What Literary Critics Actually Do


Over on Letters from a Broad, there’s a discussion about individual tastes in literature, and how to think about things when personal tastes violate the received wisdom and authority of experts in literature--people with PhDs. The discussion really upset me, not because anyone said anything particularly insulting or offensive--on the contrary, many comments were quite astute--but because it made me confront, more forcefully than anything has for a long time, that most people don’t understand in the slightest what I do. They don’t understand academia in the humanities; they don’t understand the way literary scholars approach the study of literature; they don’t understand the way literature is taught or the rationale for it.

It’s not like this is necessarily anybody's fault; relatively few people get PhDs in English, so why should the rest of the world understand what it’s like to do that? The grueling hours involved in being a grad student and teaching freshman comp (which is the primary way graduate studies in English are funded), the sheer drudgery of grading paper after paper (many of which are heartbreakingly bad), aren’t the least bit glamorous, so you can’t blame people for not wanting to hear more about the whole business. And in order to get a PhD, you have to study something in such depth that sometimes you can’t even explain easily your specialty to grad students focusing on other periods or genres of literature.

And it’s also not like I ever really forget this; I am reminded every time I’ve mentioned to someone over the past few years that I’m not really happy in my current situation and would like to find another. “Have you considered applying to this really cool college in this really cool area?” they sometimes ask me. “You should send in your resume.”

But an academic doesn't have a resume; she has a curriculum vitae. And you don’t simply send it to any institution you’d like to work at, because it won’t do you any good: colleges and universities don’t just hire English professors; they hire specialists, to do specialized jobs, and they do it at specific times, when they have a specific need.

Furthermore, the job of an academic is not merely to pass on but to generate knowledge. It's not the job of English professors to tell students what the masterpieces are and how to recognize them, as was Chanson's assumption on Letters from a Broad. That hasn’t been the goal of literary studies for a long time; it wasn’t what happened when I started college in the early 80s. Instead, literary scholars broaden the scope of questions that can be asked about texts, both general and specific. In order to do that, you have to be trained in the types of questions that have been asked. Certainly that includes attention to criteria for excellence, but its also includes interrogating those criteria, not merely reiterating them.

Neither my undergraduate degree nor grad school involved going into classrooms and talking about “great books” and why they're great, which is an entire curriculum (not just a single course) that is increasingly rare in colleges and universities, although people like Allan Bloom are always arguing that we wrong to abandon this approach to literary studies. Certainly there was attention to the canon, to the foundational texts of English literature, and I personally am glad that I read every last word of The Canterbury Tales--in middle English, no less. But the fact of the matter is, I read that as an undergrad, and that’s where I think students should read things like that. I think it is irresponsible of undergraduate English departments to produce graduates who do not have a solid foundation of knowledge of English literature through its history, and one of my dissatisfactions with my current institution is that we do just that.

But students don’t merely read texts; they discuss them. It’s not enough to read Chaucer and Beowulf and a few representative texts tracing development in the novel in the 18th century. Partly because professors have to have a way of assessing how well students have read the texts and how sharp their analytical, verbal and creative (and here I am not talking about creative writing, but creating ideas) skills are, students must write papers. And to do that, undergrads must learn the art of critical analysis and literary scholarship, which is also what you do in grad school, only in more specialized terms.

If I hadn’t already known how to write papers and analyze texts when I got into grad school, I wouldn’t have A) gotten in or B) succeeded once I got there. I admit I didn’t like my PhD program in a lot of ways, but I am figuring out that that might have had a lot to do with the particular time I went to grad school: the 90s, the heyday of theory. I hate Barthes and Judith Butler and dear god, I can’t believe I had to read Althusser’s dreadful piece on ideological state apparatuses THREE FUCKING TIMES! I don’t remember a single goddamn thing from it, which to me is a sure sign that it lacked substance and import, because I generally have an excellent memory, especially for things I've read.

