This is the first installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism.
Kamran Javadizadeh, an associate professor of English at Villanova University, wants people to feel at home when they’re reading his essays, which have appeared in venues such as The Point, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. In all his writing, Javadizadeh asks, “How does poetry emerge out of modern life, out of social relations, out of institutional arrangements? What forms of life—what forms of thinking, of feeling, of belonging—does poetry make possible?” What he hopes to do is make something—an experience, an idea, an image, a passing thought—available to his readers. We talked over Zoom in November about the porous boundaries between public and academic writing and what it means to “add to the stock of available reality.”
Jessica Swoboda: What comes to mind when you hear someone call a critic’s prose difficult?
Kamran Javadizadeh: That’s really interesting. The first thing I was thinking of was how I would feel if somebody said that something I had written was difficult. I think I would feel mortally wounded by it, or I would feel resentful. I’m somebody who writes, at least at times, or who was trained in writing about Modernist poetry, which no one expects to be clear. And so I would hate to relinquish the opportunity to be difficult in interesting ways. I think probably the ratio of an obscure image, let’s say, in a piece that I’m writing, that’s sort of unexplained and left there as a kind of punctum or something, ought to be lower than what it can be, say, in a poem by Wallace Stevens. But I would hate to think that I needed to be clear at every moment.
A person who’s made this point really well and in writing is Eric Hayot in his book The Elements of Academic Style and in an article in Critical Inquiry that was a kind of companion piece to the book. He writes about how strange it is that people who are trained to read highly figurative and sometimes very obscure literature have somehow tricked themselves into thinking that clarity is the most important aesthetic value to have in their own writing—and that there’s something sort of woefully impoverished about that way of thinking.
JS: But didn’t you say you would feel insulted if someone called your writing difficult?
KJ: So when a person says that someone’s writing is difficult and means that as a complaint, what I take them to mean is that writer has an idea in mind but that they haven’t found the words to make that intellectual transfer efficient. Often, when I’m writing, I do have an idea in mind that I would like for my reader to have in their mind. However, I find that I care as much about the texture of a piece—about the feeling of being in it—as I do about the salience of its claims. It’s important to me to be a hospitable writer. I want to make my reader feel like they’re at home when they’re reading something I’ve written. I think for me, that probably has more to do with the kind of person I want to be than the type of writer I am. But that does come through in my writing.
I guess what I want to give my reader is an idea that isn’t reducible to paraphrase. And sometimes that makes the idea difficult, not because it means nothing or its meaning is cloudy, but because it means ambiguously, or it means multiple things, or it has a sort of irony in it, or it has a kind of opacity to it in the sense that a poetic image can have opacity to it.
JS: When and why did you first start writing for the public?
KJ: Only fairly recently. A few years ago I became aware of a series that a group of Romanticists had organized, called the Keats Letters Project. They were having somebody write a short essay about every letter that Keats ever wrote, to be published on the two hundredth anniversary of his having written the letter. And I’m not a Romanticist. But I’ve always really loved Keats’s letters. They are very near and dear to my heart. And, you know, I’m interested in letters more generally and in epistolary form. And it turns out that’s something I keep returning to, especially in my public writing. There was a letter that I’d wanted to write about for a very long time. And so I just wrote to the editors of that project to cold pitch them. And they said, Yeah, okay, sure. And I worked on that for a little while, and it felt good, and when it came out, that felt right.
Then I joined “Reading Room” with The Point. I think it was right around the beginning of the pandemic, so I was writing my contribution in March of 2020. The question we were all writing about was what kind of book you most want to be reading right now. The answers turned into sort of pandemic essays, like our first kind of quarantine essays in that form that everybody was trying a version of in those days. And I have to say, I found that experience more gratifying than I’ve found almost any writing experience I’ve ever had.
JS: How come?
KJ: I think it was because I felt like I was writing in dialogue with friends, which was probably an especially alluring experience to be having just as we all entered a period of social isolation. And so that writing experience was liberating for me. I’ve discovered that something that loosens me up as a writer is the idea of addressing a friend, or addressing an intimate kind of reader, and then allowing a public to overhear that conversation.
JS: Has that experience changed your approach to academic writing? Do you see “being in dialogue with your friends” as possible in academic writing as well?
KJ: I’ve surprised myself by saying it. I do think it should be possible to borrow some of that feeling that one is writing to one’s friends or addressing a kind of intimate reader in academic writing, though it probably looks different than it looks in public writing, but I’m sure there’s a version of it that’s possible there. I like to think that at my best, in my academic writing, I have done something like that. And that’s the kind of academic writing that I want to be doing, if I’m doing it at all.
As an academic writer, I think that I am perhaps a bit unusual in that I had always had this tendency to care more about writing style and about the aesthetics of critical writing than scholarly argument. I remember the first article I ever sent out to a journal was rejected. It was an essay about Elizabeth Bishop. The first reader report I got praised it in certain ways. But it was clear that all of the praise was meant to be damning. At one point, the anonymous reviewer said something along the lines of “this reads more like a New Yorker profile than an academic piece.”
I thought, well, I like reading the New Yorker, that doesn’t sound so bad to me. But I understood that if I wanted any chance at an academic job, I would need to be able to perfect the language of academic argument and not disappoint peer reviewers in that way. So I became more scrupulous about signposting arguments and making sure it was clear to readers that I had a mastery of the secondary literature on a topic and so forth. My natural tendencies would still come in, but I made an effort to do these other things in order to clear the hurdle of academic publishing. And I think that I got better and better at that, I like to think in my own way, and learned that language pretty well.
