Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Hear, hear ...

... reducing literary criticism. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

I think this is absolutely on target. I remember when I was an undergraduate (more than four decades ago) reading an article in MLA Journal about Blake's The Marriage of Heven and Hell that was far and away more difficult to parse than Blake himself. Of course, the MLA Journal has long specialized in publishing crap.

See also Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research.


  1. The evolution of literary criticism (which contradicts Darwin's notion of species improvement) had much to do with English Departments feeling a bit left out since they had no special language ("secret handshake" and "covert rituals") that would put them on a par with other departments (and subject matter specialists) in their academic world. Mathematicians, scientists, psychologists, and the rest conversed among themselves in idiosyncratic diction that made them unique and impenetrable to outsiders. Once New Criticism was pushed aside in the 60s and 70s, the literati of academia began speaking in different tongues as a way of making themselves also unique an impenetrable to outsiders. The Tower of Babel, however, as recent commentators are suggesting, has been overloaded and finally recognized as absurd, which perhaps means that English departments (mine included) can get back to speaking clearly about texts without trying to outdo each other with new linguistic versions of "secret handshakes," "covert rituals,' and--one more just for good measure--"Emperor's new clothes."

  2. Frank, well, yes ... but only the finest crap!

  3. Of course, another absurd angle to all this is that English Dept.s rely so heavily on French theorists for all their foundational theorizing.

    As a former academic myself, this is one reason I didn't stay in that system. Too many words about nothing. Not that some branches of literature are themselves any better than the academics who talk them to death.

    What's the old saying? "Those who can, write. Those who can't, teach." Or something like that.

    I stand on the sidelines heartily amused by all this. To me, it's a rather familiar set of complaints. Will this cycle be the tipping point wherein academia actually does clean up its act? Doubtful, but perhaps somewhat hopeful. If anything can undermine this cycle, it's what you and others are doing on the blogosphere. More power to the short, comprehensible essay!

  4. D. G. Myers' carefully crafted argument on the subject of literary criticism--which I admire for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I am almost always impressed by the author's sensibilities and erudition--reminds me of my proper (and humble) position in this ongoing debate. Let me explain what I mean in the form of a baseball metaphor, which Professor Myers might enjoy: While many in academia are in the big leagues (and many have earned "golden gloves" and MVP awards), I--on the other hand--am a simple journeyman who will be (for many reasons) forever bouncing around in the double-A (or even the triple-A) levels of the minors; I love playing the game, but I could never match up well with the fastballs and hard sliders that I would have to deal with if I were moved up to the big show. Still, to repeat my assertion, I do love the game, which is why I keep playing though I know that my skill levels are limited (i.e. I'm not a natural athlete).