Literary Criticism

Literary Regrets

Lisa Dickler Awano is a scholar of Alice Munro and an alumna of the University of Chicago, which I attended as well. She is also a subscriber to New Haven Review and a forthcoming contributor.

When we saw each other at the most recent New Haven Review gala, we talked briefly, as we have before, of the ol' "U of C." She had recently visited the campus, where Amy Kass was being honored. Our conversation turned, as per usual, to the topic of faculty we had known.

For me, Amy Kass, and her equally eminent husband and fellow faculty member, Leon, were not among those with whom I had the honor of taking a class (notwithstanding their conservative credentials). But Lisa and I were able to share fond remembrances of David Bevington, the U of C's premiere Shakespeare scholar. (Bevington's edition of the Shakespeare's complete works remarks for me a touchstone of quality in editing and exposition of the Bard's work.)

Our conversation then took a curious turn. She knew that the greatest influence on my early development as a reader and critic had been literary scholar William Veeder. But that influence, as I've written elsewhere, affected less the shape or quality of my criticism than the confidence—sometimes reckless—that underwrites it. In brief, Veeder trained me in the attitude a literary critic must take to the object of his attention rather than in the actual tools of analysis that should be brought to bear. For a critic to do his work well, one simply cannot tread a path of undue reverence to authors or their work.

And while this was a necessary first step to the art of reading well, the tools he offered at the time did not, as I suspected then but know now, deliver much substance in the way of interpretation or criticism. This is seemingly harsh, but it is without doubt the case that Veeder's passion then for psychoanalytic criticism offered readings that, in my humble view, were seemingly complex but terribly hollow. While the article on him in Wikipedia conveys the strengths of his basic positions as a literary pragmatist (that meaning is engendered by the intersection of text and reader in a given context), his in-class instruction often dwelled to absurd lengths on intricate variants to the Oedipus complex and other Freudian and post-Freudian phenomena.

Veeder supplied the starting blocks. But my "literary regret," small and speculative though it may be, was the opportunity I missed to have a baton passed to me by U of C's best-known literary critic then: Wayne Booth.

Part of the reason for the missed opportunity was simple timing. Somehow I managed to graduate from U of C in three years (an achievement not to be mistaken for any act of genius or even above average intelligence on my part: I sweated seven years on a doctorate that wasn't all that great when I finished.) My junior year was thus also my senior year, which gave me the privilege of shouldering my way into any class I wished but did not bestow the magical property of compelling professors to return to the classroom early from sabbaticals. The academic year after, I bridled with jealousy when a peer and friend regaled me with tales of Booth's erudition and kindness during classes he took the year after my graduation.

At the time, there was no doubt in my mind that the star who shined brightest in U of C's English department then was Booth. True, by the mid-1980s, my undergraduate years, his star had begun to fade under the glare of deconstruction and a cadre of poststructural reworkings of feminist, psychoanalytic, and Marxist literary theory. Booth's theories seem quaint by comparison, but with the receding of the Continental tide of theory, the artfulness and articulateness of his struggle with issues subsequently advanced by narratology and reader response criticism seem to have worn well, or at least, better than some other theories.

This, of course, is just one reader's opinion, and Booth was not necessarily my favorite or even the most convincing critical theorist. But I do think he was, at the time, the best U of C had to offer. But I'll never really know. It is always possible that he as an instructor and I as a student would have been less than compatible. But such is the nature of regrets, even literary ones, which exist in some other universe with its own history.

Lit Up

Earlier, I posted on the fruitlessness of teaching students how to write literary criticism. The argument was part tongue in cheek, part all business. In brief, I'm ambivalent about the value of this activity. This ambivalence lies in the fact that not teaching students how to write literary criticism is not the same as refusing to teach them how to do literary criticism. Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference. I don't think so. When it comes to the art of unraveling a literary work--or as students of literature pejoratively put it, of "dissecting" The Scarlet Letter or Death in Venice--we should instruct students in this activity. I'm just not convinced this is the most effective way of teaching students how to write better, and too often beginning literature courses are treated as an extension of one's training in academic writing. But, in my view, the experience of writing literary criticism comes too early in the trajectory of the typical student's college career. Unless the inability to write has burdened him with remedial composition courses--something of a norm on American college campuses--writing literary criticism within the first two years of study is just too soon to engage in the art of analyzing one of our most complex human artifacts.

A small digression: I've always been amused by the distinction in our culture between the "hard" and "soft" sciences. In academia, hard sciences, like physics and chemistry, are not uncommonly seen as more difficult, more challenging than the "soft" sciences of psychology and sociology. Hell, just look at the adjectives! But this bias is built on a strange notion. The soft sciences are soft not because they're easier but because they're the more complex of the two. And why? Because they have humanity as the object of their analysis, and human beings by nature deceive--if not the scientists who observe them then themselves. Our capacity for deception and delusion inevitably muddies the stream of reproducible results and controlled variables upon which "good" science depends. Pity the poor psychologist rather than the physicist. Grasping human behavior is enough to give even the keenest of minds a migraine. And narrative is, if anything, a demonstration of this seeming incomprehensibility, a neverending case study in the instability and unknowability of intention and response, human cause and effect. If human beings instantiate in every living moment the Heisenberg principle, stories are little more than exemplars of the principle at work. And yet we're sending in students to write coherently about them?

