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Past Valve Book Events

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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?

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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

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

This Week in My Classes Revisited, with Some Thoughts on J. C. Hallman

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 09/15/09 at 08:45 AM

I don’t usually cross-post my teaching posts at The Valve, but it has been kind of quiet around here lately and I thought some Valve readers might be interested in the J. C. Hallman anthology I discuss towards the end of this post--and perhaps in some of the other issues the post raises along the way. So, here is the latest installment in a series I’ve been running at my own place since 2007, “This Week in My Classes.”

Another year, another edition of the ongoing saga “This Week in My Classes.” I began this series of posts two years ago as a response to what seemed to me exaggerated and unwarranted claims that English professors routinely wage war on literature, destroying (or indoctrinating) young minds in the process. Here, for example, is a comment from a thread on Footnoted (apparently now defunct, this site at the Chronicle of Higher Education once rounded up interesting posts from academic blogs):

Lit crit should finally die the death it so much deserves. Lit departments have floundered for decades because they have forgotten the text. Instead, they have pandered to the politically correct idiots who can neither read with sense nor write with style. May they ALL be flushed down the toilet where they belong.

The folks at Footnoted had linked to a post of mine in which I wondered why professional literary critics were either ignored or villified in some very public discussions going on at the time about the state of reading, literature, and criticism. I had been reading, for instance, Cynthia Ozick’s piece “Literary Entrails,” which appeared in Harper’s in 2007 and included the following aside (or “asnide,” a great neologism I just learned):

(Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multi-syllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since, unlike the hardier customer reviewers, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.)

Here’s part of what I wrote at the time:

I too find much recent published criticism pretty unappealing, and many aspects of professional academic discourse alienating, for a range of reasons. But I don’t think what goes on in my classroom, or in the classrooms of a great many “dons and doctors,” deserves to be so sweepingly ignored or distorted. Here’s a similar bit from the “statement of purpose” with which [Dan] Green launched his blog: “the academy, once entrusted with the job of engaging with works of literature, has mostly abandoned it altogether in favor of ‘cultural studies’ and other forms of political posturing.” Again, however accurate this may be as a description of academic criticism (and that’s surely arguable), “the academy” (not, of course, monolithic in the way Green implies) does a lot of other things too, much of which involves exposing students to a variety of writers and styles, thinking about literary history and the history of genres, learning a vocabulary to talk about how writers get different kinds of things done and to what ends--aesthetically, ethically, and yes, also (but not exclusively) politically. One thing those of us in “the academy” do is send at least some of our students out into the “real” world excited and inquring and serious about literature, and equipped with some knowledge and some expertise as readers. I like to point out to my students that they will be assigned “required” reading for only a small fraction of their reading lives--after that, the choices will be theirs, the engagement and the satisfaction only as deep as they choose to make it. It’s my goal to give them some tools and strategies to go deeper if they want to, as well as to broaden their textual horizons. Ozick (rightly, I think) laments that “Amazon encourages naive and unqualified readers...to expose their insipidities to a mass audience.” You don’t need an English degree to be insightful about books--but some education as a reader is surely one way to become the kind of reader novelists such as Ozick (or, for that matter, critics such as Green) hope to have.

As I brooded about these sweeping condemnations of my life’s work, I found I was most troubled and perplexed by the enormous gap between what I (and most if not all of my colleagues, mentors, and friends) are doing, or trying to do, or aspiring to, in our classrooms and the way that work was being characterized. In my own 23 years in the academy, I’ve had only one experience in a classroom that seemed anything like what these people are describing, and I write as someone who was a student through some of the most intense years of the so-called “culture wars.” Only ignorance--some of it surely willful--and prejudice (some of it based, I thought, on the kinds of things Tim Burke had written about as “Anger at Academe,” including both personal experiences and what he calls “social antagonisms") could sustain such hostile misrepresentations. And so the best--really, the only--response I could think of that might do a little good was to shine some light on what really happens in at least one English professor’s classroom on a regular basis. Not, as I wrote then, that I assume “my own classroom is either wholly typical or exemplary,” but it’s the one I know best.

I’ve kept up the series for two years. While I don’t think I reached any of the skeptics who motivated it originally, it has turned out to be, intrinsically, a useful and interesting exercise for me. Here’s an excerpt from the “Reflections on Blogging My Teaching“ that I wrote up after the first year:

As the weeks went by, though, I more or less stopped thinking about these lost souls. So who was I writing for? Well, as other bloggers often remark, your only certain audience is yourself, so you have to find the effort intrinsically valuable and interesting, which I almost always did. Teaching is, necessarily, something you do in a state of rapid and constant motion (and I mean not just mental but physical, as the Little Professor has recently proven). Classes follow on classes, and on meetings and graduate conferences and administrative tasks and attempts to meet proposal deadlines, in what becomes a blur of activity as the term heats up...and though a great deal of planning and preparation typically goes into each individual classroom hour, I hadn’t usually taken any time to reflect further on what just happened, or what’s about to happen. I found that taking this extra step each week not only helped me identify the purpose, or, if writing retrospectively, the result of each class, but it made each week more interesting by giving me an opportunity to make connections or articulate puzzles or just express pleasure and appreciation in ways that went beyond what I had time for in class. I pursued links between my teaching and my research projects, for example, as well as between my teaching and my other ‘non-professional’ interests and activities. I articulated ideas suggested by class discussions that otherwise would have sunk again below the surface of my distracted mind. Blogging my teaching enhanced my own experience of teaching. That in itself is a worthwhile goal.

I felt the same after the second year of posting. Though I am doing some repeat teaching this year, there’s enough new material--and there are always different connections, ideas, and challenges--to make me look forward to another round, more of the same but perhaps, as I go along, with some differences in format, just to keep things lively.

Also, though I no longer really expect to make a dent in people’s prejudices against my profession, it turns out that there’s still plenty of hostility out there that deserves to be countered. Just this week, for instance, DorothyW tipped me off to this discussion of a forthcoming anthology by J. C. Hallman, whose statements about academic critics are very much in same spirit as Ozick’s, whose “Literary Entrails” he cites in his Introduction. His parting shot is at the “the dry, tenure-desperate prose of critics, who already have far too much say over how literature is perceived in the world.” “Writers,” he says, “set out to celebrate the work rather than exhaust it.” Hallman admits to not being a scholar, but he offers up a breezy two-paragraph account of the history of literary criticism since 1910 that is apparently meant to justify his eventual conclusion (after his own apparently unrewarding venture into critical debates about Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw) that “maybe the whole business of criticism ought to be chucked"--or better yet, he decides, reinvented according to his own idea of “creative criticism.”

I stand by the position I originally took against Ozick. Thanks to the passionate, diligent, rigorous work of highly-trained professional critics in thousands of classrooms every day, many, many students read and appreciate many more “good books” than they would otherwise; rather than being, as Hallman says, “inoculated against the effects of good books,” they learn to enhance, expand, or challenge their personal responses with attention to craft, genre, literary history and influences, social, historical, and political contexts and implications, aesthetic theories and effects, language, rhetoric, and much more. It’s true that “celebrating” the work is not the usual tactic, but enthusiasm for it is a necessary--just not a sufficient--condition for successful teaching. Yes, a lot of published academic prose is pretty dry, even alienating, especially when read by those never intended to be its audience (the same is true of technical writing in other fields, as is often pointed out in these debates). I worry about the quantitive pressure created by our systems of tenure and promotion, the log-jammed peer review process, the disincentives for taking a long view, or a long time, in a project. I’ve spent a fair amount of time myself wondering how to do critical writing that is lively and accessible but still responsible and well-informed. I’ve reviewed a lot of books that show how non-academics, including creative writers, “write about reading.” It’s not that I’m complacent about the state or style of academic literary criticism. Even so, I resent having this dismissive remark from James Wood stand as a fair assessment of our situation and efforts:

Having been caught out, the poem is triumphantly led off in golden chains; the detective writes up his report in hideous prose, making sure to flatter himself a bit, and then goes home to a well-deserved drink.

James Wood is an excellent reader and critic; I’m sure he enjoys a “well-deserved drink” after a day at the Harvard job he got without having to serve the usual soul-crushing academic apprenticeship, or after publishing a book for which he was not required to support and complicate his arguments with extensive research outside his personal library.

Anyway, it’s another term, and I still think it’s worth keeping up this series. Next time, some specifics about my Fall 2009 courses.

(If anyone’s interested, a chronologically-ordered list of posts in this series can be found here.)


Comments

Ah!  Not only do I admit to not being a scholar—I relish it!  Indeed, it’s the kind of “scholarship” celebrated in this post that has helped to marginalize literature, send it wheeling off toward obscurity.  The main problem, it seems to me, is that you appear to consider the feelings many writers have about literary criticism to be “prejudices.” As though critics are victims!  How neat!  Orwell would be charmed by such a sly turning of the tables.

As I detail [http://tinhousebooks.com/blog] on the Tin House Books Blog, it’s hardly just me who has a problem with the institution of literary criticism.  Nor is it just me and Ozick (flattering though that may be).  Rather, it’s me and almost every writer anthologized in The Story About the Story: Nabokov, Stegner, Sontag, Dyer, De Botton, D’Ambrosio, Wilde, Woolf, Wood, Rushdie, Ozick, and on and on.  Not to mention that such criticism of critics follows in the footsteps of Henry James!  Do you really want to dismiss all this collected wisdom?  They’re all simply wrong?

No one’s saying you shouldn’t perform critical actions, but, as I detail in the post above—and as all these writers articulate—it’s the matter of the articulation that counts.  True, English Departments have managed to pull themselves forward through the years, attracting just enough students to replace the retirees as they fade away, but anyone who has sat in on an English Department meeting knows it’s a losing battle—and if we don’t blame something as fundamental as our basic assumptions and techniques, we guarantee ever-diminishing returns.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/15/09 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Indeed, it’s the kind of “scholarship” celebrated in this post that has helped to marginalize literature, send it wheeling off toward obscurity.

Nonsense.

Do you really want to dismiss all this collected wisdom?

Why not?

By Bill Benzon on 09/15/09 at 07:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan’s post suggests to me a deep ambivalence about the current state of literary scholarship: I hardly see it as celebrating it.  For example, she writes things like “I too find much recent published criticism pretty unappealing, and many aspects of professional academic discourse alienating, for a range of reasons. . . .  Yes, a lot of published academic prose is pretty dry. . . .  I worry about the quantitive pressure created by our systems of tenure and promotion, the log-jammed peer review process, the disincentives for taking a long view, or a long time, in a project.”

In the _Anatomy of Criticism_, Northrop Frye distinguishes between the public critic, whose task is “to exemplify how a man of taste uses and evaluates literature, and thus show how literature is to be absorbed into society” and the scholar, whose task is to understand literature, just as any other type of scholar or scientist studies his or her subject.  It’s not surprising that some writers don’t have much time for this kind of scholarship, as its goal is not to celebrate the work (nor to exhaust it, nor marginalize it), but to understand it within the larger contexts of literature and culture as structures or systems.  Of course, writers tend not to like public critics either, when they give negative reviews!

As for Henry James, he was undoubtedly self-protective when it came to critics, biographers, and reporters.  But he also used the institutions of criticism and literary celebrity to his own advantage, and this ambivalence is one of the many things that makes his stories about writers and critics so endlessly fascinating.  The man who wrote “The Figure in the Carpet” hardly had a simple attitude towards literary criticism!

By on 09/15/09 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s ironic to me that Ozick, for example, is neither a first-rate novelist nor a first-rate belles lettres critic.  While the style of her critical prose might be more palatable than, say, some academic research, it is not rich with insights

It’s also sad that these discussions too often fail to acknowledge the difference between insights and research.  Wood can offer insights on works that have been painstakingly edited and preserved by bone-dry academic research.  It reminds me of Ron Rosenbaum’s *Shakespeare Wars*.  I love that book, and Rosenbaum has some sharp insights on issues in Shakespeare studies.  But he offers no original research; instead, he entertainingly and thoughtfully summarizes the life’s work of academics who can’t always afford to mix a graceful style with their research.

While I’ve rarely read any academic research that presumes to “exhaust” a work of art, I have read plenty of writers’ criticism that presumes to replace it with their own.  De Botton’s book on Proust is a great example.  It’s a wonderful book, but it says little about Proust’s novels.  It is instead a little intellectual adventure story—a romance—about one smart reader’s journey through Proust’s work.  In the end, I felt like I had learned more about De Botton’s tastes and mindset than about Proust’s novels. 

Of course there are some excellent nonprofessional critics who do perform real research, such as Lewis Hyde or Roberto Calasso.  But they were academically trained and would not be where they are if not for, again, the often dry-as-dust work of academic critics.  And they are not excellent *because* they are nonprofessional, for there are as many academic critics with lovely styles, such as Stephen Greenblatt or Sean Wilentz or Stephen Booth or Bob Perelman.

By on 09/15/09 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mr. Hallman, welcome to The Valve.

I would characterize the “main problem” at issue here as that of making sweepingly pejorative but ill-informed and superficial generalizations about entire enterprises (and thus, by implication, those engaged in it). I think that is precisely what most people understand “prejudiced” to mean. Did you look at the teaching posts I linked to? I don’t see how they “marginalize literature, [or] send it wheeling off toward obscurity.” Maybe it was the idea of giant hairball day that worried you--but I promise, even then, it’s all about the book.

Many writers have indeed been exceptional readers and outstanding critics. On the other hand, they are also likely to be hostile to “critics” (despite often acting as critics themselves), for self-interested reasons. And their own criticism may well be hampered by their particular investments in the kind of writing they choose to do and value. James is an interesting example. An experienced reviewer and one of the first systematic theorists of fiction, he could also be obtuse about work that did not correspond readily to his own pet ideas about what good fiction should do. For instance, he famously called Middlemarch a “treasurehouse of details but an indifferent whole.” His own aesthetic priorities, that is, and his need to differentiate himself from his literary predecessors, impeded his appreciation of another great artist because she did not write the novel that he would have written in her place. Another way to consider this difficulty is to note that she wrote Daniel Deronda and he wrote Portrait of a Lady. (I thoroughly enjoy his essay on “The Art of Fiction,” nonetheless, and included it in my own recent collection of Victorian writing on the novel.) Charlotte Bronte thought Jane Austen’s novels were pretty but confining; Woolf thought that Bronte’s anger had spoiled Jane Eyre. There’s something to be said, sometimes, for an outside perspective.

It’s not a question of dismissing the collected wisdom of the great writers whose work you have assembled. The contents of your anthology sound a treat. But I think your introduction does everyone involved a disservice by setting up a cheap and unnecessary opposition between these writers and those who (among other things) do so much to make sure they continue to be read and appreciated. Far from marginalizing literature, academic critics contribute to its continued health and vitality. Sure, there are people who would read Nabokov and Woolf anyway, or Dickens or George Eliot or Richardson or Rushdie, or maybe even Pope, or Milton, or Chaucer--but there are also many who never would have done so if not for the efforts of their professors to help them understand some of what these writers are up to, how they are using language, revising conventions and traditions, joining in conversations about aesthetics and beauty and politics and justice. In my own experience, of the probably 2000 students who have passed through my classrooms, almost none arrived having any interest at all in Middlemarch, but many left excited to read The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda as well. I just ran into a student today who had read Atonement over the summer because she enjoyed our work on Saturday so much. The point of my post was that (again, in my experience, but that’s getting quite extensive) I am not exceptional.

Does the kind of criticism academics often publish clearly reflect the passion most of them feel for their subjects? Is it easily accessible to non-specialists? Perhaps not--but the specialist work academics do informs their teaching in all kinds of ways and has dramatically expanded the range of literature in which we can all now take an informed interest. Would it be a good thing if more academics wrote more user-friendly criticism? I think it would be: why not encourage systemic changes so that there could be some professional incentives and recognition for such shared expertise?

So why set up this opposition? Why belittle the entire “institution of literary criticism"--especially without doing more homework on it? At least Ronan McDonald read around a bit before proclaiming the death of the critic. Let’s not throw all kinds of babies out with the bathwater, however murky it looks to you.

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/15/09 at 07:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s odd to be criticized for setting up artificial oppositions by voices who seem to be operating with a set of oppositions artificial in and of themselves.

Reacting to the posts above, I’d simply note that there is an assumption made that scholarly work is somehow more important than work that is for the “public,” or is “user-friendly.” Same goes with the idea that there are different kinds of audiences, or different kinds of writing intended for those different kinds of audiences.  These assumptions are so deeply ingrained that I imagine it’s shocking to hear them challenged at all.  But I reject the idea that “scholarship” does something different and (the suggestion goes) more important than work that is actually enjoyable to read.  One cannot cite all the problems associated with academic writing and then defend it by saying it needs to be that way.  There is no defense for the artificially esoteric.

There seems to be an assumption made here that I’ve dismissed the idea of criticism wholesale.  I haven’t.  I’ve dismissed a particular kind of practice of it.  A second post on the Tin House Books blog makes this clear, I hope:

http://tinhousebooks.com/blog/?p=372#more-372

Ironically, as I assert in the introduction to the actual book, I don’t think the debate is really one that is playing out between writers and critics these days (except perhaps in response to my anthology!).  Rather, the major changes in criticism in recent years—moving toward the writers’ model of it—have come from critics themselves.  Wood, Bloom, Steven Knapp, Walter Benn Michaels, and so on.  Why can’t all critics set out to be engaging stylists?  Wolfgang Iser is a wonderful case.  As is Frank Manuel (author of Utopian Thought in the Western World).  The problem is not with the originals—say Barthes, Derrida, and so on—but with those who become disciples only, and publish accordingly.  This, at least, is the argument Terry Eagleton makes in After Theory, another critic assessing the modern state of things.

