This essay concludes our interview series “Criticism in Public,” which ran on a biweekly basis in the spring. Find previous entries in the series here.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about John Williams’s Stoner and Dionne Brand’s Theory, two academic novels with wretched protagonists who represent what I see as the most unflattering sides of scholars. Stoner is an extremely mediocre dad, husband, friend, lover, teacher and writer whose only positive attribute is his attachment to literature. Theory’s protagonist is self-obsessed, considers themself as far more brilliant than those around them—seeing complaints that their work is incomprehensible not as their fault but as proof that those reading and critiquing it are incompetent—and cares for nothing but their own work.
As a late-stage graduate student in literary studies, I’ve encountered these kinds of academics, which means I’ve experienced firsthand how narcissistic egotism—especially that of senior scholars with institutional power—can infect an entire discipline. No doubt the impoverished academic job market, the pittance of resources available to humanities scholars and the neoliberal university administrators with little sympathy or understanding for what happens in departments like literary studies are partially to blame for the bitterness of recent debates. However, the depictions of academic life in Stoner and Theory have made me wonder whether the dysfunction that consumes so many of these debates has also emerged because scholars have forgotten—or never realized in the first place—that art and criticism are inherently interpersonal. That how we engage in our work as scholars and critics can foster, or fracture, interpersonal connections.
Two years ago, I wrote an essay in this magazine that identified what I saw as a habitual lack of attentiveness—most apparent in mischaracterizations of a certain way of reading in literary studies—in how literary scholars had come to engage each other’s work. I was prepared to have my arguments challenged. And they were. I was less prepared for the intensely personal attacks on Twitter, mostly from senior scholars, to confirm my fear that the discipline might be incapable of having a conversation with itself. Though I was initially devastated and demoralized by that Twitter maelstrom, I was soon moved to reflection. How, I was left wondering, might literary studies foster a more collegial, though no less intellectually vibrant, atmosphere? How might we manage disagreements productively rather than viciously? How might we argue better? What might a critical environment that values criticism’s interpersonal stakes look like?
I was, and still am, worried about the breakdown of conversation in literary studies. But I knew that if I merely retreated to my “side,” I would only contribute to the problem. With some trepidation, then, I set out to ask twelve scholars—all of whom have spent time writing not only for other academics but also in public forums—what they see as the main challenges facing literary studies and literary criticism today. The result was the “Criticism in Public” series, which ran on a biweekly basis in this magazine from February to June of this year. This series ended up being one of the most worthwhile experiences of my professional life (thank you, haters!). At the root of these dialogues, and in my selection of scholars, lay a challenge, mostly to myself: How could I do justice to the plurality of perspectives within literary studies, without forgetting that our work is created in constant conversation with one another, with the “public” (however you conceive it) and, perhaps most fundamentally, with the artworks that inspired us to become literary scholars in the first place?
Part of honoring that plurality involved including in this series not only critics who are at the forefront of these conversations but also those who are often excluded from clusters and special issues on these topics in academic journals: graduate students and junior scholars. Their interviews capture the tension between the profession’s bleak material conditions that make it difficult to escape precarity and their commitment to continue writing for academic publications while also finding ways to write beyond them, in places that are no less precarious. Many of their answers also capture the tension that exists between wanting to do something and needing to do something for the sake of being a competitive candidate on the job market. Despite the encouragement some of us now receive from higher authorities to write for a nonacademic audience, the reality is that tenure cases, and bids for a first-round interview, still hinge on your academic record, narrowly defined as what gets published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals or by university presses or presented at conferences. Public writing, then, is seen as a distraction from research, not as an integral part of it.
Senior scholars, like Timothy Aubry, Kamran Javadizadeh and Emily Ogden, spoke to this fact: their hesitation to try on different writing styles, despite their interest in doing so, they suggest, came from their fear that essays for magazines wouldn’t be considered critical contributions or interventions in a discourse. Tenure, however, afforded each of them the freedom to experiment, and this experimentation with public writing changed how they conceive of criticism’s possibilities. Aubry, for instance, felt compelled to break free from the reliability of academic writing and risk vulnerability, even embarrassment. After writing “How to Behave in an Art Museum” for Paper Monument, he realized how valuable it is to admit your questions and limitations, even in a genre that privileges claims to superiority and expertise. Though writing for academic audiences often requires positioning writers like, say, Edgar Allan Poe within a specific literary-historical framework, Ogden now feels more liberated to make available to readers her aesthetic experience of encountering his work—something writing her new essay collection On Not Knowing revealed to her. And Javadizadeh, who enjoyed writing for this magazine’s “Reading Room” because he “felt like I was writing in dialogue with friends,” now thinks that he’s at his best academically when his writing reads as if he is.
