Hating literary criticism

I’m happily reading along in The Story About the Story, an anthology of essays about literature, subtitled “Great Writers Explore Great Literature.” I’m about 3/4 of the way through, and I haven’t fallen in love with the essays I’ve read recently in the same way I did with some of the first ones in the anthology, but still, the selections are very good. Recently I’ve read really excellent pieces by Michael Chabon, Susan Sontag, and Cynthia Ozick, all of which left me with a longer list of books I want to read.

There’s a selection from one of my favorite nonfiction books ever, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, but the selection is one I don’t particularly like. Out of Sheer Rage is about how Dyer tried to write a book on D.H. Lawrence and failed, and in this section he writes about coming across a book of literary criticism on Lawrence and hating it so much he throws a temper tantrum and burns the book. I was all set to write a post on this passage, but it turns out I already wrote one. Briefly, my point was that I can’t stand it when people throw temper tantrums about how much they hate literary criticism. Usually when people do this they end up overgeneralizing and misrepresenting criticism and critics, and they often sound foolish and anti-intellectual, and they come across — to me at least — as people who haven’t actually read a whole lot of criticism, or as people who have read some bad things and never bothered to look into the field any further.

But I can’t get too upset at Geoff Dyer, since he does end up admitting that he’s being unreasonable, and it’s also the case that he’s writing a book called Out of Sheer Rage, an obvious signal to the reader that some unreasonableness lies ahead. And the truth is that a part of me finds the temper tantrum touching and amusing. Dyer cares about literature, and although I think he’s wrong to believe that criticism can harm literature somehow, at least his motivation comes from a devotion I can understand.

Really, though, what is it about criticism that bothers people so much? Yes, there is bad criticism out there, but in my experience (and I have read lots of the stuff, believe me), much of it is maybe a little dry and pedestrian but also useful and illuminating. Most critics, in my experience, are working out of a genuine interest in their subject and aren’t out to kill it, as Dyer claims many of them are. Why would critics devote their careers to killing the subject they study?

Perhaps my particular field of study biases my view; I specialize in eighteenth-century British literature, and criticism of that time period hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of controversy. People do fight political and theoretical battles over the literature of the time, but mostly it’s a relatively quiet field, one where trendiness and theoretical jargon aren’t required. A person can be an old-fashioned historicist and do quite well.

But still my point stands — when people lash out at criticism, they tend to focus on only a small part of it and ignore the bulk of what goes on.

This gets to my one quibble with The Story About the Story. The book is introduced and framed as a collection of essays on literature that stands in contrast to the usual dry, dull criticism published by academics. That may be true — these essays certainly are livelier than traditional criticism — but why can’t we have writerly, “creative,” criticism and academic criticism both? These essays are marvelously fun to read; they don’t pretend to do what academics do, and sometimes they attack it. But there is a place for more systematic studies of literature, for essays written by scholars immersed in the history of the time and familiar with the books more general readers haven’t read. It’s great to have people who will read in archives, pore over manuscripts and create definitive editions, study how ideas develop and get represented in novels, poems, and plays, and think carefully about what literature is and what it does. What’s wrong with that?


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

24 responses to “Hating literary criticism

  1. Great question. I agree completely. But maybe I should point out that this is exactly the argument we were having with the editor of this anthology! He’s the one, in the introductory essay – all of that stuff about Dracula – and on various blogs who insisted that academic criticism is all a big con, and that scholars are just careerists with no real interest in their subject.


  2. Good point! Now that I use Google Reader for my blog feeds, I rarely comment, but am moved to come over here directly and devoutly agree! Almost all literary criticism is done out of love for the works under discussion, even if it is indeed often a dry and pedantic sort of love…


  3. I couldn’t agree more! I think this is one of the insidious effects of cultural ‘dumbing down’. Literary criticism looks like it might be elitist and exclusive – it’d not democratically offering knowledge for the masses and it risks making people with less education (for whatever reason that may be) feel bad about themselves. What we need is a shift in attitude, not an attack on criticism. It’s a kind of weird cultural patronism of people to make them think they can’t do things before they’ve even tried them. Who knows what a person would like or relate to, if they felt able to open any book and read a few pages of it? I’m all for the spirit of adventure in the mental arena as well as the physical – have a go, try it out, reserve judgment until you’d had the experience.


