December 20, 2007

Novel Readings in the Guardian

Thanks to Nigel Beale for his kind reference to Novel Readings as "stimulating" in his recent post in the Guardian's book blog. When he was working up the piece, Nigel asked me whether I had any thoughts about "why academic writing is so abstruse," remarking among other things that academics "don't have to appeal to the average intelligent reader" and that they avoid making aesthetic value judgments. Nigel quoted me accurately, but being an academic, of course I answered a bit lengthily, so in case anyone's interested, here's my full response to his inquiry:
I suppose the first thing to be said, as neutrally as possible, is that every area of specialized inquiry develops and requires specialized language (or jargon) that can seem opaque or abstruse from outside that specialization. In that respect, academic literary criticism is like other kinds of writing aimed primarily at other specialists. (The audience for academic criticism is not, generally, students, but other academic critics.) And of course literary criticism has become intensely specialized, in its academic versions, because of the demands of professionalization. There's a great deal of pressure to publish (in academic, peer-refereed journals), which means finding things to say that have not been said before, which of course can and does push forward the frontiers of knowledge, put new ideas and texts and theories into circulation, etc., but which also means micro-specialization or niche scholarship, and increasing levels of self-conscious commentary or metacriticism. Whether these developments are good, bad, or simply inevitable, is of course much debated (including in some other posts on this blog), but within this context, it's clear that as an academic, the audience you are trying to be 'interesting' to is not usually the broader public or the 'average intelligent reader.'

I think you are right, in general, that aesthetic judgment is not currently seen as a central (maybe even an appropriate) aim of academic criticism. We are too aware of the shifting nature of such judgments, for one thing, and of the many reasons besides aesthetic ones for finding a text worth studying. If asked whether a book is good, an academic is likely to reply 'good at what?' or 'good in relation to what?' or 'good for what?' It may be that this insistence on refining the question, or examining its implicit assumptions, is part of what makes academic criticism less appealing to the 'average intelligent reader,' if what they are after is actually a recommendation (if so, there are lots of Top 10 lists around they can go to for that). But many non-academic readers would in fact like to think in more careful ways about their reading. Here's where academic expertise presented in an accessible manner comes in, or could or should...but it's not clear how such work would be rewarded professionally, and so we come back around to my first point.
There has been a pretty extensive comment thread following Nigel's post already. Related posts on this blog appear under the labels 'literary criticism' and 'writing for readers.'


Toast said...

This is exactly what I warned you about, Rohan. You're now being cited as an ally by someone hostile to the whole enterprise of academic criticism. He may have pandered to you here, but he cares no more for you than for any other scholar. Look at his comment over at When Stephen Crowe notes that you are a woman, Nigel responds, "hope she doesn't give your comment a feminist reading." Hope you don't think it's feminist to suggest that that's simple misogyny.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Hi again, Toast. I don't know about "being cited as an ally," since Beale quotes me twice and basically disputes my comments both times. That he finds my blog "stimulating" does not mean he and I see eye to eye; it's possible to agree "up to a point," as Mr. Brooke would say.

I saw the exchange on Stephen Crowe's site and thought it was knuckle-headed--and that is the end of my interest in it. Why would you, in your turn, have to "hope [I] don't think it's feminist" for you to consider it misogynistic? Your assumptions about me are as tiresome as theirs.

As for the larger question about hostility to academic criticism and what, if any, part academics can or should play in public discussions about it--well, you and I have been over this before, and you know I don't accept your polarized view that "you're either with us or against us."

Are you at all concerned that your own very rude and dismissive attacks on various bloggers are themselves making things worse for your "side"? Your material is as much in the public domain as mine, after all.

Toast said...

I'm a symptom. What I do in the blogosphere is much more representative of the blogosphere in general than what you do. You keep a civil tongue in your head (which is not sufficient to make dialog and debate measured and reasonable) and you seem for the most part to have given up unwarranted attacks on targets who cannot answer you back. I congratulate you on that, and I do admire your high aspirations for the litblogosphere. Still, if you think that the moral reductionism of "with us or against us" sums up our situation, you and me, you're being willfully naive. I hope your deal with the devil is not simply a pursuit of some extra readership from the Guardian clientele. Actually, I don't care at all; that was just a snarky dig, which you are more than welcome to delete. Guardian readers could do a great deal worse than spending some time at your blog.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Isn't the reality of "the blogosphere" (as if there is such a monolithic thing) that it is precisely what we make it? What you do in the blogosphere is representative of you, for better and for worse; nobody else forces you to do it, though by calling yourself a "symptom" you seem to be trying to disclaim responsibility for your own words ("boogerhead"? really!). You could delete your own 'snarky digs' yourself, for instance, before clicking "publish." But thanks for the faint praise, I guess.

Toast said...

That's just the thing, though; the blogosphere is nothing other than what we make of it. No ethics, no editorial oversight, no real etiquette, no boundaries to mark off critique from jealousy or assault. In such circumstances we would be fools to expect much more than narcissistic acting out or neurotic aggression. It's also impossible to set up our own standards over and against the depredations of other contributors, not if we wish to solicit general (or even limited) dialogue between ourselves and the rest of the 'sphere. I know that you, and others, urgently wish to exemplify and encourage standards of conduct, but too many bloggers interpret your standards as unwanted imposition and attempts to claim authority. Authority may have its downsides — and that's certainly the axe a large proportion of bloggers want to grind until it's ground clean away — but considered, quasi-institutional, and quasi- or actually legislated kinds of legitimation structure discourse in ways that are also very beneficial. Honestly, I think you have become pretty capable at exemplifying the sorts of standard that can make for measured debate instead of anarchy, despite the perceived ethical transgressions that drew my wrath to begin with. As it is, though, the blogosphere is pretty much a schoolyard and the freedoms that bloggers tend to celebrate are also its biggest disadvantages.

Lisbeth said...

Um, I have a comment on the original post, if that's okay? (Hand waving frantically in back while taller student in front hogs the professor's attention.)

You might, understandably, not have wanted to muddy the waters, Rohan, but you did neglect to mention to Nigel the long and fraught debate from *within* academic criticism over standards of aesthetic evaluation, canon formation, etc. It may seem quaintly 80s now, but the work of Jane Tompkins, Gerry Graff, and Stanley Fish did happen....

More importantly: while we may try to avoid value judgments of literature in front of our students (I, personally, do not -- and will cheerfully inform a classroom full of undergraduates that a particular novel I've assigned is dreadful but we're reading anyway, or that "happy love, more happy happy love" is one of the worst lines of English poetry ever written), we make those value judgments every single day in our "amateur" incarnations as well as in our syllabus choices. Part of the luxury of teaching after the Canon Wars of the 80s is that we get to revel in our naughty little value judgments guilt-free, without worrying that we're compromising our feminist, Marxist, etc., principles in so doing. ("Hey, I teach Felicia Hemans, so I'm allowed to say that the novels of Mrs Oliphant suck!")

I would also like to note in passing that your original post seems to have incorporated ideas (concessions to the necessity of specialized language, etc.) that I was fighting pretty hard for in this very comments section a while back (back when you were allowing anonymous postings), so I hope that means that I've had some small effect on your thinking. :-)

Rohan Maitzen said...

Well, it's not so much that you get to take credit for influencing me (after all, I have been studying literature and criticism a pretty long time) as that context makes a difference to what I choose to emphasize when addressing these issues. Impatience with what strikes me as extremes is consistent, after all, with general recognition of the demands of specialization. But it's true too that I have become more careful about how I think out loud here--you have to work very hard to put the nuances and qualifications back in later.