Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Friday, May 12, 2006

Caleb Crain on “Academic Criticism,” Only Not Really

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/12/06 at 09:42 PM

Radiating delight, I read Caleb Crain‘s article on “Academic Criticism” in the new n+1.  According to the prelude to “American Writing Today: A Symposium,” Crain’s article addresses “the conditions of production of new [academic criticism]; its character and traits; and the figures and creators who have most influenced each field” (63). 

It didn’t; it didn’t; and it didn’t. 

The article’s evident confusion may be the product of Crain (or the n+1 editors) deciding that “Academic Criticism” signals some particular body of work with addressable conditions of production, characters and traits, &c.  It obviously does, only Crain doesn’t address that.  He reduces it to the small and vanishing genre of single-author studies.  To wit:

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.  [More evidence of fandom.] I have learned about loseless file codecs in order to trade live shows.  [Even more evidence of fandom.] I have listened to songs recorded by one of my beloveds before he came up with his distinctive sound—befoe he was any good, in fact—and I have treasured them because they are, after all, his.  [Even more.] I have found obscure, probably unintentional parallels between the lyrics of one beloved’s songs and those of another and I have wondered about my beloveds’ personal lives and inspected their songs for hints of autobiography.  If a love of mine sings a song of 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 reluctance to judge. (76)

Crain describes a very particular—already tenured or likely untenurable—breed of “academic critic” as representative.  Very few academics truly and uncritically love the work of the writers they study.  (I, for one, am frequently astonished I worked through almost all of Jack London or Silas Weir Mitchell.) There are exceptions, and they have socities, edit coterie journals and hold yearly conferences; but they by no means dominate the field, and they are often considered too indulgent to take seriously.  (The jealousy?  Palpable.) But how many single-author studies were published last year?  How many single-author dissertations written? 

A chapter or an article may appear to be the product of an uncritical crush, in that it quotes letters, journal entries, and in the case of a Marianne Moore article I misplaced, grocery lists—if you’ve read Moore, you know their potential relevance—but it’s uncritical for reasons unrelated to why a Pogues fan struggles to appreciate the Nipple Erectors.  (Not that much of a struggle, actually.) The uncritical fanboy has no intellectual investment in the fanboy “facts” he acquires.  The scholar-squirrel acquires those facts for a reason

Crain’s analog lacks a certain, I don’t know, analogousness. 

But it does reveal why I find the piece so problematic.  Crain believes appreciation the purpose of criticism, and that we do too, if only secretly:

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 disgused by abstraction. (77)

There it is.  Crain believes that literary professionals know that their true function is to teach “refinements in love” and help readers “meet new lovers” (ibid.).  So to speak.  We defraud with flatulent abstraction because we know “literature has nothing to do with science; it is a matter of taste” (ibid.). 

I know Crain earned a Ph.D. from Columbia, and I’ve looked over the essays linked to from that page, so I know he knows that, as currently constituted, literature departments do not fail to cultivate taste so much as not consider it part of the charter.  I think Crain confuses the purpose of the profession with the reasons people enter it.  An undergraduate who loves to read becomes an English major, goes to graduate school and emerges someone with mastery of over a particular body of knowledge which he or she then applies (sometimes) to literature, the love of which compelled them to become an English major. 

Even if I grant him the veracity of this account, his argument still stumbles over the fact that it is founded on innuendo.  We all secretly want advanced degrees in Refinement and Cultivation Studies, but if we acknowledge that, the game will be up: “It’s not at all clear to me that the propogation of a taste for [literature] needs to be federally subsidized” (78). 

That’s not clear to me, either; but then again, since that’s not what actually happens in English departments I don’t see it as a pressing concern. 


Comments

Dear Scott,

Delighted we delighted you, and sorry your radiance was clouded over so quickly. It might be the fault of an ambiguity in the introduction to the symposium. My proof copy reads: “Contributors were asked about the conditions of production of new work;its character and traits; and the figures and creators who have most influenced each field.” I confess that the final print copy of n+1 has yet to reach me in Italy, so, for all I know, there may have been a last minute change. You make it seem as though we make a claim about what the essay is about, but you overlooked that little key phrase, “Contributors were asked.” Could be our fault. We should have added that contributors often chose not to answer our questions or to answer them after their own fashion. That said, I think Caleb’s essay does address the conditions of academic production, not so much by innuendo as by indirection. Those conditions are less material than psychological, a kind of permanent closetedness that refuses to acknowledge love as a motive for criticism and research and has turned sublimation into professionalization. That’s my summary anyway; the author might disagree with me. It seems to me that an interesting debate could be had about the idea of love implied in the essay. Can’t we go from love of a single author to love of styles that remind us of our first love? Can the circle of our affections widen without betraying us to pseudo-science? But surely the purpose of a profession ought to have some relationship to the reasons people have for entering it. And--thinking psychologically rather than professionally--what does actually happen in English departments?

best,
Marco

By on 05/13/06 at 07:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think these issues are central: Just what are we doing when we pursue and grant advanced degrees in literature? I think it’s a muddle.

