August 9, 2007

More on Professional vs. Public Criticism

Brian McRae accepts the decline of literary criticism as a public activity as a trade-off for the benefits of professionalization. In contrast, others continue to believe that criticism (including that of professional academic literary scholars) can and should be relevant and accessible to non-specialists. In Uncommon Readers, Christopher Knight points to Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner as examples of critics who insisted "that the scholar find a way to engage the larger educated public in conversation" (8); because, as a result, they often worked outside the forms of academic criticism, "professionals have been loath to recognize their contributions" (12). In Double Agent: The Critic and Society, Morris Dickstein posits the alienation between professional critics and a non-academic readership as a central problem in the discipline: "the main task for criticism today is to recapture the public space occupied by the independent man or woman of letters not only between the wars but throughout the nineteenth century. The first step," he continues, "would be to treat criticism as a major form of public discourse" (6), making the critic a "mediator between art and its audience" (7). In his turn, Dickstein points to Helen Vendler, John Bayley, and Christopher Ricks as academics who have bridged the gap between professional and amateur readers, particularly through their literary journalism. But need an academic critic have a broad public in mind, any more than a specialist in any other field has an obligation to popularize his or her work? Or, ought literary journalism or other critical contributions not made through the formal routes of academic publishing to be given professional weight? It seems to me at this point that one's answers to questions like this will turn on one's idea of literature, once, as Dickstein argues in his more recent book The Mirror in the Roadway, conceived of primarily as a kind of imaginative negotiation with or refraction of the real world--a view now, Dickstein points out, that is "completely out of fashion . . . except among ordinary readers" (1).


Toast said...

Don't forget that the crucial difference between professional and public criticism is the peer review process and that is the stumbling block that prevents non-professional criticism from adding weight to scholarly CVs. I don't see that the peer review system should be abandoned. And of course it won't. No other discipline would consider doing so. The "post a comment" option in a blog like this doesn't fill anything like the same function as peer review, though both forms of response can lead to hurt feelings.

Also, Dickstein's notion that professional criticism no longer sees literature as engaged with the real world is unsophisticated. The best literary scholarship is demonstrating in all kinds of ways that literature does not only reflect reality, but profoundly influence and shape our conceptions of what reality is. Consider the countless works of Victorian literature that built a world view based around British colonial supremacy, non-white racial inferiority, and feminine delicacy. Literature did not just reflect such ideas, it helped to generated them.

Rohan Maitzen said...

No question, peer review is a key difference; imperfect though it is (and I'm sure all academics have or have heard stories of bias, inconsistency, or plain confusion in referees'comments, against which the author usually has no recourse except to try somewhere else), it serves a crucial filtering function. Blogs are at the other extreme, of course, as they are directly self-published. (Though Amardeep Singh posted an interesting proposal at The Valve earlier this year about establishing a review process for academic blogs; see for his initial suggestions and some good discussion.) Many bloggers, especially academics, seem to use their blogs more as sounding boards for work in progress and opportunities for a relatively informal exchange of ideas and views (again, Amardeep Singh has written interestingly on the character of blogs, again at The Valve: There are intermediate forms, though, from newspapers and magazines to 'trade' publications.