Taking literary criticism personally

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, there’s a lull in your chores and caretaking responsibilities (ha), you need a break from your own writing, and you’re at liberty to read anything you want. What would you rather pick up?

a) a novel

b) a collection of poems

c)  a magazine full of models who make you feel pocked and frumpy (whoops, gave that one away)

d) a book of literary criticism or theory

Now, scholarly books vary as wildly as any other kind: they can be moving, enraging, clumsy, hilarious, tedious. The best are much more engaging than a badly-written mystery or mediocre poems. And if you’re really invested in a certain field of knowledge, there is occasionally a work of criticism that you’re genuinely excited to pick up—wow, what is x going to say about y? There are even genres related to criticism that anyone might read for fun, such as biographies or memoirs of literary figures, fictionalizations of their lives, or literary responses to famous works, such as Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres. Still, latter categories aside, I read criticism and theory only when I’m preparing to teach or write about related material—that is, only the stuff I need, and only during hours designated for work. Maybe I’m lazy, but I’m guessing even the nerdiest English professors find most books of literary scholarship less than fun to read, even when they’re competent, clear, and informative.

When I read advice essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how academics can learn to prioritize their writing, I think of this Saturday afternoon dilemma. There’s a reason people can’t get the writing done, and it’s not just how distracted we are these days or the perennial difficulty of plunging into demanding projects. I mean no disrespect to the work itself or what we learn by writing it. It’s incredibly hard to produce competent, clear, and informative literary criticism—painstaking work demanding one’s full intelligence and art. Then editors and peer reviewers inform you how much painstaking revision you have to do. Then it takes forever to get published. The whole enterprise is heroic. The problem is that even when these heroic feats are successful, almost no one wants to read the stuff.

There are reasons to write criticism anyway. Bits of the process can be fun. I like reading closely, putting sentences together, and, of course, getting some rare words of praise or a merit raise. Sometimes, too, a literary argument feels truly important, even field-changing; I want to write it and some people will need to read it. Mostly, though, while it involves a brutal amount of labor, finally submitting the ring to Mount Doom doesn’t change anyone’s life much. Deep down, most of us are too sensible to believe that writing literary criticism is the most important thing I could be doing with my short life. So we fritter away time we could spend on writing it—the hours we don’t have to spend on job requirements or supervising a child’s science project or buying groceries—by helping students, baking muffins, posting birthday messages on social media, reading that bad mystery, drafting blog posts. In short, we focus on what does feel important or fun.

I’m committing this particular bit of frittering because I said something too flippant in a department meeting Friday. Deep down, I intoned, leaning across the table with an expression of existential despair, I think scholarly writing is a mug’s game. Perhaps I’m exaggerating my performance a little, but I said those words. Later, I thought, “Gee, maybe that wasn’t such a constructive remark for a senior person to level at a roomful of other English professors at various career stages.” There used to be voting members of the department who had published more scholarly monographs than I, but they keep moving to places like Alaska and the dean’s office, so I have become shockingly senior, a sort of middle-aged tree left standing in a forest recently attacked by the lumberjacks of fate. My eccentric pronouncements might therefore be demoralizing, or even alarming, to colleagues who know I’m currently teaching research writing in a gateway course for English majors and may, in fact, evaluate their own promotion files.

It’s not that I have lost faith in the profession. It’s important to learn how to ground arguments in textual detail, find out what others have written on related subjects, and document how your thesis modifies the existing conversation. I’m beyond grateful when a smart article helps me understand a great poem better, and when good notes allow me to follow another scholar’s tracks. Undergraduate English majors and advanced degree programs should require the skills good scholars practice.

I just think what counts as good scholarship is appallingly narrow, and sometimes we make ourselves miserable trying to follow professional scripts that were ill-conceived in the first place. For the PhD and for promotion at most institutions, sure, you write what they tell you to write, and possibly you resent it, but if you do snatch up that holy grail of tenure at an institution where you can bear to remain, you should ask yourself what is the best way to spend my talents now? And there are myriad good answers, including I’m not going to kill myself anymore to accomplish quests that only a small group of people appreciate unless I’m having a seriously good time on the way. I know that I need to write pretty constantly. I love writing poems so much I would keep at it even if I never had any audience at all. For me, though, the pleasures of generating well-researched prose are mixed with quite a bit of pain, so I’m becoming more focused on outcomes as I choose projects–not the money I’ll earn (again, ha!), but will this project really matter, and to whom?  

Right now I do feel sure about what I’m writing. I’ve changed the subtitle of this web site to match my book in progress, which is critical and theoretical but also narrative—what Joyce Carol Oates just called bibliomemoir in a review for the New York times. Taking Poetry Personally addresses how and why we read twenty-first-century poetry. It’s a crossover project, meant to interest general as well as specialist audiences–to expand poetry’s audiences, in fact, by drawing attention to poems I love. Each chapter is keyed to a single poem reprinted in full, so it will be a sort of anthology, too.

I find these chapters insanely demanding to research and write because I’m doing all the scholarly legwork and then hiding it (maybe the endnotes will disappear entirely in later versions, though I’m keeping them for the moment). But it’s the most important work I can think of to do right now. Since I’m tenured and otherwise credentialed, and I’m part of the gloriously open-ended and generalist-valuing enterprise that is liberal arts education, why should I do anything else? I retain huge respect for good scholarship in conventional modes and the dedication it takes to produce it. But I’ve rounded the turn now into the second half of my time on the planet, and writing in a respectable, professorial way for tiny audiences just seems too low-stakes. Most days, when it comes down to it, I’d rather bake muffins.