The Good Will of Books

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with John Donatich, director of the Yale University Press at Yale’s Graduate Club on Elm Street, where we swapped stories from our respective careers in publishing. (I did most of the talking, to be honest.) In the course of conversation, we discussed the state of academic publishing. I had recently completed a research project for an overseas press looking to expand its English-language publishing program in philosophy. Since I had an amateur’s interest in the field and more than a decade in scholarly publishing of one sort or another, it was a perfect project for someone with my inclination. During a tete-a-tete, one item that caught my attention was John’s comments on the state of book publishing in the field of literary criticism. In brief, it is not an area that is doing especially well nowadays. This isn’t to say that it’s on life support. But in terms of raw sales figures—number of units printed and sold—it’s a less-than-ideal area of publication.

Reasons for the decline of "litcrit" sales are legion. Humanities-based book publishing programs have taken a real pounding. The elimination of university press subsidies has hurt, as has the steady migration of scholars to digital venues. Moreover, the overproduction of books in response to tenure pressures has produced a flood of publication that academic library budgets can no longer accommodate. And then there is the ontological problem of scholarly specialization, which automatically limits audience size and book sales.  This tailspin in academic monograph has thrown into question the future of humanities research, begun to reshape criteria for tenure, and obliged scholars to rethink the place the “book” in literary criticism.

Alas, solutions are not legion. Many publishers seem resigned to plodding on, producing works of literary criticism regardless of how much interest there really can be in the or .  But even where there is interest--hell, even I'm interested in these topics--that interest will be be nominal at most and fleeting at best. Books of this ilk will take not 2nd or 3rd place on my reading stack; they'd be lucky to take 20th or 21st. Indeed, the fact that I’d have to re-read Paradise Lost before taking on a whole work devoted to a “dramatic reinterpretation” of it makes me queasy just thinking of the required page-turns.

Is it any wonder that literary criticism is on the ropes? And, yet, literary criticism done well can offer true pleasure.  This certainly occurs to me when I look at the litcrit section of my personal library and consider the characteristics that make for a good litcrit read. What matters is not any critic's purported insightfulness or even her work's importance to the history of literary exegesis. No, what stays with me is something different, something crystallized by my recent exercise in slimming down this part of my library.

It is now 15 years since I received my doctorate, and it is unlikely I will ever return to academia to teach or write literary criticism. So when my wife recently demanded that I reduce the size of my library, I decided to rake out the litcrit collection I had amassed in graduate school. Refreshing is the only word I can use to describe the experience. My academic career behind me and none ahead, I saw no  need to retain works that supplied so little satisfaction but had stayed on hand solely for the purpose of teaching or quoting. Now I could forthrightly assess the quality of the reading experience of this part of my collection, no small matter for a discipline excoriated during my graduate days for loose thinking and impenetrable writing.   The standing of works of ostensibly "breakaway" originality, held in high regard then by litcrit professionals, dissolved instantly before a fierce resolve to keep what I had enjoyed and eliminate those academic aspiration had obliged me to have."  Works that were once "hot" now seemed trite, belabored, ostentatious, or overindulged.  I bathed in the freedom of putting front and center new, more personal criteria: readability, narrative drive, force and clarity of argument, playfulness of voice.

So what sailed away to the local Goodwill? My collection of essays by Paul de Man, which, despite their presumptive brilliance, never shined for me as his extended explicationes de text all drove to the same tiring conclusion  that every text is a morass of contradiction, a perpetual shooting of one’s own feet; Walter Benjamin’s essays were also cast overboard, I never having found them all that compelling or even that well written; several of Foucault’s works—which were not even literary criticism but were so heavy-handedly adopted for  litcrit purposes that they ended up in this area of my library regardless—were boxed up, particularly the overlong Order of Things and the unnecessarily abstract Archaeology of Knowledge. Nor were all my rejects of the “theoretical” kind. Ihab Hassan’s Contemporary American Literature, 1945-1972: An Introduction was a rather pedestrian affair as introductions go; Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending was never going to get read; Cleanth Brooks’ Well-Wrought Urn, a series of essays illustrating how “close reading” of poetry ought be done, left this reader's experience of the poems entirely parched; Rene Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature was neither readable nor useful, more a dryly written period piece; Terry Heller’s Delights of Terror, Clayton Koelb’s The Incredulous Reader, Joseph Grixti’s Terrors of Uncertainty were all well written and well argued, but took up shelf space only because of my now long-forgotten dissertation on the American gothic tradition; and then there were the multi-author essay collections on feminist criticism and theory, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and God knows what else.

So what stayed?  Walter Kendricks’ Thrill of Fear, another dissertation source, stayed not only because it offered reasonably good history of the genre in literature and film but also for the pugnacious tone of its treatment of bad horror art. I gladly held onto Mythologies and S/Z by Roland Barthes as examples of original thinking, humorous observation (especially) Mythologies) and truly novel presentation (has there ever been another work of literary criticism like S/Z?). Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class? also stuck around for its clarity of prose, precision of thought, and force of argument.  I could not imagine letting go of fine introductory works like  Terry Eagleton’s tour de force, Literary Theory: An Introduction or the should-be-better-known Superstructuralism by Richard Harland.  Literary histories and works of cultural criticism that were compelling in their insight or unique in their approach—such as Lionel Trilling’s Liberal Imagination, David S. Reynolds’ Beneath the American Renaissance or Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Lighting Out for the Territory—I also retained. Finally, I do admit a penchant for writers on writing: essays (Language of the Night by Ursula LeGuin), criticism (Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster), manifestoes (For a New Novel by Alaine Robbe-Grillet), memoirs (One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty) or interviews (Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations with Capote). As works of criticism go, none of these amounts to much. But as commentary by craftsmen on the crafting process rather than the crafted object’s final effect, they are worth something.

All of these titles stuck with me because they interested me as a reader and not as a litcrit professional. And so I wonder if, in the end, this is the direction that literary critics will ultimately have to take to stay in the book—as opposed to the academic journal—business.  Doing so might require setting aside calls to specialize or even theorize and focus more on voice, originality of presentation, quality of writing, force and range of argument, and—finally—on the story their book tells rather than the stories that are the object of their criticism.