  4. I think a lot of people react harshly to criticism because they think it destroys the ‘mystery’ of the literature, rather like people who don’t like autobiographies of writers because knowing about an author’s life may demystify the author and their stories, or those people who are against people examining the Bible closely because ‘it’s not our place to question’. Ridiculous, getting more knowledge about something does not destroy the mystery, it illuminates the truth (gosh didn’t that sound very born again?;)


  5. I decided not to write up a review of this anthology because I got so tired of the editor’s rhetoric (in the anthology and elsewhere) of the “pissing contest” he was having with narrow-minded academics. If that’s the route he wants to take for publicity and marketing, he can do it without any more help from me.


  6. I have nothing against criticism either. I enjoy a well-written piece especially if it provides new insight into something I have already read or leads me to new books I haven’t read. I must say though that the densely written jargon-laced kind of criticism where the critic is out to settle a score, one-up someone, or out to prove how smart s/he is is off-putting and I stay clear of it. Maybe it is that sort of criticism that is spoiling it for everyone else?


  7. Amateur Reader — you’re right, and I sort of followed the fight that was going on, although not very carefully. I should have mentioned it here, but … I got lazy, I suppose, and I also wanted to address the book alone. Hallman isn’t so strident in the book, although the bias is there.

    Jenny — oh, thank you for commenting and agreeing — it’s nice to have someone who has read way more criticism than I have back me up!

    Litlove — excellent points! There’s no need to get upset about experts being experts and doing what they do. AND there’s no need to assume that regular people couldn’t read anything they wanted to, or find a way to read difficult, challenging things, whether it’s literature or theory or whatever. There’s a place for all kinds of writing about literature, and we need all of it.

    Jodie — I encounter that attitude among my students regularly — the feeling that learning how to analyze something will destroy it. But often they conclude that they appreciate something even more after learning the analysis — it helps them experience the work even more deeply. In a way, even the dullest criticism can heighten the mystery of literature because the critics never agree and we are left with more questions than answers.

    Rohan — I can see why you didn’t review the book. I think the essays are so very good — this is really one of my favorite kinds of writing ever — but I do wish the attacks weren’t a part of the whole enterprise. It’s completely unnecessary, I think.

    Stefanie — Yes, the kind of criticism you describe is really bad and does put people off, but I think people overestimate how much of that sort there is out there. They pay attention to the bad stuff and ignore the tons and tons of good things. It’s too bad, because the good stuff shouldn’t be overlooked! Hallman’s anthology is a great collection of one type of the good criticism, but there are other kinds out there that do good work as well.


  8. D H Lawrence does seem to provoke very strong feelings. Ever since F R Leavis and T S Eliot locked horns over him, he seems to have polarised opinion. You can’t accuse Leavis and Eliot of not living their criticism. Academics are often also writers and can be sensitive and opinionated in equal measure. I was taught by a pupil of Leavis who revered D H Lawrence as a god; he was extremely emotional and often violent. He once threw a chair at the Reader in Medieval Studies, who was a lovely, gentle man. I liked them all, Lawrence, Leavis, Eliot, my tutor and the Reader in Medieval Studies. They are all dead now but they definitely lived their work. I am currently enjoying an inspiring piece of criticism called The Wheel of Fire by G. Wilson Knight. I should have read it as a student but I never got around to it as I was too busy living, er, something or other.


  9. I love good literary criticism, and I agree with you that condemning the entire genre on the basis of the stereotypical “bad” instances is a really flawed methodology – and one to be careful with, since all genres have those pesky stereotypical flaws!


  10. I appreciate good literary criticism just like I appreciate good writing of any other kind, Dorothy, but like Stephanie I try to stay away from that “densely written jargon-laced kind of criticism” sometimes beloved by people who run humanities grad seminars. The kind of criticism that reads like a stereo manual, incessantly namedrops Foucault, Lacan or any other flavor of the week, or posits that the individual reader can’t correctly “understand” a text without the mediation of theory? You can have it! Thankfully, there are always alternatives.


