Wednesday, August 30, 2006
A World Apart: “Contemporary Literature” and the Academy--Part I
Note: This is the first in what will probably be a 3-5 part post.
In his memoir Keeping Literary Company, Jerome Klinkowitz, who became not long after the events described one of the best-known advocates of “contemporary” fiction, describes his graduate school experience:
At school [Marquette University] I was making my way dutifully through seminars on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, with other courses on Victorian prose writers, modern British poets, and the like. Not until my last semester did I add a couple classes [sic] in American literature, and then turned back to British poetry. . .The twentieth-century novel course I took ended with Hemingway from the 1920s and works by Faulkner and Fitzgerald from the 1930s. (6)
Having at the same time acquired an enthusiasm for the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Klinkowitz further recalls
[that] I stayed with Vonnegut through all this showed both that I could read out of class and that novels like Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, and Cat’s Cradle, which I bought as they came back into print, were a world apart from what Marquette taught us was the tradition” (6).
The year in which Klinkowitz is “at school” and engaged in such earnest study of the tradition is 1966, and although it is not exactly surprising to learn that the curriculum to which he was exposed at that time was still so very conservative, for those of us who now think of “contemporary literature” as a flourishing and more or less respectable field of academic study, to be reminded that even in the period most associated with cultural upheaval and literary innovation current writing could not be considered “literature” at all nevertheless might make us pause. At a time when cultural studies, an approach that welcomes not only contemporary literature but all forms of popular culture as well, has become the dominant mode of scholarly analysis in literary study, it might seem especially difficult to countenance a graduate program so hopelessly hidebound as to regard otherwise serious works of fiction or poetry beyond the pale because not sufficiently aged. But Klinkowitz’s account of his subsequent attempts as a professor himself to bring contemporary American fiction—or at least his favored contemporary writers—into the college classroom implicitly reveals how Klinkowitz’s efforts, like those of other “radical young Ph.Ds” who also sought to open up the literature curriculum in the 1960s and 1970s (13), was in its way as conservative a project as that undertaken by Klinkowitz’s professors in creating that curriculum in the first place.
Perhaps the most curious comment in the passages I’ve quoted is Klinkowitz’s affirmation that in maintaining his interest in Vonnegut he “showed. . .that I could read out of class.” Most likely this is simply a loose way of emphasizing the reading demands in class of a graduate literary education, but nevertheless Klinkowitz also draws attention to the fact that in 1966 a graduate student in English would be unable to read novels such as those he lists while “at school.” And, more than anything else, this initial chapter of Keeping Literary Company is a chronicle of Klinkowitz’s success in securing the literature course, as well as literary scholarship, as a suitable dwelling-place for contemporary fiction—to make it acceptable in “school.” By 1969 he has taken a position at Northern Illinois University, where, he writes, “the department was alive with dialogue and debate, especially among the younger crowd who felt so excluded and estranged from the fat-cat professoriate that by virtue of their seniority ran the place. As opposed to these elders, whose taste was settled and whose curriculum was virtually petrified, we assistant professors and instructors were not only reading new works but were struggling to incorporate them in both our value system and our teaching” (13). One would not unfairly conclude from Klinkowitz’s framing of the scene in which his memoir will unfold that the “literary company” he wants to keep is that of the canon of writers deemed worthy of study in the academic curricula of universities.
Klinkowitz is exemplary in describing the process by which many other like-minded critics and scholars helped to make “contemporary literature” a respectable area of academic literary study. What I hope to show in an analysis of some of the more significant works of academic criticism that emerged from and helped to direct and determine this process is that what was presented as a critical advocacy of contemporary writers and an argument for the superior and distinctive qualities of contemporary literature—especially fiction—would be more accurately described as an effort to enhance the status of current writing by calling on the prestige and authority of the academy. These are decidedly distinct endeavors, and the predominance of the second has had, I will also maintain, several important and related effects. It has, most significantly, aggrandized the academy rather than contemporary writing itself, expanding its prerogatives to include becoming de facto arbiter of critical opinion about the merits and the direction of contemporary literature, a development the further unfortunate consequence of which has been that literary criticism outside the purview of academe has virtually ceased to exist. It has distorted criticism of all kinds, but especially criticism of recent fiction and poetry, by erasing distinctions between criticism per se and the historical, theoretical, and political projects to which it has increasingly and inevitably become subordinate. And, along with the parallel burgeoning of university-based creative writing programs, the successful establishment of contemporary literature as an academic field of study has in turn failed both to cultivate a more informed audience for contemporary writing and to foster in any credible or consistent way a more fertile critical environment in which such writing could take place. It could be argued, in fact, that the increasingly close association between the academy and contemporary literature has turned out for the latter to be more detrimental than not.
Klinkowitz’s own professed enthusiasms point to an implicit conflict of priorities that, upon reflection, would seem likely to make this association an uneasy one, if not unavoidably to produce the kind of results I have just described. Not all “new” and “experimental” writers were equally welcome on Klinkowitz’s pathbreaking syllabus. John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, for example, are dismissed—along with modernism in general—for their “philosophic intricacies and intellectual pyrotechnics,” their “obfuscation and soul-killing technicalism” (7). Clearly Klinkowitz finds these writers too “academic” in comparison with Vonnegut, Terry Southern, and Ken Kesey, whose books he is most eager to bring to his students’ attention. It is, then, at the very least unclear why he found it necessary to engage in such a struggle to bring the study of these writers into the academic curriculum, where almost unavoidably even the more technically transparent satirical and Beat-oriented fiction he wanted to champion would be subject to a kind of critical scrutiny that would itself be hard-pressed to avoid “philosophic intricacies” and “intellectual pyrotechnics.” (Klinkowitz’s own account of how he came to understand what Vonnegut was really up to in Mother Night is, in fact, impressively intricate.) One might even conclude that there is a palpable incoherence built into the project of securing the approval of the institution of academic literary study for fiction that advertises itself as unconventional and “disruptive.”