I think you’re right, Scott, that the cultivation of taste is not part of the charter. Not directly. But what is part of the charter is that we concentrate on the canon and the canon is (supposed to be) the best stuff. It’s precertified—except when people start agitating for including other texts, other voices. What’s being cultivated is not individual taste, but collective taste.

We are guardians of cultural tradition. Things get tricky, of course, when it comes to vetting current production—e.g. the NYTimes list of top American novels of the past 25 years. That job is not strictly in the hands of PhD critics. It’s distributed among the reviewing and essaying classes. 

Should we be in the business of guarding a tradition? Is the tradition usable going forward? Is there something else we could be should be doing? What happens to tradition in an era of world-wide circulation of cultural production?

By Bill Benzon on 05/13/06 at 08:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Odd.  I thought we were endlessly criticized for not loving the objects of our criticism.  Well, makes a change I suppose to get attacked for loving them too much.

Meanwhile, nah, cultivation of taste isn’t part of the charter.

And meanwhile, next year I’ll be teaching a course whose title is “Bad Latin American Literature.”

By Jon on 05/13/06 at 10:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As for Fandom, expect a post from me sometime on The Decemberists. As for criticism, I should probably read the article before responding… but one thing that occurs to me is, isn’t it possible that today we read a much wider array of authors than earlier generations of critics did? How many of us really read books we like more than twice? Fandom in literature would come from reading a book as much or as often as you might listen to a CD.

Meanwhile, the essay by Elif Batuman that is up at the N+1 website is a pretty inspired rant (Pica already linked to it in an earlier thread).

Batuman’s best zinger is this:

“writers, feeling guilty for not doing real work, that mysterious activity—where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloane-Kettering, in Sudan?—turn in shame to the notion of writing as “craft.” (If art is aristocratic, decadent, egotistical, self-indulgent, then craft is useful, humble, ascetic, anorexic—a form of whittling.) “Craft” solicits from them constipated “vignettes"—as if to say: “Well, yes, it’s bad, but at least there isn’t too much of it.” As if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits. As if writers became writers by omitting needless words."

By Amardeep on 05/13/06 at 03:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Marco,

You make it seem as though we make a claim about what the essay is about, but you overlooked that little key phrase, “Contributors were asked.” Could be our fault. We should have added that contributors often chose not to answer our questions or to answer them after their own fashion.

Fair enough.  But I don’t think it changes the substance of my critique so much as create the appearance of an ad hominem attack, as in “The editors asked him to address ‘Academic Criticism,’ but he chose to ignore them.” Which isn’t what I intended. 

Nor did I intend the smear of groupthink; the earlier, shriller version of this post noted that pointedly via a statement to the effect of “were the collective n+1 opinion on Austerlitz to be believed, Sebald is the best/worst contemporary writer, embodying their best/worst characteristics, &c.” When I removed the offending material, the defense went with it.

That said, I think Caleb’s essay does address the conditions of academic production, not so much by innuendo as by indirection. Those conditions are less material than psychological, a kind of permanent closetedness that refuses to acknowledge love as a motive for criticism and research and has turned sublimation into professionalization.

One reason for the refusal to acknowledge love as a motive for criticism is that it so rarely is.  In fact, most of the academics I know avoid the work they love for fear of transforming that love into a professional obligation.  Were my wife to become my boss, I would still love her, but the relationship would change, and not necessarily for the better.  Many people choose instead to work on what they appreciate, intellectually, and save their love for stolen moments and summers off.  I could offer my own experience as evidence: I entered graduate school a Joycean, but I quickly noticed my intellectual appreciation eclipse my visceral love, became disenchanted, and to this day I still don’t love it as I did.  I imagine it’s akin to staying with someone after learning they’ve cheated on you; eventually, the pain recedes into routine, yes, but you never feel quite the same. 

So now I work on Jack London.  We have what you could call a loveless marriage.  Committed to and intimately familiar with him, I am, but the marriage is one of convenience, not love.  Which is why your description, and Crain’s, hits a false note.  Perhaps my circle of friends are the odd ones; perhaps those who arrive with a keen interest in Theory are a self-selecting group, or those admitted to UCI are; I don’t know, but lucky for us, we have comment boxes.

