The OF Blog: The Perpetual Decline and Fall of Literary Criticism

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Perpetual Decline and Fall of Literary Criticism

Almost eighteen years ago, I enrolled in what proved to be the toughest course in my graduate studies at the University of Tennessee:  History 510:  Foundations of Graduate Study in History.  I was barely twenty-two then and perhaps more immature than that; I was the youngest MA candidate that semester.  This course focused on epistemological and methodological approaches to history, an area that interested me in some places, but in others I was not ready to devote the contemplation necessary to get superior grades on my essays and presentations.  I passed, but it was the only history course that I made lower than a B, at a C+.  I still remember thinking then about why was it so important to be "serious" all the time about a field that at its heart was the telling of a story to another person about something that may or may not have happened in the past.

Now that I am older, I find such subjects much more interesting.  The mechanics of how historia (the root word is applied in many European languages to both fiction and non-fiction accounts) works, how ideas are disseminated from person to person, culture to culture over time and space, this now appeals to me after years' experience as a secondary and community college instructor.  There is delight to be found in dissecting a writer's prose, unearthing some portentous element that may be key to understanding the import of what was read or heard.  However, this quest for greater textual understanding is not an universal one; many would prefer to take it in as it is and process it as they may.

This issue of delving into a subject is germane to an interesting set of articles written over the past six weeks.  The first, published back in June on The Guardian's online site, is by Mark Thwaite.  Entitled "What Became of Literary Blogging?",  it is a wistful account of how online literary criticism/reviewing has changed over the past decade.  Some of Thwaite's points resonate with me; I began blogging nearly ten years ago and have seen a sea-change in content and reader interactions with what I write for this blog and elsewhere.  Yet there is an underlying attitude in his article with which I disagree.

Thwaite talks about his desire over the years for there to be more "serious literature" discussion in the newer online venues.  This has stirred up some reaction, as taken at face value, especially considering there seems to be a desire to move away from various literary genres that are covered extensively online, there appears to be an overly-narrow definition of what "serious literature" denotes.  However, I do not have a problem with this, per se, as Thwaite goes on to clarify by what he means by "serious literature":  works that engage readers who want works that challenge readers and do not fall within the confines of more "comfy lit."  He lists several writers that are not household names or are up for various lit prizes, but nonetheless command the respect of those relatively few readers who like fictions that allow them to delve further into its innards. 

Yet in bemoaning the relative failure of the online reviewing/literary criticism world to produce the equivalents of an H.L. Mencken or Edmund Wilson, to name just two important 20th century American critics, Thwaite appears to fall into a trap that has bedeviled generations of literary critics.  As media shift and popular habits change accordingly, there are often those who complain about the current state of affairs and compare it to some perceived "golden age."  It happened in the 18th century with the rise of literacy rates and the emergence of the novel as the preferred form for literary discourse.  It happened in the 19th century with mass publication of newspapers and serial stories containing works by the likes of Dickens or Dumas.  Same holds true in the 20th century and the clash between Edwardian-influenced critics and the nascent Modernists.  Still happening today in the 21st century with the shift away from print and toward a mixed multimedia approach to covering literature.

As the media for delivering literary content has changed, so have the approaches toward discussing it.  Two centuries ago, it would be difficult for there to be substantive literary criticism if it weren't recorded in manuscript letters or printed in a broadsheet.  Even thirty years ago, the primary means of communicating one's opinion was either by managing to get a column in a local newspaper or by word-of-mouth.  Yet today, almost anyone can start a blog and write about literature...and other ancillary matters.  Thwaite does note this change and for him, it is a disappointing one, as there is a palpable sense of disappointment that the internet age did not mark a new golden age of literary criticism.  There is something to this, of course.  When I began this blog in August 2004, I focused primarily on genre fictions and I would write about 1-2 reviews/week and the rest of the time I would write reaction pieces to another's column (like I am today) or provide book cover art or anything else of vague interest to myself or potential readers.  I am capable of writing several thousand words on a particular book or subject; I have several dozen reviews that go past two thousand words and address theme and context.

However, such pieces are relatively rare for me, not because I can't write them nor because I am bored with them, but because of a conscious decision that when I write reviews, that I shall endeavor to have those pieces be between 750 and 1200 words, or roughly the space of a full-page newspaper review column.  This space constraint influences the type of review I write, as I usually opt for a hybrid impression and analysis piece that purposely leaves some elements only hinted at in order to pique reader interest.  I do this because I have noticed that when I go over 8-10 paragraphs, readers in the past seemed to have skimmed over what I said and missed the point of several arguments that I raised.  This is not a condemnation, merely an acknowledgement of certain trends.

Therefore, it is likely that many literary critics have altered their approaches to covering topics in order to suit better the desires of their audiences.  Certainly, as Thwaite notes, the rise of social media has had an impact on how reviewers approach discussing the works they have read.  He laments the lost potential of the online medium for an "army" of literary critics writing substantive pieces and to a degree, I sympathize with him.  Yet I do not find myself caught up too much in the rhetoric about whether or not these shifts should be praised or mourned.  The larger question is whether or not there is a conducive environment for discussing works and that I believe does exist, albeit with a few caveats for the style of discourse one might prefer.

Related to Thwaite's article are two recent pieces.  One is written by Kelly Jensen over at Stacked, called "The Three C's of the Changing Book Blogging World."  In it, she discusses these changes from a different perspective than the one Thwaite provides.  Yet she too wonders where the energy has departed, as many promising new voices have abandoned book discussion for one reason or another.  The other was written earlier this week over at Biblibio, entitled "Where is Literary Criticism?  Everywhere."  It was reading this latter article that made me aware of the Thwaite and Jensen pieces and I want to note that I sympathize with the attitude expressed in the title.  She notes a few commonalities between the Thwaite and Jensen pieces when it comes to questioning where has "literary criticism" gone and goes on to critique the flaws in their analyses.  In particular, she notes that in the maze of book-oriented blogs, it can be very easy to miss those who do not focus on one particular genre or approach to reviewing.  This blog certainly could be viewed as an example of such, although I believe that this is further distilled by two other sites I co-manage, Gogol's Overcoat and World War I Literature, Art, and Cinema (the latter just in its infancy stage and lacking a deep corpus of essays and reviews).   Each of the three contains different points of emphasis:  a formerly SF/F-oriented blog; a two-person blog for longer reviews of non-SF/F fiction and occasional history; a specific historical/historical fiction site that eventually will contain essays that will run thousands of words and be closest to what Thwaite discusses, albeit oriented more toward those who have a background in history, specifically World War I cultural history.

I mention these three sites not to drive traffic to them, but to note that each has their own specific function and that in a literary world populated with tens of thousands, if not greater, voices, that it can be more difficult to find exactly what one desires when the ideal of "literary criticism" is considered.  Yet these places where "serious literature" is discussed in-depth do exist, in greater numbers than those now-bygone days of when newspaper book reviews and the Smart Set ruled literary discourse.  They just now are but one set of voices in a noisy literary bazaar.  The near-anarchy of this couldn't suit literary discussion any better.

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