Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Wow, Dan, that was a great post. You really dissected the issue at hand.

You're right in locating the source of the trouble in the fact that "serious critics" of literature are supposed to be university professors. Clearly, the logic of university study is going to push these critics to find ways to link literature to the real world, to what's "important."

I think that this type of reading of books can be interesting and even valuable, but that it's allowed itself to become ridiculous. Obviously, you know the reputation the MLA has and the kind of papers that get pilloried every year. I've personally found a lot of Cultural Studies interesting and useful, but I've also found a lot of it contrived and pointless.

Unfortuantely, the kind of scholarship that's in ascendancy right now is pushing the study of literature more toward the ridiculous end of the spectrum. I guess I see this more as a systemic problem, that we're at a low point for humanities as a whole. I think if humanities can reclaim some of its dignity and not try to be a replica of the sciences, we'd see much more interesting, more literary-based scholarship on literature.

Kevin Holtsberry

I think there can be some sort of middle ground between the two poles you set out. I think you can teach literature and art as an immaginitive way to approach the world; a way to express insights and ideas that can't be done via more literal mediums (non-fiction prose). I approach literature and art in this manner and through a humanistic lens. Great books expand my knowledge of what it means to be human; of what is possible. But I also think that the higher up the educational chain you go the more important the aesthetic and "art for arts" sake becomes. At some point you are teaching people to become experts in the history (and historiogrpaphy) of a discipline. At this level you are debating why a certain piece of literature rises above others not discussing how reading it makes you a better person.

It strikes me that there are too many advanced students in the humanities and not enough students who are passionate about art and literature willing to pass it on at a lower level.
Instead we have far too many politicized (left and right) grad students looking to fight the culture wars or just wanting to study the Simpsons and get a PhD. That's my two cents anyway.


Thanks for this critique -- I'm enjoying this exchange. I responded to some of your points on my blog this morning, though there are several parts of your argument that I'm still thinking about. (Perhaps I haven't even responded to your main argument yet...)

My main question for you so far is why you feel the "literary" value of literary texts is separate from the other values those texts contain. Much of what one finds in really good literature has to do with philosophy, history, and yes, politics.

I don't see why using literature to get at these kinds of issues and problems is a way of "omitting literature itself," especially when some writing definitely points us in that direction.

Dan Green

Amardeep: Perfectly good question. I believe I may try to address it in another post rather in this comment thread.

Matthew C Harrison

Two questions:

Isn't the debate between utlitarian and purely aesthetic approaches to literature a distinction without a difference? After all, the original formulation of the utilitarian argument was more concerned with whether indulging in literature was wasted time that could better be spent being productive in some sort of industry than with whether or not one read for political (for example) enrichment than for the pleasures of the purely literary. From that perspective, Amardeep's position actually reflects the social triumph of literary aestheticism at the expense of "utilitarianism."

I also question whether or not the subject of "literary studies" is literature at all. I've touched more on this on my own blog, but isn't the academic study of literature a crtical pursuit (almost by definition) rather than a literary one?

Dan Green

Matthew: I don't get your first point at all. If literature could only be brought into the academy in the first place if it was reduced to its utilitarian functions, what does this have to do with aestheticism?

The study of literature did indeed become primarily a critical pursuit rather than a literary one. To the point where literature wasn't even necessary anymore.

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