Academic critics missing a trick

Scholars risk being pushed out of literary criticism by those more outspoken. Matthew Reisz reports

March 25, 2010

Leading literary scholars gathered to "justify what they do", warning that academics are in danger of losing ownership of literary criticism to journalists and bloggers.

The conference last week on "The Good of Criticism: The Value of Literary Studies" was opened at the University of Reading by Stefan Collini, professor of English literature and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

He said that while literary scholars should not apologise for sometimes addressing a limited audience, they do have to make their case for public investment.

Professor Collini asked whether it is "better to defend ourselves as contributing to the tourist industry", by raising the international profile of the likes of Jane Austen, or, in more traditional terms, "as contributing to human understanding".

Ronan McDonald, senior lecturer in English and American literature at Reading, said academic critics have missed a trick by leaving the evaluation of literature to others.

While academics may avoid explicitly stating that one author is better than another, journalists and bloggers will not. "The love of quality dare not speak its name, though our syllabi are full of implicit value judgements," he said.

Dr McDonald also disputed the notion of an opposition between evaluative and political criticism. "Feminism and postcolonial studies have broadened our aesthetic as well as political sensibilities, opening our ears to new things," he said.

"But although the canon is now more open and fluid, it is still very much in place. We work on many of the same old writers but seldom ask why they are any good."

John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, described his experience of literary criticism outside academia.

A stint reviewing books from academic presses about the 18th century had left him "deeply depressed about the indiscipline of writing for a small community".

His television and national press work often proved far more cheering, he said, even if he sometimes had "an uneasy conscience about the things one has to skate over".

Although it was easy to be snobbish about book groups and festivals, he argued that they had "created a new appetite for the criticism and analysis of literature.

"They show that the business of criticising and enjoying a book can be compatible and indeed the same thing - something some academics and students seem to have forgotten."

It was left to Derek Attridge, professor of English at the University of York, to defend serious reading as "a form of willed passivity, where there is no way of knowing in advance what one has opened oneself up to".

This, he said, would always remain "quite unlike the scientific model of research".

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