Why are junior scholars turning to public outlets before their senior colleagues—despite small financial gains, no guarantee of a career in that world and no certainty that their public writing will count for much, if anything, on an academic job market? For Joel Rhone, a graduate student, the motivation to write for more general audiences comes not only from his work on James Baldwin, but also from his interest in seeing what scholarship can become when it’s produced outside the bounds of academia. For Michelle Taylor, a junior research fellow, the reason she does it is, quite simply, because she wants to. But she also wants to help others experience a “moment of being.” For Anna Shechtman, who is completing a postdoc before becoming a tenure-track assistant professor, it’s because she wants to understand “the hum and buzz of implication” at work in various cultural products. And for Lauren Michele Jackson, who is on the earlier end of the tenure clock, it’s because she wants to have fun, go on a journey, and “make an assertive claim for what is there.” I use “want” with frequency here to echo Rhone’s belief that the reasons people become literary critics are incredibly personal—and therefore diverse—and persist even amidst an abysmal material landscape.
On the one hand, these scholars’ perspectives provide an expanded vision for what criticism could be. Scholarship needn’t, for instance, only be thought of as a form that’s produced within academia. One thread that emerged during several conversations but that didn’t make it into the edited transcripts is that the preparation and research required for a magazine essay isn’t all that different from the preparation an academic article requires. In fact, the editorial process writers endure when writing for magazines is often more rigorous, more intense, more thorough—though perhaps less demoralizing—than the editorial process scholars go through with academic journals. Scholarship also needn’t, they suggest, be produced under the beacon of detachment from the art object under evaluation, from the people and artists with whom you’re engaging, from your own desires and excitement for the claims you’re making, or even from the friends with whom you imagine you’re writing to or for.
On the other hand, the tension couched in their replies and in their other responses during the interviews—between structural limitations and intellectual commitments—inevitably raises questions about the structure of the university and, consequently, politics. The conversations in this series revealed that literary scholars ought to be able to discuss literary method and institutional politics without one collapsing into the other. Yet as the response to my original essay proved, the opposite is often the case. Sometimes discussions about precarity turn into discussions about politics, discussions about politics into discussions about the purpose of literary studies and discussions about the purpose of literary studies into accusations that colleagues are complicit in neoliberal structures. What place, then, do politics have in literary studies? To what degree, if at all, should politics be emphasized in our work?
This series includes a range of perspectives on these questions, which, even though they weren’t explicitly asked, proved to be the biggest point of contention. Take, as an example, Aubry and Tobi Haslett, two critics who would likely be positioned by their colleagues on opposite sides of this debate. Aubry sees literary studies as constrained by a culture where there is pressure for all work to be political, and wonders how the discipline might change if people were more willing to own up to their guilty pleasures and admit that they’re making aesthetic judgments. For Haslett, most Americans—whose “closest experience to agitprop is Sesame Street”—have grown up with little exposure to political critique. As a result, he sees those who think it’s vulgar to do political readings as mistaken and disingenuous. Aubry’s and Haslett’s fundamentally different judgments of the purpose of literary criticism lead to different stories about the role of the critic. But I don’t think that means we have to discern whose story is wrong, whose story is worth lambasting because it is different than our own.
There’s been so much fighting over the purpose of literary criticism, as if there could ever be one purpose, that the literature we supposedly care about gets pushed to the margins. Yet this series has given me hope. The interviews themselves seem to bring out the responsiveness, openness and collaborative spirit, as well as a real passion for literature, that I’ve been searching for since I entered the field and always hoped existed beneath the vitriol. There’s something to be said about the type of sustained, focused engagement this series has fostered, not just on a topic but also on those who contributed to it, that hasn’t been possible in formal vehicles for our disciplinary debates: academic papers and books, Twitter, conference panels.
There’s also something to be said about that fact that interviewees’ personalities—what they believe in, what they care most about in their craft—leap off the page in ways I wish more criticism, all kinds of it, would do. “Fun,” I think, is an apt adjective to describe the mood of the conversations, which starkly contrasts with the analytical superciliousness that scholars indulge in at conferences and in most academic writing. The presence of fun, however, doesn’t involve the absence of intelligence or rich forms of expression. Nor does being a more careful and thoughtful critic who values criticism’s interpersonal stakes mean being conflict-averse or always affirmative; agreement and disagreement are both sources of connection. Coming around to this perspective, though, involves seeing argument as relation, as interaction; a push and pull, a give and take, not a fight to the death with permanent winners and losers.
