Some Thoughts on Lit Crit

This morning I was looking over some blogs I hadn’t visited in a few days, and at The Educated Imagination, I discovered this post from Joseph Adamson regarding possible links between the rise of what is termed “literary theory” and the decline of the discipline/major of English. One part that struck me:

The problem with the term “literary theory,” is that it has come to mean anything but literary theory: what passes as literary theory is sociology, or linguistic theory, or psychoanalytic theory, or history, or queer theory, feminist theory, even evolutionary theory now, as Scott Herring alludes to in his article. None of this is, properly speaking, literary theory, which would be a theory of literature as an imaginative form of communication that is distinct from other uses of language.

[…] What Lynne Cheney and the radical left (as it has manifested itself in literary studies) have in common is an ideological bias that cares little for literature as an autonomous activity of imaginative recreation, as Frye understands it. By “autonomous,” Frye does not mean that literature is “pure” of historical or ideological content, but that what most matters in literature is the imaginative shaping of that content. This aspect is also the genuinely “critical” aspect of literature that gives it its authority and has the power to remind us of how far, how grotesquely the world we have created departs from a world that makes human sense. In that light, I do think we can speak of a deterioration, if not the death, of a discipline, when so many of its practitioners are seduced and distracted by principles belonging to other academic or scholarly disciplines than its own, and especially when the approach subordinates the study of literature and culture to socially and politically activist agendas, right or left.

While I know I have differences with the folks at TEI (including, for example, differences regarding the role of government in funding research in the humanities, whether the decision is made by Lynne Cheney or Noam Chomsky), I think this is dead solid, and it came home to me again when I read a piece from the WSJ that ran a few days ago. Joseph Epstein reviewed the new Cambridge History of the American Novel, and he is less than thrilled:

“The Cambridge History of the American Novel” is perhaps best read as a sign of what has happened to English studies in recent decades. Along with American Studies programs, which are often their subsidiaries, English departments have tended to become intellectual nursing homes where old ideas go to die. If one is still looking for that living relic, the fully subscribed Marxist, one is today less likely to find him in an Economics or History Department than in an English Department, where he will still be taken seriously. He finds a home there because English departments are less concerned with the consideration of literature per se than with what novels, poems, plays and essays—after being properly X-rayed, frisked, padded down, like so many suspicious-looking air travelers—might yield on the subjects of race, class and gender. “How would [this volume] be organized,” one of its contributors asks, “if race, gender, disability, and sexuality were not available?”


In his introduction to “The Cambridge History of the American Novel,” Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham and most recently the author of “Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories” (2009), writes that the present volume “synthesizes the divisions between the author-centered literary history of yesterday and the context-centered efforts of recent years.” Yet context is where the emphasis preponderantly falls.

[…]In today’s university, no one is any longer in a position to say which books are or aren’t fit to teach; no one any longer has the authority to decide what is the best in American writing.

Epstein contends that the second condition leads inexorably toward the first, and he may have a point when he adds:

A stranger, freshly arrived from another planet, if offered as his introduction to the United States only this book, would come away with a picture of a country founded on violence and expropriation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination, and populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for the mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism. The automatic leftism behind this picture is also part of the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.

But the problem with Epstein’s argument, from my Frygean perspective, is that the model he seems to favor, with the attendant privileging of “high culture”, is another version of the same error, telling us less about work X than about the critic’s attitude toward works like X. Thus criticism becomes a mere adventure in the stock market of taste.

Indeed, I would argue that both the Cambridge History and Epstein’s critique are mirror images of one another, and that both falter on the grounds Adamson noted earlier. Both the Cambridge critics, with their blinkered focus on sociocultural context, and Epstein, with what appears to be a focus on an Arnoldian “best that has been thought and said”, seem to be interested in literature chiefly as a means to a cultural end. But I think Epstein gets closer to a useful truth (and to the idea of literature as something to love as an end-in-itself) when he says,

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

There’s a great deal of truth here. But I’m not sure that the antidote is a return to a Leavisite notion of “Quality.” That, too, puts literature in the service of an agenda.

So where do we go? And that brings us back to Adamson, and back to Frye, whom Adamson describes as

[…]pursuing his theory of literature and criticism as an autonomous activity and discipline [which produced] at the same time cultural and social criticism of a very high order–not because he turned for his insights to the worlds of sociology and history.

As when “the personal is political”, there is no longer a personal, so by trying to use literature for the political, we lose the literature. If we look at the literature as literature, the world may well come with it.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Politics, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Some Thoughts on Lit Crit

  1. The Ancient says:

    I wonder what Richard Howard would say today about his thoughts and feelings when he first encountered Roland Barthes.

    (He might be an interesting speaker at some Mondoville event.)

  2. Alpheus says:

    Browsing in the library yesterday, I flipped through a (relatively) recent book of essays on Greek tragedy. As I skimmed the table of contents, I felt a sense of despair. These essays weren’t really about Greek tragedy at all. They were about chic theories, clever argumentation, and the hipness and oh-so-smartness of the authors. In a real sense (I thought to myself) they were a kind of deliberate anti-scholarship, obscuring or misrepresenting their ostensible subject. Never in a million years would I give them to a serious undergraduate who wanted to know about Greek tragedy.

    So, yeah, I’m with you and Adamson.

  3. bluesun says:

    You just reminded me of an xkcd comic

  4. Jeff says:

    Because of the kind of stuff I write—I’m researching a new nonfiction book right now—I’ve despairingly skimmed many volumes like the one Alpheus describes. Often they’re so useless that it’s as if the Sokal hoax never happened.

  5. MikeC says:

    No doubt there is some benefit to examining the historical context. I would have been lost in my Anglo-Irish literary revival class without learning a bit about the politics and history of the time. However, much of the article reminds me of the episode of Northern Exposure where the deconstructionists are tackling “Casey at the Bat”.

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