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December 27, 2003


Hal O'Brien

Your question about "just when" is a good one.

My way of putting it would be: "If Saint-Beuve, Cryil Connolly, Ezra Pound, George Orwell, Paul Fussell, Lionel Trilling, Joseph Epstein, and the Fadimans (pere et fille) could all manage to write literary criticism without being obscure, why can't you?"

Given that Fussell, Epstein, and Anne Fadiman are all still actively writing, this becomes particularly damning to the "just when" question.


[checks links]

Wow. Someone's gone off into full Howard Treesong mode. A dark land from which few return. Oh well.

Anyway. I think a stereoscopical view might be useful here. Does inherent complexity of subject matter lead to as complex of prose within other fields? IME, no.

(It would be rather hubristic for someone to say that the subject matter of, say, evolutionary molecular biology is less complex than that of literary criticism.)

Yet literary criticism is meant to cast light on a more universal experience than evolutionary molecular biology. People read and respond to what they read every day; far fewer people speculate on the molecular basis of life and its consequences.

So there's a double whammy. The writing is complex even for a specialist endeavour, but it is supposed to relate to an everyday (if mysterious) activity that most people participate in and even have strong opinions about.

(My internal parodist really wants to bring up sex research. Down, wanton, down.)

I think there's a missing tier here. Let's assume, for Treesong's sake, that current literary criticism is all that, hot stuff as advertised.

Then where are the gateway books? The entry-level texts, the pop simplifications, partly wrong but mostly right, that a layperson might pick up at a B&N and not throw against a wall in frustration? (Assuming, of course, that the harsh sandpaper cover doesn't shred their fingers first. I kid. I kid because I love.)

It's that missing tier that I think leads to charges of phony elitism and obscurity for obscurity's sake.

And, after a while -- decades of underpaid but ambitious lit grad students fressing at the post-seminar wine and cheese table -- one does wonder why they have never been written.

So: a call to arms. Arise, arise! ye grad students of want. Lit crit to the people!

Or not.


Adam Kotsko


There are plenty of "intro to lit crit" books. Terry Eagleton's is a classic of the genre, and there is also a similar book by Bressler. Jonathan Culler's Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory (published in that Oxford UP series) is very accessible -- I'd recommend it to anyone who has about 90 minutes they're willing to spend giving contemporary lit crit a chance. Also, many of Culler's own books (including On Deconstruction) are fully accessible to most educated laymen. All these books seem to meet the standards you set, and at least a couple of them are probably available at your local Border's.

I don't think the problem is so much the lack of mid-tier books, but the fact that people expect academic literary criticism to be just like what they do when they casually read a book, only more so. If we just want people to help us understand why a book or poem is good or what place it has in literary history, then I daresay we don't really need a university department devoted to that -- independent critics (Samuel Johnson, et al.) did a fine job of that for many centuries before the English department was ever invented.

If we want to get down to the real nuts and bolts of how literature works in itself and how it functions in society, beyond the level of the periodic essay "On Poesy" that a couple poets of each generation seem to write, then there's an argument to be made for a dedicated academic department that makes use of the most advanced tools of cultural criticism. We should not expect such departments to produce more Samuel Johnsons, and we should not expect them to hand us mere "worldly wisdom." Also, we probably shouldn't expect their work to be immediately comprehensible (to paraphrase Heidegger's little tirade from the begining of On Time and Being.)

This is not to say that all papers presented at the MLA are meeting the goals of advanced literary study, or that those goals are always necessarily clearly articulated, but just to say that if we're going to criticize the modern enterprise of literary criticism, we might as well do it from the inside -- if "they" are misusing jargon from continental philosophy, then write something that uses it correctly. If "they" are misappropriating Lacan in their study of James Joyce, then figure out the right relationship of Lacan to James Joyce. If "they" are all intellectual dilletantes who just like to drop names of famous Frenchies without really understanding what's at stake, then take the Frenchies seriously and correct "them." That is -- the best way to counter bad literary criticism and theory is with better literary criticism and theory.

Scoffing is a valuable first step, but I don't think it's a very persuasive argument in the long run.


You've apparently hit the nail on the head: once the modern english department was invented, the quality of criticism went down drastically. The proliferation of members within the guild lead to a significant reduction in the product which the guild produced. And, if I may be sold bold since I've read Derrida, please tell me what we get from him that is somehow superior to Richards, Winters, Tuve, or, even, Coleridge. The overwhelming majority of contemporary criticism is mediocre; is it better to write obscure, mediocre criticism or clear, mediocre criticism?

