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Literary Criticism and Death

Finding literary criticism in bookstores takes some doing. Usually books of academic criticism are shelved in strange, rag-tag sections such "Books on Books," or "The Craft of Writing" or "Anthologies, Reference and Criticism." In these sections you can find how-to books, which advise you to write for..

Finding literary criticism in bookstores takes some doing. Usually books of academic criticism are shelved in strange, rag-tag sections such "Books on Books," or "The Craft of Writing" or "Anthologies, Reference and Criticism." In these sections you can find how-to books, which advise you to write for 500 words a day or find your inner muse, literary agent finding guides, instructions for how to get children's book published and, interspersed yet markedly out of place, tomes by Harold Bloom, slim Umberto Eco volumes and Edward Said hardbacks. It is as if Litearary Criticism was orphaned-mom and dad died to make room for Manga, maybe-and taken to foster care.I am a tenured English professor, so kneeling down to look at the spines on the inevitably calf-height row of books makes me feel all the more useless and forlorn.Things were different, not that long ago. In the mid-century, academic literary prose fit in both classrooms and news racks, as Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and their ilk moved between both worlds. Later in the century, during the go-go theory days, we had "academic celebrities," high-flying American theorists who were hired away from one prestigious university to star at another and whose work was noticed, either admiringly or mocking, by non-academics. Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Stanley Fish, Camille Paglia and Judith Butler made ripples in the lay world. They were working in a tradition invented by the astounding thinkers of the post-May-1968 French generation: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, whose names were recognizable enough to star in pop culture homages or spoofs.Today, not so much. Big-chain bookstores are not to blame, nor are university presses, who are forced, given scant sales figures, to charge upwards of $60.00 for monographs (a monograph is just another name for a scholarly book, or, to define it cynically, what Assistant Professors write in order to earn tenure), nor is the reading public. English Departments, I fear, have stopped producing ideas that matter to non-academics.Meanwhile, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, The New York Times and their ilk continue to produce, as they always have, thought-provoking, erudite and learned literary criticism. The din from the ivory tower gets fainter and fainter. Now it seems what people talk about when they talk about literary criticism is death. The only articles written about what's happening in English Departments are obituaries of sorts (examples here, here, and here).The spectre of obituary is only all the more shattering as I write. Since composing this post, I had to revise the ending, because I originally ended on a hopeful note, and named the critic I find the most inspiring, innovative and impressively well-read, and who was comfortable in both academic and lay debates: David Foster Wallace. Foster Wallace thought about texts and theory in ways that exemplify the mind at work, the hard job of thinking very very hard about an idea, steeping oneself in the history of that idea, and rhetorically structuring one's ideas so to engage and edify readers. I think particularly of "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage," a masterful examplar of what analysis of an academic debate can be, and "Federer As Religious Experience," a brilliant reinvention of the exegesis, or close reading.Foster Wallace was not a literary critic in the traditional sense. Just in the best one.