As to whether all this adds up to “not enough homework,” I’ll let readers decide.  The Story About the Story isn’t about me—it’s for anyone who wants to read serious, complicated, in depth critical actions executed by writers who, at the same time, without sacrificing any seriousness of purpose, manage to be passionate and engaging.

Of course, all this may boil down to a difference of opinion as to the goal of criticism.  I go with J.E. Spingarn, another critic trying to change the direction of things.  The basic task of the critic, Spingarn advises, is to “have sensations in the presence of a work of art and express them.”

By J.C. Hallman on 09/16/09 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think this sentence sums up the reasons I usually dislike academic literary criticism:

“they [students] learn to enhance, expand, or challenge their personal responses with attention to craft, genre, literary history and influences, social, historical, and political contexts and implications, aesthetic theories and effects, language, rhetoric, and much more.”

It needs to be pointed out that *many writers do not consider this a good thing*.

A specific example:

If you pick up “The Second Coming” read it and don’t like it, that’s fine.  That is an acceptable response to a piece of literature.

If, then, you take a class, learn all about Yeats and meter and symbolism, and then re-read it and then suddenly claim to like it--that’s bad. 

That’s posing.  That’s like saying you didn’t used to like broccoli but then you took a biology class and a chemistry class and now you know what broccoli is made of and so you like to eat it.

Yes, the poem (or the broccoli) may be more *interesting* because you know about its historical context or about other people’s reactions to it, but that could be said of any work (or meal), good or bad, including any harlequin romance ever written.

Now, I have had literature teachers and they were fantastic, and I don’t dismiss the entire profession out of hand.  I do, however think that the idea--which is extremely widespread in academic circles--that knowing about a work of art’s context should actually make someone like it better is terrible and biases people toward books which are more “interesting” than “enjoyable”.

Borges said it:

“The professors, who are the ones who dispense fame, are interested less in beauty than in literature’s dates and changes, and in the prolix analysis of books that have been written for that analysis, not for the joy of the reader.”

If this isn’t true of you or of professors you know, then GREAT!  You are the kind of teachers and critics we need more of.

If it is you, however, and you believe knowing about the craft, genre, literary history and influences, social, historical, and political contexts and implications, aesthetic theories and effects, language and rhetoric that the author was employing, or embroiled in should help a student like that work more, that’s a problem.

A literature teacher should introduce you to Madame Bovary if they like it and you haven’t read it.  A literature teachers should tell you everything he or she can about Madame Bovary. A literature teacher should not, however, believe that any of these things should convince you to like it or that any of these things make it better.
__

As for the academic voice usually used in literary criticism, there’s no excuse for it, and the defense that:

“Yes, a lot of published academic prose is pretty dry, even alienating, especially when read by those never intended to be its audience (the same is true of technical writing in other fields, as is often pointed out in these debates)”

...is disingenuous.  It assumes that criticism of literature is and should be an arcane technical field on the level of, say, astrophysics, which it isn’t.  Only a few branches of literary criticism--poetic meter, for instance--are genuinely technical, and even they are not that difficult to master.

Using the word “narrative” instead of “story” or “intentionality” instead of “intentions” is often merely a tactic used to make the analysis of literature SEEM like it’s actually more difficult than it really is, and the fact that Nabokov, Orwell, Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace and other writers have managed to write devastatingly good works of criticism that are completely readable proves that criticism is simply another species of writing and that poorly written criticism is just a species of bad writing.

We cannot expect everyone to write like our best writers, but when an academic critic fails to write intelligibly he or she should be grown-up enough to admit it’s because they’re not that good at writing, rather than hiding behind a false defense.

By Zak Smith on 09/16/09 at 07:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak, your penultimate paragraph reveals exactly *why* those words are necessary.

Not every narrative has a story. The General Prologue of *The Canterbury Tales* begins with a story and then shifts into character sketches.  Both are part of the narrative, but only the first section exhibits the cause-and-effect actions we mean by a story.  A narrative is anything that is narrated.  A story (or, more likely, a plot) is a cause and effect arrangement of events.

Then there’s the distinction drawn by some critics between story (the events as they are supposed to have happened in a book) and the plot (the events as they are presented, not always in temporal—or story—order).

And then there’s the simple fact that a reader thrown by “narrative” probably should not be allowed to read.  My high school students understand that word.  Can you tell me why narrative is a worse word than story?  Orwell implies that Latinate words are somehow foreign to English, as if the events of the 1st century-13th century, in which Latin and then Norman French entered Anglo-Saxon English, are contrary to some pure English.  Personally, “canine” holds the same conotations as “dog,” and the Latin is a lot more graceful.  “Narrative,” likewise, has a softed sound that often works better in a sentence than “story.” But I suppose only non-professional critics think about such matters.

By on 09/17/09 at 04:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther:

Again, totally disingeuous.

The problem is not the word “narrative” itself, the problem is when it and other multisyllabic words are used together in one sentence (without the distinction between the big word and it’s semi-synonym being essential to the meaning of the sentence) and then a string of such sentences are strung together at such a density that the meaning becomes pointlessly obscure.

David Foster Wallace provides some awesome examples:

(From Frederic Jamison, I believe)
**
If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the
future as post-Fordist subject, his palpably
masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the
sublime superstate need to be decoded as
the “now all-but-unreadable DNA” of the fast
industrializing Detroit, just as his Robocop-like
strategy of carceral negotiation and street
control remains the tirelessly American one
of inflicting regeneration through violence
upon the racially heteroglassic wilds and others
of the inner city.**

(From the Village Voice)
*At first encounter, the poems’ distanced
cerebral surfaces can be daunting, evading
physical location or straightforward emotional
arc. But this seeming remoteness quickly
reveals a very real passion, centered in the
speaker’s struggle to define his evolving
self-construction.*

And then there’s Orwell’s own example, where he translates:

“I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift” from Ecclesiastes into:

“Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account”

However, the simplest critique is the old campus bumper sticker: “Eschew obfuscation”.

We all know what those two words mean, and we all have good reason to use them--and not their semi-synonyms--on occasion, but when they are strung together in order to be, as DFW put it, not a vector of meaning but to be a vector of the author’s resume, we are in trouble.

By Zak Smith on 09/17/09 at 08:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak,

Who said anything about making, or trying to make, people like something? It’s not my job (indeed, it’s not anyone’s job) to pressure someone into liking something. I prefer to think in terms of appreciation. There are many literary works (and other things) that I appreciate (meaning I understand at least something about the kind of thing they are, how they work or are crafted, how they fit into or challenge traditions, etc.) without liking them. I teach a lot of things that are in that category, actually. Often my students like things I’m teaching that I dislike, and vice versa. A syllabus consisting only of things I like would present a partial, idiosyncratic, and perhaps inaccurate view of literature. “A literature teacher should introduce you to Madame Bovary if they like it and you haven’t read it”? A teacher has a larger responsibility than that, including not restricting your opportunity to find new things that you like.

That said, informed appreciation often does change people’s responses to things. It seems ridiculous to argue that nobody ever comes to like something, whether by learning more about it or just by changing or developing their taste or interests. Why assume that anyone who claims to have done so is “posing”? And why be so content for people to rest with their first impressions, which can often be no better than knee-jerk reactions to the unfamiliar or misunderstood? “I don’t like it” often means “I don’t get it,” after all, as many great writers have found when they did something innovative. And sure, it’s “acceptable” not to like something, but in pretty much every sphere of life we expect people to have some reasons for their judgments, good and bad. “I like it” or “I don’t like it” are pretty shallow responses if they don’t continue with a “because” clause. Should everyone be expected to articulate their reasons for every judgment, aesthetic or otherwise, that they make? Not in every context, of course, but actually, I think people should be able to, if asked. Judgments without reasons are just prejudices, after all; they show no respect for the author or the text, or for other readers.

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/17/09 at 08:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s probably not a surprise that I’m largely sympathetic to Zak’s position here—I agree that the tendency to string together jargon that is ostensibly meant to create precision has, actually, the opposite effect.  And in fact I just “taught” the Orwell essay he refers to the other day.  Indeed, “Politics and the English Language” ought to be required reading in all college-level writing courses.  Those interested in this might be drawn to a recent book by Robert Richardson, about Emerson’s advice on good writing—“First We Read, Then We Write.” I did a short piece about this book for Bookslut:

http://www.bookslut.com/features/2009_04_014309.php

That said, I disagree about careful study not leading to a kind of appreciation.  I just finished a book about expressions of utopian thought, and one of the “utopias” I wrote about was the Slow Food Movement, which, not surprisingly, has some interesting ideas on “taste.” They make the argument that your food can actually taste better as a result of knowing more about it, its production, its history—you don’t simply know why it’s good for you, the knowledge improves the experience of it.  I have to admit that I think something similar is possible in literature—but I’m still sympathetic to Zak’s position when it comes to the manner of that kind of examination.  A serious, detailed, highly critical, even hypothesis-driven assessment of a book or a poem can take place within the context of writing that does not artificially sublimate its own subjectivity.  There are not different kinds of writing, and different kinds of audiences.  There’s one kind of writing (good), and one audience (everyone).  The more we divvy this up, the closer we come to silence.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/17/09 at 09:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s a simple fact that the works that academic critics “appreciate” very often also happen to be the ones they single out as being of high quality.
Most academic critics can’t tell the difference.

Thus the Borges quote.

If you’re in college and your first reactions are still “knee-jerk reactions to the unfamiliar or misunderstood” then you are, frankly, so natively close-minded as to be forever hopeless with art (and life), even if a dedicated teacher is capable of temporarily or locally helping him or her not be quite so hopeless.

If an english-speaking college student comes in with a “knee jerk reaction” to Ulysses that they experience because it’s “alien”, they should be branded on the forehead so that no-one ever listens to them again, not trained to parrot off the thousands of reasons people have articulated for liking the book since it was published.

Saying the primary job of a college literature professor is to disabuse students of their prejudices is rather like saying the job of a college math professor is to explain that 2+2 does not equal 78.  If you’re still *there* as a freshman in college, then face it, you’ll never be good at math.

(And, likewise, the “slow-food” notion that you like something--especially food--more because you know about it is obviously intellectually descended from something yuppies made up to justify trips to wine-country.)

As for the notion that explaining “why” you like or dislike something is important, I have no quarrel.  A responsible reader has a visceral response, then learns to dig out why he or she had that visceral response.  This involves practicing writing and thinking and does not necessarily have anything to do with learning about a work’s context(s).

By Zak Smith on 09/17/09 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak, thank you for introducing the wonderful metaphor of “digging out” the origins of one’s visceral responses. I will forever associate aesthetic appreciation of the kind you approve with disembowelment.

J.C., I am puzzled by your assertion that The Story about the Story is not “about me” when all the promotional material you have published is centered on a personal narrative relating your Battles with the Academons ("Driving the Stake,” for instance). The Story About the Story is clearly a highly personal project, and the least you could do is remain consistent in acknowledging that. (Or you could drop the whole crusader schtick.)

Furthermore, it’s not even the egalitarian rallying cry that you claim it to be. The particular tenor and substance of your introduction and the blog posts you’re written about the anthology are angling for a specialized audience--basically, people who hate academics as much as you do. Aggrieved polemic like yours intentionally divides its audience, and scoops up what it hopes is the larger half. You complain about being accused wrongfully of introducing artificial oppositions, but I’m not sure what’s inaccurate about that--oppositional jeremiads are how you’re trying to sell your book.

By Andrew Seal on 09/17/09 at 04:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aggrieved polemic like yours intentionally divides its audience, and scoops up what it hopes is the larger half.

Self-glorifying anti-intellectualism? Oh well, I suppose this particular brand is a cut or two above Creationist polemic against evolutionary biology.

By Bill Benzon on 09/17/09 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hallman shares the major aims of literary critics but has tactical disagreements with how they “conduct their critical actions,” a happy misfortune, that phrase, so dry and derivative, unintentionally illustrating, of course, that writing (Hallman) about writing (criticism) about writing (literary art) with verve and passion and — one hopes! — insight is an infernally difficult task. Now I realize that my Proustian-inspired gem of a sentence may not satisfy Hallman’s criteria for unique, passionate, inspiring, and creative writing, but whose loss is that?

By Kevin on 09/17/09 at 07:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The idea that learning how to read a poem and then appreciating it more is somehow ‘bad’ or ‘insincere’ is so moronic it need not even be condemned. But since no one else has, what are you smoking, Zak Smith? For most people, knowing how a clock works makes it way, way more interesting. Not the opposite. Why do we read Nabokov’s lectures on literature, if this is the case?

By on 09/18/09 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree that a work’s context may or may not have any effect on how we react to art, and that no amount of insight or theory will bring me around to something for which I have simple revulsion.  But isn’t the suggestion, then, that I’m born to the world with one set of susceptibilities and preferences that remain fixed for my lifetime?  Do I not acquire new tastes?  If I do, as a function of what?  Fate?  No, it’s precisely because I’m open to the idea that I can learn to appreciate new things, and new art, that I expose myself to what others have to say.  The basic argument of this anthology is that if these statements about art are passionate, meditative, and contemplative, then they might well sway me...or grow me.  In other words (as Scott Esposito put it before linking to this debate at Conversational Reading) writing about literature that is, itself, literature, can have an effect on me—it can affect what I’m able to appreciate.  The same might go for poems about paintings, or paintings about books.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/18/09 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak, you said,

“If you pick up “The Second Coming” read it and don’t like it, that’s fine.  That is an acceptable response to a piece of literature. If, then, you take a class, learn all about Yeats and meter and symbolism, and then re-read it and then suddenly claim to like it--that’s bad.”

To which I would like to respond: Seriously? One’s first response has to be one’s last? I mean, the word “claim” here implies that the second response is disingenuous, which would of course be bad, but I’d like to think that one’s tastes can and do change over time, sometimes in response to additional learning, new contexts, etc (and sometimes not: I didn’t used to like mushrooms; now I do).

But, Zak, I was even more troubled by this comment:

“If an english-speaking college student comes in with a “knee jerk reaction” to Ulysses that they experience because it’s “alien”, they should be branded on the forehead so that no-one ever listens to them again, not trained to parrot off the thousands of reasons people have articulated for liking the book since it was published.”

I realize you’re engaging in hyperbole here (and again, to “parrot” something would, like the “claim” in the previous remark, be by definition bad, so you’re loading these dichotomies), but still: Seriously? Both this comment and the previous suggest that art is only for sensitive souls who “get it” on their first encounter, and that our earliest, most “pure” responses are the right ones, and that certain responses are “acceptable” and others are not… in short, they suggest some very unpleasant (to me, anyway) assumptions about both art and people.

By on 09/18/09 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you’re in college and your first reactions are still “knee-jerk reactions to the unfamiliar or misunderstood” then you are, frankly, so natively close-minded as to be forever hopeless with art (and life), even if a dedicated teacher is capable of temporarily or locally helping him or her not be quite so hopeless. If an english-speaking college student comes in with a “knee jerk reaction” to Ulysses that they experience because it’s “alien”, they should be branded on the forehead so that no-one ever listens to them again, not trained to parrot off the thousands of reasons people have articulated for liking the book since it was published.

These are the among the depressingly dismissive and contemptuous remarks I’ve ever heard about education.

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/18/09 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Please get out said brand for Mr. Smith.

By Daniel Pritchard on 09/18/09 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What I remember from being an English lit undergraduate is that some professors were fully capable of expanding our knowledge and challenging our understanding while still conveying very, very clearly that the reason we bother with trying to understand literature in the first place is that it is fundamentally fascinating and wonderful, while other professors made the project of understanding literature seem every bit the dull, impenetrable slog that J.C. Hallman indicts.

The bad ones bored me for a quarter, but even then they couldn’t kill the material: I love and constantly re-read Thomas Hardy despite being introduced to him by an indifferent teacher.

As for the good ones? I think that’s what Rohan’s trying to get at, with his focus on the classroom rather than publications: the good teachers can have a life-changing effect. It’s true in my case: I work in publishing as a direct result of enthusiastic English professors drawing me to that department, where I realized that what I loved to do--think and write about books--was valued.

Was their writing, their work outside the classroom, interesting or even comprehensible? I have no idea, but it largely didn’t matter, because they were fulfilling their duty to transmit the love of literature within the classroom.

Would it be a better world if English profs’ professional publications were more generally accessible? Sure, but at the same time there are all these other fascinating viewpoints--including those that Hallman has gathered--available to us now. I don’t feel a dearth of intelligent criticism of authors I’m interested in--if anything, there’s more than I have time for.

By Levi Stahl on 09/18/09 at 03:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In these conversations academic critics are always on the defensive—and rightly so, because like their non-academic counterparts, they once reveled in the freedom provided by unrigorous assessments of literature.  They, too, were once able to make sweeping pronouncements about American literature while only having read the fraction of it that made it into the canon.  They, too, could once rely on their self-satisfied sense of being “well read” to bolster what would be, in any other intellectual arena, statements of dubious value. 