If “Criticism in Public” has left me with one conviction, it’s that the academic reins can stand to be loosened. At present, it seems we’re superglued to them out of fear that we’ll turn into someone’s punching bag or lose out on that coveted tenure-track position if we relax our grip, so we all follow the same rubrics, chase the same trends and write what we think will ruffle the fewest feathers. No wonder John Guillory finds a lack of variation in argument in recent academic work and Toril Moi has “often given up on reading academic tomes because they’re too deadening, so awfully dry, boring and turgid, with sentences that fall apart and never-ending paragraphs.”
For both academics and critics, distinctness, creativity, inventiveness and, as several people in this series will tell you, good sentences have fallen to the wayside in favor of a careful and sometimes cowardly imitation. But if “any sentence you utter is an expression of a judgment … a judgment of how you see the world,” as Moi says, then trying to imitate someone else’s prose or steps in an argument hides your judgment and, therefore, obscures any indication of why a topic matters to you, why you actually believe in the words you’ve set to paper, why any reader should potentially care about what you say.
What if we were instead willing to “move away from engaging a discourse and toward telling a story,” something Shechtman identifies as having the potential to change how we write? “Engaging a discourse” sounds formulaic and presumes predictability: you show how you’re contributing to X by doing Y. It also presumes an emphasis on intervening in—rather than enriching—a discourse. I typically balk at the question “What’s your intervention?” because it implies that my work will only ever count as a contribution if it fills some gap or points out an argument’s flaws. From this perspective, you can only build your own argument up by knocking someone else’s down, which encourages shutting down, rather than opening up, conversation, and often reaffirms critics’ predilection to prove, at all costs, their intellectual superiority.
“Telling a story,” by contrast, presumes creativity and invention. The focus becomes constructing a narrative about an insight you have into a question an artwork raises or a theme it engages, all in relation to the authors or critics who help you develop it. “Story” also implies difference: no two stories, not even two stories on the same topic, will look identical. Stories invite us not to mimic others’ argument formulations or sentence constructions or to copy someone else’s plot, but to communicate our particular sensibility by calling on readers to see what we see. At least that is what both Moi and Ogden identify as one of the aims of criticism. What I like most about this perspective is that inviting, in this sense, involves bringing someone into conversation—intentionally entering into relation with them.
Seeing our interlocutors as characters might help us reorient our attitudes toward our work. As Shechtman puts it, “If I’m introducing a voice other than my own, I need to be able to understand the theorists or critics I’m introducing as characters in a larger story I’m telling and to justify how I’m seeing my own voice in relation to theirs.” Seeing our interlocutors in this way involves working to understand their distinct perspectives on their own terms before engaging them. It involves beginning from a foundation of respect and willingness to encounter—and take seriously—perspectives that challenge your own. As a result, though the stories we tell will be specific to our beliefs and intentions, they will also reveal that we have taken seriously conflicting points of view, that we have thought critically about even the most complementary of positions, and that we have portrayed every character’s voice as accurately as we can.
Take, for instance, this series. Each person I interviewed could be considered a character in the story I’ve told about the relationship between public writing and academic scholarship. They’ve even become characters in one another’s interviews, especially as the series progressed. Rhone cites Jackson as one of his inspirations for entering the public sphere; Haslett compliments Shechtman’s interview; Shechtman engages Moi on the question of citation; and Jackson calls Haslett one of the best writers at work today. Not all of these characters share the same perspectives—there isn’t consensus on the relationship between clarity and difficulty, for instance, or on the purpose of literary studies or the role of the critic. Some interviewees would even likely accuse others in the series of being too political in their writing; some would accuse others of not being political enough. This plurality is occasionally scorned, questioned or ridiculed for reasons I don’t understand and perhaps never will. I think this series shows why this plurality is a benefit—to scholarship, to criticism and to our public conversations about art—not a detriment.
Editing “Criticism in Public” has been a source of energy for me in my final years of my Ph.D. and has renewed my commitment to the questions that started the series. I’m altogether humbled by the engagement the series has received, and I hope that at least one sentence of it has inspired, or will inspire, readers to rethink something about their critical habits and positions. I also hope it has given readers insights into why people find literary criticism meaningful. Because if we aren’t willing to constantly challenge, revise and expand our perspectives, I don’t see the point in writing—or reading—literary criticism.
Find the full run of Criticism in Public here:
Nan Z. Da
Lauren Michele Jackson
Photo credit: Grace Rodriguez (Flickr, CC / BY 2.0)