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Nigel Beale

Hear! Hear! One of the concerns raise by Ronan McDonald in The Death of the Critic is that, in the face of millions of new critics: bloggers, Amazon reviewers etc., the academics, instead of raising their voices, have taken their teddy bears and scurried back into ivory towerdom, leaving aesthetic judgment to the plebs...but if they wont talk about relative merit in discussion that begs for educated comment, then what good are they...time to take teddy away.

Rohan Maitzen

Frankly, I'm disappointed (and even a little bit hurt!) to see these comments from both of you (especially you, Nigel!). Nigel, you persist in ignoring the complications I've raised several times with you about the idea that 'aesthetic judgment' is some kind of simple, obvious, universal measurement of 'merit'--as if there aren't multiple kinds of 'merit,' for one thing, and as if there couldn't be many reasons for studying literature academically, including (but not restricted to) aesthetics. One of the things English professors do is, precisely, to raise these questions with their students--who come into class plenty ready to dismiss as aesthetically disastrous most of the books I know from your posts that you cherish. And Daniel, I know so many literary academics who foster love of literature for their students, encouraging them to read well beyond the narrow options they would otherwise choose and helping them move from knee-jerk responses of taste to all kinds of informed appreciation--enough already with these sweeping dismissals! Maybe I'm fooling myself, but I believe (and have evidence, in the form of over a decade of course evaluations) that the large majority of my students are much more appreciative of much more literature (aesthetically and in other ways) after working with me than they were before. Sure, taking English classes in the academy is not the only way to foster and enhance appreciative reading, but it's one way, and often an excellent way. (You know I share some of your distress at the abstruse isolationism of the kind of criticism that dominates academic publication, but there are all kinds of complicated contexts for that, and here your condemnation is much broader.)


Of course good English professors can bring their students appreciation of a wider range of literature. That doesn't mean that it's not a problem that an increasing number of professors have some kind of political or social agenda, and that students perceive almost immediately that their reading of the literature must fall in line with that agenda for them to be successful in the class.

Rohan Maitzen

I'm skeptical about how widespread the 'problem' actually is that you point to (again, I know a lot of English professors, none of whom, as far as I know, is an ideologue in the classroom)--and I'm uncomfortable with the way you've defined it. It's not as if in the good old days there was no politics on the agenda. Many proponents of older kinds of criticism believed almost all women's writing was not worth their (or their students') attention, to give just one example. That's a political agenda, though it would not have been presented as such, and students would have needed to fall in line to be successful in the class.


You're right. I over-simplified the problem; it's certainly not new. But there's entirely too much back-slapping among tenured English professors these days about how their agenda is not hidden. While that is better than the old days, as you point out, it allows the old idea that our evaluations are subjective to persist.

Donna Jean

Rohan, thank you for your thoughtful comments; I agree that the academy still has a lot to offer lit students, including, as you say, helping students to appreciate the possibility of different FORMS of literary appreciation. (Anecdotally, I can also name several professors who had a direct impact on broadening my horizons as a reader.)

That said, as a recent English major grad from an elite private school, I have to agree with Jeanne that there is a real problem in academia of teachers being too overtly political in class. (Or, just as frequently, professors may choose not to address political issues in class, but then spend their non-class hours lecturing on this or that liberal-left issue, and it wasn't hard for students in a small school to figure out that they needed to tailor their comments in class and papers to that teachers' beliefs.) And while all of that is certainly better than professors keeping their political agendas quiet but nonetheless acting on them, it isn't better than those professors looking for new ways to keep classrooms safe places for students to approach literature according to their own perspectives.

This isn't a political blog, but I will say that I entered college as a far-left Socialist and graduated with a sense of real resentment and contempt for the academic left. This is largely due to the sort of problem Jeanne describes.

Dan Green


I don't doubt that your students leave your class more appreciative of literature. However, I also believe you're an exception.

Aesthetic judgment certainly is not simple or obvious, but I think it still needs to be at the foundation of the study of literature. Because it's contentious doesn't mean it should be avoided in order to discuss other things that are "easier to talk about."

Ultimately I just can't accept the blithe assertion that there are "many reasons for studying literature academically, including (but not restricted to) aesthetics." There may be such reasons, but they all take us away from studying literature as literature--that is, aesthetically. Would we say these sorts of things about art or music? That there are other reasons to study music other than the music? That the musical qualities of music are interesting but not essential for appreciating it?