I’m being deliberately offensive here, not because I believe what I’m saying, but because to make a point: creative criticism and academic scholarship do not, in training or execution, share the goals that Mr. Hallman assumes they do.  Consider Hallman’s account of recent critical trends:

It wasn’t until decades later that people began to bat around the term “reader response” to describe what Spingarn ultimately called “creative criticism.” But this flew far beneath the radar of theory-based criticism, which ruled the day until criticism sank into a period of soul-searching. Susan Sontag’s clarion call “Against Interpretation” (1963) had asked what criticism would look like if it set out to “serve the work of art, not usurp its place,” and almost twenty years later, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels offered the blunt force trauma “Against Theory” (1982), in which they questioned assumptions about meaning and text that had come about in the post–World War II years and eventually suggested that the “theoretical enterprise should therefore come to an end.”

How exactly is reader-response in opposition to what Hallman dubs “theory-based criticism”?  How does a tradition that begins, arguably, with Hans Robert Jauss’s “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” not theory-based?  In what world does the prose and argumentative style of Wolfgang Iser, Steven Knapp or Walter Benn Michaels fall outside the purview of literary theory?  The argument about Michaels and Knapp is especially disingenuous, in that it ignores the latter’s body of work in the years since that essay: Walter didn’t want the theoretical enterprise to come to an end—he wanted that one to.  He wanted to shift away from the race and gender based models and towards a class-based one, as evidenced by the picture of the book with his name on it in our sidebar there.

Point being, I would never have made such sweeping critical pronouncements without having done research enough to convince myself that I knew what I was talking about . . . which is what I did when I wrote my take on the past twenty years in literary-critical history.  My response to creative criticism is that it would result in an equally eclectic critical mode, one whose values had shifted back to the New Critical defense of the canonical (although one whose appreciation of contemporary fiction is more extensive than Brooks and company). 

By which I mean: Scott Esposito clearly considers the canon a more international and amorphous beast than did the New Critics, and he also clearly has a refined literary sensibility; however, were he to write about Wings of the Dove (1902), while I would likely enjoy the review and learn something about the novel, but because it would be idiosyncratic, there would be little of value to it.  It would not be conversing with established critical modes, nor would it would be grounded in a deep understanding of the literary environment that not only shaped James, but to which his work is necessarily a response.  Put differently, while Esposito is more widely-read when it comes to self-professed literary works, I’m more widely-read in Anglophone literature circa 1902, and have a better understand of the world—literary and actual—to which Wings of the Dove corresponds because I have read many novels that are of little or suspect literary value.  This leads to my more substantive argument:

Saying that a work is timeless implies that someone has a deep familiarity with timely literature—and I don’t get the sense that the champions of creative criticism do.  They can afford to take timeliness for granted, which is why, as I noted when I began, it is a mistake to consider these coequal endeavors.  Coeval, certainly, but the aims of the academic critic are not those of the creative critic.  But if creative criticism wants to claim certain branches of academic criticism as forbears, it needs to take those critical modes seriously or risk appearing as if their commitments are window-dressing. 

What I mean is, reading Jauss and Iser and understanding their strengths and weaknesses is an essential part of claiming a line of descent.  I’m not even sure which particular mode of reader-response is being opposed to whatever is meant by “theory-based criticism.” Of course, doing this would force creative critics to respond to what the rest of us would consider theoretically difficult and sophisticated works by the likes of Jauss and the Constance School, or Fish, or Norman Holland, or the more Barthesian strains of French post-structuralism, &c.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/18/09 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"For most people, knowing how a clock works makes it way, way more interesting. Not the opposite.”

Here’s the issue: yes, the clock becomes more interesting, but it doesn’t *tell the time* any better.

By Zak Smith on 09/18/09 at 04:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I tend to think that the value and effects of art are more complicated and multifarious and less straightforwardly functional than time-telling.

By on 09/18/09 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I find this (kind of) discussion exhausting and annoying. It’s (generically) been going on for a long time and, while the specific wording changes, the underlying issues remain the same.

There are two different vantage points from which one can create commentary on literature (or any other form of human expression or, for that matter, activity). In one case you are dedicated to furthering the “work” of the literary text, however you may conceive that work. That is the critic’s starting point. But one can also take up a position outside the interaction between writer, text, and audience and attempt to understand (some aspect of) how that system works. That’s the scholar’s starting point. These starting points are different, they support different interests, both legitimate, have different procedures and results, and often different—though overlapping—audiences.

Hallman is clearly speaking as a critic. He’s interested in furthing the work of literature. At the same time he seems to have no interest whatever in understanding how the literary system works—in the mode, as it were, of the proverbial Martian ethnographer. That is to say, he has no interest in the scholar’s point of view. The world is huge and various and none of us can pursue interests in everything. You have to make choices. And Hallman has chosen not to pursue the scholar’s interest in literature. That’s fine.

But he goes further than that. He denies any legitimacy to scholarly interest. He doesn’t want anyone else to pursure inquiry from that point of view. That’s not fine. That’s arrogant. And it’s anti-intellectual. It’s high class bigotry. His intellectual imagination is impoverished.  I see little point in attempting to engage Hallman (and others like him) at length. He has no respect for the interests of scholars. Why engage him seriously? As Andrew Seal has pointed out, he’s simply using our (scholar’s) displeasure/outrage to drum up interest for his narrow-minded polemics.

By Bill Benzon on 09/18/09 at 06:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Academic writing about literature takes a position and makes arguments about narrowly-defined themes. This alone makes it unappealing to many readers whose interests are more general. I’m amused by the number of times I’ve discussed a subject with students and had one of them respond with: “That’s _deep_!” as if I’d just proposed some mind-bending philosophical conundrum. Usually they simply mean that they hadn’t thought you could get that much out of a work of literature.

The comment makes me smile, because yes, sometimes the goal is not to be broad, not to be expansive nor embrace the oceanic sense of literary quality, but to dive deep in one place.

More difficult to challenge is some reader’s sense that their own responses are entirely innocent of theory or prejudice. Students will argue in one moment that authors write whatever it takes to sell copies, and that they pander to the tastes of their day. In the next moment they speak of their own tastes as if they were somehow entirely personal, untouched by their education or the tastes of their own time. When academic criticism reveals that not only novels, but also readers are fashioned by their time, I think many readers are irritated, even angered.

By on 09/18/09 at 06:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill’s comment--on the difference between the “scholar’s” work and the “critic’s” work, is not bad.

What bothers many authors--this author included--are those occasions when the work of scholarly excavation bleeds over into the work of judging the quality of the work in question.

No work exists--indeed no subject exists--which will not reward a scholar with insight.  (See the recent spate of excellent “thing” biographies on subjects ranging from “salt” to the concept of “zero”.) Many works WILL fail to reward readers seeking the pleasures of reading well-written books.

What authors object to is not the scholar’s work, but the overspill of the scholar’s work into the field of judgement: the elevation of tedious works on the grounds that they reward (a given scholar’s) scholarly examination, or the demotion of exciting works on the grounds that they don’t.

By Zak Smith on 09/18/09 at 06:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Again, Zak saves me the trouble of articulating what shouldn’t need to be articulated.  I guess I should not be surprised to see so many drawing conclusions about work—the introduction to The Story About the Story—that they haven’t read.  The only kind of “school” that you can identify when you examine the range of styles and insights offered in The Story About the Story is the school of art.  The argument is made above that the scholarly position is outside that of reader, writer, and text—yet why is that a necessary position?  Is Sven Birkerts’s incredibly close read of a Keats poem not scholarly simply because he’s actually reading?  Does being a scholar mean you’re not a reader?  That, I believe!  Worse is that this kind of artificially dispassionate, anti-subjective approach is how we teach literature to people who’ve never read before.  True, there may be many good teachers of literature out there, and true, many of them might be the kind who take the time to read and comment on sites like The Valve, but that doesn’t change the fact that anyone who teaches knows the truth: students who come into college almost invariably feel that their task in writing about literature is to channel some kind of uber-critic voice and regurgitate whatever their English teacher has told them.  The model for English instruction in high school is the standard hypothesis-drive prose of traditional criticism.  The Story About the Story, quite simply, wants to announce that there is another way to write about books, to write about reading.  You don’t have to step into the theoretical ether to do it, and if you’re actually allowed to sound like yourself as you write, then you might not wind up hating books as a result.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/18/09 at 08:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By which I mean: Scott Esposito clearly considers the canon a more international and amorphous beast than did the New Critics, and he also clearly has a refined literary sensibility; however, were he to write about Wings of the Dove (1902), while I would likely enjoy the review and learn something about the novel, but because it would be idiosyncratic, there would be little of value to it.

These are the among the most depressingly dismissive and contemptuous remarks I’ve ever heard about reading or value.

By Mario on 09/18/09 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

J.C. Hallman:

I guess I should not be surprised to see so many drawing conclusions about work—the introduction to The Story About the Story—that they haven’t read.

I read (and linked to, in my comment) all of it that’s available online.

Is Sven Birkerts’s incredibly close read of a Keats poem not scholarly simply because he’s actually reading?

Absolutely.  Any close-reading of Keats that’s not done by a specialist is necessarily idiotic . . . except for this one, but I might be biased.

students who come into college almost invariably feel that their task in writing about literature is to channel some kind of uber-critic voice and regurgitate whatever their English teacher has told them.

You haven’t taught many students coming into college, have you?  Because that’s decidedly not what they invariably feel that their task in writing about literature is.  Now, if you’d said, “tell the teacher how this metaphor relates to their lives” or “tell the teacher how this poem makes them feel,” I’d be with you.

You don’t have to step into the theoretical ether to do it, and if you’re actually allowed to sound like yourself as you write, then you might not wind up hating books as a result.

You clearly have some idealized version of what college freshmen sound like when “allowed to sound like [them]selves,” but let me assure you: that’s the last thing on the planet you would ever want them to be allowed to do.

Mario:

These are the among the most depressingly dismissive and contemptuous remarks I’ve ever heard about reading or value.

How so?  I could’ve stuck a “to me” or “to academic critics” after “to it,” but that’s sort of implicit, what with it being the entire point of my comment.  I wasn’t being contemptuous or dismissive—unless you consider “learning” and “enjoyment” to be terrible condemnations.

I think Zak—whose work I championed very, very early in my online career, for whatever that’s worth—says it well:

Many works WILL fail to reward readers seeking the pleasures of reading well-written books.

Creative critics are interested in discussing and reproducing the pleasures of well-written books; academic critics, not so much.  This isn’t to say that the two can’t learn from each other—as I noted in my comment, if you’re going to build on Eliot or reader-response, there’s a lot you can learn from reading the late-New Critical and seminal reader-response criticism; and if you’re an academic, there’s a lot you can learn about prose style from engaging people in non-professional forums like one.  As someone who taught literary journalism and is absolutely concerned with his style—escaping the in-my-own-headedness of my dissertation was the reason I started writing online in the first place—I can certainly appreciate reminders of the dangers of willful or unconscious obscurity. 

If that’s dismissive and contemptuous, well, short of total capitulation to your opinion, I’m not sure how anything I could say would amount to otherwise.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/18/09 at 09:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I tend to think that the value and effects of art are more complicated and multifarious and less straightforwardly functional than time-tellin

By Film izle on 09/18/09 at 09:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What I notice, as an economist working in an interdisciplinary setting, is that folks in the natural sciences and mathematically-formalizable social sciences are cut lots of slack by people untrained in those areas.  If I use a term or formalization that a non-specialist doesn’t know, they’re weirdly pleased, and persuaded that this must be science.  The opposite seems true for literary studies in particular: a lot of people assume that what’s not instantly accessible *must* be rubbish, or at best a deliberate coding of simple statements into jargon.  And so you get this anger.

By on 09/19/09 at 02:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hallman is making some huge assumptions about what happens in high schools.  First off, as a high school teacher, I don’t teach strictly hypothesis-driven essays.

I teach:
(a) how to write a summary of an essay or poem
(b) how to write a review of a novel or a CD
(c) how to write stylstic emulations of great authors
(d) how to research the historical, philosophical, or religious background of a piece of literary art (that’s the prompt for the junior year research paper)
(e) how to write explications of short poems, novel chapters, and dramatic scenes and speeches
(f) how to write analyses of literary works

That’s on top of all the little writing exercises we do, one nearly every day, some involving the use of a new literary term (alliteration or kenning this week in the *Beowulf* lesson), some involving the rewriting of a scene from a different character’s perspective, some involving personal reflections on their experience reading the work itself.

I do think it’s important that, even in the personal and aesthetic-review writing they do, that they learn the difference between mere opinion and evaluative argumentation.  A review essay is still hypothesis driven.  And for a personal response to have any internal unity as a piece of writing, it too requires something like a problem-solution (or hypothesis) model to weave together the strands of the response. 

Tacked on my classroom wall are the two essential questions readers of any literature should ask themselves:

(a) What do I notice the author doing?
(b) What is the author trying to achieve by doing those things?

Later, I teach them the related questions:

(c) Is what the writer is doing the most effective way to achieve his or her goals?
(d) Are the goals of the writer worth achieving?

I don’t think these are pedantic questions that kill their love of literature.  And I have had countless students wind up loving difficult works of literature precisely because they saw the level of achievement in the work upon rigorous analysis of it.  If you know nothing about basketball, you won’t be impressed by a particular play.  But once that play is broken down and put into the context of the game and of other players’ ways of performing, it’s a lot more interesting.  Same goes for works like *The Odyssey*: in my experience with teaching it, students begin to love it when they see all the wonderful ways in which Homer builds his effects.  They grumble about how weird it is at first; by the end, they were asking me last year if we could read *The Inferno* or *The Iliad* (two other epics I mentioned throughout the unit) instead of the Shakespeare work next on the schedule. 

Asking high school students for personal responses before they can identify anything specifically effective about the text and why it’s effective generally results in vague generalities.  It’s not a bad “prewriting” exercise, provided it is followed up by asking the student to reflect back on her responses and to analyze *why* the text generated those responses in her.  And that’s going to result in—o the horror—a hypothesis-driven piece of writing.
(b)

By on 09/19/09 at 04:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The only kind of “school” that you can identify when you examine the range of styles and insights offered in The Story About the Story is the school of art.

Be still my heart.

The argument is made above that the scholarly position is outside that of reader, writer, and text—yet why is that a necessary position?

Like I said, no intellectual imagination.

Get over yourself. You are not the measure of all things.

By Bill Benzon on 09/19/09 at 06:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

J. C.,
I guess I should not be surprised to see so many drawing conclusions about work—the introduction to The Story About the Story—that they haven’t read.

Is this supposed to be thrown out there to convince people who haven’t been reading this thread carefully that you’re being manhandled? Because Rohan, Scott, and I are almost matching you link for link or reference for reference to your own work. I, for one, read the excerpt from your introduction as soon as Scott Esposito published it in TQC, as well as the blog posts you’ve written at the Tin House site.

The Story About the Story, quite simply, wants to announce that there is another way to write about books, to write about reading.  You don’t have to step into the theoretical ether to do it, and if you’re actually allowed to sound like yourself as you write, then you might not wind up hating books as a result.

“[A]nother way to write about books?” You clearly mean the only way--you’ve already said the scholarly way is not acceptable. Stick to your absolutist guns, man!

And who hates books? I mean, at this point, go ahead and give anecdotal evidence because that’s still miles better than what you’re offering.

Actually, come to think of it, you’ve already provided a nice anecdote intended to demonstrate the aridity of academic criticism: in “Driving the Stake“ you flog an English professor (a Victorianist) for what grave crime? Turgid prose style? Impenetrable abstruseness? No, for liking “Dracula!”

Now, I understand that the point of the anecdote is that you think “Dracula” is not worth liking and that you believe that she only liked it because of its semiotic interest, but she didn’t say “I find ‘Dracula’ to be a semiotic artifact of unusual interest.” She said she liked it. And here we get to the nub. This isn’t an argument about writing style, or about pedagogical style for that matter. This is about the prejudice or fear that exposure to academic or scholarly thinking spoils authentic aesthetic experience, that once someone is exposed to semiotics or Foucault or Lacan or New Historicism, it always gets in the way of an organic response to the book they have in their hand. The reader is contaminated by scholarship. You assume that the simple declaration “I like ‘Dracula’” is in bad faith because the academic has been contaminated, spoilt, ruined by her exposure to the dark arts of hermeneutics. She couldn’t possibly have “liked” it because her difference of opinion from yours isn’t aesthetic, it’s scholarly--it couldn’t possibly be otherwise. As you say plainly, “Does being a scholar mean you’re not a reader?  That, I believe!” Your interlocutor, by your lights, never “read” “Dracula” because she’s not a reader—she’s already been ruined by scholarship and can’t possibly go back.

Most educated readers, I think, don’t harbor this prejudice. Most that I have encountered simply don’t see a sharp division between scholarship/theory and appreciation/enjoyment--most know that Foucault’s essay on the death of the author doesn’t mean “Haha, you can’t have fun reading anymore!” Just as most know that understanding Bernoulli’s principle might make them think more about what happens when they’re flying on an airplane but doesn’t make them any less safe.

By Andrew Seal on 09/19/09 at 09:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To be accused of lacking an intellectual imagination by voices so unwilling to introspect is an unusual experience indeed...and a reminder as to why Ozick felt that all of lit crit deserved only a parenthetical dismissal.

The assumptions made in this latest set of responses is disheartening...the upshot seems to be:

Students have nothing interesting to say, therefore the teacher’s job is to brainwash them.

A passionate, emotional reaction to a book is only the first step toward something more serious.

And, worst of all, writers themselves have nothing interesting to say about literature even though it’s they who create it (this last is why, in my original blog post, I identified the fundamental argument as one of “authorial intent").