JS: It seems like transitioning from being an academic writer to a more public-facing writer was natural for you, based on how you described your academic writing and what you value in it.
KJ: The distinction between those two kinds of writing is not, I suspect, as clear for me as it is for some of my peers. In a very practical way, for instance, I had to make a personal website a few years ago. And you know, like most of these things for people with academic careers, you have a tab for writing and a tab for teaching and so on. Under my writing tab, I don’t distinguish between any of it. I just put it all there in one list. That’s not just laziness on my part. But I probably think of the line between the two as being more porous than others who produce both academic articles and writing “for the public” might think.
JS: What do you see as being porous between the two forms of writing?
KJ: In both cases, what I’m trying to do as a writer, whether I’m writing for an academic journal or for the New Yorker, or for the New York Review of Books, or for The Point, is to make something available to my readers. Something that would not have been available without my having written it. Usually, the thing that I’m trying to make available is something about the primary text I’m writing about. For instance, I feel like I’m finding my way into what feels like a second career as a book reviewer, or as a kind of practical critic. I don’t think of my job as a book reviewer as giving a thumbs up or thumbs down. If I’m taking an assignment, it’s because I think there’s something interesting in the book.
For me, then, the question of the distinction between academic writing and public writing has more to do with the kinds of object of inquiry that are sensible for that specific medium and the resources that I have as a writer in order to make whatever it is available to my readers. And that’s a relatively porous generic distinction for me.
JS: I like that idea of making something available to your readers. Is that what you see as the purpose of literature—or not the purpose of literature, but the purpose of arguing about literature?
KJ: Yeah, I think so. And your slip was an interesting one because there are critics of all kinds, but it’s always struck me as interesting that literary critics are writing about writing. So for me, there’s always been this sense that the thing I’m writing has something in common with the thing that I’m writing about. I genuinely do think that the best literary criticism rises to the level of literature and that’s something that is more important to me than making an argument. That’s when I feel best about the thing I’ve written.
I’ve been thinking recently about something that the critic R. P. Blackmur said, which is that the thing that makes poetry poetry (and what distinguishes it from mere “verse”) is that it “adds to the stock of available reality.” And that feels like a sensible definition to me. I like that definition of poetry. I think that a critic, whether writing in an academic journal or whether writing in a sort of journalistic space for magazine or whatever, might help a reader see how a poem, for instance, has added to the stock of available reality. Here’s the new experience you can have while reading this poem. But I also think that the critic can, at times anyway, make their own writing do that for a reader.
JS: Which critic does that for you?
KJ: It may seem like a sort of parochial or excessively autobiographical answer to the question, but when I was in graduate school, I was a student of Langdon Hammer’s. It was clear to me that he was someone who cared about poetry in the way I cared about it. But he also, I suspected, harbored this fantasy that critical writing could be like poetry and, in certain ways, that it was a kind of sublimated form of artistic production.
Something I still admire most about Lanny—and that I aspire to in my own writing—is that he has faith that other kinds of objects of inquiry can be read as though they were poems. So, for instance, I will sometimes read a letter as though I’m reading a literary text, and it feels natural enough for me to imagine the critical text that I’m producing as existing on some kind of plane for a reader with, say, Elizabeth Bishop—if I’m writing about a poem of hers and about some significant moment in her biography that seems to me to both illuminate the poem and to draw illumination from the poem, then if I do that well enough, then for my reader the Bishop poem, the anecdote from her life and my essay could exist in some kind of mutually illuminating relation that adds to the stock of reality, to go back to Blackmur’s phrase. That would be a real contribution that I could make. And that’s what most excites me as a writer.
JS: Which poets are especially good at adding to the “stock of reality”?
KJ: I keep talking about Elizabeth Bishop. She was the first poet I really loved. And if pressed, I would say that she’s my favorite poet. One of the things I like about her is that a poem of hers can begin in what feels like a very descriptive mode that anybody could read. I will often give poems of hers to people who tell me they don’t like poetry because they don’t get it or it’s too obscure or whatever. And some of her poems often begin as though they are realistic short stories, personal essays even. But then somehow, through the quality of attention that the writing demands, you wind up by the end of the poem in a very different place, almost as though she’s led you by the hand to that place and shown you how her poem adds to the “stock of reality.”
JS: How would you describe the current state of literary criticism?
KJ: It’s hard to talk about the current state of literary criticism without talking about the forces working against it. I do very much worry about the hollowing out of higher education. And I think that to do the labor of scholarship requires certain kinds of material support, whether it’s the protection of tenure or a manageable teaching load, or, God, basic health care. How can you produce scholarship without any of that? You can’t. And it’s not enough to say that certain sorts of elite institutions will continue to have tenured faculty, because our communities are too large to be sustained by just a few institutions that have managed to fill empty tenure lines. I don’t know how the future of literary criticism, academic literary criticism, is possible with the degradation of tenure that we’ve seen.
Another thing is that junior scholars are probably feeling like they have to publish more and publish more variously. I probably would have felt this way if I were, say, ten or fifteen years younger than I am. It would have felt strange to me to have to put all my eggs into the basket of academic publishing. If I thought, well, who is going to read these things? And what is the job that this is going to help me get? And if I feel uncertain about that, wouldn’t I rather already be working on ways to reach readers outside of academia? There are junior scholars who have vast areas of expertise and depth of training and so on who have taught themselves how to reach wide readerships or who have learned how to do so. But I don’t know how sustainable a model that is for the production of literary criticism—when secure jobs within literature departments just no longer exist in anything like the numbers required to keep our fields alive—to say nothing of what it does to people’s lives.