Friday, February 3, 2023

Literary criticism is for just what exactly? On the occasion of his retirement, a boffin speaks.

Jennifer Schuessler, What Is Literary Criticism For?, NYTimes, Feb. 3, 2023. This is a consideration – not a review, exactly – of John Guillory's new book, Professing Criticism.

The humanities are in crisis, bla bla bla, including, perhaps most particularly, literary criticism, yada yada yada. [Actually, it's in the nature of the beast.] For the last half century, literary critics have acted like it's for changing the world. Guillory doesn't think so.

“Consider it a red alert, a cautionary tale, a fire bell in the night and an omen and admonition about how professionalization, specialization and bureaucratization can damage a field of study, even as it has benefited those with tenure,” Mintz wrote.

In an interview last month in a Brooklyn coffee shop, Guillory hardly seemed like an academic Paul Revere. Genial and slightly rumpled, he was also a far cry from stereotypical notions of the master critic, whether glowering in emo portraits à la Derrida or lobbing gleefully Zizekian outrage bombs.

Guillory’s style may be muted, but his message is blunt. He wants scholars to get real and acknowledge the field’s genuine strengths, which don’t necessarily lie in direct response to today’s political issues.

He got his degree at Yale in the mid-70s, when Yale was the home of deconstructive criticism. A thousand critical flowers bloomed throughout the land, "deconstruction, Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, semiotics and reader-response theory." His first book, Cultural Capital (1993), took on the infamous canon wars:

His argument questioned the premises shared by both sides. The canon, he argued, wasn’t an impregnable monument, but an imaginary construct that had always been contested. And the big question wasn’t which groups were excluded or included, but the university’s role in the unequal creation and transmission of “cultural capital.”

“It threw a really interesting wrench into the whole canon debate,” said Michael Bérubé, a professor of English at Penn State and a former president of the Modern Language Association. The book’s arguments and detached tone weren’t universally appreciated, he noted, including by those who saw Guillory as dismissive of marginalized groups’ desires to see themselves in the canon. But 30 years later, Bérubé said, “it looks like a much more foundational text.”

And now, "Guillory does not posit some lost golden age of literary criticism" in professing criticism. He notes:

In the long history of academic criticism, “professional reading defines itself over and against lay reading,” Guillory said. “I feel very strongly you have to have both things. But how do you make connections between the two?”


One of the crucial effects of higher education, according to Guillory, is the creation of “the professional profile” — the habits, attitudes, vocabulary and mores broadly shared by the professional-managerial class.

No matter what you study or where, he said, “you come out the other end and you belong to a college demographic, which is a real thing” — and an important component of the electorate.

Literary study “has a contribution to make” to that process, which happens “unintentionally and collectively in the university,” he said. But it can’t take most of the credit (or blame).


But he also said the profession needs to face up to a broader reality: the declining cultural capital of literature in a wildly expanded media universe.

That's something the late J. Hillis Miller has noted – FWIW, he was on the faculty at Yale when Guillory was there.

Not that he sees only gloom and doom. He’s encouraged by the growing ranks of younger scholars who straddle the line between academia and journalism, via magazines like the The Point and The Drift.


He's now retired and has been reading Tristram Shandy:

“To be frank, I thought it was going to be boring,” he said of the novel, which consists almost entirely of digressions. “But it’s wonderful.”

That's nice. 

But, you know, it's not worth an article in The New York Freakin' Times.

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