This is the fifth installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read previous interviews here.
Michelle Taylor, a Junior Research Fellow at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, will be the first to tell you she wishes she could infuse more humor and wit, qualities some of her favorite authors possess, into her own writing. Her essays in venues like The Point and the New Yorker, however, reveal that she is in their league. For Taylor, humor and wit are two writing virtues, signs to readers of how comfortable an author is with their material and how willing they might be to grapple with what she calls the “delicious absurdity” of our everyday lives. We talked over Zoom in November about why literary criticism “must give pleasure,” to quote Wallace Stevens, and how writing an essay is like hosting a dinner party.
Jessica Swoboda: Several tenured scholars I’ve interviewed have said that they didn’t feel able to write for the public until after they got tenure. But our generation of scholars is already doing that. Why do you think that’s the case?
Michelle Taylor: I think we’re doing a lot of things that the generations of scholars above us didn’t do until tenure or until having tenure-track jobs, like publishing scholarly articles, even monographs. Part of the reason is because that’s what it seems to take to get a job. It’s the expectation, it’s the norm.
When it comes to public writing, I can also imagine feeling like, “Well, if I’m not going to have a future in academic writing, let me see what other kinds of writing are possible.” Most of us don’t know where we’re going to be in three years, if we’re going to be in a position where we have as much time to read and think. It’s not that you need to be in academia, obviously, to be a writer. But it does give you time to think and a conducive atmosphere in which to do it.
As for me, I do it for the same reason that I do pretty much anything—because I really want to, and eventually my desire to do it overcomes my fear of it.
JS: What do you hope for in your writing, whether it’s a public piece or an academic piece?
MT: To quote Wallace Stevens: “It must give pleasure.” Maybe it’s totally unreasonable, but I hope for the kind of writing that sticks in your mind like a good meal sticks to your ribs, which makes your mouth remember and relive the taste. My hope is that what I write will be satisfying to read and that it will produce some kind of pleasure in the reader. There are lots of different kinds of pleasure. I remember Helen Vendler talking about intellectual pleasures to a group of her teaching fellows. And then there’s the pleasure of laughter, the pleasure of a beautiful sentence or a beautiful turn of phrase, the pleasure of following a story that engages your interest. For me, the other good things that come out of reading—introspection, critical thinking, maybe even action—follow one or another kind of pleasure.
JS: Are there writers who do that for you?
MT: I mean, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t feel like I experience that at least every week, if not nearly every day. There are the classic writers who made me and who have stuck with me since high school—Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot and then later Anne Carson. They’re beautiful writers. They’re clear writers. They’re also writers who are able to preserve a sense of mystery about what they’re writing about while still making you feel as if something is being illuminated, something is being made clear. That’s something I find really special and cherish, and I wish I did more of it and did it better.
I also really admire writers who are funny. Patricia Lockwood is a comedic genius, something I appreciate even more in her criticism. Woolf and Eliot are also very funny, which I don’t think is always appreciated. But in his essays, Eliot is acerbic, and mean, and witty. When I think about Woolf’s vicious wit, first I think about her diaries, but the beginning of The Waves is also hilarious. O’Hara is funny, but his charm overwhelms it. I also really admire the contemporary critic Philippa Snow. She’s terribly incisive and funny, but funny in a way that’s true and real and captures the delicious absurdity of late capitalism, or whatever you want to call it. Her essay on “The Kardashian Decade” is nearly nine thousand words long, but it’s phenomenal and earns every word.
JS: I wonder if part of the reason you find it difficult to infuse humor into your writing, and why it’s so difficult for academics to be funny in their writing, is because academia tells us we need to be an expert and to be as authoritative as possible. And that sort of wrests humor from us.
MT: I think there’s a way to be witty and to come off as an expert. It just requires a level of command that I don’t feel like I have yet. In a way, it’s probably a mark of true expertise, that ease with the material. For instance, I’m very happy with the first peer-reviewed article I wrote. But I sent it to an old advisor of mine, and what I got from his response was that he had remembered how confident and witty I had been as an undergraduate writer, and he saw less of that in this article. Maybe I’ve lost that. I know I’m not alone among my peers in feeling that way. If I have, I don’t think it’s just about the postures demanded of the academic or the moods of criticism. I think it has to do with learning a new, complex form.
In academic writing, you’re trying to create knowledge, and that’s difficult to do. You can do that in criticism, too, but you can also just bring knowledge to an audience by making it organized and accessible and by connecting it to other kinds of knowledge in a way that is genuinely insightful. The amount of command it takes just to do that, to create knowledge, let alone be witty and make a little joke at the right time, isn’t easy. So, yeah, part of it is perhaps trying to assume expertise, but another part of it is just being really comfortable in what you’re doing.
