[X-posted to environs Valvular.]
Radiating delight, I read Caleb Crain‘s article on “Academic Criticism” in the new n+1. According to the prelude to “American Writing Today: A Symposium,” Crain’s article addresses “the conditions of production of new [academic criticism]; its character and traits; and the figures and creators who have most influenced each field” (63).
It didn’t; it didn’t; and it didn’t.
The article’s evident confusion may be the product of Crain (or the n+1 editors) deciding that “Academic Criticism” signals some particular body of work with addressable conditions of production, characters and traits, &c. It obviously does, only Crain doesn’t address that. He reduces it to the small and vanishing genre of single-author studies. To wit:
In the past few years I have become a fan—something I never dared in high school. In love with Belle & Sebastian, Ben Kweller, the Decemberists, and Sufjan Stevens, I have visited band websites and subscribed to band listservs. [More evidence of fandom.] I have learned about loseless file codecs in order to trade live shows. [Even more evidence of fandom.] I have listened to songs recorded by one of my beloveds before he came up with his distinctive sound—befoe he was any good, in fact—and I have treasured them because they are, after all, his. [Even more.] I have found obscure, probably unintentional parallels between the lyrics of one beloved’s songs and those of another and I have wondered about my beloveds’ personal lives and inspected their songs for hints of autobiography. If a love of mine sings a song of another musician, I buy that musician’s album too, and try to like it.
Last year, at the height of my madness, I realized what it resembled: academic literary criticism of a great author. There is the same impulse to collect and reluctance to judge. (76)
Crain describes a very particular—already tenured or likely untenurable—breed of “academic critic” as representative. Very few academics truly and uncritically love the work of the writers they study. (I, for one, am frequently astonished I worked through almost all of Jack London or Silas Weir Mitchell.) There are exceptions, and they have socities, edit coterie journals and hold yearly conferences; but they by no means dominate the field, and they are often considered too indulgent to take seriously. (The jealousy? Palpable.) But how many single-author studies were published last year? How many single-author dissertations written?
A chapter or an article may appear to be the product of an uncritical crush, in that it quotes letters, journal entries, and in the case of a Marianne Moore article I misplaced, grocery lists—if you’ve read Moore, you know their potential relevance—but it’s uncritical for reasons unrelated to why a Pogues fan struggles to appreciate the Nipple Erectors. (Not that much of a struggle, actually.) The uncritical fanboy has no intellectual investment in the fanboy “facts” he acquires. The scholar-squirrel acquires those facts for a reason.
Crain’s analog lacks a certain, I don’t know, analogousness.
But it does reveal why I find the piece so problematic. Crain believes appreciation the purpose of criticism, and that we do too, if only secretly:
I don’t see anything wrong with fandom. However, I could only call it a science in jest, and I don’t think I would ever become so confused as to think of it as morally worthy. Yet such claims were made for the academic study of literature in the course of the 20th century. To be sure, they were made after its origin in fandom was disgused by abstraction. (77)
There it is. Crain believes that literary professionals know that their true function is to teach “refinements in love” and help readers “meet new lovers” (ibid.). So to speak. We defraud with flatulent abstraction because we know “literature has nothing to do with science; it is a matter of taste” (ibid.).
I know Crain earned a Ph.D. from Columbia, and I’ve looked over the essays linked to from that page, so I know he knows that, as currently constituted, literature departments do not fail to cultivate taste so much as not consider it part of the charter. I think Crain confuses the purpose of the profession with the reasons people enter it. An undergraduate who loves to read becomes an English major, goes to graduate school and emerges someone with mastery of over a particular body of knowledge which he or she then applies (sometimes) to literature, the love of which compelled them to become an English major.
Even if I grant him the veracity of this account, his argument still stumbles over the fact that it is founded on innuendo. We all secretly want advanced degrees in Refinement and Cultivation Studies, but if we acknowledge that, the game will be up: “It’s not at all clear to me that the propogation of a taste for [literature] needs to be federally subsidized” (78).
That’s not clear to me, either; but then again, since that’s not what actually happens in English departments I don’t see it as a pressing concern.