  11. I only worry that criticism will devolve into a Facebook method of evaluation:

    Angry reader “hates this” (thumbs down symbol)

    Pseudo-Intellectual “loves this” (thumbs up symbol).


  12. Since I’ve never formally studied literature I’m not altogether sure I could pick out the bad over the good (though in some cases maybe it’s obvious?), so to me any criticism is really sort of instructive. I like the sort that discusses a work and puts it in its time and place and talks about the outside influences and how it might have influenced literature itself. Anything that helps me understand what an author was trying to do is always welcome. And anything that helps me appreciate a work even more seems like a good thing.


  13. I don’t read much literary criticism, although I did read some back in my undergrad days. But I think this sort of reverse snobbery is common and occurs in many fields. I see lots of it in theology, which is where I do my small amount of academic study these days; your comment about critics not being out to kill their subject is especially apt in that field.


  14. I have no problem with well-written literary criticism. I do have problems with book reviewers who have over-inflated egos and think that just because they write for, say, The New York Times or The New York Review of Books, that they are writing literary criticism. And I don’t like anyone who writes in an inaccessible manner (the preferred writing style of pseudo-intellectuals, it seems). Why would you want to keep people from being able to understand and learn from what you write?
    P.S. The book sounds great.


  15. Why would you want to keep people from being able to understand and learn from what you write?

    Because you’re writing for a specialized audience, an audience that will understand you. I’m not sure who the pseudo-intellectuals are, but the people who publish in academic journals are generally actual intellectuals. Many of them are bad writers who nevertheless produce useful scholarship.

    These writers use jargon, specialized terms, because they are making complicated arguments and need some shorthand terms so they don’t have to re-define fundamental concepts from scratch every time. Learning how to use jargon is a necessary component of professional study in any field.


  16. Jargon doesn’t necessarily make for inaccessible writing. Poorly-constructed and confusing sentences, as well as non-sequitors — often meant to show off, rather than to inform — do, however. (I admit I am quite biased about this — and possibly unfair — though, because, for years, I have edited books written by academics, and I don’t consider myself an intellectual.)


  17. Emily, sorry, the “jargon” comment was directed more at Richard, up above.

    In your experience as an editor, which I respect, so I mean this question seriously, you found that academic writers were commonly submitting deliberately badly written, deliberately inaccessible books, meant to show off, rather than inform?

    If so, that’s amazing. Was this in specific fields, or generally? I’m in a field where bad writing is the norm. Yet my experience is that people are really doing the best they can. As Dorothy says, they are certainly not trying to kill the field, and certainly not to show off (to whom?) but rather to do research according to professional standards, standards which reward but do not require good writing.


    • Sadly, when you’ve read as many proposals as I have, the answer to your question is “yes,” although I’m not so sure I’d say they do it “deliberately.” I would say that a lot of them are trying to impress or to make themselves look good rather than to inform and that others are just pompous and have no idea how they sound to others. And I’d say it’s generally, not in any specific fields. However, I also have to say that I have, of course, read tons and tons of wonderful academic prose (those I chose to publish, of course :-)!).


  18. I’ve always assumed that the vast majority of people aren’t interested in reading literary criticism, which is why I was so surprised at the popularity of Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

    I once stumbled across a delightful work of ‘popular’ literary criticism and I wonder if there is room for more out there like Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature. Tongue-in-cheek but strangely enlightening!


  19. Amateur Reader, you’re totally right: you appear to like “jargon-laced” criticism that reads like a stereo manual much more than I do! In the meantime, can we at least agree that the ideal literary critic would blend good writing (subjective, I know) and sound scholarship (ditto) rather than just emphasizing one aspect or the other?


