(x-post from the Valve. For those wondering where Cerebus went, I note that my reading Wilde in my spare time has something to do having received Melmoth last week. More on that later.)
I’m reading literary biographer extraordinaire Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde and, as I always do with scholarly material, I hopped onto JSTOR to read reviews. (Were this another sort of post, I’d write something about why I feel the need to read reviews of every scholarly monograph I read. Were this another sort of post, I’d write about how frustrating it is to not be able to find any reviews of scholarly monographs until five years after they’ve been published. Were this another sort of post, I’d announce that our solution to this problem is host yet another book event, this time on Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. But this is not another sort of post.) As I was saying, I was sifting reviews of Oscar Wilde when I stumbled upon a review of Melissa Knox’s Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide. Its reputation seems to hinge on how the reviewer feels about vulgar Freudianism—recent concessions about literary Freudianism aside, I think my position on psychoanalysis sufficiently established—still, I’m baffled by the final sentence of John Stokes’ review:
A book as profoundly wrong-headed as this can never produce the right answer for the very reason that psychic processes are of their very nature over-determined, which is also why the debate about Wilde and syphilis will fester for a long while yet.
I understand that this is one of those rare cases in which literary interpretation can yield a correct answer—Oscar Wilde either (1) did or (2) did not contract syphilis—so the nod to “the right answer” is not throwing me here. Nor is it the pun on syphilitic discourse—although I wonder whether the question of Wilde carried what the English called morbus gallicus ("the French disease") and the French called la maladie anglaise ("the English disease") will fester in quite the same way its trademark pox will. What confuses me is that Stokes seems to identify as “profoundly wrong-headed” the very methodology he employed in judging it “profoundly wrong-headed.”
This oddity can be attributed to a problem with conventional academic reviews. Unlike popular arbiter-of-taste—who, if not a known quantity, borrows some cultural capital from the venue in which the review is published—no one assumes any academic reviewer is without methodological bias. There is no singular conception of quality to which an academic reviewer can pretend to measure a work against. Despite this, most academic reviews are written as if there were, the result being strange compressions like the one quoted above.
Obviously, this isn’t the only problem with academic reviews, and my annoyance is such that I may even start a series in which I complain and complain and complain ...