Adam Kotsko

To be fair, much of Coleridge's "literary theory" consists of half-digested continental philosophy. Derrida isn't primarily about literary criticism any more than Kant or Schelling were, but what he has to say about the nature or written texts seems to be obviously applicable to literature (even if that application doesn't necessarily produce good criticism).

I'm defending the methodology of contemporary "theoretical" study of literature in principle, not necessarily in practice. I have read brilliant theoretically-informed criticism that has seemed to me to make an old text exciting again (certainly this is one goal of good criticism) -- I have also read mediocre articles about how Don DeLillo is kind of like Baudrillard, for example.

The reason the old stuff seems better than the contemporary stuff might be the same effect we get in all areas of human endeavor -- people only read the really good stuff from the past, so we get the impression that the past was a golden age. I'm sure there was a lot of perfunctory, mediocre criticism produced during the era of Romanticism, but we never read any of it, just the cream of the crop. We have plenty of good critics in the contemporary era who wrote in the university and who will likely continue to be read in the future -- Harold Bloom, Fredric Jameson, Hugh Kenner, Terry Eagleton, etc. There are also many non-academic critics writing for publications such as the New York Review of Books, and many authors of fiction, poetry, and drama who also write literary criticism. It seems like having a new class of people (academics) writing seriously about literature is probably a good thing, even if their results are not uniformly inspiring.


'To be fair, much of Coleridge's "literary theory" consists of half-digested continental philosophy.' with the added ingredient, no doubt insignificant, of thinking about an activity that he performed very well.


Having people writing intelligently about literature is always a good thing but this sounds more like a paean to variation rather than a defense of the critical enterprise as it is currently practiced; the sin of presentism, if you will. Harold Bloom will be forgotten as his guiding ideas are incoherent. Jameson is simply a less-intelligent version of Lukacs and all of the proto- or neo-marxists will seem positively anachronistic in another generation. What does Eagleton tell us about poetry which Sir Philip Sidney didn't or couldn't? Is the construction of baroque or ridiculous theories about literature the telos (end) of criticism? Do the current practitioners of the critical enterprise possess a deeper, more profound understanding of the human soul than their predecessors? Do they possess deeper insights into the greater writers which shape our traditions? These seem to be the questions we should be asking when evaluating the current state of literary criticism.

Adam Kotsko

From reading the Biographia Literaria, I have to think that Coleridge's ideas on poetry were rather muddled -- and I also think that he was never fully satisfied with his own poetry. He was never really able to account for what was going on when he wrote poetry, as indicated by his rather strange insistence that Kubla Kahn was unfinished -- and his often incomprehensible footnotes to Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The bulk of his writing is not poetic, but rather philosophical or theological or critical (about Wordsworth, whom he envisions as the poet who could do what Coleridge wanted to do but thought he couldn't). The idea that he consciously drew on his experience of writing poetry when writing his own criticism seems somewhat improbable to me, even if there was something going on unconsciously -- and to understand that, we'd probably need to deploy some kind of psychoanalytic jargon, which puts us right back on the MLA panel.

His critical writings are probably better than most contemporary critics, but they are every bit as obscure and "difficult" and frustrating as the latest issue of PMLA.

Dell Adams

Adam -

Did you really just cite Coleridge's insistence that his own poem, "Kubla Khan," was unfinished, as evidence that Coleridge did not understand poetry?

Dell Adams

No, that's not what you said. Sorry about that.


My way of putting it would be: "If Saint-Beuve, Cryil Connolly, Ezra Pound, George Orwell, Paul Fussell, Lionel Trilling, Joseph Epstein, and the Fadimans (pere et fille) could all manage to write literary criticism without being obscure, why can't you?"

The obvious answer would be "Because they were geniuses and I'm not". Why is literary criticism the only field in which everyone must be held to the standard of the best? This isn't how progress is made in the natural or social sciences.



If the issue with bad writing was simply that its practitioners recognized clarity as a virtue but simply couldn't pull it off despite their best efforts, then I would agree with you.

What we are afraid of is using obscure jargon for the sole purpose of hiding your lack of having anything worthwhile to say, or to make it more difficult for outsiders to criticize you. The critics of obscurity are afraid that by enabling such bad practices, obscure writing lowers the intellectual standards of the humanities. An academic culture which refuses to criticize obscurity will have a harder time stopping this slide.

It is much harder for obscurity to function this way in the sciences, when there are empirical tests to keep bad theory from spiralling out of control simply because no one can penetrate it. There are no such controls on literary theory, so the danger obscurity poses is much greater, and the importance of cultivating clarity as a virtue is likewise greater.