To all of this I’ll only offer the anthology itself as defense.  In it, there’s a fistful of Nobel Prize winners, and many others who probably should have won a Nobel.  If your values as a teacher and reader are close reading and an intimate, in depth, highly sophisticated response to books, then you should be reading this set of essays.  As I say in the book’s introduction, this entire debate does not come from writers and critics fighting it out...as Ozick demonstrated, most writers gave up that fight long ago.  Indeed, it’s precisely a debate among critics themselves that has begun to change things, and it seems that the perspective, style, and goals of writers’ own writing about literature has been found to offer up a better model for how to write about reading.  It’s funny—in an early draft of the introduction, I made the argument that as soon as something like this was articulated, a certain segment of the lit crit world would attempt to dismiss it by naming it....and of course that’s what’s happened in this thread.  Call it new criticism, or reader response, or whatever—so as to dismiss it!  That’s a small-minded reaction...and regrettable.  The position of lit crit as expressed by these voices is similar to Einstein’s elevator moving at the speed of light (though you can’t know it from inside the elevator).  In this case, though, the elevator isn’t moving, and those inside don’t even know they’re in a box.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/19/09 at 10:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s funny—in an early draft of the introduction, I made the argument that as soon as something like this was articulated, a certain segment of the lit crit world would attempt to dismiss it by naming it....and of course that’s what’s happened in this thread.  Call it new criticism, or reader response, or whatever—so as to dismiss it!  That’s a small-minded reaction...and regrettable.

You’re making this up, J. C. That, I suppose, makes this a particularly creative response to our remarks.

As far as I can tell, the only term anyone here has applied to the critical practice you’re advocating is the name you’ve given it yourself, “creative criticism.” Yes, the terms “reader response” and “new criticism” have been used, but not as labels for the work in your anthology. With one possible exception (your use of “reader response” in a passage that Scott quotes above), they’ve been used in the standard way.

Nor, as far as I can tell, is anyone dismissing creative criticism as a way of writing about literature. What we’re dismissing is the assertion that it is the only proper way of writing and thinking about literature and therefore that all other modes of literary scholarship and criticism should be abandoned.

By Bill Benzon on 09/19/09 at 11:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, I was (only) slightly parodying the hyperbolic quality of some of this thread when I wrote that.  But, at the end of the day, whatever errors of semantics or literary history Zak Smith and Hallmann may have made, your remarks demonstrate to me--a literary academic--that their polemic is much-needed.

Your paragraph on Esposito/James is a great example of the sheer scientistic hubris of the current historicist consensus in English departments, and the only historical error Hallmann made that’s worth mentioning is his failure to recognize that the regnant cultural materialism didn’t come from theory, but was a counter-revolution against theory’s salutary reminders that factoids are inert and all reading and writing creative.  “A poem is spark and act, or else we need never read it a second time.  Criticism is spark and act, or else we need not read it at all.”

We don’t have a clue what James was responding to with The Wings of the Dove, and your selection of relevant factoids of 1902 is no more or less valuable than anyone else’s creation of a constellation of significance from putting James into a provocative juxtaposition with Nietzsche or Heraclitus, or Abe Lincoln or Margaret Thatcher.  There is no end to relevant context, and trying to determine a causal chain between a thinly-sliced context and its text/subtext need not be the sole business of academe for any reason other than science-envy and--here’s a context for you--the entirely contingent exigencies of the research university, an institution committed to, yawn, I know, the production of knowledge for the more rational functioning of state and business interests.

James could, in the last instance, have stumbled into cafe, heartbroken from an affair you don’t know about, and have picked up a pamphlet someone left behind that you don’t know about, and these things and no other he considered in his heart of hearts to be the secret spring of The Wings of the Dove and you don’t know it, and if you say, “That’s not academic because it’s speculation, because we can’t know, whereas we can know that he read [whatever we can dredge out of the archive]"--well, I take that as a criticism of academic culture.  The theory-minded can write their own citations of Nietzsche on mobile armies, Adorno on reified scientific consciousness et al.

The battle isn’t art vs. scholarship, pleasure vs. knowledge, theory vs. aesthetics, or town vs. gown--I for one would much rather read Barthes on Balzac than Nabokov on Kafka (which I think is pedantry defined)--but between those who think that even in the academy we would do well to remember, not only in theory but in practice, the irreducibles of subjectivity and language and those who do not seem to care and wish to emulate the objectivity of sociologists and historians (and I don’t always take the critique of scientific thinking all the way--this may be necessary in their spheres, but their spheres need not be ours).

Anyway, I think this is my last comment here.  As Zak Smith suggests, these things are at the end of the day matters of conversion rather than persuasion and there’s no use shouting.  I’ve been reading The Valve for a long time, so I know what you (Scott) and WBM and McGann and others of that school of thought have to say about that, but I enjoyed this thread: Hallmann and Smith’s comments burn through the bitter politesse we scholastics euphemize as collegiality, and well I enjoyed it.  Also, without it, I would not have spent a half hour staring at 100 Girls and 100 Octopuses, which is glorious and I thank you all for that.

By Mario on 09/19/09 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is amazing...I’m getting accused of making errors of historical fact, and of inventing the term “creative criticism.”

Part of the problem is that people are assuming that Professor Maitzen was correct in saying that I attempted to deliver a history of literary criticism in two paragraphs.  I did nothing of the kind.  In fact, I explicitly state that all I’ve given are a few important moments in the debate about criticism happening among critics.

As to creative criticism, Bill Benzon: you’ve sacrificed the privilege of being taken seriously.  In both my introduction, and even in this thread, it’s made clear that the term “creative criticism” was coined by J.E. Spingarn in 1910.

Conservative politicians have proven that when you don’t really have a good argument, an effective tool is to just make crap up.  But we don’t have to do it here.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/19/09 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now I’m simply confused.

So the writers who write about literature do so beyond the academy, but they do so from a New Critical or reader-response perspective?  Last I checked, the New Criticism and reader-response criticism are deeply theoretical, deeply academic movements.  So what we’re really talking about is returning the academy to a past moment of theory, not to a moment before or beyond theory.

I’m also uncomfortable with the equation of New Criticism and reader-response criticism.  The former is scientistic, materialist, full of faith in empiricism and induction.  The later is a form of idealism that grows out of phenomenology.  It rejects the notion of a text independent of the reader’s worldview, mindset, frame, mentality, or whathaveyou. 

Both New Criticism and reader-response criticism involve thesis-driven argumentation.  The New Criticism frequently argued the same hypothesis: the poem goes in two competing directions of meaning and resolves them ironically at the end.  Every poem was a Shakespearean sonnet. 

In any case, it’s disingenuous to equate Cynthia Ozick’s highly trained academic criticism with a high school students’ one-off judgment.  I’m sure we could trace Ozick’s take on art to those critics and teachers she worked with in her formative student years.  She might not publish in academic journals, but she’s a critic of her academic generation.

By on 09/19/09 at 02:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

J.C. Hallman:

It’s funny—in an early draft of the introduction, I made the argument that as soon as something like this was articulated, a certain segment of the lit crit world would attempt to dismiss it by naming it....and of course that’s what’s happened in this thread. Call it new criticism, or reader response, or whatever—so as to dismiss it!

First, you’re being highly disingenuous here: I didn’t do the naming here, you did, in the essay you claim I haven’t read, but which I linked to and quoted.  It’s not the best idea to claim a pile-on when all people need to do see otherwise is click here to see me linking to and quoting you as having said:

It wasn’t until decades later that people began to bat around the term “reader response” to describe what Spingarn ultimately called “creative criticism.”

How, exactly, does you saying that amount to me do the naming? 

Second, I’m not the one I’m not sure who you’re arguing with here, as I certainly didn’t quote you associating reader-response with creative criticism in order to dismiss it—I called it that because you identified your work as falling, however generally, into those traditions, then claimed they were opposed to “theory-based criticism.” They’re not.  As I went over at some length and Luther said more succinctly, they’re theoretical approaches.  Moreover, the notion that I (or anyone else here) would necessarily be dismissive of reader-response criticism is an unfounded assumption: I read Jauss while auditing a seminar with Iser, and if I’m not mistaken, Jonathan Goodwin’s dissertation was directed by Norman Holland.  The difference between you and I isn’t a matter of what I dismiss, but of what you do.  I haven’t dismissed anything here—in fact, I stated the value of alternative perspectives in my previous comment.

Students have nothing interesting to say, therefore the teacher’s job is to brainwash them.

There’s a difference between what students “say” in a classroom and what they write in an essay, as Luther (who is, I should note, in the trenches) noted above.  The teacher of literature always fights on two fronts: the first involves interesting students in the material; the second, teaching them to write well.  You’re so invested in the first that you don’t realize how deleterious that approach would be if applied to the second.

A passionate, emotional reaction to a book is only the first step toward something more serious.

Yes, a written essay.  Or ought those be abolished too, given their effect on student enthusiasm for literature? 

writers themselves have nothing interesting to say about literature even though it’s they who create it

Again, you’re making a completely unfounded assumption based, I think, on the fact that because you’re dismissing everything you dislike whole cloth, that we’re doing the same.  We’re not.  To paraphrase Woody Allen paraphrasing Freud, I think your problem here is that you have a faulty projector.

Mario:

I think you’re being a little unfair here too: I’m not saying that the only valid mode of inquiry is mine, or that everyone should do what I do—I am, however, saying, that everyone should be able to justify why they do what they do more explicitly than, say, claiming they belong to the school of art.  There’s a storied aesthetic tradition such critics can draw from if they’re willing to do the work: you mention Nietzsche, Hallman mentions a number of authors who have read Schlegel, &c.  I think that’s an important distinction, inasmuch as it’ll be impossible to emulate the works in his anthology without having read some of what those authors have read even if some of it is philosophically difficult or theoretically sophisticated.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/19/09 at 03:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sorry, J. C., if I phrased my remarks in a misleading way. When I asserted that “creative criticism” was the term “you’ve given it yourself,” I was aware that Spingarn had coined the term. I meant only that that is the term you’ve adopted (regardless of who coined it).

That said, I share Scott’s and Luther’s confusion about just what you’re asserting about the relationship between creative criticism and reader response criticism. The sentence that Scott quotes – It wasn’t until decades later that people began to bat around the term “reader response” to describe what Spingarn ultimately called “creative criticism” – just seems wrong. As both Scott and Luther have pointed out, reader response criticism comes in several flavors, all firmly grounded in philosophical or psychological theory. These critics are not in the business of having “sensations in the presence of a work of art” and then expressing them. Rather, they’re interested in the sensations of other readers, whether ideal or real (e.g. Norm Holland and others have made empirical observations about reader response).

@Colin:  You’re quite right that in literary studies “a lot of people assume that what’s not instantly accessible *must* be rubbish, or at best a deliberate coding of simple statements into jargon.” That opinion was well in place during my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins during the late 1960s and is, of course, older than that.

By Bill Benzon on 09/19/09 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott:

“The teacher of literature always fights on two fronts: the first involves interesting students in the material; the second, teaching them to write well.”

(To avoid the metastasizing confusion here, I’m pointing out that the following remarks apply to people in college--that is, 18 years or older.  And that the person saying this is a Gravity’s Rainbow fan:)

Just as we don’t need more books that need to be *taught* in order to be interesting, we don’t need an audience to include more people who need to be *taught*--as adults--to be interested in books.

And we don’t need these people who are in truth invulnerable to books THEN being trained to be the people who write about books for a living.

And we don’t need the whole boilerplated academic prose style which is designed not so much to allow these people to express intelligent ideas, but to prevent them from sounding stupid.

And we don’t need a set of non-literary-reasons-to-like-literature bolted onto books in order to provide these people something to write about when they graduate.

Should people teach literature?  Yes.  But give the students the book and let them decide whether they’re interested.  Don’t throw in ideas about “craft, genre, literary history and influences, social, historical, and political contexts and implications, aesthetic theories and effects, language, and rhetoric” like so many Secret Decoder Rings prizes to tempt you to eat you Ovaltine.

Yeah, it’s really hard to play guitar like Eddie Van Halen, and if you learn to play guitar, you’ll get to find out why.  But that should have no effect on whether you enjoy Van Halen or not.

Obviously, the ideal situation is teaching literature to students who want to learn about literature, and I am well aware that many academics don’t have that luxury and are forced to teach literature to students who don’t want to learn about literature.  (Thus the inclusion of Secret Hermeneutic Decoder Rings in every box of James Joyce.) But when the class is over, see these devices for what they are: crutches to give people who have some vague class- or status-related ambitions to “be the kind of person who is interested in books” a way to do that without actually enjoying reading.  And then throw them away.

By Zak Smith on 09/19/09 at 04:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Last comment really:

J.C., “Historical errors” was probably strong, I was just jarred to see Michaels&Knapp cited favorably in your argument, since their thesis on meaning and intention is far unfriendlier to a concept of creative criticism than the kind of thing they were objecting to (esp. Derrida, de Man).

Scott, yes, sorry, a bit unfair to you, but I stand by my remarks on the broader intellectual climate of literary academe, which is always more absolutist than it should be.  I have no problem with historical work of the kind you do, it’s useful, I’ve learned from it, but it’s become too dominant an expectation.  I do certainly agree with you that it’s necessary to have a good sense of the relevant traditions involved when making these arguments.

By Mario on 09/19/09 at 04:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s either deliberate obfuscation happening here, or some of the voices contributing to this debate have a serious blind spot in their thinking.  It seems there is an effort being made to dismiss an anthology chock full of amazing authors because, at worst, the introduction plays loose with “reader response.” I don’t get it, though...it’s apparent, even in the line you quote, that “reader response” is not being used to characterize the approach of the essays in the book, though you’re trying to make it say that.  It doesn’t.  And there’s a willful blindness to what the introduction does, in fact, say about the essays in the book:

‘I see no way to examine the essays in The Story About the Story—-kin on a broad spectrum—-and find anything like a common denominator. You cannot tell me that Lawrence’s stream-of-consciousness (”Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick“) has any direct connection with Robert Hass’s far more sober consideration (”Lowell’s Graveyard”)...[but] if this temporal splatter of essays does indeed indicate the emergence of a trend, then Spingarn’s old advice “to have sensations in the presence of a work of art and express them” was a prophetic art in and of itself.’

The main beef of those chiming in on this thread seems to be that I did not criticize the institution of literary criticism with the tools and the language used by traditional criticism itself.  I’ve been asked for citations, history, and so forth.  But why should one set out to “prove” anything to an audience that is so quick to intentionally distort the moment the debate appears to hit home?  Indeed, the debate in this thread has become, precisely, the pissing contest I describe at the beginning of my introduction—and is further evidence, of course, that a difference kind of discourse, of debate, of criticism, is required.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/19/09 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s not pretend that all of Hallman’s antagonists in this thread are mindless worker bees in the academic hivemind.  I teach high school.  Bill is outside the academy and is interested in the arts, evolution, and brain science.  Scott is an academic historicist but also a damned fine non-professional political and cultural writer.

The problem as I see it is sloppiness.  Easy oppositions between Theory and Pleasure; easy oppositions between professional critic and artist critic (as if Cynthia fucking Ozick isn’t a consummate professional); wholesale ignorance or willful ignorance of the sheer diversity of types of academic work on the arts. 

Let’s just take Longinus as an example.  He’s perhaps the earliest critic of the sort Hallman praises.  But Longinus was a Theorist in his day, no less so than the more “academic” sounding Aristotle.  And Aristotle, for all of his argument and analysis, is responding to real “sensations” in the presence of tragic drama. 

Or let’s jump ahead to Charles Olson, whose essay on “Projective Verse” is all about how the critic’s job is to conduct the electricity of the poem through to the reader.  It’s no coincidence that Olson was writing at the same time that the French were rediscovering Heidegger.  Olson is full of gobbledegook.  (And, like Lawrence, his “creative criticism” is, to some ears, as pretentiously dense as Derrida—just as Derrida, in his writings on Jabes or Joyce, is largely tracing his musings and sensations on art.)

By on 09/19/09 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"It seems there is an effort being made to dismiss an anthology chock full of amazing authors because, at worst, the introduction plays loose with “reader response.””

oh, come off it, JC; people want to dismiss YOUR INTRODUCTION, and your stance in general, which they see as ill-informed and dubiously motivated; the aforementioned amazing authors can stand for themselves whether or not a series of well-aimed blows knocks you off your soapbox…

By on 09/19/09 at 11:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Barth wrote an essay in 1967, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” in which he made some extraordinary statements, including, “Our century is more than two-thirds done; it is dismaying to see so many of our writers following Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Balzac, when the question seems to me to be how to succeed not even Joyce and Kafka, but those who succeeded Joyce and Kafka and are now in the evenings of their own careers.” In The Friday Book, which contains the essay in question—as well as his 1979 corrective, “The Literature of Replenishment”—he appends this footnote to that quoted sentence:

Author’s note, 1984: Did I really say this remarkably silly thing back in ‘67?  Yup, and I believed it, too.  What I hope are more reasonable formulations of the idea may be found in the Friday-pieces “The Spirit of Place” and “The Literature of Replenishment,” further on.

So let me get Zak’s position straight.  You read a poem or a short story or a novel for the first time.  You hate it or you don’t care for it or you take it in and experience a negative reaction.  You are given some nudging by an academic or a friend to reconsider it.  Or perhaps, like any good thinker, you wish to challenge or rethink your own assumptions and conclusions.  You approach it the second time and you like it, whether through a class or some maturity or some mitigating factor. You come away with an entirely different take.  Perhaps the basis for a paper.  Perhaps a reconsideration that might be of value to others.

