything about my aesthetic development with Victorian earnestness. I had conflicting aims—to become a writer and to suppress acknowledgment of my sexuality—and so I required careful management.

I am more reckless in middle age. In the past few years I have become a fan—something I never dared in high school. In love with Belle & Sebastian, Ben Kweller, the Decemberists, and Sufjan Stevens, I have visited band websites and subscribed to band listservs. I have bought T-shirts, posters, tour-only EPs, and expensive compilation albums from Spain with only one track I can bear to listen to. I have saved old issues of British music magazines with very limited circulations. I have avidly read essays in praise of my beloveds, no matter how insipid the style or recondite the detail. I have learned about lossless file codecs in order to trade live shows. I have listened to songs recorded by one of my beloveds before he came up with his distinctive sound—before he was any good, in fact—and I have treasured them, because they are, after all, his. I have memorized lyrics. I have found obscure, probably unintentional parallels between the lyrics of one beloved’s songs and those of another. I have wondered about my beloveds’ personal lives and inspected their songs for hints of autobiography. If a love of mine sings a song by another musician, I buy that musician’s album too, and try to like it.

Last year, at the height of my madness, I realized what it resembled: academic literary criticism of a great author. There is the same impulse to collect and the same reluctance to judge. To prove how much you love Moby-Dick, you read Mardi; to prove your love for Colin Meloy, you listen to Tarkio. There is the same fetishistic interest in variant performances and the same concern for the artist’s preservation from commercial interference. The fan becomes proficient in FLAC and BitTorrent; the critic learns about copy-text and the Hinman collator. You follow Sufjan to Denison Witmer, and you follow Melville to Richard Henry Dana Jr. There is the same attenuated alliance, genial but emulous, with fellow lovers. And there is the same tolerance for trivia and banality in criticism, so long as the critic shares in your worship, and especially if he furthers it. In theory this tolerance is mystifying, since its ultimate source is an aesthetic distinction that feels particularly acute. In practice, however, it is not mystifying at all. Anyone who undams his love will end up swimming in it.


I don’t see anything wrong with fandom. However, I could only call it a science in jest, and I don’t think I would ever become so confused as to think of it as morally worthy. Yet such claims were made for the academic study of literature in the course of the 20th century. To be sure, they were made after its origin in fandom was disguised by abstraction. I hasten to say that I don’t think academic criticism was improved by the transformation, which I attribute to envy of science and to scorn of the fan’s childlike dependency. Mere love was unprofessional; something more sophisticated was required, something less natural.

To return to music for a moment, I have been describing amateurism. For professional criticism, I have to turn to venues with the potential for disrespect, even of my idols: Pitchfork, Blender, Spin. Critics at these publications don’t mind saying that one artist is better than another, or one album better than another. Occasionally they even try to say how. They are like ancien régime courtesans—promiscuous and expert. I hate them for their cruelty, but I go to their salons to learn refinements in love, and to meet new lovers.

The academic critics who have left amateurism behind offer no such compensations. They will not help you find new love. Northrop Frye scorned mere evaluation in 1957 as “a form of consumer’s research.” This is too bad, because it is the only thing most people want from a literary critic, and it is unreasonable to believe he would be competent to provide much else. For politics, ethics, philosophy, linguistics, and religion, there are more authoritative sources. With a belletristic verve that his successors rarely risk, Frye also proclaimed that “Everyone who has seriously studied literature knows that the mental process involved is as coherent and progressive as the study of science.” This is nonsense, meant to flatter the professors of the Sputnik era. Naked Lunch is not coherent, nor is the experience of reading it; Wuthering Heights is an adventure in regression. Literature has nothing to do with science; it is a matter of taste.

Taste may be educated, but not with the kind of education that the most ambitious academic critics set out to provide today. In 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald complained to his daughter that it had been hard for him to earn the money for her Vassar tuition and added that “I hate to see you spend it on a course like ‘English Prose since 1800.’ Anybody that can’t read modern English prose by themselves is subnormal—and you know it.” If literature is an art, even its difficulties should be attractive. You don’t need a professor to explain indie rock to you; you especially don’t need a professor to explain the songs you don’t understand. And if a professor did explain them, you wouldn’t think that it was the explanation that made them more worthy.