JS: I like thinking of having ability to convey humor as having ease with what you’re writing. You’ve mentioned the word “clear” a bit. And I’m wondering what that means to you. What does clear writing look like?
MT: This is something I really care about. A lot. I think there are different kinds of clarity, and I think there are different elements to being a clear writer. One is precision, which I see as a picking your words very carefully and consistently. Another is the ability to make the abstract concrete—using metaphors, figures of speech, parables, things that make whatever you’re trying to say feel more alive and intellectually tangible. And then, finally, clarity is grammatical. It’s about structure at every level—at the level of the whole piece, but also at the level of the paragraph, the sentences and the syntax of the sentence. It’s also about the relationship that sentences and words have to each other and how you make that relationship as apparent as possible without sacrificing the complexity of the idea.
JS: So what would difficulty be for you then?
MT: I think when people use the word difficult, they use it to mean multiple things. Sometimes it’s opacity. I don’t like opacity, though I know there are people who feel that there is pedagogical value to it. I have just never experienced that value personally. And sometimes it means density. A good example is Judith Butler. In college, I got the impression, without reading them, that their writing was jargony and obscure, so I was terrified to even try to read them. But then I did read them, and though they’re very dense, they’re also incredibly precise. Their writing involves a condensation of ideas that requires a lot of effort to unpack. And that’s something I admire because it’s something I can’t do.
JS: I’m interested in getting people to think about how they engage other scholars in their writing. What does scholarly engagement mean to you?
MT: For me, scholarly engagement is the responsibility I have to map out the influences—the scholars and the research and the conversations that have shaped my own ideas. I would say that most of the time I’m citing or working with materials in the spirit of agreement rather than opposition, of a kind of “Yes and” attitude, or at least “Yes, but also.” But I think antagonism is a kind of influence too. If someone moves you to disagree with them, that’s a kind of shaping of your ideas. It means they moved you.
When I’m writing a piece of scholarship, I also have a set of overlapping communities that I’m trying to speak to, and to contextualize my work with—modernists or twentieth-century scholars, or if I’m being really ambitious, then literary scholars in general or those who work in the humanities. And, of course, depending on what the topic is, then scholars who study the more specific things that I’m engaging in. Obviously, I’m disagreeing with people as I do this, but it’s important to me to show how my idea is still indebted to theirs.
JS: You just discussed the audience you imagine when you’re writing an academic essay. Does your conception of audience change when you’re writing for the public?
MT: Some people say that they imagine a person they’re writing for, but I don’t do that. When I start writing, the person I’m writing for is myself, because I’m in that very preliminary stage of “What do I think? What do I actually think?” We try to teach our students these methodical ways to craft an essay and develop an idea, but truthfully, when I start writing, my ideas come out in these malformed, shadowy chunks that I then have to try to piece together and figure out what shape they make, if they even make a shape.
So when I start writing, I’m just trying to figure out what I’m doing. It’s only toward the later stages, when I have a more concrete sense of what I think, where I’m building in a sense of audience. Then writing for me becomes more pedagogical. I start to wonder what my reader will need to know in order to follow my argument. I’ll try to come up with questions they might have about this or that. And I also think about what will keep them engaged.
JS: Do editors help with that?
MT: My editors always help attune me to the audience. They know the audience better than I do, and they act a bit like the representative of the audience of a particular publication.
JS: How, if at all, is that different from academic peer review?
MT: In the case of peer review, I see the editor as representing the intersection of a journal’s readers and the audience of specialists whom you hope will read your specific work. I can only speak to my limited experiences with peer review, but my sense is that the job of a peer reviewer is to make sure you’re producing a responsible piece of scholarship. So I’ve had less feedback about structure and clarity. Though I have had them notice my typos, very embarrassing. I’m a really sloppy copyeditor.
The other thing about peer review is that it’s anonymous, and the anonymity is important. Of course, you can do the thing where you express your gratitude to your anonymous reviewers in a footnote, but you never get to have that relationship, the dialogue, like you do with editors or public-facing publications, which is more personal and fun. I mean, I really wish I could apologize to the person who noticed all my typos!
JS: How does the idea of peer review impact your approach to your academic work?
MT: I often think of drafting as letting someone enter your home before you’ve had a chance to clean it up. In this metaphor, the home is my brain, and the article or essay is a party that I’m planning to host in my home, i.e. my brain. I want a lot of people to come and have a good time! But let’s say you’re not quite sure how to throw a dinner party. How are you going to arrange the furniture? What will you cook? What should you leave out to facilitate conversation and make the space inviting, and what should you put away to reduce clutter? There are all these details to consider in order to make your party as welcoming and fun as possible.
