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Roy Rubin

Beautifully explained, Dan. I haven't been anywhere near an English Department of a fine University in thirty years, but apparently there's some real fireworks going on in the Lit Art Appreciation Department. Is it swords at dawn?.

Roger Mexico

Actually, Dan, I'd argue that Watson is also interested in marginalizing historicism, or even, for that matter, any kind of intelligent way of talking about literature.

She speaks for the "public," see:

"But let's look on the bright side. The return of historicism has meant that, in some cases, the enterprises of academics have moved an inch or two closer toward the interests of the general public. We want to know how fictions reflect reality."

Well, except that it turns out Emily Watson, voice of the public, is also...

"the author of a book about tragedy and a forthcoming book about Socrates; she is an assistant professor in the classical studies department at the University of Pennsylvania."


The "interests of the general public" argument raises an important question, methinks. First of all, we can safely assume that what the academic historicist does is of no less (or more) interest to the general public than what the formalist does. The "problem" is not that formalism (or historicism, for that matter) are *mechanical*, but that both are *technical* (just like every other academic discipline).

But how about academic literary criticism, then? After all, it is one thing to explore the historical context of a work, and another to do historical criticism; and it is one thing to pursue formalist and stylistic questions, and another to use these for criticism (the old song about scholarship versus criticism). So I would like to ask: to what extent is it an obligation of academic literary criticism to be non-technical? Does it come with an intrinsic obligation to be instantly accessible to the public?

Andy Havens

My brother and I, long ago, decided that there are two metrics to reviewing movies: the "film" score and the "flick" score. The film score is how well the movie does as art; the writing, design, direction, acting, etc. The flick score is simply how entertaining it is. You can have a great film that makes a lousy flick ("The Seventh Seal" comes to mind). You can also have a great flick that is a crummy film ("American Pie"). The decision to rate a movie as a film or a flick (or both or neither) depends on your goals. If you want a fun movie to see with da boyz after pizza and beer, a review of a movie that scores high on the "great film"
is simply not useful. It's not a bad review or a wrong review; it's just not useful.

The question to ask about any reading/examination of art seems similarly to me to be "is it useful?" rather than "is it right or wrong?" or "bad or good?".

If you are looking for a "beautiful" poem and to examine those elements, then historicism is less than useful, and may, in fact, impede your enjoyment of such. If, on the other hand, you want to understand why certain people find the poem beautiful and others do not... formalism is less helpful. Different styles of reading are, essentially, like different tools. We do not use a saw to hammer nails nor sandpaper to make cuts. You could hammer a nail with a saw, and you could use sandpaper to go all the way through a 2x4... but it would be... less than helpful.

The fact that one tool is good for one use and others for other uses does not diminish either. One of the greatest wisdoms of post modernism is not any specific "revelation" made clear by deconstruction. But the overall idea that we can make use of many viewpoints depending on what our goals are. And that the appropriate use of many tools makes us better craftspeople and artisans in our chosen fields.

Dan Green

I would not argue that academic criticism has an obligation to be accessible, although neither should it be deliberately obscure. But I've more or less concluded that academic criticism that seeks primarily to elucidate works of literature *as* literature was essentially an historical aberration. It's been superseded by methods more appropriate to academe--methods that emphasize "knowledge." Although it's certainly possible to convey a kind of knowledge through formalist criticism, this kind of knowledge has obviously proven insufficiently "rigorous" to the current generation of academic critics, as well as less useful in advancing social and political agendas. A new kind of criticism that does focus on literature as literature might certainly be possible, but it won't come from the academy.

In my opinion, the study of literature is "useful" if it illuminates both the processes of literature as a whole as well as selected individual texts. If it instead focuses on the way in which literature illuminates history or "culture," which some people obviously find "useful," it is no longer the study of literature but the study of history or sociology or anthropology. If these things are really what the critic or reader is interested in, I no longer see that the study of literature as a separate discipline does serve any useful purpose.


Really interesting--I've thought much about how it was possible for Emily Dickinson to write some of her best (most mystical) poetry in the middle of the Civil War. I take it that the informed formalist (as opposed to the caricature) would understand Dickinson's aesthetic distance from historical reality to be a conscious decision?--She was not, of course, blissfully ignorant. In this light, the difference between formalism and historicism seems to collapse; the best criticism must have elements of both methods.

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