There is not any, or not much, distortion in the common assessment of the value of a degree in music appreciation or art history. But literature is thought to be improving, somehow, and the study of literature inherently valuable. The editors of n+1 have mocked this conceit in their disparagement of the “Reading Crisis.” I am afraid the crisis is real, but I agree the conceit is ridiculous. Literature is only an art. It is of course a good thing, but if it improves you, it does so the way health, riches, and elegant clothes do. It’s not at all clear to me that the propagation of a taste for it needs to be federally subsidized—or that it deserves a niche in Ivy League schools, while courses in wine-tasting are consigned to institutions that place circulars in plastic bins on street corners. I’m afraid a part of me will always regard academic literary criticism the way Jeffersonians did a standing army, as an institution whose existence distorts discussion of whether it should exist, by frightening its enemies and corrupting its supporters. Long ago, Matthew Arnold argued that literature should be taught universally because it was the lingua franca of the powerful classes, and it was only fair to give everyone a chance to learn it. A lovely, democratic notion. But today the lingua franca of power is cable television, sports, and film. If a 19-year-old wants to improve his future income, he should join the college golf team. He need not read Keats.

As it happens, there is a scientific idea of literature—indeed, of all the arts. In a series of books, Ellen Dissanayake has proposed that the arts, like all aspects of human nature, are a result of evolution. Dissanayake believes that the arts evolved because they promote group solidarity; others have suggested that their function is sexual display; still others, that they render appetitive certain processes of intellectual development. The theory has not been worked out fully, especially not with regard to literature. But academic literary critics do not see an opportunity; the county school boards of Kansas are not more hostile to Darwin. I fear that some of the very few literature professors who have taken up evolution have muddled their layers of analysis: it is silly to say that novels are better when their plots exemplify evolutionary truths. Very likely, if a scientific idea of literature like Dissanayake’s turns out to be true, it will be useless in evaluation. Science infers that the brilliant stripes of a male toucan’s bill show off its lifelong resistance to infection; it is up to the female toucan (and the more aesthetically inclined male toucans) to notice that a band of orange beside a band of green is particularly fetching.

In toucans and in humans, criticism serves love, and in love, you want either devotion or connoisseurship—or both, if you can get it. You do not want knowledge, especially; it is not seductive. In a seminar last spring, my students noticed that ignorance was Melville’s breakthrough. In Typee and White-Jacket, the narrators know everything about the worlds they describe and tell it in measured doses. But Ishmael, the hero of Moby-Dick, doesn’t know anything that matters. He has learned about whaling exhaustively, but he has done so because he doesn’t understand it. He knows something is wrong with Ahab, which he tries to describe, but he can’t quite capture that, either; a piece always eludes him. And it is his ignorance that makes the novel come alive—the fact that he isn’t hiding his ignorance but sharing it, elaborating it, inviting the reader to improve on it.

The journalist and the therapist know better than to finish other people’s sentences. The critic, too, should accept and make use of his ignorance. He should also respect it in his readers. Not a science, criticism cannot justify specializing. Because literature is not coherent and not progressive, there is no point to criticism that only reaches professionals. The critic should at least be able to imagine a layperson who would read her work with pleasure—a fan, for example. A lover of some kind, in any case; someone who reads for mere pleasure rather than in the pursuit of tenure, which economists call rent-seeking.

And this is the root of the confusion and distortion: fewer people do read for pleasure these days. Statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that Americans are steadily abandoning the practice of reading. In 1991, 56 percent of Americans surveyed had read a newspaper the day before; in 2004, 42 percent had. In 1992, 54 percent of Americans surveyed had read a work of imaginative literature the year before; in 2002, 46.7 percent had. In 1992, 15 percent of adults tested were literate enough to contrast two newspaper editorials; in 2003, 13 percent were. In the last five years, the number of books sold in America has decreased by 9 percent, although the population has grown. In the press, these dismal numbers are received with either deprecating chuckles or panicky hysteria about the internet. In fact the trends predate the internet. If a technology is to blame, it is probably television; cue the deprecating chuckles, because we’re too sophisticated to become tiresome about television. But even if we weren’t that sophisticated, it wouldn’t change anything. In the history of the world, no one has ever hectored a free adult out of his pleasures. America is moving from a culture of reading to a culture of streaming. Even if averse to statistics, you may see the cultural signs. Fantasy books for children are popular among adults. Though it hampers communication, PowerPoint is ubiquitous, because it renders invisible the distinction between businesspeople who can write and those who can’t. The young and fashionable wear glasses that are almost exclusively rectangular, stylish for watching movies but a handicap for books. The New York Times Styles section finds it strange and risible that Eric Anderson, brother to filmmaker Wes, protects his books with transparent plastic covers.