As an aside: what I really remember about Althusser is this anecdote from his autobiography (which I also read--it was written to explain why he murdered his wife--short answer: she wanted him to) about how he stuffed bread in his ears when he was institutionalized as a young man, because the mental hospital he was in was so noisy. Then the bread got moldy, and caused him great pain, but he’d stuffed it in too deeply to fish it out. And because he was sort of crazy, the doctors didn’t believe him when he said, “I’ve got moldy bread in my ears and I can’t get it out, but it really, really hurts.”

But I digress.

The larger point is this: to get a PhD in English you must (ideally)
1. Be a reasonably competent (but not a great) writer. True eloquence is not necessary; the ability to produce comprehensible prose should be.
2. Understand the criteria by which literature has historically been judged, and understand as well the ways those criteria have been challenged and changed.
3. Have a sophisticated understanding of the questions that have already been asked about specific texts and the larger endeavor of literary studies, so that you can then ask sophisticated questions yourself. This means reading not only literature, but criticism, and producing criticism yourself.
4. Have an area of expertise, something you study in depth. Thus, in addition to knowing enough about the canon of English literature that you can chat about it at cocktail parties, you must know a decent amount about the canon or foundational texts of your own genre. Not everyone who studies literature needs to read the Confessions of St. Augustine, but I do, because my area of specialty is nonfiction, and The Confessions constitute one of the earliest and most important texts in the history of autobiography. The same goes for Rousseau (who also called his autobiography his Confessions) or Montaigne (who invented the essay, when he began to make “attempts” or “essays” in writing to understand his life, his mind and his times back in 16th century France).

This is long enough for today; I’ll continue it later.


Just to clarify, of course I understood that English professors are expected to do research, which involves having an area of specialization and generating new ideas. The same is true in any academic discipline. My point of confusion was whether this research entails deciding which works deserve to be canonized as great works.

Chanson--I hope I've made it clear that that's not really part of what they do as research. They might do it as part of service to the profession, maybe, if they're asked to serve on the committees awarding Pulitzer or Nobel or other prizes--but darn few people make those individual decisions. Canonization involves this elaborate system of getting published in the first place, plus reviews, sales, etc. And I don't really think literary scholars are the most important part of that system.

Think of it in terms of how movies are evaluated and discussed (aside from how they are funded and produced in the first place): it's the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, not a group of professors, that makes the REALLY important award for Best Picture or Best Actress. Whereas film scholars might not be the least bit interested in what's the "best" movie, but very interested in how women are depicted in movies, or what point of view audiences are asked to identify with, or when actors of Asian descent were first cast in Asian roles (instead of what happened in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," where we see Andy Rooney with a set of fake teeth and a really bad fake accent).

And I still wonder why, if you understand what academics do, you would assume that how English professors teach is so different. The fact that Newton has been canonized as a saint of science doesn't mean that you sit around in a physics class and talk primarily about how smart he was; you deal with the implications of his ideas for US and what we know and want to know today. A physics curriculum would acquaint students with the ideas of Newton, but wouldn't expect students to accept all his ideas as valid; there would be discussion, I would hope, of how he got things wrong, how his work was inadequate, how it was shaped by his own subjectivity and the subjectivity of the time at which he was working (revealing the lie that science is REALLY objective) as well as the limits of what people knew and believed about how the world works. The point could be made that he's worth studying for his mistakes, because they presented the areas subsequent physicists had to explore.

Is it really that hard to imagine that something similar goes on in a literature curriculum?

Re: And I still wonder why, if you understand what academics do, you would assume that how English professors teach is so different.

It's just that in novice-level classes in Jr. High, High School, and even college, the textual analysis naturally has a sense of "let's understand what makes this work exceptional and great," and past that I'd never really spent any time thinking about what research papers in literature would entail. But I'm happy to have misconceptions cleared up. :D

Chanson--OK, that explanation certainly makes sense. But keep in mind that you went to college at a fairly, uh, traditional institution :-), and that the way even basic gen ed courses in lit were taught there might not be the way they're taught elsewhere.