Can’t we go from love of a single author to love of styles that remind us of our first love? Can the circle of our affections widen without betraying us to pseudo-science? But surely the purpose of a profession ought to have some relationship to the reasons people have for entering it. And--thinking psychologically rather than professionally--what does actually happen in English departments?

These are, of course, the sort of productive questions I would have asked had I not posted while annoyed.  They are better questions, and deserve their own forum.  As soon as I muster a confident response to them, I’ll post it.

Bill,

It’s precertified—except when people start agitating for including other texts, other voices.

Yes, but when aren’t they?  Canonical negotiations are par for the course at this point.  Shakespeare, yes, we have consensus.  A couple others.  After that, no dice.  Constructing a syllabus becomes an exercise in discourse formation, a display of your ideological commitments, &c.  For a T.A. with a supervisor, it becomes an actual negotiation of canonical assumptions, of what should be represented, what can live without, and what, without which, the syllabus would not be representative. 

That said, I see your point: people arguing about which Marlowe to include in Renaissance Drama have already canonized Marlowe and put their collective imprimatur on Renaissance Drama, as well.

Jon,

Your disagreement notwithstanding, I sense that you do agree with him, in that you’ll not actually teach a class on “Bad Latin American Literature.” You may not, but I may teach a class on 19th Century American literature in which Edward Bellamy makes an appearance.  Few authors--Ayn Rand’s the only one who springs to mind--deserve some professional to cultivate in others a taste for their fiction.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/13/06 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep,

The Batuman essay is an inspired and inspiring rant, in that it left me scribbling both “Yes!” and “No!” with alarming frequency.  Probably a post or two in the works there.  But I should finish reading the thing before I do, as I’m only on page 96, and haven’t even read Marco’s essay yet (and I really should’ve before responding above).

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/13/06 at 06:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

you’ll not actually teach a class on “Bad Latin American Literature.”

Actually, I completely am teaching that course.

By Jon on 05/13/06 at 06:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jon - is that the Latin American equivalent of Michaels’ Bad Aboriginal Art?

By Craig on 05/13/06 at 10:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Heh, Craig, obviously I’ve had Michaels’s title in mind, because I’ve always liked it a lot.  But no, the point I’m hoping to make is rather different.

By Jon on 05/13/06 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just about everyone who works on Jane Austen really does love her, you know. 

I think this discussion is predicated on a too-simple equation of embarrassing fannish uncritical gushing infatuation with “love”.  I hope there’s considerably more to love than that.  I made a decision early on to not waste huge swathes of my life on material I could not respect and haven’t ever regretted it.

By on 05/14/06 at 01:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve just begun dipping into this n+1 myself, but it’s already clear that those section titles carry a self-destructively authoritative tone. Pencil “Scattered Reflections and Observations on” before each and you’ll find some satisfying essays. Take them as surveys, and you’ll find some very perverse surveyors.

For the “Short Story”, for example, Elif Batuman climbed Pisgah to get a better look at the desert, and kept her back turned on science fiction, fantasy, and horror—the only self-sufficient communities and markets for American short fiction, supporting a full healthy range of brow-level over the last three decades. If they’re in a ghetto, it’s a thriving ghetto in a city that’s otherwise bombed flat. Batuman notices Kelly Link (approvingly) but not where or how she’s published or what she’s co-edited. And for the Amercian “Novel”, Batuman only cites five books, one by a German and two by a Japanese author. Taken for what they are, though, Batuman’s reflections and observations are witty and insightful.

To be fair to Caleb Crain, he is talking about literary criticism rather than scholarship. Even so, I thought his piece not only scattered but a bit scattershot. His view of fannishness, for example, is that of a very new fan, and doesn’t seem to realize that some of the music critics he read might also describe themselves as fans. Fans are capable of developing discrimination, of enjoying the scholarly joy of the hunt and the reproduction and the explanation without insisting that it be accompanied by unquestioning approval. On the contrary, fans are capable of invective that would put Dale Peck to shame if he could be shamed.

What fans are not capable of is, for instance, having to finish a dissertation on a subject which sickens them to get a chance at being able to continue research while teaching composition and grading papers from bored undergrads taking a required course set up by one of the people with complete power over the fate of the dissertation with that as the only income to support an life within easy travel distance to campus. And this might be more germane to the comparative state of academic literary criticism than the question of love.