Perhaps I make mountains of molehills here, but I wonder if compelling nineteen-year-olds to intelligently and (one hopes) intelligibly interrogate a literary text is an episode in the kind of all-too-human irrationality we ask them to expound on. It is difficult enough to figure out, say, a character's ostensible motivation; to ask students to peer further beneath the literary veil and comment on the unstable source of that representation, which may range from the author's unconscious predilections to the ultimately unknowable historical milieu of the work, seems sheer madness. Here we blithely walk students into literature's hall of mirrors and ask them to look from reflection to reflection--the cascade of narrative ambiguities, which is generally agreed to be a good thing in a literary work done well--and then expect them to walk out loving the work and the craft of writing literary criticism.

Instructors of the art are inevitably disappointed by their charges, who leave the hall frustrated with results that are more pedestrian than not. At best, we hope for diamonds of insight in the rough. Some students who stick it out may even come to enjoy the ride--despite the results. In these are our first English majors born. But was the ride worth it for them?

In the end, frustrations aside, I have come to believe it was. Uncertainty and ambiguity in a work of literature is a good thing. I'm with the New Critics on that point. But try getting your typical first-year college student to accept that. Not so easy.

That is because eventually they will have to accept the fact that life as lived is rife with uncertainty, and making it through depends on learning how to navigate its shoals. Literature of any real quality demands suspending the Hollywood-driven Manichaeanism that childhood depends upon. Engaging students in the act (and if they're further interested, the art) of literary criticism is among their first steps in exploring and accommodating the not-so-black-and-whiteness of reality. Literary criticism is essentially a safe space to pick apart life through the vehicle of narrative. The more robust and thoughtful the picking apart, the better the training the student receives for handling the blows life will inevitably deal. Better to explore earlier in a textual work why a crime was committed than later in a courtroom as a witness, plaintiff or defendant. Literary criticism for this reason, among others, is a species--maybe a subspecies--of ethical training. It is the unexamined life being examined, through the lens of narrative.

But, mind you, this describes only the act of engaging in literary criticism. It is not the same as the act of writing it. For when you write literary criticism--not a bad thing in itself--you have now more heavy-handedly codified the flux of possibilities that circulated prior to committing ideas and arguments to paper. Granted, codification will sometimes have the ameliorative effect of pushing you to think through and state more clearly your views of the work at hand. For while uncertainty may characterize the nature of reality, so, too, does stability, if only for a while. Uncertainty, after all, is not the same as chaos. And the writing of literary criticism, while difficult in the extreme at times, is not a mission impossible. Indeed with time, maturity and the ability to walk the high wire of our quotidian existence, it is even something we may want to teach. But only when it really is worth the teaching and not before. A softening up that concentrates more on discussion and more imaginative forms of engagement would do far more till then.

Literary Curmudgeonism

While schmoozing in the home ofNew Haven Review editor Mark Oppenheimer, we started speaking of our respective experiences as college instructors. He noted how much he preferred teaching nonfiction writing to literature because he neither wrote nor knew all that much about literary criticism—a gross understatement on his part, really. I chimed in, stupidly perhaps, "I don't really understand why we teach students how to write literary criticism at all."

But is such a sentiment all that stupid?  In spirit of making a go of this bit of devil's advocacy, I boldly ask: why do we teach students how to write literary criticism? Make no mistake, it is a type of writing that can approach the status of art in the right hands. But even for experts it is a far more difficult form of nonfiction to produce—in my humble view—than those ol' classroom chestnuts: narration, description, and argumentation.

Now, technically, literary criticism is a subdivision of the last, but it remains one of the hardest to do well. I attribute this difficulty not only to the inability of students to read and write well but to the inherent complexity of trying to formulate an argument about something as slippery as a well-wrought story or poem.

In my experience, the slipperiness of the literary artifact comes directly from the story-like nature of this species of discourse. So when I taught the art of lit crit—and probably not all that well, to be honest—my students continuously wrestled with the Herculean (or rather Sisyphean) task of unwinding authors from their characters, storytellers from their stories, the telling from the showing. Even I still have difficulty with the boxes-within-boxes or hall-of-mirrors (pick your metaphor) nature of this discursive mode. And, mind you, I have a doctorate in literature.

I'm currently convinced that high school teachers and college professors teach students how to write literary criticism not because it instructs them in how to "think critically" or "formulate an argument" better. These can be done just as easily—actually more easily—focusing on more concrete topics, like reproductive rights or drunk-driving laws. Instead, I hold that many teachers, in their heart of hearts, would rather not teach students how to write literary criticism at all. What they'd prefer is reading works of literary quality and talking about them intelligently—like a book club but with the teacher's authority intact for guiding novitiates. That certainly was my experience as a college instructor.

I loved selecting, teaching, and discussing (or more appropriately discoursing on) the work at hand. What I despised to no end was marking my students' papers, which were poorly written, generally incoherent, and pretty pedestrian in their analyses. And most literary instructors I speak with echo this sentiment—although I'm happy to be flamed to the contrary.

Marking papers probably explains why I became a professional editor: I grew tired of commenting on people's dry runs. If someone is going to write poorly, and I'm going to have to redline it into readable prose, I might as well make sure the fruits of my labor see light of day in published form.

On occasion, I do yearn for those halcyon days teaching a great short story, a fine novel, or shockingly brilliant poem. I even sometimes miss the stress and strain of writing literary criticism—no easy task, even for me. But the idea of teaching students to write literary criticism, as if that constituted training for something other than, well, writing literary criticism—heck, lit crit isn't even a solid basis for the art of book reviewing—is a misbegotten notion that serves no one other than the instructors who recognize this chore as the price they must pay for the pleasures of reading and discussing literature worth talking about.

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.