July 12, 2007

Meta-Criticism: A Complaint!

Often when I make good faith efforts to re-kindle my interest in and appreciation for academic criticism, I experience what I've come to think of as a "Reverse Godfather": just when I think I'm back in, they keep pushing me out! In today's episode, I was doing some catch-up on new releases in Victorian studies, with an eye to my upcoming course on sensation fiction, so [a new book on sensation fiction] caught my attention. Happily for me (I thought) its introduction is freely available online, so I start reading along, only to find my interest slipping away and my attention wandering as [the author] develops an argument that turns out to be every bit as much about criticism as about Victorian novels. In fact, for long stretches of the introduction she offers criticism of criticism of criticism--that is, she examines and critiques the premises and procedures of review essays on recent work in Victorian studies. Is it just me, or does this sound like a variation on navel-gazing in which the object of said gaze is just someone else's navel? [The author] describes the book's project overall as "literary criticism that reads itself reading the Victorians." I'm sorry, but the thought of reading literary criticism reading itself reading the Victorians is just not appealing. I'm going to go read an actual book instead.

Follow-up: This little piece got a lot more attention than any other post I've put up here. I've been feeling uneasy, as a result, because it was meant more as an outburst of frustration with a genre (academic literary criticism) than an attack on [this] book in particular, but this distinction is blurred in my original post. As I said in a comment on Dan Green's "The Reading Experience," as an academic book, [this one] seems better than most (at least the introduction does, which is as far as I've read at this point). For starters, it makes an original argument and is clearly written. My impatience is with the layers of self-conscious meta-commentary that are now required in academic criticism: it can feel like you are looking at literature through bubble-wrap. [The author] has to do something like this to succeed professionally (though perhaps she's fine with that, and would not do otherwise even if she had the choice). But at the same time such an approach pretty much guarantees that the book won't be of much interest to anyone outside the profession. It is this double-bind that frustrates me the most and that has motivated me to engage in the meta-critical project I myself have underway, as I try to rethink how and why we write about books. (July 24, 2007)

Final follow-up: I continue to regret having singled out a particular critic in this post and it occurred to me belatedly that I could at least edit out the specific references. I can't change the peevish tone of the post, but I hope there's evidence elsewhere on this blog of my better self. I'm not done thinking about genres of criticism, but (though for different reasons) I agree with the last anonymous comment--"Enough!"--at least with this post as its starting point. (August 7, 2007)


Meagan said...

Ah yes, this is indeed critical "navel-gazing," as you so aptly put it! This is the exact reason I so often feel alienated by criticism.

Bring back the books!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of meta-criticism, your acknowledgment that you only bothered to read the introduction to Jones's book before dismissing it is refreshingly honest. Following your example, I'm going to go read part of an actual book.

Rohan Maitzen said...

OK, fair enough, though I did not actually dismiss the book: I just decided I wasn't interested enough in the project Jones said the book was dedicated to to read the rest of it.

JBJ said...

Even after the update, I'm not sure you're being entirely fair to Anna's book, or even to academic criticism.

(Full disclosure: I'm no relation to Anna, but I do have a book in the same series at OSU P .)

Anna's book is part of OSU P's "Victorian Critical Interventions" series, which explicitly calls for "theory-based forays into some of the most heated discussions in Victorian studies today."

In short, the series aims to publish short books that are somewhat more metacritical than one might otherwise expect a book on, say, Dickens to be.

Being frustrated with a book in the VCI series for its metacritical approach is, as far as I can tell, like taking a bite out of an orange and complaining that it is citrus-y and juicy.

(Apologies for the long comment--it's the remnant of a longer blog post partly obviated by your update.)

Rohan Maitzen said...

Isn't the existence of a whole series of books dedicated to metacritical approaches a further symptom of the same phenomenon I'm worrying about? And as you acknowledge, the difference between a book in that particular series and any other current critical work would usually be a matter of degree rather than kind--it's not apples and oranges but navels and mandarins... But I would be interested in seeing a further defense of academic criticism more generally; I'll keep an eye on your blog.

Toast said...

Gosh! I too was making a good faith effort to rekindle my interest in and appreciation for academic criticism. Naturally Rohan Maitzen's "'The Soul of Art': Understanding Victorian Ethical Criticism" in English Studies in Canada, caught my attention. Happily for me (I thought) it is available online, so I start reading along, only to find that it is, well, criticism of criticism of criticism. Is it just me, or does this blog entry start to seem like criticism of criticism of criticism of criticism?

Rohan Maitzen said...


Well, it's not as if you cracked my secret identity or something; I've never denied being a practising academic critic myself, and I say right here that I have my own metacritical project underway. This project is reflected, in different ways, and for different audiences, in both the ESC essay (which comes complete with its own "layers of self-conscious meta-commentary," as per professional and disciplinary requirements) and in my blog. One thing's for sure: more people are likely to read my blog (for better and for worse) than to read the ESC article, precisely because of what Dan Green aptly calls the "insularity" of our academic discourse. As I see it, Jones and I are in this together! It's the constraints within which we work that I am questioning.

Anonymous said...

Just to jump in here, since I've been reading this blog: If you're "in it together" with Jones, then why publicly take her to task for engaging in an activity that you acknowledge is professionally necessary and also indulge in yourself? She wrote a highly specialized work of literary criticism, aimed at fellow academics; you (an academic) picked it up and tried to read it. It's not as if she were bending your ear at the dinner table. Your main critique seems to be that Jones's "approach pretty much guarantees that the book won't be of much interest to anyone outside the profession." So what? Do you also demand that specialists in quantum mechanics write up their research in such a way that fans of Stephen Hawking can understand it? The mere existence of theory-driven, "difficult" literary criticism does not rob the amateur book lover of one micron of reading pleasure. Nor does a facility with such criticism obviate a deep, heartfelt, ethically alive engagement with "actual books." Enough professional academic self-hatred. Enough.