To some extent, of course, contemporary fiction (understood as fiction published since World War II by writers not already known from the prewar period) was, even during Klinkowitz’s time as a graduate student, not altogether absent from the university curriculum or from academic discussion. Klinkowitz received his own Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin, where the English department was known for its receptivity to the study of contemporary writing, including its publication of the journal Contemporary Literature (Klinkowitz 6). Tony Tanner points out in a prefatory note to City of Words, published in 1971, that this book’s origins lay in a number of seminars on contemporary literature held in several different American universities. But if one is to judge from the first few important academic studies of contemporary fiction (including City of Words), most such consideration of contemporary writers was done within the disciplinary domain of existing fields of academic study, most often as a further development in “modern’ literature broadly conceived or, especially, as part of the relatively new fields of American Literature and its close cousin, American Studies.
The influence of all of these scholarly “areas” can be seen in the first two widely-cited scholarly studies of postwar American fiction, Ihab Hassan’s Radical Innocence (1961) and Marcus Klein’s After Alienation (1965). More so than the sedate and airless seminars on “Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. . .and the like,” the kind of high-minded but intellectually less inhibited critical study represented by these two books was the earliest prevailing model of the scholarly analysis of postwar American fiction by which, and against which, contemporary literature would become the object of serious academic examination, and ultimately not just an acceptable if isolated course offered by the English department but itself an area of duly organized literary study in which one could ultimately become a certified “specialist.” By no means musty and pedantic, bound to no obvious critical orthodoxy, both books enthusiastically embrace contemporary writing and attempt to explicate then-recent fiction, as well as enliven their own examination of this fiction, by placing it very much within the main currents of the literary, historical, and intellectual developments of the mid-twentieth century.
Which is not to say they are not thoroughly “academic” in both intent and effect. Considering that if there was a reigning critical orthodoxy at the time these books were written it was New Critical formalism, one might expect them to show the influence of this method, but their origin in academic discourse and assumptions is to be seen in other ways. Both books are interested not in the close reading of text, nor even really in describing the specifically aesthetic qualities of the fiction they survey at all, but in classifying and categorizing, in isolating the thematic and structural features of these works that help Hassan and Klein compose a broader treatise on American literature as a whole, on modern intellectual history, on postwar American culture. Both are thesis-driven books—in each case, the thesis encapsulated in the book’s title—that seek to capture their cultural moment or identify a “certain tendency” in current practice, in effect to stay ahead of the literary curve, able to take the comprehensive view unavailable even to the writers whose practices are at issue. In so doing, these books proved to be the scholarly model for many academic studies of contemporary fiction to follow, which together could be taken as a kind of serial attempt to find the highest ground from which to scan the literary horizon. Indeed, this sort of well-positioned survey of current fiction would become arguably the most ambitious kind of scholarly book produced by the academic critics duly charged with the professional scrutiny of contemporary literature.
It has, most significantly, aggrandized the academy rather than contemporary writing itself, expanding its prerogatives to include becoming de facto arbiter of critical opinion about the merits and the direction of contemporary literature, a development the further unfortunate consequence of which has been that literary criticism outside the purview of academe has virtually ceased to exist.
I look forward to the rest of this interrogation, Daniel. It looks like you’re taking an institutional look at something that interests me from an epistemological POV. Does the critic engage texts in such a way as to participate in “the literary project” or does the critic stand outside “the literary project” so as to examine its workings? The reviewer is clearly doing the former—whether the review is postive or negative—while Moretti, with his “distant reading,” is doing the latter.
In my more technical work I’m clearly attempting to stand outside, but not through Moretti-like distance. Rather, I want to get very very close, but through certain means. It seems obvious to me, however, that the engaged perspective is essential to a healthy literary culture. Academic dominance here doesn’t strike me as being a good thing.
I’d be interested in hearing John Emerson’s take on your unfolding argument.
Good. Very good. I’m thinking along the same lines. Consider larger societal and cultural ramifications too. Will be in touch with you after the weekend. I have an idea you might like.
I think that this dominance of criticism by academia was inevitable, for structural reasons. Bringing in Klinkowitz may be “exemplary in describing the process” by which this occured, but that seems to imply that had Klinkowitz and those like him not existed, the result would have been different. I don’t think so.
What I think really drove this process was some combination of the failure of American secondary education and the professionalization of all idea-handling jobs. The first meant that professors of “English” had to be hired to teach college students how to read and write coherently, and they have to do something along traditional academic lines in order to maintain the system for everyone else in academia. The second can be seen in any number of related fields, such as the requirement of a degree in journalism to do journalism; the expanding competition for idea-handling jobs means that amateurs are driven out. And the closest thing to a professional critic is an academic.
I disagree, though, that “literary criticism outside the purview of academe has virtually ceased to exist.” What’s happened to it is the same thing that’s happened to poetry after the deluge of academic journals publishing the poetry of academics who were hired to teach poetry-writing in creative writing classes. The amateur poets, even those who haven’t bought in to the workshopping world, still exist—it’s just that they don’t have systematic attention paid to them in the same way as they used to, and therefore they tend to operate at a technically less advanced level. Similarly, amateur literary criticism flourishes on the Web—I’d guess that far more people read it than read academic criticism—but it is becoming detached from academic knowledge.