With peer review, it’s as if someone you don’t know comes into your home when you’re not there, which would admittedly be a bit weird, and leaves you all this helpful feedback, like, move this lamp, or maybe you should add more turmeric to this stew, or pair the main course with this kind of wine. You’re like, oh, thank you. That’s really great advice. Who are you? And now that person knows weird things about you, without knowing who it is they know. They know how you write and think and organize your pantry, but you’re not really able to go back and forth in the same way as you are with other editors.
I guess to take the metaphor further, to some extent an academic article is maybe like a dinner party where what’s obviously most important is the meal you’re serving. It’s less important if your interior design is a bit bland, as long as you’ve tidied up, polished the cutlery. You don’t want the setting to be bland, but it’s okay if it is. I guess you’re starting a bit later in the process, too; everything’s supposed to be ready to go. So the peer reviewer gives you very targeted advice about your boeuf bourguignon. And the advice of your invisible visitor will result in a better meal.
But with an editor, I think for one thing you’re starting at an earlier place in the whole process. Not that you’re not trying to send them something good and complete, but that you have to know it’s going to change so much; what you’re producing is a point of departure. So you have to resign yourself to letting them knock about a bit in your home, and that’s part of what’s fun, to show them around so they can help you host what’s hopefully a very memorable party, to try out a new recipe. What you end up producing is really something you’ve developed together, by going back and forth through multiple drafts. Initially it’s horrifying and nerve-racking, and then it’s delightful, and that kind of sustained and specific attention always feels like a privilege I haven’t quite merited.
JS: What do you understand as the purpose of interpreting and arguing about literature?
MT: I see those as two different questions. For me, arguing about literature, fundamentally, reminds you that there are stakes, which I like. And if you can get someone to argue with you about it, you’re both agreeing that there are stakes there. And that’s great.
And then interpreting literature or literary criticism more broadly, to me, when it’s successful and it’s a good process, it’s “a momentary stay against confusion,” which is a line from a Frost essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” that I think applies here. The most that you can hope for, and the best thing that comes out of it, is this moment of clarity and illumination, something like what Woolf calls a “moment of being.” I think producing that in any kind of way for someone is the goal. And a lot of people achieve it, too. When you read a piece of literary criticism and it works, you feel that momentary stay against confusion, and it’s very beautiful. So that, to me, is what it’s for.
JS: Are there any particular critics you can always count on to give you that moment of being?
MT: Hmm. That’s a really good question. So much of research is just about a kind of gradual learning, a slow accumulation of thought and knowledge. That’s mostly where I’ve been in my work lately, doing that everyday consumption of criticism. And I think even this sort of healthy breakfast criticism, the cereal that you’re eating, your due-diligence research, also produces it, if it serves its purpose. It’s actually not something that only the best writers do, though the best writers make it linger.
So it’s a bit difficult to make a recommendation that isn’t specific to the audience for my scholarly research. One crossover scholar who comes to mind and whom I really admire is David Trotter. He now does a lot of brilliant work in modernist studies but also occasionally writes for public-facing venues, like the London Review of Books. I aspire to the kind of compendious thoughtfulness and curiosity he has. He’s also a good teacher, a good mentor—he’s kind and generous with his time and his ideas. Everyone who has a conversation with him leaves feeling enlightened and listened to. That’s also a way to give someone a “moment of being,” and an important thing to aspire to as a scholar.
JS: How would you describe the current state of literary criticism?
MT: I don’t think you can talk about the state or the future of literary criticism without talking about labor conditions. Because the conditions under which academics labor are going to shape the writing that they’re doing. It’s just such a pervasive force, and it touches everything that you do. You can’t separate the way that you live from the way that you work, so if you’re constantly worried about your future ability to write or think, not to mention health care or supporting a family, that’s going to shape how you’re going to write and think.
JS: What do you want to see in literary criticism in the next decade, then?
MT: I want to see myself and my generation of scholars doing it! I think if we want to see criticism become all the things that we want it to remain or become—beautiful, adventurous, experimental, bold, or nuanced, subtle, exploratory—then we need to organize labor. I want to see more graduate student unions. I want to see more university worker unions, faculty unions. If we improve the conditions of our work, then we’re going to improve the work, and we’re going to make more things possible. You can complain about the symptoms, and you can diagnose the symptoms all you want, but the symptoms aren’t going to resolve themselves.
I want to be dramatic, and say something like, “I want to see literary criticism have a future,” as if it may not have one. But the critical impulse in us is strong enough that we’ll always be doing it, in some shape or form, as long as there’s literature and art to criticize, to think about. What’s at stake seems to be how we get to do it, how often we get do it and how we share it with each other—whether we can use it to connect to each other and use it to build something bigger than ourselves.