-Chris J


A quick response to dsquared. Skip up the page to Adam Kotsko's first comment about how we ought to keep in mind Heidegger's tirade at the beginning of Being and Time. I do not want to say this is tout court wrong, but it is morally hazardous. It encourages one to regard murk as a positive achievement, a sign one is getting right down to the Ursprunglich roots of Dasein. When, probably, it's just that your poor head is weak. Those who take their inspiration from Hegel suffer an analogous infirmity: when they contradict themselves, they conclude they are ready to move on to the next level, when actually they should be flunked back for another year. (Again, I'm not saying Hegel is bad, merely that his influence is, in one way, systematically baneful. Lots of good philosophers have systematically bad effects on their followers, in one way or another.)

In literary studies, there is a certain amount of peer pressure to write in a way which would only be appropriate if you were a philosophical genius. Subtly obliging people to pretend to do what they cannot amounts to encouraging fraud. And there is, I believe, a great deal of fraud around as a result.

Adam makes some interesting points, to which I really ought to reply at length. Perhaps another post is in order. He makes one suggestion which I think is just flatly erroneous: that people who resist theoretically obscure criticism do so because they expect reading criticism to be 'just like what they do when they casually read a book, only more so' - well, obviously there is a bit of sloppiness of formulation here: fine, fine, just comment box stuff. But surely reading, say, Lionel Trilling on Henry James is not 'just like' reading Henry James, let alone 'more so'. Trilling's essay are good because they are thought-prokoving and challenging and insightful. Which James is, too. But reading an essay about James is not really like reading James.

In general, I think the suggestion that people resist obscurity because they cleave to naive simplicity or ease, or don't want their preconceptions challenged, so on and so forth, is conceptually and anthropologically mistaken. It is certainly not necessary to resist obscurity on these grounds. And, in fact, I am aware of no one who actually does resist it on these grounds. This bad argument has no partisans. Seriously. (Can you name a single 'resister of theory' who actually says it all ought to be simple and obvious and unchallenging?)


Just to note: Being and Time, Time and Being: two different books.


(Can you name a single 'resister of theory' who actually says it all ought to be simple and obvious and unchallenging?)

No (though the comment I was replying to seemed to come close). But I can name a damn few (and with respect, you come close to this category yourself at times), who mistake their own unwillingness to apply themselves for a failing of the piece they're reading.

Have a look at a really good piece of analytical philosophy. To make it concrete, leaf through "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". Ask yourself, hand on heart, is this remotely comprehensible to someone without a lot of other training in the field?

Now, we can agree that "2DE" (as nobody calls it) is not Bad Writing; I'd actually argue that it's about as good as writing gets in the field. But nobody would expect to be able to just pick up a copy and say "ahhh it all seems so clear to me now, I understand Hume, Locke and all the other empiricist philosophers and where they went wrong". It's difficult, but that's because it's expressing a difficult idea.

If that's true of philosophy of language, why should it be different for philosophy of literature? Every time I've seen one of these Bad Writing competitions, I've been able to look at the winning sentence carefully, note in my head what the technical terms appear to be, and get a decent sense of what the sentence appears to be saying. And that's with examples that are hand-picked for their supposed incomprehensibility.

How do you feel about the long-haired Swiss patent clerk who suggested that "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler".

Adam Kotsko

I will recant the "just like reading a book, only moreso" -- the phrasing was clearly bad. What I meant to say is that readers interpret works of literature as they read, and if they turn to criticism, they want some help in understanding the literature -- what does this symbol mean, how does this speech fit into the whole, what was the author going through in his own life when he wrote this, etc.

Theoretical criticism does not do that. Although it makes use of those kinds of approaches and tools, its ultimate goal is to do something else. Derrida writes a couple decent essays on Artaud, for instance, but his goal is not just to explicate Artaud, any more than all Heidegger's work with poetry is meant to be just explication -- something else is going on there. Theoretical criticism tries to do that. Since Heidegger's a super-genius and since the academic system in France promotes much broader learning and thus more opportunities for genuine interdisciplinary work than does the over-specializing Anglo-American system, maybe it's a bad idea for Americans to try to do that kind of stuff. A lot of it is going to wind up being formulaic repetition of Derrida or whoever -- just a bad impression.

But then, some of it's not. Jameson pulls it off, in my opinion. Judith Butler (lord help me -- let the flames begin) pulls it off. Not everyone is going to be Jameson or Butler, but then, if you want good, clear criticism, not everyone is going to be C. S. Lewis or Cleanth Brooks. Theoretical criticism is its own kind of thing, and that carries with it some of the continental jargon and punning garbage (and I'll admit, I'm just about sick of reading footnotes explaining how this is a pun in French), but that's kind of how it is.

