Friday, July 30, 2010

Literary Criticism, Some Thoughts

As I've been getting to the writing stage with Housewives and Hussies, I've been thinking a lot about what I appreciate in literary criticism, what I dislike in literary criticism, and what I think about what makes good scholarship and what makes a solid engagement with scholarship. You might think that you should stop reading now if you're not in English Studies, or in literary studies more specifically, but if you bear with me for a bit I think I might have some things to say that might actually be generalizable and that might start an interesting conversation.

I wrote the following in a recent post and I feel now like I should have said more, or been clearer, so that's where I'll begin:

"One of the things that I struggle with . . . is that I ultimately do believe that there is something special about literature and I have little-to-no interest in doing the work of a historian by analyzing pop culture of the time or advertisements or whatever. . . . Not that I think it's a bad thing to do interdisciplinary research - my research is that, actually - but I really hate literary criticism that seems like it doesn't actually care about literature."

First things first: I am not at all saying in the above passage that there is not a place for cultural criticism, nor am I saying that there is something wrong with a new historicist approach that values "low culture" texts alongside high culture ones, or that values an attention to popular reading trends as opposed to the reading trends of an intellectual elite. What I'm saying in the above is that I am bothered by literary criticism - and this can be oriented in a variety of ways - that puts the literature in the background. This happens with many approaches. One approach that can encourage this is a new historicist approach, wherein the critic chooses to focus more attention on the popular media and historical sources of the time than on the Lit'rature. But this also happens with theoretically oriented criticism (come on, you've read books or articles where people have used the literature to advance a theory rather than engaging theory to understand the literary text, and yes, I do believe that there is a difference between the two) and it happens with biographically oriented criticism (wherein the Great Man - D.H. Lawrence, Priest of Love, as just one example - or Great Lady - Virginia Woolf, Bipolar Lesbian Victim of Sexual Abuse, as just one example - overshadows the text that supposedly is the point). I could probably list more genres of literary criticism that perpetrate the "I'm going to pay attention to everything but the literary text" thing, but the point is, I have a hard time with criticism, from whatever perspective, that is more interested in "something else" other than literary texts. Because here's the thing: if one is doing literary criticism, I really think that the primary thing that we should be discussing is literature. That probably makes me ridiculously old-fashioned. Fine. I'm old-fashioned. But I don't think I'm wrong.

Part of the reason that I've been thinking fairly deeply about these issues is, of course, self-centered: I'm trying to figure out how to write the sort of book I enjoy reading. But I think these things are nagging at me for bigger reasons, too. Some questions that have been nagging at me throughout my recent reading and writing:
  • What happens when people who are interested in issues or texts that are marginal to the mainstream canon focus their attention away from literature in their research? The canon is still political, and it strikes me that if marginalized literatures don't get the same amount/kind of attention as do historically canonical literatures, than we are left with separate but equal canons - we've not really revised or opened up the Canon at all. In fact, we reify the canonical (primarily dead, white, male canon as the "real" canon) and then we associate anyone outside of that canon with tendencies that are marginal to being "worth" canonical status.
  • What happens to a discipline - or, to be fair, really a subdiscipline within English Studies, literary studies - when its practitioners fail to see that subdiscipline as having an obligation to produce new knowledge about literature? Is it really so shocking that people question the value of literary studies - notoriously in the annual newspaper articles that pick out wild titles from the MLA program - when it doesn't seem that practitioners in the field are analyzing and coming to greater understanding of literary texts? If we don't demonstrate the centrality of literature as an object of study, why should we think that anybody else will think literature is valuable?
  • How do the first two points intersect and contribute to "the crisis in the humanities" and to generally anti-intellectual cultural discourses?
But so if those are the general questions that keep recurring as I work, more specific ones have to do with women's literature. I think that there is value in situating women writers within a broader canon of literature - not to show how they are "like" their male peers but rather because if we keep women writers off to the margins that it seems we never challenge some oftentimes problematic (if not altogether wrong) commonplaces about the features of canonical literature of particular time periods. At least for me, this means that it's important to look at "literary" works by women - because while considerations of romance novels and chick lit and conduct literature are totally interesting, they just don't do the work that I think needs to be done in terms of the broader subdiscipline, and I think that focusing our attention on popular as opposed to literary works creates a kind of ghetto in which women authors are considered "popular" while male authors are considered "important" and women authors who could easily stand alongside those "important" men have their books fall out of print.