There’s a lot of bluster and needless hyperbole in this thread.  But how are such shifting sensibilities bad?  Can’t one hold a viewpoint both inside and outside of theory?  Such a limited worldview assumes that students and scholars (whether academic or amateur) don’t possess independent minds and that academics are little more than inflexible autocrats.  Not every academic teaches or prescribes the same way. Not every student soaks up, responds, or deconstructs in the same way. 

While there’s certainly a good case to be made against dry and soporific writing (perhaps a subject for another thread), expressive prohibition concerning specific words is an unfounded position without context.  (In this case, Zak’s cry of “disingenuous” is not unlike Joe Wilson’s “You lie!") The average person who reads knows damn well what narrative is (and, yes, there is a difference between “story” and “narrative,” as Luther writes above).

On the other hand, what’s the harm in making a sweeping critical pronouncement?  (This seems to be the primary objection leveled at Ozick and possibly Zak.) Why can’t scholars recant?  If a mind’s inner mechanisms are denied the opportunity to be laid bare, then there’s no purpose in arguing about the nature of the watch.

By Edward Champion on 09/20/09 at 11:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Edward:

“So let me get Zak’s position straight.”

Ok, let me help.

“You read a poem or a short story or a novel for the first time.  You hate it or you don’t care for it or you take it in and experience a negative reaction.  You are given some nudging by an academic or a friend to reconsider it.  Or perhaps, like any good thinker, you wish to challenge or rethink your own assumptions and conclusions.  You approach it the second time and you like it”

This is not at all the situation I have been trying to describe.

I do not want people to necessarily be attached to their “first response” to a work.

What I am opposed to is claiming to like a work for reasons OTHER than that you actually enjoy reading it.

Here is my original example, again:
___
“If you pick up “The Second Coming” read it and don’t like it, that’s fine.  That is an acceptable response to a piece of literature.

If, then, you take a class, learn all about Yeats and meter and symbolism, and then re-read it and then suddenly claim to like it--that’s bad.

That’s posing.  That’s like saying you didn’t used to like broccoli but then you took a biology class and a chemistry class and now you know what broccoli is made of and so you like to eat it.”
___

Note the word “claim”.

If someone re-reads it and--for whatever-reason-genuinely enjoys it, I have no problem with that.

What I have a problem with is the student who genuinely does NOT enjoy reading The Second Coming but claims to like the poem ONLY because:

-they now know it’s a technically impressive feat (making a souffle using antifreeze is technically impressive--that doesn’t mean it’s worth doing)

or

-they now know it’s historically innovative (an omelette made with concrete would be a radical innovation in cooking--that doesn’t mean it’s worth doing)

or

-they now can use the poem as a way to talk about their pet sociological, historical, or philosophical ideas (because they could’ve done that anyway without saddling a dead poet with the responsibility of representing them)

or any number of other academy-approved reasons to “appreciate” a work OTHER than “I enjoy reading it”.

Now, to avoid even more confusion, I should also say:

I am NOT saying that it’s unacceptable to point out technical mastery, innovation, philosophical implications, etc.

What I AM saying (again) is that what I am opposed to is JUDGING THE QUALITY OF A WORK on the basis of whether it allows you to talk about these things.

Now at some point someone is going to say “Well what if gaining insight through deconstructing and analyzing a work of literature is what makes The Second Coming fun for me?” Then I will say you STILL have no basis to say that work is good, because, frankly, you can gain insight by deconstructing ANY work, good or bad.  At which point you’d have to say either:

A) You like all literature.

or

B) My range of tastes is limited by my own limited ability to dream of ways to analyze it.

Now B is probably the most common response, but you have to admit that if you can’t enjoy ice cream without knowing chemistry than you’re pretty much totally screwed and it’d be irresponsible suggest others follow your anhedonic path.

Again, to avoid confusion, be aware that I am NOT saying that all academic critics do this, or that all academic criticism is worthless.

___

As for the “narrative” thing you brought up, I feel like I addressed that pretty thoroughly in the 9/17/09 8:13 am comment and if you want to discuss this issue then you’d have to address those arguments.

There is no “prohibition against specific words” going on.  Here’s what I wrote:
__
“Using the word “narrative” instead of “story” or “intentionality” instead of “intentions” is often merely a tactic....”
__

Note the use of the word “often” rather than the phrase “only ever”.

By Zak Smith on 09/20/09 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Again desperately trying to avoid confusion here, sentence B in my last comment should read:

“B) Your range of tastes is limited by your own limited ability to dream of ways to analyze it.”

By Zak Smith on 09/20/09 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

@Zak:

What I AM saying (again) is that what I am opposed to is JUDGING THE QUALITY OF A WORK on the basis of whether it allows you to talk about these things.

Most academic literary criticism avoids explicit value judgments, though implicit valuations may leak in around the edges. Thus one of the standard sweeping prescriptions for setting things right is to get back to good old evaluative criticism, a matter that been given a fair bit of discussion here at The Valve in the last two years or so.

By Bill Benzon on 09/20/09 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill:

Ok, but the weight of academic opinion is felt not in what is said in any given paper, but from the decision to have students study it at all.

And to study it from a given point-of-vie.

By Zak Smith on 09/20/09 at 04:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Zak, that’s a traditional point of view. And that’s what one of my TA’s at Johns Hopkins said four decades ago, that he expresses his sense of value in his choice of texts to write about. However . . .

One thing that certainly has happened in the last two decades or so is that pop culture has crept into the literature curriculum, often under the rubric of “cultural studies” (which is not the general study of culture but rather a certain approach to culture strongly influenced by mid-century British Marxism). Many intellectual conservatives (who may or may not be politically conservative) assume this means that Raymond Chandler or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is being elevated into the same firmament as Shakespeare and George Eliot. That’s just not the case. But the truth isn’t acceptable either since the same folks don’t see any value in studying anyone but approved paragons of eternally and universally true high culture.

For that matter we’ve also seen the rise of film studies, which often errupts within literature departments, though it has also found its own departmental home in schools of communication or media and such. In the conservative view film is, by definition, pop culture, it follows that film studies degrades academic committment to the eternally best.

FWIW, I’ve spent a great deal of time in the last few years watching anime (but also some classic American cartoons including - oh horror of horrors, classic Disney) and whether or not any of this material is eternally and universally great is not a primary consideration, though I have argued that Disney’s Fantasia is one of the great works of the 20th century. I study this material because it is has a large world-wide audience and is therefore culturally important and because I find some of it enjoyable. I’ve also given high-marks to a recent feature-length cartoon animated by one person, Nina Paley; her Sita Sings the Blues is remarkable.

By Bill Benzon on 09/20/09 at 05:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak – What I find odd about your position here is that, if I understand you correctly (and please correct me if I don’t), your concept of “enjoyment” basically denies the impact of both academic criticism as well as the more belle-lettristic criticism (for lack of a better term) found in Hallman’s book. 

What I think you’re basically saying is something like, “The only authentic aesthetic response to a poem is my own personal, subjective enjoyment or disgust of the poem, and while I might change my mind about this enjoyment or disgust, I cannot be ‘educated’ or ‘persuaded’ out of my response because education and persuasion are extra-subjective and hence extra-aesthetic.”

Now, not to get all academic and theoretical here, but there’s a reason Kant separated out judgments of the senses (that is, judgments of pleasure or displeasure; for example: “I like salty food,” or “I like the smell of roses.") from the more complicated judgments of aesthetic reflection (that is, judgments that engage our senses as well as our “higher” faculties like, say, the ability to make meaning out of the chaos of nature; for example: “Poem X is beautiful”). 

While Kant doesn’t deny that aesthetic judgments have their basis in sensual, personal, and singular responses, he nevertheless thinks that such judgments are universally applicable and communicable.  “X is beautiful” doesn’t mean “I and I alone think X is beautiful because I enjoy it.” Rather, “X is beautiful” means “X is beautiful for everyone because, presumably, if everyone is human like me they have the same faculties and hence the same aesthetic experience as me.”

While we may never be able to dispute aesthetic taste (that is, objectively “prove” that our taste is correct), we can argue about aesthetic taste (that is, we make the claim that this thing isn’t just beautiful to me, but for everyone).

Now, it seems to me that your idea of enjoyment is much closer to what Kant calls a judgment of sense than an aesthetic judgment.  Hence, your continual analogies between aesthetic objects and food (broccoli and ice-cream).  Of course, as you rightly claim, understanding something about the molecular make-up of broccoli isn’t going to make you like broccoli.  You either like it or you don’t—it’s a matter of pleasure or displeasure, “mere taste.” You can’t persuade someone to enjoy broccoli by appealing to their “higher faculties.”

Still, I don’t think literature is quite like food in this respect.  Our sensual response to literature isn’t everything.  There’s other, not purely personal and sensual stuff going on—ideas, form, culture.

By on 09/20/09 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill:

Yeah, aside from the stuff about you liking anime, most of us probably already knew all of that.

Anyway, this is not what’s at issue.

By Zak Smith on 09/20/09 at 05:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ugh, a whole thread complaining about (and rightly condemning) turgid academic prose and I go spouting off about Kant.  I sincerely hope that was intelligible.  If not, what I was basically getting at is this:

The “enjoy” in “I enjoy broccoli” is different from the “enjoy” in “I enjoy the Second Coming.” The first can’t really be argued with since it’s mere taste; the second involves a more complicated and more tendentious aesthetic taste.

By on 09/20/09 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mexico:

Obviously, I disagree entirely with Immannuel Kant on this matter.

I’m also sort of surprised that, in 2009, people somewhere are still clinging to the idea that any given X could be beautiful to “everyone”.

Whether or not I agree with Hallman, and how much, I’m not entirely sure.  I’ve only read his introduction and his “Dracula” story.  But I’ve never argued otherwise here.  I’m talking about statements made here by authhors here.

By Zak Smith on 09/20/09 at 05:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak, thanks for pulling this back around to the original “Dracula” post...and I think we do, in fact, agree.  My beef is not with those who like “Dracula,” but with those who argue for its literary merit simply because it now comes in a Norton Critical Edition, and therefore must be “good.” (And I was confronted with precisely this argument.) I have no problem with studying works that aren’t particularly good...in the original post, I noted that I just finished a book about utopian literature, which is hugely influential but almost uniformly horrible.  Popularity does not equal aesthetic merit...and while there may be a large number of Valve-readers who understand that this is not the case, the prevailing opinion seems to be something else.  There’s an essay in The Story About the Story that illustrates this well.  Like, perhaps, Bill Benzon’s argument in favor of “Fantasia,” Salman Rushdie, in “Out of Kansas,” attempts to argue that “The Wizard of Oz” is art despite the fact that it doesn’t really have an author or auteur.  Of course, the fact that Rushdie is funny, engaging, and passionate throughout his tongue-in-cheek “close read” of the film is entirely the point: to execute serious criticism, one need sacrifice neither passion nor, simply, a pervasive sense as you read that there is a live human being on the other side of the page (to paraphrase Frank Conroy).

By J.C. Hallman on 09/20/09 at 06:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak—Disagreeing with Kant is well and good.  And, yes, the last 200 or so years of aesthetics have basically been one large disagreement with him. 

Still, I think there’s something to his solution to the perennial pleasure/aesthetics problem.  I don’t know how many people really “cling” to the idea that X is beautiful for everyone.  If that seems too radical (and admittedly I’ve done a bad job explaining it; Kant is much more conditional) then how about the more cautious claim that, unlike judgments about the deliciousness of ice-cream, aesthetic claims are communicable. 

How many people believe that?  I suspect a lot.  After all, how else do you explain the vast majority of professional and amateur critics, from James Wood to Amazon reviewers, who take the time to explain why they like Novel X.  If they really thought their taste was only theirs, that there wasn’t some hope that their judgments on art would impact other readers, then why bother writing about art at all? 

Another way to put this: You don’t want academics or critics meddling with your taste because it’s your taste.  Fine.  But then that leaves you in the awkward position of having to remain silent on the art you like and value, since it would seem that to communicate your taste to others would put you in the position of the educator or critic which you abhor. 

If, for you, “X is beautiful” only means “X is enjoyable to me and there’s no talking me out of it,” then why even bother telling anyone. 

In your view of criticism, writing “Gravity’s Rainbow is a great novel” is no different than writing “Pecan ice-cream is really delicious.”

But this is why I think I must be misunderstanding you, since I don’t think you would actually claim this.  I think you would say something like “Gravity’s Rainbow is a great novel because it’s dark and complex but still funny and human,” etc.  Whatever.  The point, though, is that adding in “Gravity’s Rainbow is great because X, Y, Z” brings you well into the taste as education or argument sphere which you’re saying we should get rid of.

By on 09/20/09 at 07:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mexico:

AGAIN:

Just because you’re aware your response is your own does NOT mean you shouldn’t be able to explain it or write about it.

(I said this way back in the 09/17/09 01:12 PM comment--and described how you’d go about it.)

If “explaining your response” is something a person wants to do, or that is required in a given setting, that’s perfectly acceptable.

Any food critic will tell you that the statement:

“unlike judgments about the deliciousness of ice-cream, aesthetic claims are communicable.”

..is a total distortion.  Ice cream has just as many aesthetic characteristics which are describable as anything in literature.  Talking eloquently about the texture, flavor, consistency, etc. of ice cream (near-universally detectable things) is different than saying a given combination of texture, flavor, and consistency is better than another (not universal).

That same food critic will tell you that giving such critical attention to a given restaurant is a good way to increase that restaurant’s business and constitutes a powerful “implicit judgment”.

As for this (about amateur critics--professional ones have different motivations):

“If they really thought their taste was only theirs, that there wasn’t some hope that their judgments on art would impact other readers, then why bother writing about art at all? “

Obviously:

a) Some of these people don’t agree with me and hope they can persuade sheeplike people to like what they like through force of rhetoric for disturbing psychological reasons which I dare not speculate upon here

and

b) Some of them are writing about books that, presumably, *their audience hasn’t read yet* as a way of “previewing” the work--which is a useful service since no-one on Earth has enough time to read all books ever written, so we’re happy to hear summaries of the plot and the aesthetic devices deployed by the author.

c) Some are having essentially the same conversation everyone on Earth has when they eat dinner and go “These eggs are great, especially with the paprika”.  That is, they’re (perhaps unconsciously) hoping to provoke an interesting discussion which illuminates the ways in which their own response to the human situation differs or fails to differ from everyone elses.

Hallman:

I agree.  The fact that we got a Norton Critical Edition of Dracula before we got a Norton Critical Edition of HP Lovecraft or Jack Vance is evidence of what I’m talking about here.

Dracula is a dull read that gives tedious people easy opportunities to talk about Victorian Morality, East vs. West, Gender Roles, Evolving Archetypes, The Gothic Novel, Cultural Contagion and a lot of other non-literary-enjoyment-related-issues.

I am open to the idea that someone, somewhere thinks Dracula is well-written and fun to read, but its placement in (the outer margins of) the canon is rarely defended on aesthetic grounds.  It’s in there because it gives academics an opportunity to talk about what they want to talk about.

One day enough academics will realize (as many already have) that HP Lovecraft can be used to talk about Racism, Cultural Contagion, East Vs. West, Interwar Morality, Fear of Decadence, The Evolution of The Poetic Analogy ion Post-Joycean Genre Fiction, and a bunch of other crap that has no bearing on whether Lovecraft’s any good and then we’ll get our Critical Edition of Lovecraft.

By Zak Smith on 09/20/09 at 08:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oy vey.  There *is* a critical edition of Lovecraft, only it’s not by Norton.  It’s by The Library of America. 

Only an idiot would argue that Norton Critical editions are put together as a result of a collective aesthetic judgment on the part of the profession.  They exist because those books are widely taught (and often because they are in the public domain).  They are not priced (or packaged) for the average reader; they are (over)priced for the college student with grant or loan money.

And all this talk of food makes me think that there’s an importance between “I like Meal X” and “Meal X tastes good,” just as there is an important difference between “I enjoy Book X” and “Book X is good.” Food critics certainly take into account the difficulty of the achievement when judging food.  Difficulty of achievement certainly doesn’t change the taste of the food but it can change our appreciation of the food overall.  Which is to say, there’s a lot more to aesthetic judgments than the issue of whether one enjoys the experience.  I certainly don’t enjoy *Shoah*, but it’s a great film.

By on 09/20/09 at 08:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther:

“[Critical editions] exist because those books are widely taught.”

They are widely taught because there’s a critical consensus (or, if you prefer, “a recurring sentiment among a bunch of teachers") that a book should be taught.  This is the whole crux of the argument here.  If academics didn’t keep dreaming up reasons to teach lackluster books, they wouldn’t be in critical editions.

(You see high school and Lit101 kids toting around Dracula--for class--all the time.  Lovecraft, not so much.  Even so--let’s not argue about the specific example of Lovecraft v. Dracula.  The question is: Is the PRINCIPLE that “a book being widely-taught must indicate a lot of academics have thought of reasons to teach that book” sound?  Do you agree or disagree?)

____

Separate point:

When you say don’t “enjoy” something but somehow it’s “good” what exactly do you mean?

Are you merely saying--as in (presumably) the case of “Shoah"--that you find the work personally aesthetically absorbing despite feeling it would be callous to use the word “enjoy” (with all its connotations) since the work concerned (Shoah) is largely a showcase of other people’s pain?

(If that’s all you mean then that’s a pretty narrow case and I’m sure we can find a word other than “enjoy” to agree on.)