Is it possible to do that kind of criticism without the cultural baggage of imitating the French? I don't know. Maybe it's not. But I think we need to understand what we're dealing with. If you want good exegetical work on difficult works of literature, or if you want an evaluation of the aesthetic worth of a particular piece of literature, then you simply are not going to find it in contemporary theoretical criticism. And you're not going to find C. S. Lewis impressions in contemporary theoretical criticism, because C. S. Lewis didn't do that kind of thing -- people are going to take up the styles of those who "showed them the way."


Thanks for all the good comments, dsquared, Adam (and others - sorry for the Heidegger slip, Ogged.)

I'm going to try to craft a follow-up post in which I address some of these points, and try to get off their hooks. A couple very quick thoughts.

Dsquared is right that I (and others) overuse the charge of 'nonsense!' Mostly what we are complaining about is not that the nutshell is actually empty, when cracked, but that the contents are severely disappointing: banal, dubious, vague, so on and so forth. On the other hand, I do think that comparisons with Quine are not apt. This is just a red herring. I think it is quite crucial that theory (not theory of anything; just Theory - you know what I mean) is not, as a rule, remotely technical in anything like the way that Quine is. Theory's bizarre vocabulary is a kind of Romantic poetry, if you like. This does not mean it's doomed, just that there is no hope of defending it by means of analogies to things that most definitely are not Romantic poetry, as "Two Dogmas" is not. (Like I said. You don't have to take my word for this, and I am sure what I am saying is oversimple.)

Adam, you've made some fair points (and I went and read your thoughtful follow-up, thank you very much.) I think one way of carrying this discussion forward profitably would be to pick some actual cases - a Jameson paper, or a Butler paper - and really do a close-reading that focuses on form. I could probably do a better job of saying what I think is bad about the writing if I had long passages to comb over and use as illustrations. (And try not just to do a loud-mouth fisking.)

As to your point about theoretical criticism - the French, Heidegger, so forth. One of the facts about me that explains much stuff that comes out of my mouth is that it just seems to me bloody damn obvious that there are models of cultural criticism that are highly philosophically literate and, and owe rather little - if anything - to the French or Heidegger. (Not that I am determined to cordon them off, but I personally have little use for them. That's just me.) It bugs me that we are stuck with this thoroughly optional model of how it should be done which doesn't appeal to me at all. Yes, this really is me telling you what I like. What I want is to let a thousand Trillings bloom. Well, that's a bit much. But I think the cultural studies slate should be wiped - not clean, but cleaner than it is - and let's all go back to the place where we took the wrong turn, and pick up where Lionel left off. (It's not as though the man didn't read Hegel pretty carefully, after all. I'm not depriving anyone of their continental philosophy, strictly speaking.)

Walt Pohl

I think literary theory is singled out because everyone has the sneaking feeling that they're writing obscurely on purpose.

Consider the example of mathematics. Mathematics is as technical a field as can be imagined. It takes more than an undergraduate degree to even understand the problems people are working on. It's full of jargon. And yet mathematicians write in as informal a manner as they possibly can. In principle, mathematical proofs can all be written in formal logic, but in practice people mix in natural-language motivation, description, and exposition as needed.

In literary theory, it's hard to not wonder if they are really trying to be as informal as possible.


Walt: I swear to you, if you have any mathematical training at all, check out the arXiv. It doesn't take long at all to see some of the worst papers on God's green earth. I think that a lot of the problem is that people who don't have much specific training in maths or science overestimate the extent to which the vast majority of papers in those fields are written clearly or sensibly. The vast majority of mathematical economics papers are written stupidly, with poorly thought-out mathematics obscuring the central point. Literary theory suffers because people don't understand the fields they're comparing it to, and assume that they're good.

Walt Pohl

I have some mathematical training (a master's degree plus a couple of years). I'm not denying that many math papers are _bad_. I'm denying that there are many math papers that are bad _on purpose_. If people can't figure out what a paper is saying, they will eventually give up reading it. (Though I'm curious what you think is a good example on arXiv of a truly horrible paper.)

The few economics papers I have read were reasonably clear, but they may not be typical.

Adam Stephanides

If "theoretical criticism" did indeed reveal "the real nuts and bolts of how literature works in itself and how it functions in society," then its incomprehensibility to outsiders wouldn't matter so much. What we skeptics would like is some reason for believing this aside from bald assertion. I've read some "introductions to theory" (I don't recall if they were the particular ones Adam mentioned), hoping to find ideas to use in my own work, and they left me unconvinced of its value.

Reading "theory," I often get the impression that its jargon is used not for greater precision, as with physics, but for greater imprecision: to convey the sense that there are complicated things going on, and that everything is connected in some way, without having to explain what these things and connections actually are.

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