A Quantum of the Real

Who will read a literary criticism engaged with the real world?

In my last post I wrote about the diminishing readership of literary criticism, and noted that the decline is mostly inflicted by critics ourselves. By several intellectually bankrupt measures—one of which I called the "in Shakespeare" problem—we have lost whatever appeal to non-specialist readers we once had. The field will survive, I believe, only if it remakes its relation to its readers, both current and potential.

But before imagining such a remaking, I want to pause over the nature of that elusive readership. Whatever we suppose literary criticism to be—and in another post I will return to this activity and what it implies—is it reasonable to imagine a renewed readership? In principle and in practice, whom are we writing for?

It might be best to say first whom, in practice, we are not writing for. We are not writing for each other. I hear often from scholars that they now seldom read literary criticism outside their immediate field. Where a generation ago a fair number of books crossed many disciplinary borders, most criticism now is approached only by specialists, out of the narrowest sense of professional obligation.

We scarcely reach across the disciplines to address historians, philosophers, musicologists, and others invested in the humanities. These scholars are not our readers, either; most of them move through intellectual culture without engaging contemporary literary criticism at all. With Edward Said's death in 2003, we lost the last exponent of literary criticism whose work was read across the humanities.

And most alarming, to me, is the lack of a purposeful conversation with non-specialist readers who—as David Palumbo-Liu and others remarked after my last post—may be passionately involved with literature in many ways: as knowledge of other cultures and the past, as an encounter with a personal voice, as tools for living. As David writes, such a conversation entails "bringing literature into other peoples' lives with an understanding of what they wish to get out of it."

By nature much criticism will never be part of such an outward-looking conversation—that's as it should be. But when almost no specimens of present-day criticism are so inclined, we risk losing some of the discipline's bearings in the culture at large. Every field in the humanities should have a thriving public dimension. We do not.

A few days ago I spent the afternoon at a meeting in the board room of a distinguished university press, where the books displayed along the walls reflect over a century of publishing history—and many of them, without compromising their value to specialists, found a readership outside the university. Looking across the shelves, I saw several such titles. My glance fell on one—Francis Fergusson's The Idea of a Theater, published in 1949—and then my eyes and thoughts wandered to others of that era, by Empson, Campbell, Matthiessen, Trilling, and more.

What kind of readers did books of this sort find? No doubt they spoke to specialists in their fields, some better than others. But when I think of Fergusson's project, I'm reminded that he wrote criticism out of passion rather than industrial custom. Fergusson gathered an audience interested in literature (or in his case, in theater) from a public whose reading habits were made of particular knowledges, he reinvented the study of theater for other humanists, and he wrote at an oblique angle to his field as it was then constructed. In a retrospective review of The Idea of a Theater, Wallace Fowlie observed that Fergusson examined "the art and the purpose of plays as that form of literature that exposes real people in a real world, related to each other in a web of analogies." He might have added that Fergusson developed a critical idiolect for his book, an intellectual mode, that spoke to real people in a real world.

Fergusson's approach certainly had its limits, and few of us will feel that our projects are served by writing about reality in his fashion. But if we want to speak to non-specialists, there must be a quantum of the real in what we write. The stakes, the historical setting, the language, a tactful attention to the values of readers themselves: something must be planted in reality. Any work, any theory, any method can be conceived this way, engaging in a sophisticated but accessible way with the world. But a great deal of recent criticism—thematic studies claiming to be something else, literary histories without history, insider adjustments of the status quo in literary studies—has lost a sense of creative engagement with the real. As literary criticism has declined, it has done so in part because we have forgotten how to convene an audience through the reality channel. We too seldom ask ourselves what sort of non-literary humanists will want to read our work; whether our treatment of history or science or art will stand up to scrutiny by historians or scientists or art historians; and what cultural need we are answering.

I don't believe in the educated general reader. I think that such a label names a purely imaginary figure not grounded in any actual knowledge, interests, or passions. I believe only in real readers, who choose what to read out of their unpredictable inclinations; and I'm convinced that if we expect to write for real readers, we have to start by renegotiating our contract with reality, which means writing again for historians, philosophers, and other humanists. This means writing not attenuated history or philosophy, but a literary criticism that speaks again to culture in the broadest terms. The rest of the humanities tethers us to the only version of the real we can rely on—the realities with which most of them have continued to negotiate, while we have turned inward to talk with ourselves.

In principle if not in practice, our readers belong to these two circles: the other disciplines of the humanities nearest at hand, and the multifarious non-specialist readers available beyond (and through) them. As Fergusson and others of his era did, we will encounter one kind of reader through the other.

Next: why literary criticism?

My Colloquies are shareables: Curate personal collections of blog posts, book chapters, videos, and journal articles and share them with colleagues, students, and friends.

My Colloquies are open-ended: Develop a Colloquy into a course reader, use a Colloquy as a research guide, or invite participants to join you in a conversation around a Colloquy topic.

My Colloquies are evolving: Once you have created a Colloquy, you can continue adding to it as you browse Arcade.