Or do you mean that somehow the “difficulty of achievement” makes a work “good”?  In which case I completely disagree with you in every direction.

Or do you mean some other thing?

By Zak Smith on 09/20/09 at 09:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I mean that personal taste is not the same as an aesthetic judgment.  I don’t like liver.  I cannot like liver.  My taste buds refuse to allow me to like liver.  But I *can* tell the difference between a great liver dish and a terrible liver dish. 

I also mean that “liking” something is not necessarily the basis for aesthetic judgment.

By on 09/20/09 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

@Zak: “dreaming up reasons to teach lackluster books”

But you make it sound as if it is simply obvious (and fixed) which books are “lackluster.” It isn’t. You say, as if it is also obvious, and indisputable, that Dracula is a “tedious” and a “dull read” and you talk about “literary enjoyment” and “literary merit,” or being “well-written,” as if they are straightforward, universal measures. They aren’t. Hence, for one thing, the shifting reputations of writers over time, something that is hardly unique to our own era. Your “dry and tedious” is someone else’s great pleasure--because people’s reading pleasure can arise from (or be inhibited by) a range of things. Curiosity, personal experience,broader historical and cultural changes, and education can all contribute to our finding pleasure in things we did not appreciate before--or losing our commitment to things we once found “exciting,” to use another of your words of praise.

You also equate something’s being “fun to read” with defending it on “aesthetic grounds.” Not only is “fun” a pretty loose and subjective concept, but the idea that what is aesthetically worthwhile is the same as what is “fun” is, well, bizarrely reductive. Your arguments are a bewildering mix of conservatism (stick to the universally acknowledged ‘Great Books,’ or at least the ones you think are great, and avoid the “tedious” ones, i.e. ones you do not enjoy reading) and faux populism (we should celebrate “fun” books; every more complicated reading strategy or response is pretentious posing; only eggheads care about the books you think are tedious, and that’s only to satisfy their “non-literary” interests).

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/21/09 at 09:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan:

You must’ve totally missed it when I said
(9/20/09 8:15):

“I am open to the idea that someone, somewhere thinks Dracula is well-written and fun to read, but its placement in (the outer margins of) the canon is rarely defended on aesthetic grounds.  It’s in there because it gives academics an opportunity to talk about what they want to talk about.”

I’d have no problem with Dracula (or any other of the “worthy topical classics brigade") if anyone ever honestly argued they were enjoyable books.  But I’ve never heard it ever. I only ever hear it defended on the grounds of its subject matter.  I accept the fact that tastes differ.

Luther:

Ok, we understand that you think that, so what, in your opinion, IS a basis for aesthetic judgment?  Please be specific.

By Zak Smith on 09/21/09 at 09:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

J.C. Hallman:

It seems there is an effort being made to dismiss an anthology chock full of amazing authors because, at worst, the introduction plays loose with “reader response.”

There is no dismissing going on here.  I’m not sure why you can’t understand that. 

I’ve been asked for citations, history, and so forth.

No, you haven’t.  You’re not under siege, no matter how much your mentality disposes you into thinking otherwise.

those who argue for its literary merit simply because it now comes in a Norton Critical Edition, and therefore must be “good.”

These straw-people only exist in your head.  I could argue for its literary merit on the basis of its then-innovative use of mixed media, noting that it is, at times, deliberately bad in the manner of “Nausicaä,” a fact which Joyce arguably alluded to in the chapter’s closing paragraphs.  The problem here is that you’re arguing with characters from David Lodge novels instead of reading what anyone has written.  To wit:

Popularity does not equal aesthetic merit...and while there may be a large number of Valve-readers who understand that this is not the case, the prevailing opinion seems to be something else.

Absolutely no one has argued that popularity equals aesthetic merit.  To pull from one of my recent political writings:

For purely academic reasons, I’ve never understood the argument that we should ignore Rush Limbaugh because he’s simply an entertainer who says outrageous things that millions of people are merely entertained by.  I didn’t read the complete works of Silas Weir Mitchell because they were good—they are almost uniformly awful—I read them because they were popular.  I was interested not in the content of his thought—it is almost uniformly mediocre—but in why his contemporaries found it so wildly appealing.  If you want to learn which ideas and ideologies literate Americans in 1900 found comforting, you do not consult Henry James: you turn to the inartistic novels that parroted their prejudices back to them in a language they already understood.

Do you believe that by “uniformly awful” I mean “equals aesthetic merit”?  I would hope not.  The problem with your position is not with the position itself, but in the manner in which you describe and defend it.  There’s already been a return to aesthetic evaluation in literary criticism in the past decade or so—see The Revenge of the Aesthetic, for example—but it’s engaged with with the tradition of aesthetic theory from Longinus to Kant to Schiller to Reynolds through to the present day.  Your discussion of aesthetic merit, on the other hand, is arbitrary and subjective—is, from what I can tell, an argument from authority.  The inarguably great writers in your canon are in your canon because they were put there by other inarguably great writer.  But even though I agree with your assessment of literary merit—inasmuch as “Just look at my table of contents!” is such an assessment—such greatness is not self-evident.  If it were, for example, you wouldn’t have opinions on David Foster Wallace split as they are.  But you know that.  I know you know that . . . which is why I find your mode of argumentation here so perplexing.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/21/09 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott,

Well, this last heads off in all kinds of directions.  I’ll address a couple.

As to what criticisms have been leveled here, the thread can speak for itself.

I don’t think anyone is suggesting that aesthetically uninteresting texts offer nothing.  Indeed, this is something I discuss in depth in both the original post that got all this going, and even in this thread.  The problem is when people begin to believe that texts which are “discussable” (let’s say) are good because they can be discussed.  You seem not to believe in these people...but I see lots of them, and I see the effect they have.  We can simply disagree about that.

More important is where your argument leads.  Examining texts not for what they say, but for the values or concepts that they parrot ultimately devalues the author.  In my original post (again), I drew this distinction and made clear (I hope, but perhaps not) that the problem comes when this strategy is applied to work which is not simply parroting.  Indeed, my own essay in The Story About the Story, about Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” is about precisely this phenomenon.  “The Turn of the Screw” is such a dramatically misunderstood text, it’s effectively dead—despite the fact that it’s widely taught.  As it happens, James himself articulated what he was up to in the story, but, because the critics who have treated the book (and they are legion) have long since stopped attempting to communicate with the author, but, as you say, try to divine what he’s “parroting”—that is, what he’s saying despite himself—the widely-held impression of what the book is “about” is vastly different from what James himself said.

Is James the same as a popular hack who mirrors his world in the same way TV commercials do?  No, he’s not.  When we read and write about literature, we attempt to communicate with the author.  But a critical establishment that devalues the author so as to set their ear to what authors say “accidentally” (even when they’re intentionally saying something else) ultimately undermines the entire purpose of reading.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/21/09 at 02:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I did see that, Zak; it just seemed disingenuous given the number of other things you said that were presented as statements of fact, not taste (e.g. “Dracula is a dull read"). So let me get this straight. You’d be fine with academics teaching Dracula and other books you consider ‘lackluster’ if you thought--and said academics clearly stated--that they were teaching them because (maybe, just because?) they enjoyed them and thought they were fun?

When you throw around terms like “well written” or “aesthetic grounds,” or (arguing against your imaginary academic) label something as “non-literary-enjoyment-related,” how are you defining these things? How do you separate what is “literary-enjoyment-related” from what is not?

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/21/09 at 05:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"So let me get this straight. You’d be fine with academics teaching Dracula and other books you consider ‘lackluster’ if you thought--and said academics clearly stated--that they were teaching them because (maybe, just because?) they enjoyed them and thought they were fun? “

Bingo!

Bingo.

Never teach a book in the context of literature unless the idea is someone might enjoy it.

Never teach a recipe unless the idea is it might taste good.

Don’t throw in Secret Decoder Rings for people don’t like it.

As for tossing around “well-written”, “aesthetic grounds”, “non-literary”, “tasty”, “fun”, “enjoyable” etc. This is on purpose.

I feel like the “enjoyable meal"/"enjoyable book” analogy is exactly what I mean here.

If I don’t like the lasagna someone made, don’t try to tempt me to eat more of it by explaining how hard it was to make or how original an invention it was at the time or how fun it wil be to find secret messages written in the sauce.

These are non-gustatory concerns.

I feel like Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” is pretty clear in this regard but I hesitate to mention it lest we get off on a sidetrack about how well I’ve interpreted Sontag.  So ignore it if you don’t see how my position here is similar to hers--if perhaps allowing for a little more subjectivity.)

By Zak Smith on 09/21/09 at 06:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

@J. C. Hallman:

Examining texts not for what they say, but for the values or concepts that they parrot ultimately devalues the author.  In my original post (again), I drew this distinction and made clear (I hope, but perhaps not) that the problem comes when this strategy is applied to work which is not simply parroting.

There’s a host of problems tied up in this, and associated statements, and I don’t know quite what to say. If I had any sense, I suppose, I’d say nothing. But I’m not very sensible, so I’d like to say a little.

As I’m sure you know, you’re dealing with rafts upon rafts upon rafts of philosophical, semiotic, psychological, and literary critical arguments that have been made over the last half century (if not longer) on such matters as intention and “the death of the author.” Though I’ve thought about at least some of those arguments a great deal, I don’t want to get into that morass. It’s just too much to deal with.

I’m not, however, aware than anyone has argued, as you are doing, that these arguments apply to one class of writers (or painters, musicians, etc.) but not some other class. The arguments have all be made with respect to basic matters of thinking, communicating, understanding, etc. To adopt a metaphor used by Paul de Man, intention or meaning does not move from author to reader in the way that wine moves from vinter to drinker. If the arguments apply to any texts, they apply to all texts.

It’s one thing to say, as you seem to be doing, that the arguments don’t apply to, e.g. Henry James, because allowing them apply has a consequence that you don’t like. That’s not much of an argument, if it’s an argument at all. Do you have an argument that turns on something more more substantial than taking the difference between texts that “parrot"and texts that do not as self-evident? How do you make that discrimination with respect to contemporary texts that have not yet been securely assigned to the bins of Hackery and High Art?

By Bill Benzon on 09/21/09 at 06:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Never teach a book in the context of literature unless the idea is someone might enjoy it.

But Zak, there’s always someone who might enjoy any book. I don’t see how we’ve arrived at any kind of a “bingo” moment--though I do see that we are reaching (in fact, are probably well beyond) the point of diminishing returns on this exchange.

It’s amusing to consider the class based on your “I teach it because I like it” model--combined, of course, with your previous principle that students who don’t “get” things right away should under no circumstances be taught anything.

Professor: I really like this book. It’s fun and enjoyable.

Student A: I don’t like it. It wasn’t fun to read. It seemed dry and tedious.

Professor, taking out smoking brand: Leave university and never come back! (sears student’s forehead)

Student B: I like it. It was well-written.

Professor: My work here is done!

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/21/09 at 07:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan—Concerning the smoking brand, you didn’t by chance see Inglourious Bastards did you?

By Bill Benzon on 09/21/09 at 07:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan:

“But Zak, there’s always someone who might enjoy any book.”

Obviously.

But I mean specifically: the teacher should not teach the book (in the context of a high school or college lit class) unless the teacher actually enjoys it.

Thus we avoid the following real-life exchanges:

Teacher:
Well, I don’t particularly think “Merchant of Venice” is Shakespeare’s best and I don’t expect you to think any different.

Student:
Then why are we reading it?  Why are you introducing these students to Shakespeare with a play you don’t even like yourself?

Teacher:

Well it gives us an opportunity to talk about anit-semitism and the whole How-Does-Shakespeare-Really-Feel-About-Shylock issue.
__

Again:

I do not want to talk about the specifics of this example (myabe you love Merchant of Venice)--but about the specific idea of

*placing a book on the syllabus on the grounds of “discussability"*

__

As for your example, I have modified it so it actually reflects what I actually have been saying:

Professor: I really like this book. It’s fun and enjoyable.

Student A: I don’t like it. It wasn’t fun to read. It seemed dry and tedious.

Professor:  Great.  Try to explain in detail what it is about this work (and, if necessary) about you, that made you two incompatible.

Student B:  I don’t like it BECAUSE EVEN THOUGH I AM AN ADULT AND IT IS WRITTEN IN A LANGUAGE I CAN READ I STILL FOUND IT “ALIEN”.

Professor, taking out smoking brand: Leave university and never come back! (sears student’s forehead)

Student C: I like it. It was well-written.

Professor: Great.  Try to explain in detail what it is about this work (and, if necessary) about you, that made you two compatible.

By Zak Smith on 09/21/09 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I apologize for the typos and misplaced parentheses.  I wrote fast.

By Zak Smith on 09/21/09 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Note to self: Do not take a class from Zak Smith.

Zak, I am an adult. I often encounter books in English that are alien to me. Often. Sometimes, after study, these books become less alien, even familiar. Sometimes, not.

By “study,” I mean, mostly, more reading, including the reading of criticism, often written by scholars.

By the way: presumably, the same is true for the rest of the humanities? The teacher of the art history survey course should skip the 18th century or Gothic cathedrals or whatever if he doesn’t happen to like them?

By another way: love the Gravity’s Rainbow project.

By Amateur Reader on 09/21/09 at 10:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak, the tendency you’re talking about goes back to middle school:  books as vehicles for the discussion of issues that young people ought to discuss.  It’s fucking gruesome, of course.  But why be so measured in your attacks?  Turning convulsive beauty into culture, it’s what we do in the school:  and it’s all one long schooling.  “Gaze into the abyss!” we command, “and note how deep it is, more than 100000 kilometers; studies show that...” How can you defend the teaching of literature at all?

By on 09/22/09 at 02:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"The teacher of the art history survey course should skip the 18th century or Gothic cathedrals or whatever if he doesn’t happen to like them?”

Well, in practice, most art history teachers have been “skipping” Inuit sculpture, 20th century graphic arts, all the Egyptian art that *isn’t* just pyramids and kings and queens, Islamic jewelry, Javanese sculpture, African vernacular architecture etc. etc. for years.  (Not that I approve.)

And literature teachers have been “skipping” huge chunks of literary history, too.  (Everybody in this thread probably can think of their own examples, so I won’t invite another detour by providing my own.) There isn’t time to get everything in--especially with books, which have to actually be read.

But a “history of ____” class is not mostly what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about the much much much MUCH more common sort of class where a teacher picks and chooses 3-10 books a semester to introduce students to literture or to a kind of literature or to a given thing that happens in literature.  And, more importantly, I’m talking about the *reasons* for these choices.

However, even in a history of literature class, there are choices (which Shakespeare? Poe or Conan Doyle or both or neither? etc.) and often the teacher chooses, say, Sophocles over Aeschylus ONLY because Sophocles gives you a chance to discuss Freud.  I think that’s a bad reason.

By Zak Smith on 09/22/09 at 03:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But a “history of ____” class is not mostly what I’m talking about here.”

But “history of ___” is the form that much of the usual English major curriculum takes.

The Castle of Otranto is not, IMO, a particularly great work of literature, but a course on the gothic novel that didn’t include it would be sadly incomplete.

Likewise “Protest literature in the U.S.: from abolition to Vietnam” or some such class would likely involve reading some poorly written tracts and screeds along with the good stuff. But you need those if you want a broader understanding of protest literature in the U.S., and not just of individual works (Uncle Tom’s Cabin & etc.) in isolation.

By on 09/22/09 at 08:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benzon,

I’m having trouble working out this last post from you.  You’re plugging away, trying to figure out what my “argument” is...and that’s the whole problem!  I’m criticizing a world, and a response to literature, that seems to want to limit what it says to making arguments.  I’ll make assertions, but I don’t really intend to make an argument.  There are many ways to persuade—to assert truth, to argue, to sermonize, to lecture.  The history of literary criticism in the last 150 years, it seems to me, is endless argument, endless attempts to prove, that has produced nothing like consensus about anything.  Like science, it may want to argue that there is general “progress,” but that’s foolish because you can’t measure it...and in fact you can’t measure progress even in science without sliding down the slippery slope.

As to whether what I’ve said applies to other texts besides literature—I think that’s self-evident.  We happen to be discussing an anthology about literature.  That literature is art is obvious.

As to whether I’m attempting to draw a distinction between texts that are created by artists who have some meaning they are attempting to convey, and texts which simply wind up in the public sphere and are amenable to semiotic analysis—yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.  But I’m not arguing it, I’m asserting it.  Indeed, it seems to me that the entire writer/critic debate boils down to just that.  To my mind, a book means what it author means it to mean for the same reason this sentence means what I mean it to mean.  This puts me squarely in the Ed Hirsch camp on meaning, I know (read “Against Theory")—and I don’t intend to try to “prove” that.

Again, as I said in the original post, I’m not against semiotic analysis of texts that don’t have have an author behind them who are attempting to communicate something specific (and I don’t even have a problem, say, with studies that look at trends across great stretches of time or space), but there is a major problem with looking at a book and concluding that its author didn’t really understand what they were saying, and we need to conduct some other kind of analysis to decode it, or deconstruct, or otherwise figure it out.  That projects, but does not listen.  As with many of the critics I’ve cited in my introduction and post, what seems to be coming around now (present company excluded) is the idea that the critic’s job is to listen and echo, to have experiences and recreate them—in this way, criticism too can be an art...and not an argument.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/22/09 at 10:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As to whether I’m attempting to draw a distinction between texts that are created by artists who have some meaning they are attempting to convey, and texts which simply wind up in the public sphere and are amenable to semiotic analysis—yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. But I’m not arguing it, I’m asserting it.