  20. Jenny

    Cream rises. I recently did the research for an article in the humanities, and I read beautiful, thoughtful, complex prose (also “jargon-laced,” because that’s a rhetorical act and it’s necessary, as Amateur Reader so beautifully points out — thank you for that). I also read dreadful, nearly incomprehensible prose. Some of it, I wondered how it had been published: mixed metaphors, unsound scholarship, wobbly logic. I returned to the authors of the shining prose, and they are mostly still shining.

    And yet I still didn’t have the impression that the bad stuff was done out of malice. These people really wanted to clarify something, some tiny point. They may have failed, but the endeavor of criticism was, and is, still a lovely one.


  21. Joseph — I wonder what it is about Lawrence that inspires those feelings. I’m not particularly fond of his novels, but I’m not going to throw a chair about it! And oh my goodness, yes, can academics be sensitive and opinionated. Quite a combination, I’ve found 🙂 What is the Knight book about?

    Emily — good point. It’s a very simplistic way of looking at any kind of writing. Just as there are lots of bad novels and some good ones, there is much bad criticism and some good stuff. I don’t think it’s possible to have just good stuff, nice as that would be.

    Richard — indeed, there are alternatives. I think that there are good articles out there that rely on people like Foucault, but it’s all about the tone — if a writer is using the kind of patronizing tone you describe, that’s a problem. To draw on literary theory and jargon is all part of the field, and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing or done badly.

    Debby — oh, yes, that’s definitely bad! If we avoid that fate, that’s something to be grateful for!

    Danielle — if you find a work of criticism instructive, it’s highly likely to be an example of the good kind; my guess is that you’d recognize bad stuff if you saw it. The kind of writing you describe is exactly what I’m trying to defend. It’s written by people who care about literature and who want to study it carefully and systematically. And yes, those articles can be very useful!

    Teresa — oh, interesting that this attitude appears in other fields as well. I know little of what goes on outside of English … it’s too bad that it exists all over the place though. Reverse snobbery is a good term for it.

    Emily B. — oh, yes, anybody with an over-inflated ego is going to be hard to deal with, and I’m especially apt to get irritated about book reviewers who feel that way! I guess I think that not all writing about literature necessarily has to be accessible to everybody, as it’s useful for experts to use their jargon, but that stuff gets published in journals where the experts read it. If the writing is well suited for its audience, whatever that might be, I’m fine with it. I agree with what Amateur Reader says about jargon, and also with what you say about writing meant to show off. That’s a serious problem.

    Amateur Reader, I like what you say about bad writers who produce useful scholarship. Hallman seems to think that these people are killing literature, which is absurd. It would be nice if everyone who wrote about literature wrote beautifully, but I’d rather have the useful scholarship, even if the sentences are ugly.

    Marieke — you are right that most people don’t read criticism, and that’s not entirely bad — it doesn’t have to be for everybody. Not everyone reads science journals either. It IS fun, though, when popular science books come out and when popular books of literary criticism come out as well.

    Richard — I agree with you about that blend! If only that were the case! We won’t agree on good writing, though, and if the definition excludes the use of jargon, then that’s a problem, because I do believe that jargon can be useful. I think the definition of the ideal literary critic is going to vary a lot depending on where the writing gets published and who the audience is.

    Jenny — what a great defense of criticism! Yes, the good stuff lasts. And the jargon-laden stuff that is genuinely useful lasts too. I’m not sure we can have the really good writing without having some of the bad writing as well, and the only thing to do is to try to encourage the good and ignore the bad.


  22. Pingback: LitCrit blogs: still alive? « bitterateur

  23. What bothers me about criticism is that it very often reads much more into the text than is necessary, all the while lading dubious inferences with irrelevant and questionable generalizations (the tenuous nature of meaning, etc.). If you summarize what the text says, explain obscure references and words, that’s fine — but there should be a clear line between saying what a text means and explaining your reaction to it, and that line should be clearly indicated. Many of the critics I’ve read don’t even seem to recognize that line, let alone indicate when they have crossed it, and this is especially true the more education and honors they have received. But my deepest scorn is reserved for the critics who find problems where they don’t exist, and make out as very difficult to understand something which is in fact quite simple.


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