Blog Post

Literary Criticism? Really?

Since my last post I've been thinking about the validity of the idea and the practice of literary criticism in a culture that often looks elsewhere for interpretation—and even more, that values expression over interpretation.Many people in the industry of writing about literature shrink from the term literary criticism, which has a pungent, mid-20th-century odor about it. And many students don't accept the need for a class of interpreters oriented toward literary art, either because they think of interpretation as something less than a discrete activity, or they question the object, that is, literature. Last year one of my undergraduate students, who had taken both my course on poetics and a distinguished colleague's course on the novel, asked me with sincere puzzlement: "if you and Professor Moretti know so much about poems and novels, why don't you write them?" He was a stranger to the idea that criticism is a vocation. Instead, our work seemed to him like an abdication of autonomy, a refusal of some more authentic creativity.

In reply, I quoted Northrop Frye's remark that "criticism can talk and all the arts are dumb." It used to be commonly understood that the critic carried out a role that belonged to no other cultural agent. For a long time, critics and readers alike believed it.

Now there is no reason that this particular convention must survive: maybe its time has passed. Maybe literary critics are like Sovietologists or metaphysicians, scholars whose fields have been transformed almost to the point of vanishing—or outside the academy, like vaudeville performers or typewriter repairmen, relics of a closed era.

I think not. There remains a franchise for interpretation, however we have attenuated or abandoned it. And there are stirrings. I notice that in comments to my post of last March by Allison Carruth, Rohan Maitzen, Josh Landy, and others, there are the outlines of a new idea of criticism that would connect literature to what readers want from it; I also take seriously Meredith Ramirez Talusan's observation that critics can make their readers by pursuing questions outside institutionally conformist modes of scholarship.  Andrew Goldstone, Jodie Greenwood, and others raise the necessary question of whether we educate undergraduates and Ph.D. students in a way that still makes sense.

I want to think from the premise that however unfashionable it has become, literary criticism, the term as well as the thing itself, is worth a reinvestment. Why? I believe it encompasses a body of knowledge worth preserving, even when critics themselves are sometimes less than respectful of that knowledge. Over several posts, I'm planning to entertain a few thoughts about how criticism is being reinvented by a number of practitioners in light of its connection to what I called "the real"; and how we might educate students differently to bring that connection forward. The flashpoint of a revived criticism—where all of these issues converge—seems to be in what might be called the social role of the critic, which I want to address in a few ways. No doubt there are many other aspects of this question that I will overlook, and I welcome comments.  

 
Roland Greene's picture
Greene is a scholar of early modern culture, especially the literatures of England, Latin Europe, and the transatlantic world, and of poetry and poetics from the sixteenth century to the present. He is the author or editor of five books and many articles. His current projects include books on the poetry of the hemispheric Americas and on the Baroque. Since 2001 he has taught at Stanford University, where he is the Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.