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.'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.'
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.
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: