February 8, 2007

Thoughts on This Project--and a Question for You

I began writing up my quick 'notes on current reading' about a year ago , partly for fun, partly as a way to answer questions from friends and family about what I'd been reading lately and what I'd thought about it, partly as an exercise in non-academic writing about books. I didn't (couldn't) take a lot of time over my comments, and indeed I decided not to allow myself to rethink and revise, to free myself from the many forms of self-consciousness endemic in professional criticism. For some years, though, in my professional capacity, I have also been brooding about the nature and purpose of that professional criticism. I wanted to increase the value and relevance of the research I was doing, and to bring to my scholarship the kind of excitement and motivation I feel about my teaching. On my sabbatical this term, I have been continuing to think about this issue, and trying to imagine an alternative form of literary writing that might be of interest and use to a wider audience than the narrow readership of a typical academic article or monograph. As my previous posts here indicate, one way I have been pursuing this question is through reading books about books aimed at general audiences. I have also begun exploring web resources, including online magazines and literary blogs. Of course, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of such sites now; every one I arrive at points me towards more and more.

On one hand I have been finding all of this very stimulating. It's wonderful to see how lively and widespread the virtual conversation about books is, as well as to see that there is a big market for intelligent books about reading. It is also a salutary reminder, as if I needed one, of how small the academic literary world is, or can be, and how specialization works against the kind of general knowledge and broad cultural awareness that characterize the best of the sites and books I've looked at so far. It's even a bit shaming to realize how oblivious I was to all this activity.

On the other hand, I am starting to get something of the same sense of futility here as I did with academic criticism, though for different reasons. If academic criticism fails to engage a wide audience because it is too specialized, too professionalized, too removed from the interests of 'common' readers, all this other material seems unlikely to engage a wide audience because there's just too much of it. How can someone filter through it all, especially when much of it is updated daily? While the academic peer review system serves very different purposes than those embraced by reviews and blogs, out in cyberspace it's an intellectual free-for-all, and the ease of setting up a place to comment (even I could do it!) makes it possible for anyone to put forward an opinion as if it should be considered on an equal footing with anyone else's. Further, even supposing someone has the smarts and the training to offer insightful commentaries, how likely is it that blogging is the best way to express them, given the apparent pressure to say something pretty much every day? What really are the expectations here? What is the purpose of all this chatter?

I'm not about to retreat to my Ivory Tower, but I do feel a certain queasiness setting in. I've found a number of sites that strike me as worth keeping an eye on, but it's hard for me right now to imagine making a great effort on, say, my own blog--because it's hard to imagine it standing out, whatever approach I took, among all the others.

One other note here: In my reading around, I have noticed that my own impatience with literary criticism is echoed emphatically by a lot of writers out there, many of whom are not just impatient but positively vitriolic about English professors. Daniel Green of the blog The Reading Experience, for instance, writes about "academic schoolmasters, who now only serve to inflict the miseries behind the thick walls of their suffocating scholastic prisons" (see his article "Critical Conditions" at the Center for Book Culture). Ouch. While I find a lot of lit crit dreary to read, I do think there's something to be said for expertise. Green talks about seeking a middle ground for "sustained and careful, but also lively and accessible criticism," to which I say "hear hear" and let's not underestimate the training and education it takes to be truly "careful."

This post actually represents a break from another resolution I had made, which was to keep my blog about books, not about me. I'm curious though, in case anyone does read these pages: what does a widely read, intellectually serious lover of literature want from literary criticism? What makes a review, or a blog, or any commentary interesting and useful to you?

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