But Crain’s quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Boswell are going straight into my commonplace book. (I’ve never been comfortable with being described as a “rogue scholar”; Boswell’s “free-range” suits me better.) And I have to think the guy’s heart is in the right place. After all, I once hosted a discussion thread with the following assertion of—well, not authoritative summary, but at least personal taste:

Clearly my notion of “real scholarship” is as one with my notion of good fannishness. Again, I think of the amateurish era of Joyce studies, when the bulk of a journal could be taken up by “Notes”—aperçus, speculations, elucidations, emendations, and jokes—and its later aridity, talking long and saying little.

(Reader, beware: that thread is long, meandering, and typically conclusion-less; the understatement of my opening praise of Derrida is meant ironically; and at one point my idiot brain slanders William Empson with a twenty-three year old memory of someone else’s book. But it hooks in bits from Lawrence La Riviere White, John Holbo, and other notables, and may give some idea why we’d be attracted to a venture like the Valve.)

By Ray Davis on 05/14/06 at 09:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jon,

Would it be too much trouble to actually state the point you’re trying to make with “Bad Latin American Literature”?

The only way I could conceive of doing a course focusing on badness would add in the focus on readership. writers sometimes try to write what they think their readers (especially those readers abroad) want to see.

By Amardeep Singh on 05/14/06 at 09:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hehe, I do find it amusing that people find a “bad literature” course odd.  It does seem to show that, by default, it’s assumed that we’re otherwise always teaching “good” literature.

OK, Amardeep.  First of all, here’s the blurb:

Bad Latin American Literature (A “not so Great Books” Course)

“The truth is that he wrote like shit.  Who? [...] Arlt, of course, Arlt. [...] No doubt he has one undeniable merit: it would be impossible to write worse.  In that respect he is unique and without rival.” (Ricardo Piglia)

Latin American literature came to global prominence in the 1960s, with the success of so-called “boom” novelists such as Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa.  Associated particularly with “magic realism,” Latin America has often been seen as home to one of the most vibrant of world literatures.  Latin American writers are frequently seen as both more skilful in their artistry, and more engaged with the political, than comparable writers in the West.

This course, however, will focus on “bad” Latin American literature--and so also on who decides what is bad and what is good, and how.  We will examine the possible tensions between commercial and critical success, and between aesthetic and political commitment.  We will challenge the image of Latin American literature as necessarily “good” literature.

Looking particularly at best-sellers (including Latin America’s two best-selling writers) and at specific debates about the role of the author (from the Cortázar/Arguedas debate to the controversy about testimonio), the course will therefore ask questions about canon formation, literary value, taste, the relation between literature and politics, and the idea of a “world literature.”

Now, I’m also interested in the pedagogical strategies of such a course.  Too often I find myself in the classroom trying to persuade students of the value of the books we’re reading.  (Their number one complaint: that long books are necessarily bad books.) Here, however, none of this, as the premise will be that the books we’re reading are bad.

And indeed the books I’ll be teaching are, for the most part (I think) genuinely bad.  Whatever that means.  Books I dislike.

But, of course, they include some of the best-selling works of Latin American literature, which students typically love (notably Paulo Coelho and Isabel Allende).  So it will be the onus of the students to explain why they think such books are good, if indeed that’s what they think.

And then, as my blurb suggests, we’ll also look at various other forms of badness, and the possible relations between them.

By Jon on 05/14/06 at 10:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And now I’ve expatiated at more length over at Posthegemony about what I term the Allende conundrum.

By Jon on 05/14/06 at 02:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura,

You’re right, and that’s something I should’ve made more clear in my original post, i.e. that there is a degree of fanboy slavishness both w/r/t single-author studies and a select group of authors, Austen, Shakespeare, Joyce, James, &c.  For me, then, the question would be at what moment does “love” end and “pointed interest” begin.  I don’t “love” Jack London’s work in any sense of the word, but I’m intensely interested in it, in its effects, the way in which it’s caught in currents so great London can imagine his autonomy while still being swept downstream.  Whatever that attachment to London is, however, it’s not the uncritical emotional attachment Crain discusses.

Ray,

Pencil “Scattered Reflections and Observations on” before each and you’ll find some satisfying essays.

That’s certainly the case, hence my initial complaint about the disconnect between the ostensible and actual purview of the essay.

To be fair to Caleb Crain, he is talking about literary criticism rather than scholarship.

It was the “academic” of “Academic Criticism” that threw me initially, which means I may have simply written the complaint of an unsatisfied consumer:  “But but but this was supposed to be new and improved!”

