A defense of literary criticism — sort of

You didn’t think I was going to leave the Salman Rushdie thing alone after just one post, did you? I was intrigued by the social aspects of Rushdie’s visit, but he did have some interesting things to say as well. I want to focus in on just one of them: his view of literary criticism.

Rushdie’s perspective on criticism can be summed up in just a few words: he doesn’t think much of it. He told us an interesting story about an Important Conference he had been invited to along with several other Important Writers. The point of the conference was supposed to be a chance for top literary theorists to speak with the subjects of their work, a way to integrate the heretofore disparate disciplines of writing and theory. The conference was a disaster — none of the writers had any respect for the theorists; the sentiment was unanimous. Needless to say, the literature professors were undaunted by this rebuff, and continued to churn out their scholarship in much the same way they had before.

Rushdie’s specific critique of literary theory is that it imposes an ideology on a text — Marxism, feminism, neo-colonialism, whatever. Reading a text this way, for Rushdie, is like smashing it through an iron grate. Sure, you can pick up the now-battered remnants of the text and come to some “understanding” of what they “mean,” but it will be a fragmented, disjointed view of the original text. Instead, Rushdie thinks students should be taught to simply read texts, “one sentence after another,” and afterwards, to “try to piece together what those sentences mean.”

As it turns out, that sort of close reading is the type of “criticism” I was taught in college, too — unfortunately, long after it had gone out of fashion. I loved literature, and I thought I was prepared for a career as an English professor. I wasn’t. Within a month in graduate school, I was buried under a sea of literary theory: Bakhtin this, DeMan that, [Edward] Said the other thing. Close reading was out, and theory was in. Like Rushdie, I believed this focus on theory was killing the texts themselves. The Marxist-Feminists, it seemed to me, were doing little more than counting feminine pronouns and acting as if they had “read” the text.

Now, fifteen years later, I’ve read a lot more literary theory. If all I had to do was read theory and write about literature, I’d probably be an English professor today — it’s fun, fascinating stuff. But now I’ve read enough theory to see that what Rushdie’s really complaining about is bad literary theory. Yes, if criticism is reduced to counting pronouns, it can be an abomination upon a text. And yes, most of the drivel that comes out in English journals is either pointless, trivial, or both. There’s not nearly enough close reading going on. This is not as much of a problem among the professors as it is among their students: in most of what ends up getting published, you do get the sense that the critic has actually read the text.

The bigger problem is in the classroom, where students try to parrot their professors’ preferred critical method. They spend so much time understanding the critical theory that they don’t understand the text they are applying it to. They would probably have more of relevance to say if they simply stuck to the text, reading it one sentence after another, as Rushdie suggests. Most of these kids will never become professors anyway, so Rushdie’s right — their professors are doing them a disservice, teaching them all this scholarly mumbo-jumbo.

Unfortunately, the professors aren’t teaching literature appreciation, they’re teaching literature, and contemporary literature study demands an understanding of critical theory, not just close reading. You won’t get anywhere in grad school — let alone as a professor — without an ability to apply critical theory. Faced with doing a disservice to English students who are planning to be something else (lawyers, accountants, schoolteachers, or baristas) or to those who are planning to become graduate students and professors, they favor the ones who have a chance to follow in their own footsteps.

Writers are left out of the loop: millions of college-educated adults now don’t know how to read a book, sentence by sentence. Even the graduate students aren’t much better off: they haven’t been taught close reading, either, and if they’re going to be able to apply critical theory well, they’re going to need to know how to read carefully.

Good literary criticism can be a joy to read, but it’s predicated on the critics having both a background in critical theory and an understanding of close reading. Why can’t we all agree to leave theory out of the undergraduate curriculum and focus on careful reading of literature? Graduate schools will get students who are better-prepared to apply critical theory (though they should introduce students to it slowly), and the world will have millions of better readers.

Update: Conversational Reading, Charlotte Street, and The Reading Experience are, coincidentally, all weighing in on this very same issue.

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3 Responses to A defense of literary criticism — sort of

  1. Arethusa says:

    I suppose I am fortunate in the few English literature classes I have taken in university: most of them (headed by a favourite professor of mine) was…basically reading & appreciating the text and then figuring out what it all meant. I only ever did pre-20th century literature though, so perhaps that may have had something to do with it. That sort of critical theory has only been approached in one or two of my Political Science or History classes oddly enough. If that is the sort of learning experience for English that is generally offered at the undergrad/graduate level I am rather relieved that I decided not to major it. I am sure that it has its place but it sounds uncomfortably rigid.

  2. marc says:

    Perhaps it would help to be a little more careless in one’s reading.

  3. Dave says:

    That would be a good way to get Rushdie’s goat, anyway.

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