Deconstructing the Professors

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All right, so tenured radicals in academe have turned English departments into ideological hothouses for the growth of literary theory. That’s yesterday’s news. The question for today is: Have the resulting sunbursts of theory nevertheless lit up the landscape for the humble souls at work trying to create literature? Have writers found the critics’ revelations about the hidden influence of class, race, and gender, all the exquisitely nuanced insights into the literary enterprise, helpful?

The overwhelming answer is not at all, to judge from a symposium on "The Situation of American Writing 1999" in American Literary History (Summer 1999). Of the 26 novelists, poets, and other writers canvassed by the journal, only three give today’s academic critics anything like an unqualified "thumbs up."

"Literary theorists are creating their own kind of creative writing and no longer producing literary criticism to explain or translate traditional literary efforts. Good on them!" declares Michael Martone, author of Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List: Indiana Stories (1993).

Samuel R. Delany, a black, gay writer of science fiction whose 22-page response to the editor’s questions takes up one-sixth of the whole symposium, says that, being a critic as well as a fiction writer, "I have all the sympathy in the world for critics. (Do I have something important to say? I should hope so.)" He calls for "much more scholarly consideration of contemporary writing—preferably passionately felt."

The third yea-sayer is feminist Gail Godwin, author of Evensong (1999) and other novels. "Yes, academic critics have something important to say to me. I often read criticism to get fresh orientation." The criticism she reads, however, is apparently not of the more theory-ridden variety. She credits Richard Poirier’s Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (1987), George Steiner’s Real Presences (1989), and Caroline Walker Bynum’s Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (1984) with having recently inspired her. She also "treasure[s] the three book-length studies of my work to date." Godwin, too, would like scholarly critics to give more attention to contemporary fiction. But she also urges them to be prepared to defend "important literary works" from assaults in the name of "current academic ideologies and current standards of political correctness." The other 23 symposium contributors, however, have few kind words about academic criticism today. "None of the theorists ever said one thing that mattered to me or to any of the writers I know and admire," comments Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W. D. Snodgrass, whose most recent book is After-Images (1999).

Contemporary criticism, according to the stern indictment delivered by William Gass, author of The Tunnel (1996) and Omensetter’s Luck: A Novel (1966), and an emeritus professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, "has fallen into the clutches of obfuscating ideologues who have no feeling for literary quality, who write only for one another, who are partisan in all the wrong ways and ignorant of what is going on in contemporary literature as a developing art. Philosophically, many of these critics are scandalously careless of evidence, incapable of clarity, eloquence, or rigor.... Most writers and most philosophers have nothing but contempt for these ‘movements.’" Annie Dillard, author of For the Time Being (1999) and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), agrees. "Academic criticism has lost all usefulness to literature; it sees writers as mere unconscious spokespeople for their races, classes, and genders," she says. "The New Criticism [of the 1940s and ’50s] focused on close readings of texts, and as such gave writers heart. Academic criticism today abandons literature as elitist in very concept; it has become mere sociology." However, she anticipates that "this abuse will stop soon. It’s a dead end." "For the whole of my career," writes novelist Madison Smartt Bell, author of Doctor Sleep (1992) and Waiting for the End of the World (1985), "academic scholarship has abdicated its interest in contemporary literature in favor of myopic concentration on critical theory.... Right now, I can think of only three significant literary critics who are not [also] practitioners of the genre they criticize: Helen Vendler, Sven Birkerts, and Bruce Bawer... and the latter two built their careers outside the academy." Scholars should be taking the lead in "defining the shape of literary posterity," Bell observes. The absence of such criticism today poses "a real problem," in his view. "Consider the critical rescue and reconstruction of Faulkner’s reputation in the ’50s—could anything remotely similar happen now?"

In his introduction to the symposium, American Literary History editor Gordon Hutner seems somewhat pained by all the hostile responses. "It is unfortunate enough that writers have mostly turned away from what professors have to say, but this rejection is all the more regrettable for being based, as it often is, on 20-year-old perceptions about the academic tolerance for jargon, a conviction about the sterility of the academy for which, with a little bad faith, justification can always be found. Not even three of the 26 respondents have mentioned the scholarly turn to history, much less something called the New Historicism, or cultural studies. Nor do they seem to care much about the nuances in our various, frequently [heated] exchanges over multiculturalism and the canon."

Nevertheless, Hutner believes there is "richness to be found in continuing exchanges" between academic critics and writers. But Gass, for one, disagrees: "Academics are consumed by political issues they have made as petty as themselves. So I don’t at this time envision profitable exchanges between such scholars, such critics, and such writers."


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