When I returned to academia after my six-year exile in the magazine business, I was required to take a couple of courses on literary theory (basically pre- and post-1966). As I had discovered my first time through grad school, I was pretty squarely in the pre-1966 camp; one of my professors referred to me (in a jocular but respectful manner) in class as “the last of the New Critics.” I saw myself more as a Frygean, but in either case, my interests tended largely toward poetics — how poems and stories and such achieved their effects, and how the artists of different eras and cultural environments deployed elements of craft in the service of their art. I reckon that stands to reason — I see my fictioneering as artistic, rather than activist, so as a writer, I’m far more interested in Pope’s use of the machinery of the epic than I am in interfamilial dynamics in Catholic families in the anti-Catholic milieu of 18th-C. England.
This has often — even generally — meant that I’ve been out of step with much of my profession. In the post-’66 class, my professor (who has also been a fine friend and mentor) was leading a discussion on something like New Historicism or Cultural Studies. Although I’ll flatter myself into believing that I was a conscientious participant in the class, I may also have been something of a conscientious objector. So I asked a question, probably something along the lines of “What does a study of hanky codes in disco-era NYC have to do with literature?” (Please understand — I have no objection to the topic, nor to people studying it. But that wasn’t why I had read Castle of Perseverance.)
My professor smiled, not without a bit of rue, and said, “You got into this field because you like stories, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
She nodded, and said, “We don’t really do that anymore.” There wasn’t any triumphalism in that statement — as I said, she said it with what I heard as some regret. But it reminded me that I was a sort of academic atavist. That was OK with me (and with my professors at BSU, who treated me with respect, kindness, and intellectual honesty) — I’ve been an oddball for my whole life, more or less. And while I never would have made it at an elite institution, my ways of understanding literature have served me well enough for my career in Mondoville. So no complaints here, Sarge.
But what reminded me of all this was an article I saw in the Chronicle a few minutes ago. Timothy Aubry is a prof at Baruch College, CUNY, and in his article, he observes:
It wasn’t that professors spent much time debunking aesthetic judgment. Those battles had already been fought and won. It was just that certain questions to do with beauty or pleasure almost never arose; you learned not to ask them the same way you learned to stop liking bands like Coldplay. During one seminar, as we struggled to understand a difficult passage, a professor invited us, jocularly, to “make use of those close reading skills.” I couldn’t decide whether she was joking, so disreputable had that New Critical method come to seem.
However, Aubry notes, even though aesthetic questions had been marginalized, they never entirely went away, and a movement called New Formalism has begun to assert itself in recent years. I find this refreshing, and hope Prof. Aubry is right:
To affirm literature’s aesthetic value is to argue that it does something more than serve as an instrument for a particular politics, that the experiences it fosters are worth pursuing not only because they reaffirm our political views or further our ideological aims, but because they represent a mode of fulfillment — a quickening of our perceptions, a dilation of our temporal experiences, a revitalization of our thought and feeling — unavailable elsewhere.
Or to put it another way, shouldn’t there be room for those of us who want to talk about stories?