February 3, 2008

Weekend Miscellany II

It's Sunday afternoon again after a weekend filled with bits of this and that: grocery shopping, taking my son to the optometrist, taking my daughter to a birthday party, and so on. In and amongst household errands, I'm reading about six different things, some for classes (East Lynne and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), some for fun or personal interest (Death Comes for the Fat Man, Soldier's Heart), some as a gesture in the direction of research (Orientalism, Dangerous Knowledge). And when all of these are out of reach, I've flagged a number of essays and posts online that I take a look at when family activities allow:

In Prospect Magazine, William Skidelsky's essay "Critical Condition". Here's an excerpt that raises some questions I'm interested in:
There is a third, perhaps less obvious reason for the diminishing importance of book reviews: the declining authority of academic criticism. This is a subject that Rónán McDonald—an English lecturer at Reading University—explores in his satisfyingly chewy new book The Death of the Critic (Continuum). In the past, McDonald points out, although by no means all successful critics were academics, there was a fruitful interplay between literary journalism and scholarship—something that has dwindled in recent years. There are exceptions: journals such as the London Review of Books and the TLS; the book sections of the Independent and, to an extent, the Guardian. But on the whole, journalists increasingly dominate the literary review pages of newspapers—and since an increasing number of books are written by journalists too, this results in a kind of circularity (which bloggers, quite reasonably, often moan about). But if literary journalism is increasingly feeding off itself, then, McDonald contends, that is largely because academic criticism has withdrawn from the field. In the last two decades, English literature has both tangled itself up in arcane and inaccessible debates about theory and emasculated itself by allowing itself to become a handmaiden to other disciplines, through its embrace of historicism and cultural studies. McDonald traces this retreat to a paradox that has always bedevilled the study of literature: the more Eng lit tries to prove that it is "rigorous," the more it cuts itself off from aesthetics—the original source of its attraction. The discipline has, in effect, worried itself into irrelevance.
Dan Green and his readers have been discussing this piece already, though with a primary emphasis on Skidelsky's dismissive remarks about bloggers--given which it does seem a bit ironic that directly under the essay's headers is an invitation to discuss it at the magazine's own blog. I hope to have another go at writing up some considered thoughts on the state of criticism (and/or the role of academic critics) after I get my hands on the Ronan McDonald book mentioned in Skidelsky's essay.

Also of interest, here's an excellent piece by James Wood at the Guardian on characters in literature--and by excellent I mean thoughtful, wide-ranging, thought-provoking, well-written, the kind of piece that makes me want to sit down and talk to him (not a typical reaction from me when I read criticism). That's not to say I don't disagree with him at various points (for instance, I'm not sure he gives Scott's Waverley enough credit--come on, you have to love a 'hero' who can't go 20 pages with tripping or passing out!). Further to this, and also sparked by his new book How Fiction Works, there's an interview with Wood at the Financial Times. A&L Daily tipped me off to both of these pieces initially. As previously noted, I'm looking forward to seeing what Wood does in How Fiction Works.

Perhaps as a result of the jumble of things coming in and out of focus for me this weekend, I also keep thinking about two (quite different) connections, perhaps parallels, that raise questions for me. First, I've been mentally connecting the various struggles to know how best to speak of or think about the late chess genius Bobby Fischer, given the nasty ideas he came to espouse, and the disgust expressed on some blogs not long ago at the revelation (to the bloggers concerned) that in his day, Dickens had expressed some pretty repulsive racist (even, some would say, genocidal) sentiments. I defended Dickens the writer on the grounds (basically) that his books have a life independent of Dickens the man. I'm not as comfortable putting Fischer the man to the side, but I'm not sure why. I suppose his achievement in chess has as much right to be considered apart from his personal failings as Dickens's accomplishment in literature--doesn't it?

And, quite unrelated to this little question, we've just finished watching the first three seasons of House on DVD (finally, we're all caught up!) and I'm trying to decide what I think about Dr. Cuddy as a representation of a woman in authority. Initially I was hugely irritated by her tight, revealing clothing--no successful professional woman would actually dress so provocatively except to provide ammunition for the endless succession of sexist jokes House makes at her expense, or so I thought. But I've been reading some of the stories about Hillary Clinton's anxieties about appearing too feminine (and thus unelectable, presumably) and I'm rethinking my first position. After all, she stands up to those "jokes" and maintains her authority (except, arguably, over House himself), getting taken seriously by everyone else in the hospital. OK, I still doubt the wisdom of some of the outfits, but perhaps there's something to be said for letting her actually be 'womanly' in her job without implying that it costs her all of her power. That said, I still think C. J. Cregg in The West Wing is the best attempt so far to depict a strong, smart, sexy, professional woman (though there are some weak moments in this depiction, especially early in the series). Allison Janney is amazing, of course, which helps.

Miscellaneous, as I said.

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