"New Criticism was constraining only to the extent that to use it meant to attend entirely to the literary qualities of literature, to withhold biography, history, and politics as subjects tangential to the focused analysis of literary writing."

But New Criticism, as opposed to the "close reading" we inherited from it, was very constraining when it came to genres (novels & New Criticism did not suit particularly well), entire literary periods, etc. And, as some of the older faculty at Irvine and Chicago used to point out--including the older faculty who had little truck with newfangled theory--its obsession with "organic wholes" generated not only rafts of rote interpretation, but also blinded its practitioners to texts that were, well, not unified in that sense.

Dan Green

"was very constraining when it came to genres"

It was, without question. But I would argue that this was a blindness of those practicing New Criticism, not an inherent weakness of the method. Much genre fiction could very profitably be read using New Criticism-inspired close reading.


Maybe I was engaging in some wishful thinking, or speaking only for myself and a few peers.

Nigel Beale


I agree with you that there are of course many kinds of 'merit,' and that there are many fascinating reasons to study literature academically.

And of course there is no 'simple, obvious, universal measurement of 'merit.' But there is only one kind of aesthetic merit, and as Dan has said, this is what, I think should be at the foundation of the study of literature. Then perhaps we'd get more of the kind of contribution to public discussion that McDonald laments is currently missing.

As for 'multiple kinds of 'merit,' and the many reasons for studying literature academically, perhaps this kind of study is better housed in sociology or politics places that don't have aesthetics as their primary concern.

Rohan Maitzen

I think my basic problem here turns out to be that I have really no idea what you guys think an 'aesthetic' or 'literary' approach to most of the material I usually teach would even look like. So I walk into the classroom holding Bleak House and what is it you think I should do or not do? I already talk about the first and third person narrators, the fog metaphor, Dickens's methods of characterization...I can see that all of these are 'literary' properties of the novel. Why is it out of bounds, though, also to consider the way he is deploying these literary strategies as part of an ongoing conversation about the 'condition of England' question, morality, poverty, justice, sexuality...? Or should I not be talking about Bleak House in the first place? There is not only one kind of aesthetic merit, either, surely, otherwise how is it possible that Chekhov and Dickens, James and Woolf, Richardson and Austen, Joyce and--heck you fill in the oranges half of this one!--are all stars in the firmament of great novelists?

Rohan Maitzen

Also, Nigel, if you want to see aesthetic and literary qualities get flattened out of discussion of literature, try putting novels or poems in the hands of historians, sociologists, philosophers....surely this is not desirable, and in many ways it's pointless.

Nigel Beale

And here the true depths of my stodginess are revealed. Matthew Arnold's high seriousness is what we are after. Absolute sincerity, what James Wood calls lifeness. This does not preclude looking at contextual questions of morality, poverty, justice etc.

As Arnold puts it in The Study of Poetry, speaking about the classic, the best: "then the great thing for us is to feel and enjoy his (!) work as deeply as ever we can, and to appreciate the wide difference between it and all work which has not the same high character."

In other words, the great benefit of poetry/literature occurs in the process of differentiation...through which we get a clearer sense and deeper enjoyment of what is truly excellent.

This is what I mean when I say that aesthetics should be at the foundation of literary studies.

Dan Green

"In other words, the great benefit of poetry/literature occurs in the process of differentiation...through which we get a clearer sense and deeper enjoyment of what is truly excellent.

This is what I mean when I say that aesthetics should be at the foundation of literary studies."

I really can't agree with this, Nigel. First of all, what would be the logistics of such an effort? Assign one bad book for every good book so that the students can go through "the process of differentiation"? You're proposing evaluation as the "foundation" of literary study, but such evaluation actually has to occur *before* literary study in its classroom manifestation. A decision is made that a particular work merits further study, but determining its merits isn't really the motive for studying it. Analysis of the work is--I prefer aesthetic analysis, but evaluation remains at best implicit in such analysis.

Similarly, I don't think that criticism--beyond that which might occur to a limited extent in book reviews--in an "academic" setting is very much about evaluation. Again, a judgment that a work is worthy of extended analysis is made before the critical essay or book is written. The essay goes beyond merely repeating that the work is "truly excellent" and attempts to disclose those qualities of the work that contribute to our understanding of aesthetics or literary form in general.