What I had in mind was this passage from Driving the Stake:

And to then turn around and assign some standard of quality to a book that had an author, but might as well have been authorless (Stoker having merely organized a set of tropes bouncing around in vampire literature for a hundred years by the time he came along) ...

I see no reason why you deny authorhood to Bram Stoker. Do you think he simply wrote a bunch of tropes down on scraps of paper, put the scraps in barrel, tumbled the barrel, and then poured the scraps out onto the floor where they became a completed manuscript? I rather doubt it. I think he actually thought about what he was up to and deliberately wrote a manuscript. I further believe that that entitles him to the full measure of dignity that accrues to the term “author.” On that score he is no different from Henry James, or William Shakespeare (whose biography is so poorly known that finding the true Shakespeare has been a minor intellectual sport for well over a century), or Homer (who may have been two people, one for Iliad (male?) and one for Odyssey (female?), or a committee, who knows). I have no idea what other writers you would place in the Bram Stoker category, but I have no qualms about granting them the same dignity of authorship.

But, getting into the spirit of things, I won’t bother to argue for any of that. I will just assert it.

...there is a major problem with looking at a book and concluding that its author didn’t really understand what they were saying, and we need to conduct some other kind of analysis to decode it, or deconstruct, or otherwise figure it out.

Fair enough, but then plenty of ink has been spilled in arguing why various kinds of analysis are useful and necessary. I will not, of course, bother to argue any of this. I will simply assert it. Shazam!!! It has been asserted.

...what seems to be coming around now (present company excluded) is the idea that the critic’s job is to listen and echo, to have experiences and recreate them—in this way, criticism too can be an art...and not an argument.

Not that there’s anything new going on here. It’s been going on since forever. It’s a position that’s thoroughly institutionalized within the broader literary culture, and within the academy itself, which is why it’s so easy to find people who agree with you. Your Crusader Cape is a welcome and familiar sight to many.

Again, no arguments.

S H A Z A M ! ! ! !

And it is so.

BTW, you should reconsider your previous comment. Rhetorically, it seems a bit too much like an argument and so undermines your commitment to the assertive mode.

By Bill Benzon on 09/22/09 at 11:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(So the following comments have to be considered to be relevant only to AcademicLurker’s fairly narrow case of “students in college who have already decided they are interested in English enough to major in it and so are taking the kind of survey course which necessarily must describe the development of writing or a kind of writing over time”.  [Which is--clearly--not most students.]:)

Even in history classes, there is a tremendous amount of choice involved for the teacher.

I am talking about the criteria that should be taken into account by the teacher trying to decide: “Given the course description--this or that?”.

I’ve yet to meet two English majors who had to read the same books (note I said “books” not “authors") in their intro classes--Madame Bovary appears to be the only constant.

As for authors: asking around, it seems Dickens, Shakespeare, Kafka, Joyce and Jane Austen are the only non-Flaubert authors who *inevitably* must come up in a survey(though I’ve met english majors who escaped Dickens).

All of these offer the syllabus writer considerable latitude about which works by that author to teach in a survey--Austen arguably excepted.

By Zak Smith on 09/22/09 at 11:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Again, to avoid confusion:

A)I am not saying any of the authors I mentioned in that last post are ones I like or don’t like.

B)This is an argument about what criteria teachers should use *when they actually have a choice*. 

Many teachers would argue they don’t really have a choice about making sure students have read certain works, given certain course descriptions they have to fulfil.

C) I AM making an argument.

By Zak Smith on 09/22/09 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

Now you’re having a reasonable conversation!

Clearly, you’re mocking this idea of assertion, but how, exactly, are you going to go about “proving,” or even “arguing,” that Stoker deserves to be in the same category as Henry James?  In the end, I guess, you’ll have to give us sentences and say “I like them.” (If you try to argue that it’s good because it’s amenable to critical reaction, then you fall prey to everything Zak has been asserting here.) Now, I think the artfulness of Stoker is a pretty foolish assertion for the same reason I’d think such an assertion about Stephen King or Anne Rice would be foolish...but I’m not going to try to prove that to you.  How, why?  But, if you can write an essay which celebrates the merits of Stoker, and does so in a way that is as engaging and passionate as it is insightful and critical, then I might read it...and you might even inspire me to reconsider my views.  But there’s no way you’re going to get to me to do that with an argument.

In the end, it seems to me that much of traditional criticism is simply assertions unsuccessfully translated into arguments—and literature would be better served if they had set out to be artful assertions at the outset.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/22/09 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

@J.C. Hallman:

Any argument I would be inclined to make would not depend on whether or not Dracula is good. The category that Bram Stoker (and Stephen King, Ann Rice, Silas Weir Mitchell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, etc.) shares with Henry James is simply that of “writer of fiction.” No more, no less.

@The Management of the Valve

Dear John and Scott:

Would you please contact Acme Widgets, Inc. and demand a refund on the Shazam module we purchased from them? It was guaranteed to produce abject assent from any and all who came within its purview. It hasn’t worked in this case. Hallman’s Crusader Cape is still flappin’ in the breeze.

Valvology Forever!

Bill B

By Bill Benzon on 09/22/09 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A category of “writers of fiction” is entirely useless.  Is it not obvious that there is some fiction that is intended as art, and some not?  Perhaps those who have spent too much time weighing the value of the latter have forgotten that the former is the truly important stuff. 

In any event, I never got my cape, either!  If you get a refund on that module, I want my money back, too!

By J.C. Hallman on 09/22/09 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Is it not obvious that there is some fiction that is intended as art, and some not?”

Well, obviously not, and even those who agree on that disagree on which fiction is which.  The person who, in your “Driving the Stake” essay, had the temerity to “assign some standard of quality” (that is, have a differing opinion on) Dracula clearly thought that it was art, and you don’t provide any convincing reasons that it isn’t.  (Too commercial?  Out goes Dickens.  Too formulaic?  Out goes Shakespeare.) Bill is quite rightly pointing out that your outrage against critics dismissing authors only applies to authors you like; anyone else is apparently fair game for reductionism.  Which is what these anti-scholarly screeds inevitably amount to: “Why are they teaching these books which I hate, when they should be teaching the books that I like?”

What’s more, the writers of fiction whose opinions you value so highly can’t even agree on what makes good literature.  Henry James, as noted above, disliked George Eliot.  Nabokov hated that other Eliot, T.S. (and scores of other treasured writers).  Tolstoy disliked Shakespeare.  “Do you really want to dismiss all this collected wisdom?  They’re all simply wrong?”

By tomemos on 09/22/09 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This reminds me of my Anthropology 101 class. My professor assigned his 200+ freshmen only 2 books. One was an entertaining narrative about healthcare in Africa that was a pleasure to read. One was something about aborigines that was written in the driest academic-speak possible.

After we read them, we asked if we had to write a paper on them or take a test about them. No, he said. I just wanted you to see all of the really shitty writing that’s out there that you’ll be expected to read if you continue to study anthropology. And I wanted you to see that it doesn’t have to be that way, and if anyone says that it does, they’re lying to save their careers. It’s all a sham.

By on 09/22/09 at 03:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alas, tomemos, I’m feeling like I’ve addressed a lot of what you’ve said earlier in this thread.  To my mind, art is that which strives to “make it new,” as Pound suggests.  That doesn’t mean I have to like all art.  And one writer not liking another doesn’t really address the question.

By J.C. Hallman on 09/22/09 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If “art is that which strives to ‘make it new,’” then we have a very clear reason *why* professors should require lit majors to read all sorts of terrible, popular, forgotten work.  How else are we to know if an artist really *was* new unless we read all the other writers before him or her?

But I don’t think art simply makes it new.  Any moron can fart on a canvas and be original.  Art is anything done well, with style and grace.  I’m just gonna assert that.  I’ve got the flu, and I’m too tired to argue.

By on 09/22/09 at 09:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak, I appreciate that you’re making an argument—JCH’s willingness to jettison both reason and evidence makes his position unassailable, but frivolous.  But you’re weak on evidence.  I call bullshit on “often the teacher chooses, say, Sophocles over Aeschylus ONLY because Sophocles gives you a chance to discuss Freud” and the earlier “Well it gives us an opportunity to talk about” dialogue.  Where are you getting this from?  It’s utterly unlike any of my lit teachers or any of my lit-teaching colleagues.

By on 09/23/09 at 01:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin,
If this is unlike your experience or your colleagues experience: GOOD!  AWESOME!  You guys rock, and none of the comments I’ve made here apply to you at all.

I am only complaining about critics and academics who DO teach and judge work based on “discussability"--and who “introduce” students to literature through the gate of “discussability”. 

(And if anyone wants to ask what other way there is to introduce students to books, check my comment at 09/21/09 at 08:01 PM.)

As for “calling bullshit"--are you actually suggesting I made up a whole category of human behavior that doesn’t exist just so I could have a conversation about it with people I don’t know?

___________

As for my evidence

For this behavior in teachers I can immediately think of 3 pieces of evidence:

1) My own experience and those of people I know.  However, if you assume that when I’m quoting my teachers that I’m lying, there’s nothing I can do about that and we are at an impasse about piece of evidence 1.  I guess, despite what I believe to be true, we all read “Johnny Tremain” and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” because our teachers thought Esther Forbes and Scott O’Dell were better than, say, Lewis Carrol and that paper I was asked to write about Freud after we read Oedipus Rex didn’t actually happen.

2) The preponderance of certain books which hardly anyone ever defends on aesthetic grounds over others in critical and classic editions and on academic syllabi.  [Again: you see kids carrying Dracula around for school all the time yet few people argue that Stoker’s a better writer than Lovecraft.]

3) Rohan Maitzen explicitly stating in the post that started this all off that she encourages students to “challenge their personal responses with attention to craft, genre, literary history and influences, social, historical, and political contexts and implications, aesthetic theories and effects, language, rhetoric, and much more.”

That is, she expects a student’s personal response to a book to be “challenged” (i.e. potentially changed) by introducing the students, after they’ve read a given book, to a battery of discussables about that book.  Which, I totally admit, is different than saying she CHOOSES books for discussability alone, but it IS essentialy saying that these various discussables should actually be a factor in an intelligent person’s evaluation a book.

(....and, therefore, potentially, in Rohan own evaluation of a book as being worth teaching to a class.)

(I am not denying these factors COULD influence someone’s opinion, I’m denying that they SHOULD.  Some things are, for example, hard to write or innovative, I feel this shouldn’t affect one’s estimation of their quality.)

I admit, piece of evidence #3 is not absolutely airtight and I don’t want to ascribe behavior to her unfairly since she can presumably tell us herself whether she thinks the fact that a book (for example) was involved in some interesting social, historical, and/or political context could make it more or less worthy of inclusion in a literature class.

So it’s a good thing I’ve already got pieces of evidence 1 and 2.

_____

As for this kind of behavior in critics and whoever else it is that contributes to the critical mass that gets a book recognized as a classic, it’s easy to provide examples:

There are a great many works that receive critical praise because of their topicality or “milestone” status.  Since any example I mention in the field of literature could sidetrack us, I’ll pick something from my own field, the visual arts:

Critics LOOOOOVE Felix Gonzales-Torres.

Felix G-T’s signature work was a pile of candy in the corner of a museum whose weight (the pile’s) had to do with how much he weighed while he was dying of AIDS.

It is, from the point of visual pleasure, visual complexity, visual absorption, visual newness, formal interestingness--whatever you want to call it when your eyes tell your brain that something noteworthy is going on--totally unassuming, one might even go so far as to say banal.  It is only potentially interesting on the grounds of context or topic or other discussables.

If you think that this is solely a phenomenon of the visual arts and that literary critics are immune to books that fit the same profile (that is: books that are dull to read but full of nods to worthy topics or have context on their side) and can think of no examples of Worthy & Discussable But Dishwater Dull Alleged Classics, and think everyone in the canon (including Bram Stoker) was a master of English prose, then, again, we are at an impasse.
____

(Again, to avoid confusion, I am NOT saying that my judgement of “dull to read” is universal, I’m saying that if someone--anyone--finds a literary work “dull to read” (and obviously this does not include, say, an engineer reading an engineering textbook or equivalent kinds of reading--that’s a whole other thing) then any change of heart the reader may have should not be on the account of the book’s “discussables”.)

By Zak Smith on 09/23/09 at 08:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here are some examples that are so easy that I can’t imagine them possibly being controversial--but if they are, I rescind them:

Are we asked to read “The Scarlet Letter” in high school in order to talk about something OTHER than the Puritans?  If so, how come none of the essay questions in my class were ever about, say, Hawthorne’s writing style?

Why is it that everyone I talk to in my generation had to read “The Crucible” but NOT “Death of A Salesman” in high school?  Could it possibly have been because the first one was roughly equivalent to the second but--as a bonus--allowed students to discuss censorship, McCarthyism and (again) Puritanism?  Again--there were never any no questions about the way the play was written.

By Zak Smith on 09/23/09 at 08:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

@Sara,

I’ve read a fair bit of anthropology over the years and the writing was of all kinds. Some is elegant and lively and some is clotted with pretentious prose. There’s also writing that’s dry, but perfectly adequate to the intellectual task.

But I can’t see the point of having students read a book simply to excoriate it for being bad writing and, beyond that, being typical of the field. It sounds like your anthro prof was manipulating the class and using you as a sounding board for his professional animus.

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/09 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m starting to think we need a new, better focused thread, as it’s getting very hard to keep track of the permutations on the debate here. But here’s one more reaction to Zak’s idea of how literary criticism works:

I am NOT saying that my judgement of “dull to read” is universal, I’m saying that if someone--anyone--finds a literary work “dull to read” (and obviously this does not include, say, an engineer reading an engineering textbook or equivalent kinds of reading--that’s a whole other thing) then any change of heart the reader may have should not be on the account of the book’s “discussables”

Zak, what I struggle with here is your sense that a book’s “discussables” are in some sense distinct from what else we could be considering about it. How can we even consider whether a book is “well-written” (one of your key terms) without considering what kind of a thing it is? And what if a large part of what it is, is an intervention into a specific set of social and political circumstances? What if one’s readerly pleasure derives in part from the interesting play of ideas?

I set my questions up this way because as it happens, the novel I am working on right now with my class is Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Approaches to fiction that attempt to isolate some kind of pure “aesthetic” response themselves are working from a very particular theory of what literature is, what people write and read it for. A novel like North and South hums with energy and interest in part because of what it is about. Its literary devices and strategies are used in part to achieve certain kinds of external effects: to engage a readership largely ignorant of working conditions and class conflict in Manchester, for instance, and get them involved with considering a particular theory of what is going wrong and how it might be fixed. It doesn’t make sense to plunk a book like this in front of someone and focus on whether they feel they are “compatible” with it. It’s like asking someone to watch a cricket match without talking to them about the rules of the game. Sure, a reader may just enjoy the book, or they may find it dry and tedious. But to feel that hum of readerly excitement about what is going on in the novel--to thrill, for instance, to the scene I quoted in my teaching post this week--they need to be thinking about more than their subjective first responses. I don’t think you can separate out something abstract like “how the [novel] was written” from what you want to call “discussables,” and while my goal (and my job) is not to pressure people into liking things, I do think it is better that they should not be, say, criticizing Gaskell for not being Henry James or, for that matter, Ian McEwan or whatever novelist is their individual standard for “well-written.”

Another way to put my problem with these formulations is, how is being about censorship, McCarthyism, and Puritanism not part of how “the play was written”? Its form is not distinct from its content.

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/23/09 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin,

I suppose we can now take it as read that, yes, people do put books on the syllabus because of their discussables.

Rohan and Colin,

Yes, the political content of The Crucible is absolutely inseparable from the form of The Crucible.  This makes it way more popular among lazy teachers than Death of a Salsesman.  That was my point.  I said it because Colin disputed the existence of this phenomenon.

Rohan,

I actually read that post you wrote where you quoted North and South a few days ago and thought it was a perfect example of what I’m opposed to, but didn’t want to bring it up because I thought that might be even more pointlessly provocative. But now you;ve gone and done it yourself, so..

If:

“a large part of what it [a given book] is, is an intervention into a specific set of social and political circumstances”

that *still* doesn’t get it off the hook of trying to be a good read to a reader indifferent to the issues at hand.

Otherwise, when and if you agree with the author’s sociopolitical views, the book becomes useless.  Great, I agree, Maragaret Hale’s dilemma is interesting, can I please stop reading proto-Harlequin Victorian stageplay-realist prose about her so that I don’t start hating her?  And--if I’m a student new to literature--so I don’t start hating BOOKS?

Analogy:

If mainly what you want to do is intervene in a set of social and political circumstances via, say, ice cream (like “organic” or “all-natural” ice-cream makers certainly do), make sure it’s some tasty-ass ice cream even to someone who doesn’t care that it’s all natural and organic.  Ben and Jerry did it.

“1984” and Sartre’s “The Flies” are (in this reader’s opinion) useful to the reader *even after* you decide you agree with Orwell and/or Sartre.  And possibly even if you decide you disagree.  Because they are (in this reader’s opinion) good reads as well as polemics.

The main effect of that passage you quoted from “North and South” has is: it makes the reader wish (and perhaps suspect) that someone else had written a better, less cliche, more striking book about the same discussables.