I found your post very interesting. It's a nice insider's view to what is required of an academic. I started out majoring in English but, to be honest, I couldn't hack it. I'm a great technical writer, but I had a hard time with doing some of the critical analysis of the reading. Journalism was a much better fit for me. :)

And side note: I've been increasingly discouraged in the past few years by the state of our nation's writing. As an adjunct professor in a master's level marketing class, I told my students that writing was critical to their success in my class - and to their success in the future. I was honestly appalled by their writing. From the article reviews to the marketing evaluations, punctuation, grammar, and plain old sentence composition were nonexistent. Sad.

Hi LG--It was the other way around for me: I tried taking journalism classes in college--my big sister majored in journalism--but it just wasn't for me. I didn't like being wedded to the inverted pyramid, though I did love the AP style book, and I do think journalism taught me some very useful things about clarity and audience--thinking about what it is people will actually know and what they need to know in order to make sense of what you're telling them now, whether your article will make them say "Ah!" or "Huh?"

I try to pass that on to my students, but you're right: people's writing skills often really SUCK. I blame the computer for this in some ways--not that I think they're evil or anything, but they don't require you to become an editor of your own work the way you had to with a typewriter. When you wrote a paper on a typewriter, you'd write the first draft, and then you'd have to retype it. This taught you to READ your stuff, read it and see if it made sense. Reading something on a computer screen just is not the same.

True story: this past semester I've been working with a really bright young woman on her thesis. it ended up being excellent, but there was a time when I was worried things might not go so well.... And part of the problem was basic proofreading. I asked if she was printing out a draft every so often and reading it on the page, or if she was just revising on the screen. I already knew the answer; I could tell by the quality of the writing that she didn't read her own drafts. When she admitted as much, I said, "You know me: I'm all about not wasting paper. But you've GOT to look at your stuff on the page from time to time. And you've also got to find a way to make yourself SEE IT, defamiliarize it, so you don't just skim over what you know is there. So here's what I want you to do: change it into a font you never use, then print out a copy, and read it, word for word."

Weeks went by.... Content improved.... proofreading did not. And then one Saturday night I got an email saying,

Dear Dr. Holly:

I did what you suggested and printed it my thesis in a different font and found a TON of grammatical errors and silly mistakes. So, I will have all of the revisions taken care of and am making further revisions tonight on some parts of content and analysis. I apologize for not doing this before and not sending you a much cleaner copy.

And when I met with her, she acknowledged that she thought the idea was stupid when I first told her about it, and was amazed at both how much it revealed about her writing, and how unable she was to see certain things about it unless she resorted to a trick like that.

If, just for fun, you want to see some truly dreadful writing, check out this thing on the Power Ness of the Adam Bomb.

I'm having a hard time understanding the original post, its comments and this post.

I admit that I may not have fully understood the arguments.

I believe it is valid to question the background of professors, critics, authors and publishers and how that background influences what texts are studied. This has obviously changed in the past fifty years.

I would argue that there was a time when some of these "alternative" perspectives were routinely excluded from the classroom. I am not suggesting that a professor (or PhD candidate) needs to have the same background of the author, professor or critic to appreciate and study their work.

I just find myself becoming sad when I see an English department (like the one at my alma mater) where the professors are a majority of white men over 50. At what point does a person say, well, they were the most qualified, intelligent people in their specialities and therefore the best professors? (I would give more specific examples of the department and the inner workings if necessary, it was a complicated situation - as most politics within academia are).

Patriarchy (particularly in regards to what is studied and who make up the majority of professors) is difficult to label and to fully understand. I don't think we're in a system like the one we were in a hundred years ago. But I believe that we still need to work to have a diverse group of texts that are studied, questioned AND a diverse group of critics/professors who study them. I mean diversity not only in English Departments, but also in all aspects of our society (from politics, to business, to factories).

I'm not suggesting that anyone was debating this.

And I can agree to disagree. But when I think of the canon, and some texts, I think it's valid to question whether or not that text should be studied or included. And I also think it's valid to question the background of some of the reviewers.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on May 9, 2008 8:29 AM.

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