A rising tide may float all boats, but a receding one grounds first those with the deepest keels. Literary scholarship has a particularly deep one. Perhaps academics stopped writing for laypeople because laypeople stopped reading them, rather than the other way around. What if the academic literary critics were atwitter in the 1990s because they were the canaries in the coal mine? What if the prestige of literature in that decade was dropping even more quickly than the prestige of literature professors, and they feuded grandiloquently in the hope that bluster would keep them aloft? The one real power they still held, that of sorting the young, it was unseemly to threaten with. After all, in the age of PowerPoint, it is not obvious that adolescents need to be credentialed according to the quality of the essays they write about books. Academic literary criticism faces, I suspect, a correction. Like the study of classic Greek and Latin literature a century ago, it will probably dwindle in size and set down its burden of moral significance. In losing interest in seduction it seems to anticipate this fate; the group shows no wish to reproduce or recruit. Perhaps there will be compensations for the loss. To borrow a metaphor from Boswell’s Johnson: “The flesh of animals who feed excursively, is allowed to have a higher flavour than that of those who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks?”

More from Issue 4

Issue 4 Reconstruction

Like Oedipus, we flout the warning, and we’ll act surprised, even outraged, when we find out what we’ve done.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

Every now and then he looked up to ask what Evo was saying, since at his seventy-two years of age, Hugo Blanco is nearly deaf.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

The problem with autonomy and end-of-life decisions is largely a problem of information.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

It is not possible to be a German. If it were, hardly anyone would like to be one.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

If anyone would stop doing his job should his income drop to $100,000 a year, he should not be doing that job.

Issue 4 Reconstruction
My Life and Times in American Journalism
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Short Story & Novel
Issue 4 Reconstruction

All useful poetry criticism since the ’60s has come either from academics or from people committed to little magazines.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

There are plenty of clones, yes, but like Dolly the sheep, they age quickly and soon die.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

In the age of BookScan, only an unpublished writer is allowed to keep his dignity.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

It is in an aroused consciousness that the solace and excitement of literature are to be found.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

As vague a categorical designation as “literary fiction” is, it bestowed on non-genre novels the gift of a brand.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

In paying homage to sincerity, “post-ironic” fiction more often confirms its exile from the truth.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

Our generation seems far too aware that reading is safe and fun, that literature is spectacle.

Issue 4 Reconstruction
Why Repeat These Sad Things?
Issue 4 Reconstruction
The Mystery Guest
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Afternoon of the Sex Children
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Two Stories
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Melodramatic Installations
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Three Stories
Issue 4 Reconstruction
The Joy of Edge Tools
Issue 4 Reconstruction

You, dear reader, are also supposed to be a clone among clones. And really, who’d be the wiser?

Issue 4 Reconstruction

Never trust a man who insists that he is sincere. How does Vollmann intend to be helpful, to save a life, to benefit someone?

Issue 4 Reconstruction
Letters

More by this Author

Issue 6 Mainstream

Paul ordered, “Hit him for me,” and Russell punched Jacob smartly in the chest.

January 1, 2010

But what about Avatar’s anti-imperialism and anti-corporate attitudinizing? They’re red herrings, in my opinion.

October 20, 2004

No more electoral college; no more red, blue, swing; no more U.S.A. . . this thing isn’t working.

Issue 27 Deep End
Ward’s Fool
August 2, 2013

“What did they keep in the cabinets?” asked another chemist, swiveling in his chair with childish speed.

September 9, 2011

One at a time, each of us thrill-seekers was buckled into a vaguely diaper-like nylon brace.