Or it simply makes the reader wish the bell would ring so he or she can go down the hall to a philosophy or history class where *exactly the same issues* (which ARE interesting-don’t get me wrong) can be discussed without having to watch the english language being bludgeoned ("her eyes smiting them with flaming arrows of reproach") to death by an ideological ally in the process.

(None of the last two paragraph applies, of course, if you read that “North and South” passage and just stone cold enjoyed it.)

The audience is obliged to listen to a protest song when and if it can be made to sound as good to them as every other song they like.  It doesn’t get a special dispensation because you happen to agree with it, or want to.

_____

“But to feel that hum of readerly excitement about what is going on in the novel...they need to be thinking about more than their subjective first responses.”

Essentially what you’re saying is that, for the vast majority of readers, “North and South” has to be *taught* (not just read) to a young, contemporary audience in order to be *enjoyed*.  This is *exactly* what I’m opposed to.

New readers should be told the opposite: that a great work is entirely capable of welcoming them if they meet it, and that they are as free to pull “Paradise Lost” off the shelf and see if it’s any good as anyone else is, for a class or no, and if they find it good then they’ve made a lifelong friend and if they reject it then they are free to just move on to something they DO want to read in rather than be so insecure as to assume they’ve “missed” something.  Because there is a lot of reading to do, and there is very little time.

By Zak Smith on 09/23/09 at 05:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan:

Looking through your own blog, I think it’s notable that you’ve had this same argument with Jane Smiley in your (otherwise positive) review of her book:

(quote begins with Rohan--nested quotes are Smiley’s)

“I do think Smiley is disingenuous, though, when she justifies her own decision to avoid theorists of the novel . . . even though there is an entire academic industry based on theorizing about the novel’--’I preferred,’ she says, ‘to glean my ideas about the novel from the books themselves. My justification for this . . . is that novels were invented to be accessible’:

‘Specialized knowledge about the novel is something the reader may engage in for added pleasure, but doesn’t need to engage in merely to understand what she has read.’”

Does it not bother you that you keep accusing artists of “being disingenuous” (lying) when they describe how they approach literature?

Yes, Smiley’s read a lot of books--but maybe she’s telling the truth when she suggests this process began with a fascination with what was in the books themselves rather than their contexts?

By Zak Smith on 09/23/09 at 06:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Zak, but your (1) and (2) repeat the same assertion. I don’t know why people are asked to read Johnny Tremain or the Blue Dolphins (neither of which I’ve ever come across on a syllabus).  If you were asked to write about Freud in a class in which Freud was not read, that is indeed weird.  (2) is the same claim I called before—surely you can see the squirrely language to which you’re reduced.  Who is assigning what and have we asked them why?  And as you say, (3) is not evidence for your claim.

I would be interested if someone wanted to pull up and scrutinize a decent sample of intro-level lit syllabi from universities (lots of them are online now).  I’m sorry you had some bad classes and I don’t deny your experience, but you’re too reliant on anecdote plus sheer sweeping assertion about the motivations of people you haven’t talked to. 

Scott, who teaches undergrads for a living, had highly useful comments earlier.  The challenge is (see also the thread on book clubs) to guide students away from using the text as a quick springboard into a personal essay and back toward the text, to second and third readings, to the point they see/hear things they didn’t expect (things that are new!).  I spend a lot of time on this in my classes.  You may be right that some lit classes are not pushing hard enough (or at all), but “how is it written” is not a question most of my undergrads come prepared to answer: they’ll just summarize it back to you.  I’m totally on your side when it comes to paying close attention to how texts are written, and using the richest and most rewarding readings you can find.  If people are deliberately assigning boring or superficial lit to lit classes because it lets them more easily divert the class into something else, I join you in disapproval.

By on 09/23/09 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

@Zak,

Hmmmmm......

My sense—please correct me if I’m wrong—is that your primary concern is getting students “hooked” on reading (good) literature. In effect, you’re thinking about students who are taking lower division undergraduate literature courses. Further, these courses may be required for graduation. So, at least some, many (most?) of the students are “captives.” In this situation, yes, pleasure is important.

However, the fact that I like each and every one of the books I assign in such a course—and by “like” I mean “a whole freakin’ lot so help me God cross my heart hope to die pinkie friends forever”—that doesn’t guarantee that my students will like all or even any of them. All it means is that I can do a good sell job. No more, no less. But, and this is a very important “but,” it’s not really my job to convince my students about what they should like, as Rohan has noted. All I can do is put the books out there, say this and that, and hope for the best.

Now, my sense is that the courses Rohan is teaching are uppler level courses—I don’t actually know this, but I’ve been around English departments and I’ve got my intuitions. (If I’m wrong in this, please correct me, Rohan.) That is to say, the students in these courses already know that they actually like literature. They aren’t newbies to the business of reading novels, even looonnnnggggg novels. To get into these courses they either need to have taken one or more lower division courses or they need the permission of the instructor, which means they have to talk with Rohan, allowing her to assess the nature of their interest in the subject matter.

This is, I maintain, a very different situation from that of the bare bones “no prior experience required” entry-level course. The students who want into upper division courses don’t need to be inducted into the joys of reading. They’re past that. They’ve drunk the kool aid; they’re convinced. They’re looking for more and so they want to read more and more and more. They want to know how the STUDY of literature can teach them about the world OUT THERE. And that’s why us professionals study literature, to learn about the world out there.

Yes, we know, we know deeply, that literature is subjective, but . . . . . . . . after that it gets really really really complicated and interesting, but only if you’ve got the hunger and the taste.

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/09 at 06:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“how is it written?” is an extraordinarily difficult question.

EXTRAORDINARILY

DIFFICULT

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/09 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak, I called Smiley “disingenuous” because her own book showed that she was drawing on a much wider range of knowledge and sources than “just” the novels:

“That Smiley is as good at gleaning ideas from novels as she is, is the result, surely, of her exposure to a wide range of specialized knowledge about the form, including (as displayed continually in her introductory chapters) historical and contextual knowledge, awareness of different genres and forms, attention to ideological implications, and so on. One of the reasons her book strikes me as valuable is precisely that it mobilizes this kind of specialized knowledge in an accessible way and shows that having it makes reading novels a richer, more rewarding experience.”

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/23/09 at 07:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill:

Glad to see you’ll grant I’m at least half-right.

However, as I keep saying, my comments here all apply to a *specific* comment made by Rohan, one that suggests she likes it when students:

“learn to enhance, expand, or challenge their personal responses with attention to craft, genre, literary history and influences, social, historical, and political contexts and implications, aesthetic theories and effects, language, rhetoric, and much more”

and I’m opposed.

When you say:

“They want to know how the STUDY of literature can teach them about the world OUT THERE. “

Ok, but then there’d be no reason for Rohan to use the phrase “great books”.  “Great books” are not necessarily any more helpful than crap books (and often less so)in understanding the world OUT THERE.  Rohan is not bragging about introducing students to useful books, but “great books”.

Enjoyment ("a certain complicated kind of enjoyment” as, I think, Martin Amis put it) is the point of literature. (Again, the text-book example excluded.) A book that needs a Secret Decoder Ring tossed in in order to be enjoyable (to a given reader) is a book that must be judged as failing the work that literature is supposed to do for that reader just as a scoop of eggplant ice cream must be judged as failing the work that food is supposed to do for this eater. 

And no other considerations should come into the reader’s estimation of whether it’s a “great book” other than his or her personal response.

Obviously there are readers who are ALSO scholars, and are interested in tracing historical developments and so they may have reason to read such failed texts, but these readers must also be aware that these books have failed, just as an engineer cannot recommend you ride in a pre-Wright Brothers plane, much as he or she might find value in studying one.

I repeat my previous comment:

“What authors object to is not the scholar’s work, but the overspill of the scholar’s work into the field of judgement: the elevation of tedious works on the grounds that they reward (a given scholar’s) scholarly examination, or the demotion of exciting works on the grounds that they don’t.”

_____

Back to Rohan’s quote:

“Thanks to the passionate, diligent, rigorous work of highly-trained professional critics in thousands of classrooms every day, many, many students read and appreciate many more “good books” than they would otherwise...they learn to enhance, expand, or challenge their personal responses with attention to craft, genre, literary history and influences, social, historical, and political contexts and implications, aesthetic theories and effects, language, rhetoric, and much more.”

If these books actually REQUIRE (for a given reader) that a teacher point out these discussables, they aren’t “great books” (to that given reader) and the reader should not be encouraged to believe there’s some other (possibly “more objective") criteria for judging the quality a book other than his or her personal response.  If the books don’t actually require that a teacher point out these discussables, then Rohan’s comment is simply inaccurate and these critics are not allowing students to appreciate books that they wouldn’t otherwise.

____

Again there’s the ambiguity of the word “appreciate”.

“Appreciate” can mean “enjoy” (or “find personally aesthetically absorbing"), but also, “see the value to a scholar (or political activist or whatever) in”.

Obviously ALL works are “appreciable” in the second sense for one reason or another.

I don’t have to actually read the whole dictionary to believe in its value to a scholar, I don’t have to reade the first work to employ litotes in order to appreciate the fact that it’s the first work to employ litotes, I don’t have to read a sentimental but socially-conscious Victorian novel to appreciate that such novels were written and were a historical phenomenon, and none of these things make a work a “great book”.

So when we’re talking about actually having students READ books and having them “appreciate” them, the first sense is the only relevant one here.

By Zak Smith on 09/23/09 at 07:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin:

Students are asked to read Johny Tremain because it’s about the Revolutionary War and Island of the Blue Dolphins because its about imperialism and the environment.  Now you know.

Now here’s the part where I say “I’m sorry I accused you of lying” or you say “Actually, accoridng to my research, many teachers in American just think Johnny Tremain is a way better read than anything else students could be reading at that level.”

By Zak Smith on 09/23/09 at 07:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan:

Yeah, I know, I read your essay.  However, she’d probably disagree that those other sources affected her judgment of whether a text is a “great book” or not--even if it did affect her ability to articulate her ideas about books (which is a fine and acceptable thing).

By Zak Smith on 09/23/09 at 07:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oooh, typo--"you say’I’m sorry’”, not “I say”.

By Zak Smith on 09/23/09 at 07:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So the boy pulls *Paradise Lost* off the bookshelf and starts to read it.  He’s never been to Sunday School, so he has no idea what “man’s first disobedience” might be.  By the second or third or eighteenth allusion to mythology, he’s lost.  He lacks much grammatical training, so he often cannot make heads or tails of Milton’s inversion.  He gets some vague sense that there is a battle, and a crime, and a punishment, and he’s a boy, and he’s been trained to like battles and crimes and punishments.  So he says he likes the poem.

But the little fucker hasn’t read the poem.  He’s had a positive experience with some marks on a page.  However, he hasn’t understood much of anything.  Until he has a grasp of those pesky “discussables” he can’t be said to have actually READ the poem.  He’s only looked at it (cf, the difference between writing and typing). 

********

Then, as Rohan has pointed out above, Zak’s raising of enjoyment over all other concerns is not only reductive but also foreign to a entire genres, periods, and cultural traditions of literature.  Pericles would not have instituted the Theoric Fund if the tragedies of the City Dionysia were simply meant to be enjoyed.  The rich of Athens had little motive to pony up to help poor people have a good time.  No.  They were aware that the tragedies and satyr-plays had civic and sacral purposes. 

Zak also waffles on the issue of enjoyment, too often equating it with the quality of a writer.  Plenty of readers, however, love *Dracula*.  Sure, there’s a Norton Critical Edition of it, but most readers are buying the Barnes and Nobles edition, or the Signet classics, or the goofy horror publisher edition.  They are buying cheap copies because they want to read it.  Stoker was not a master of prose like, say, James, but he was a master of creeping people out, and he continues to creep readers out today.

*********

I find personal enjoyment a dumb category through which to think about literature.  Literally dumb.  It’s anti-communicative.  It’s anti-social.  A classroom is a social setting.  It’s the agora made small, and it’s meant to simulate the agora.  As such, the point is exactly those discussables.  Personal enjoyment is not discussable.  No one wants to watch someone watch a porn film (unless one gets off on that sort of thing).  One simply wants to watch a porn film.  However, many people like to discuss porn films.  Likewise, I don’t want to sit for 14 weeks listening to people enjoy something.  Let them enjoy it on their own fucking time.  I want ideas to circulate, perceptions to sharpen and come into focus in the light of other perceptions, words to split into psychedelic rainbows of meanings as they pass through the prisms of others’ minds.

By on 09/23/09 at 08:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak, the bullshitting is the sweeping assertion that lit teachers at all level subordinate literary quality to a text’s non-literary usefulness, and that you can divine this intention by looking at book titles.  This you are still doing. 

Do you teach, or have you taught?

_Tremain_ and _Island_ are best-selling, award-winning children’s lit, so at a wild guess, that’s why they are so often *taught to children*.  It seems unlikely these warhorses would be successful, decade after decade, if they didn’t keep the kiddies engaged.  (I share your view upthread that Lewis Carroll is the more significant writer, but he terrified me when I was a child.  Presumably the reason a lot of approved kids’ lit is pabulum is teachers don’t want complaints.)

Moving back to the college level, here’s a data point from a college just down the road from me.  This course (http://depts.washington.edu/engl/ugrad/course.php?crsID=1637) teaches _Dracula_, and, ZOMG, there’s some Freud in the coursepack.  Ding ding ding, off go the alarms.  But look at the description and it’s making a concerted argument about the pleasures of reading.  I also see discussion of how texts are written and all kindsa literary stuff.  So it took me 5 minutes to find an aesthetic justification of Dracula, with direct reference to what makes it fun to read!

By on 09/23/09 at 09:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,

Again you are confusing:

-Evaluating a work of art based on nothing other than enjoyment and

-being able to articulate what about that book (an possbly, you) may or may not have contributed to that enjoyment (or aesthetic appreciation or whatever).

I approve of both these things.

____

Access to a critical store of ideas and/or a critical vocabulary can help you to talk about a book.

It should not, however, contribute to the evaluation of the quality of that book.

By Zak Smith on 09/23/09 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,

Re:
your “little boy”

As I said at 09/19/09 at 04:26 PM

“To avoid the metastasizing confusion here, I’m pointing out that the following remarks apply to people in college--that is, 18 years or older.”

___

Re:

Reasons for making art in other periods.

We’re alive now.  We must judge the quality of a work of art on what it can do for us now, not what it would theoretically do for us if we were not who we are.

Ants would taste good if we were anteaters.

_________

RE:

“Personal enjoyment is not discussable”

As I said way back at 09/17/09 at 01:12 PM

“As for the notion that explaining “why” you like or dislike something is important, I have no quarrel.  A responsible reader has a visceral response, then learns to dig out why he or she had that visceral response.  This involves practicing writing and thinking and does not necessarily have anything to do with learning about a work’s context(s).”

(Although it can and I have no problem with that)

____

Context and critical language can help someone talk about a work of art and how it works on a given reader.

Context and critical language should not be used to evaluate a work of art.

Receiving art is like a car crash--it happens or it doesn’t, physics is used after the fact to reconstruct how.

By Zak Smith on 09/24/09 at 01:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin:

I never said “all” ever.  In fact I have been constantly peppering my comments with caveats like:

“Now, I have had literature teachers and they were fantastic, and I don’t dismiss the entire profession out of hand.  I do, however think that the idea--which is extremely widespread in academic circles...”

and:

“If this isn’t true of you or of professors you know, then GREAT!  You are the kind of teachers and critics we need more of. “

(check 09/16/09 at 07:04 PM)

I am making an argument against what some teachers do.  Not all teachers.

____

Yes, I have taught.  Art, mostly.

____

Look at this discussion we’re having:

Luther is saying that a book belongs in a classroom precisely BECAUSE of the “discussables” (context, etc.):

“Until he has a grasp of those pesky “discussables” he can’t be said to have actually READ the poem...A classroom is a social setting.  It’s the agora made small, and it’s meant to simulate the agora.  As such, the point is exactly those discussables.”

and Rohan is arguing that North and South (a book she teaches, I believe) can only be appreciated through an understanding of the discussables (the historical context, the fact that it’s a politically-motivated book, etc,):

“to feel that hum of readerly excitement about what is going on in the novel...they need to be thinking about more than their subjective first responses.”

While you are--in direct contradiction of them--saying that teachers NEVER include books on syllabi because of their discussables.

Are you suggesting that Rohan and Luther do not exist and instead are phantom internet personae designed to pour fuel on this fire?

By Zak Smith on 09/24/09 at 03:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Zak, I still wonder why someone in your position doesn’t just go the whole way and say that literature wilts when touched by the dead hand of Culture and ought to be kept from the classroom altogether.  What’s stopping you from reaching that conclusion?  What could actually happen in a classroom that you’d approve of?

By on 09/24/09 at 06:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

nick--
I am defending a specific statement I made and correcting false conclusions people have drawn about my beliefs from it.  I am also trying to understand the many reasons that apparently intelligent people would disagree with this comment.

The comments I make here are attempts to achieve these ends.

If you have a burning need to know the answer to your question, e-mail me.

By Zak Smith on 09/24/09 at 07:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s time to close this thread--mostly because the sheer number of comments now accumulated is making it increasingly difficult and inefficient to navigate among and refer to them. Clearly the ongoing debate(s) are not settled, but as Bill and others have remarked, some of the issues here (e.g. the role of evaluation in criticism) are recurrent topics at The Valve and elsewhere, so we’ll have other opportunities to argue about them.

Of course, if anyone strenuously objects to my closing off comments here, just let me know and I’ll turn them on again.

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/24/09 at 08:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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