While all of this may seem very field-specific, reading this post over at Historiann's made me think that it really isn't. I wonder about the ways in which contemporary approaches to scholarship - within my field, yes, but also across humanities disciplines - results in keeping certain groups marginal, subordinate, and generally out of academic and public discourse. Further, I wonder if these trends in scholarship ultimately contribute to a public sense that what we do is insignificant, lacking in seriousness, or without value. I wonder, too, how much various approaches have to do with attempting to respond to the demands of a marketplace for scholarship that is severely constrained - is it possible that the effects of the horrible job market and the contraction in academic publishing are to enforce limits on the kind of scholarship that make their way into public view?

I don't really have answers to any of the above, but I think that there are serious implications to the methodologies that we choose - not just for the way that we think individually but also for our disciplines and for the profession more generally. And yes, it is bad to think about all of that because it makes what I'm trying to do seem really overwhelming sometimes, but I also kind of have to think about that because otherwise why would I bother doing this project at all? Because, seriously, it's really hard and I could totally just write a couple of articles and call it a day and nobody where I work would care and I wouldn't have to think about the consequences of scholarship in quite the same way.

Now. Enough of all of that thinking. I need to do some straightening up around the house because, slightly behind schedule but still happening, it is VPW (Vagina Power Weekend, in case you forgot), an annual tradition since 2007. This year J. will be joining A. and I for her first ever Vagina Power. It promises to be awesome.


Anonymous said...

I don't know shit for dick about literature or literary scholarship, but it strikes me that it is probably a lot easier and less work to bloviate about Virgina Woolf: Frustrated Lesbian and Product of Her Times than it is to really get analytical about her writing itself. So maybe that's part of the attraction of that mode: get the shit done quicker so you can hit the fucken bar.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think certain things are down to inertia. This is what you say about Woolf because this is the sort of thing you say about Woolf. Most scholarship is not terribly original and the easiest thing to do successfully is something that has been done (or nearly so) before. A recognizable project. And that makes doing the work of getting the women out of the ghetto that much harder.

Historiann said...

This is really interesting. I didn't realize you were such an old crank! (Kidding, mostly.) I think you're right to stick up for your discipline and its value, and for what makes it distinctive (NOT history, NOT cultural studies of something other than literature, etc.)

I wish you'd explain more what you mean here, though: "I wonder about the ways in which contemporary approaches to scholarship - within my field, yes, but also across humanities disciplines - results in keeping certain groups marginal, subordinate, and generally out of academic and public discourse. Further, I wonder if these trends in scholarship ultimately contribute to a public sense that what we do is insignificant, lacking in seriousness, or without value."

In History, the stuff that the hoi polloi perceive as "important" or "serious" is, to my mind, head-bashingly boring and repetitive (i.e. another bio of George Washington or Teddy Roosevelt!!!) So for us, doing archival research and generating new knowledge (and learning more about underrepresented people in American history, for example) is perceived as narrow, marginal, and less important by the public--or even greeted with derision--than writing another biography or book about something that's been written about a million times before. So I see these goals--generating new knowledge on the one hand, and demonstrating to the public that our work has value--as fundamentally opposed to one another. (And, you won't be surprised to learn that I think the former goal is both more important and more do-able than the latter.)

Most Americans want their history to be soothing, reassuring hero-worship. I don't think that's going to change in my lifetime, but perhaps more importantly, I don't think it's in my skill set to change that fact. I can, however, write a few pretty good books and turn up some interesting new information and stories to tell.

Anonymous said...

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Unknown said...

I don't really understand why the trends you discuss marginalize certain groups. One reason studies of popular literature and culture are so appealing to scholars is that they seem to help break down the division between high and popular literature, suggesting that all kinds of books are worthy of our attention. That seems inclusive to me. Furthermore, the high / low division practically disappears when we consider how many canonical authors published bestsellers. In the modernist period, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, for example. I also think that scholars have done a lot of interesting work lately on more middle brow writers of both genders -- the idea that "popular" writers are women has been pretty well challenged. So, I guess I like the trend towards expanding our field because it seems to disrupt hierarchies, rather than reinforce them. The trend I don't like is the emphasis on globalization. I don't really think it's our job to look at literature published in languages other than English in South America or Asia, for example. That's what comparative literature departments are for.