Passing judgment and critical analysis just aren't the same thing.

Nigel Beale

Not sure we are that far apart.

"what would be the logistics of such an effort?"

It is fairly straight forward: 1) here are some agreed upon analytical tools. 2) Here are some works of literature 3) Let's analyse the work, in an attempt to understand how it achieves various effects.

This I assume is where you would stop.

I would continue with 4) Here are some works that have been deemed great using our tools. Compare them to other works that haven't. Present your argument. Argue in favour or against why this work is 'better' than that.

It is in this 'process' of differentiation that the benefits of literary study show themselves.

"a judgment that a work is worthy of extended analysis is made before the critical essay or book is written."

This is of course true. What I am suggesting is that it is the "process" through which works have been judged worthy of extended analysis, or not, that is of interest.

If the position is taken that certain works are impossible to 'rank' because they cannot be evaluated using the same analytical criteria, then the interest lies in the process of determining what the differences are.

Critical analysis is facilitated through comparison.

Dan Green

Nigel: I still don't see how this would work. Let's say you have room for ten novels on your syllabus. You're suggesting the instructor should assign five good ones and five bad ones and make the "comparison" the focus of the course? What would be the point of this? Why not just choose ten good ones (chosen according to the instrutor's presumably informed criteria) and focus on how they work, what they have to offer, etc? The tools of criticism would be exposed at the same time, and students could use them for their future reading. Why does evaluation have to be involved in the rather crude sense (this is great, this isn't) you're speaking of it in the classroom?

Steven Augustine

No honest (or serious) evaluative argument can be made without the (at least tacit) qualifier "In my opinion". This is where literary criticism wanders egocentrically, self-indulgentry awry: this persistent (pesky?) need for certainties where there can't possibly be any, given the nature of Art, and the variety of minds which are the intended audience of Art, and the chimerical properties of "meaning" as these minds conceive it.

In other words, Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" is, in my opinion, a kitschy hunk of diverting writerly craft, but it is not high, fine Literary Art (in Art's highest, finest sense)...which accolade, in my opinion, goes to DeLillo's "Underworld" or Sebald's "Austerlitz" or Philip Roth's "Sabbath's Theater" (and so forth). I can argue this preference cogently or not; persuasuvely or not; but I cannot *prove* it. And no one can. I cannot prove the readers who prefer Wolfe's work *wrong*. And no one can.

I don't like Denis Johnson's writing: prove me wrong. I treasure Joan Didion's work: defy me to prove she deserves it.

The standard for "proof" is either high (ie, scientific) or the word is meaningless, and it's in the *meaningless* sense that it is most often used in Literary contexts.

Which is why, for example, Mr. Wood's critical Alhambra, solid as it may seem to his fans, is built on shifting sands. It's not nuclear physics, with measurable constants and observable particles and repeatable experimental results. For every novel ever written, there are as many versions of it as there are minds that have read it (times the number of times each mind has read it)... concrete conclusions are impossible. Judgment is private; a function of taste. "Taste" is not a scientific metric. It's *socially* hierarchic and nothing better (and not even constant within that limit).

Argue your preferences and do it well (with style, dispensing useful facts and enthusiasms as a corollary function of your non-scientifc arguments), for that's all that's possible, ladies and gentlemen. All else is vainglorious piffle. Headbutting rams in combat, mostly.

Steven Augustine


"This is where literary criticism wanders egocentrically, self-indulgentry (sic) awry..."

Makes me think of that song by The Vapors...

Nigel Beale

"Why not just choose ten good ones (chosen according to the instrutor's presumably informed criteria) and focus on how they work, what they have to offer, etc?"

Not a problem. But comparing and contrasting 'good' and 'bad' might be a bit more entertaining...and one thing you don't want to do is lose the interest of your students. It's also easier to make a point when contrast is makes it easy to determine difference.

"Why does evaluation have to be involved in the rather crude sense (this is great, this isn't) you're speaking of it in the classroom?"

You make the point yourself...a teacher has to use some form of evaluation to determine what is 'good,' or worthy of study.

Nigel Beale

"Argue your preferences and do it well"

Exactly. This is how we learn. Through comparison.

The Vapors? Another obscure underground band from Berlin?

Steven Augustine


New Wave band from the 1980s. "Turning Japanese"...?

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