I read and comment more on that other thread shortly--and the other comments, as well--as I have even more papers to grade, and only a limited amount of time to fool around before The Guilt™ of not doing so gets to me.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/14/06 at 03:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

FYI: I’m not ignoring this thread.  I set the post above this one to auto-post earlier in the week.  I’m a responsible commenter, I promise.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/14/06 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But my point, Scott, is that you’re wrong to claim that love must end before “pointed interest” (which I take to be the most you think a professional critic ought to own up to) can begin.  You’ve every right to say there’s no place for love in your personal experience of writing about literature, and perhaps even within the culture of your institution, but there are no grounds for asserting that it’s also how things must work for everybody else. 

Reasoned, communicable academic scholarship and criticism is perfectly compatible with love, warmth, pleasure, curiosity, respect and enjoyment.  I would even go so far as to say the very best criticism must harbour some sympathy for the object of its attention.  It’s a negative capability thing.

By on 05/14/06 at 08:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve not read Crain’s piece, but this discussion seems rather oddly skewed. I can’t imagine someone becoming a literary academic without loving literature. By the same token, I’d like to think that literary academics also enjoy the study of literature, not as something parasitic upon literature itself—though such sentiment is rife and conventionalized in nooks and crannies of the profession—but as a worthwhile intellectual pursuit. Literature itself is not going to tell us how it works in mind, culture, and history—though some texts do pretend to that sort of thing. If you want to know how it works, then you have to investigate in some way. Some of the texts you work on will be ones that have given you particular pleasure, but some may have been dictated by the nature of the questions you are asking, e.g. if you’re interested in the interaction between literature and evolutionary thinking, you may find yourself reading a lot of Jack London.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on one text, “Kubla Khan.” I wrote a master’s thesis on it in the early 1970s, published a somewhat revised version of that thesis in the mid-1980s, and then have published a considerably elaborated piece 2 or 3 years ago. And I may well work on it some more. Why? Because I ask certain kinds of questions and that poem is a good example for me to work on. Do I like the poem? Yes. But the time I’ve spent on it is not a function of how much I like it. It’s a function of theoretical and methodological concerns and that’s quite legitimate.

Just the past few months I’ ve spent a lot of time on Disney’s “Fantasia.” Do I like it? Yes, quite a bit. In fact, I believe it to be one of the great works of the the 20th century, albeit rather flawed here and there. But I’m also interested in the way image and sound work together in that film, and getting a handle on that requires that I watch it over and over and over and make notes and so forth. Nor is that all that interests me about the film.

I’m willing to assume, in a general way, that some of the things I’m looking at account for at least some of the pleasure the film gives me (and others). But I’d be hard pressed to say that my pleasure is driving my analysis in any tight way. My pleasure tells me there’s something there worth looking into. Just what I look at is driven by my general experience in thinking about art and music and perception and all that stuff, but also some very specific concerns (such as ontological cognition and the Great Chain of Being).

It seems to me that criticism would be pretty thin if informed by little more than the pleasure of the text. You also need the pleasure of the inquiry.

By Bill Benzon on 05/14/06 at 09:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott,

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think the stumbling block is that you can’t believe I’m serious. You write that “I know he knows that, as currently constituted, literature departments do not fail to cultivate taste so much as not consider it part of the charter.” You’re right, I do know that. You continue: “I think Crain confuses the purpose of the profession with the reasons people enter it.” Perhaps I am confused on this point, but it’s willful on my part.

Rather than jump any further into the fray, I’m going to just ask interested parties to get ahold of the essay and judge for themselves. And may a thousand flowers bloom.

Caleb

By Caleb Crain on 05/14/06 at 10:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure that single-author studies are as “small and vanishing” a genre as you think. In the last 30 days alone, the English Library at the university I live near acquired books devoted to a single author on sixteen authors (seventeen if a “reception study” counts), both greats and lesser-knowns (e.g. Thorton Wilder, George S. Schuyler, Barbara Pym). All of them were from reputable university or scholarly presses. (Granted, these were a minority of the books acquired.)

By Adam Stephanides on 05/15/06 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Seems like mileage varies by terrain.

I never met the guy or heard how he is as a teacher, and I can’t imagine working in an English department, but if I could imagine working in an English department it would be ‘cause I wanted to imagine being Jerome McGann. He does new scholarly editions, he does novel popular editions, he writes wild-assed well-researched analyses, he pushes an eccentric canon, he treats contemporary and classic art as equals, and he seems to do it all with the same focused enthusiasm I brought to the Blitzkrieg Bop. Sure, I think he’s wrong sometimes. If you don’t want the pleasure of being wrong sometimes you might as well go to med school.

By Ray Davis on 05/15/06 at 11:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: