The Social Role of the Critic

In spite of the recent discussion of the topic in the New York Times, I realize there is something antiquarian about my urge to think aloud about the nature of literary criticism. The decline of that role in society probably matters only to a fairly small caste of humanistically inclined readers. The implications of the decline, however, should matter to everyone. I take up here the question I left off in my last post, the social role of the critic.

By the way, I assume that the role of "critic" is not at all a default term for scholars of literature. On the contrary, there are other labels that are more readily embraced by more people. I remember hearing a colleague for whom I have the greatest admiration—one of the most influential Shakespeareans of my lifetime—remark almost twenty years ago, "'literary criticism'—what an outdated concept!" What follows relates only to the vanishing species to which some of us still belong.

One of the reasons for the diminished influence of literary criticism is that while the role of the critic in society has changed, criticism itself has been slow to respond. The critic of sixty or seventy years ago, a figure with a vivid role in the culture, stood between a circumscribed canon of past literature and a fairly elite class of professional writers in the present, and explained all of that to a general audience of readers. Today the critic stands in a different zone, between the expanding body of past works made available digitally and an even larger production in the present. He or she walks a burning deck, about to be consumed.

It's moving to read documents of that vanished past, such as the essays by critics who believed deeply in the old offices of criticism—Kenneth Burke, Lionel Trilling, Leo Spitzer—and see the balance of forces at work: evaluation, contextualization, and a speaking about literature that cannot be said by literature itself. Each of those acts should be part of a renewed literary criticism, but in a different light than in the past.

It's also a lesson to encounter the dissenting views of the same era. Recently I was looking at an article by the literary historian Douglas Bush (1896-1983) in an issue of PMLA of 1949. In the heyday of the New Criticism, Bush cast himself as an old-fashioned naysayer who saw "criticism" as antithetical in practice to "scholarship." He thought the critics of his time were overly ingenious, poorly informed about the history of ideas, and given to speaking only to each other: "a little world of several dozen people who embody all the literary intelligence of the country, who form a compact and exclusive communion of saints." Despite his reservations, however, Bush witnessed the critic's place in culture. In fact, he seems most concerned to preserve his own role as a literary historian against the encroachments of an imperial criticism.

Today's critic roams the unsteady ground between a literary past that won't stay closed and a present production that expands not predictably, as for instance the corpus of modernism did through the medium of little magazines, but exponentially through blogs and self-publishing. Even as newly accessible writings of the past often trouble the categories of literature, much new writing resists the conventional ministrations of criticism. And hence the puzzlement expressed last year by one of my students. As I told him, I believe we need criticism as much as ever. But we ought to adjust the cultural economy that has lent value to our work. Or rather: that economy has already changed around us, and we have to respond to it.

First, instead of speaking of and to the closed circle of literary studies (represented by what I called the "in Shakespeare" problem), we should return criticism to its role as the nexus where fictions meet the world—where novels, poems, and plays are revealed for their investments in history and ideas; and perhaps more important, history and ideas are shown as invested in literature.

Every critic claims to do this. But as I observed in the earlier post (and Lee Konstantinou elaborated in a reply), many customs and pressures encourage us to make virtual or safe connections instead of exploring without fear how literature intersects with other concerns. Perhaps we shrink from what Lee might call an "intersectional" criticism because it would reveal literature as a minor factor in some questions; perhaps some critics simply feel competent or comfortable only when they can see race or science or economics in the shadow box of literature alone. But as I argued in the earlier post, I am convinced that we have gained local, disciplinary validation at the expense of a tangible link to the rest of the humanities and, of course, readers.

Moreover, evaluation has become more important than at any time since the eighteenth century. At the expense of the insular, doctrinaire styles (the New This or That) that overtook criticism of the recent past, the critic will be needed more than ever in her or his fundamental role as connector and assessor—of one work with another, one period with another, one context with another. To argue for what is good, what matters, and why is a purpose that has been bred out of most scholars today, largely ceded to journalists and so-called public intellectuals. (One of the most destructive developments in literary studies during my career has been the cult of the public intellectual, which blurs the distinction between criticism and its natural opposite, journalism, in the pursuit of notoriety. More about that in a future post.) We should cultivate evaluation again, even to the point of placing it front and center in graduate seminars.

The third job of criticism is the most elusive: to say those things about works of art that they cannot see or say about themselves. In the present general culture (populated, we often hear, by unreading writers, Jane Austen aficionados, and vampire enthusiasts), what is most neglected is our capacity for entertaining ideas about a work that are notably, sometimes startlingly at odds with its view of itself.

Any reader has an interest, at least latently, in seeing a cherished book by an unaccustomed light; sheer novelty is not the point, but the provision of new knowledge where some already exists. At its best criticism is osmotic, changing the balance between ignorance and knowledge while leaving plenty of room for more to be discovered by the reader.

More important, there is something socially renovative about speaking to cultural products in terms that they can't or won't use about themselves. In this aspect, literary criticism is not merely literary but is ultimately political and social; a speaking to that becomes a speaking counter to has implications for anyone who wishes to preserve the possibility of speaking counter to not only art but convention, commerce, and institutions. I think this is the sine qua non of the entire enterprise. If it doesn't gratify this need, criticism means nothing—and it deserves to wither and disappear.

As I indicated in the first post in this series, the profession of literary studies has come to accommodate a great deal of scholarship that won't evaluate, or doesn't meet the world, or says little about literary works apart from what they already tell us—or all of these at once. Our readers want us not simply to talk to each other in the customary, risk-averse manner of many professional scholars, but to create these forms of value around literature. Literary criticism means doing that.

Next: what is not criticism? Concerning the journalist and the public intellectual.

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