Bring back plain English

Most literary criticism is don addressing don, in a style designed to exclude ordinary people

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Recently the Secret Author spent a relaxing night or two not browsing impressionably through John Guillory’s Professing Criticism (Chicago University Press).

Professor Guillory teaches at NYU and has written a stratospherically high-end book about the way in which the discipline known as “literary studies” has organised itself historically, whose chapter titles alone (“Monuments and Documents On the Object of Study in the Humanities”, for example) will give some idea of the issues at stake.

Professor G is reporting from a crisis — or rather two crises, each inextricably connected to the other. One of them is the economics-driven “crisis of the humanities” we hear so much about; the other is what he calls a “crisis of legitimation” among the people who teach literature.

Not only are cash-strapped university English departments losing staff and students like a gale-struck beech tree shedding leaves, but there is no real consensus about what dons should be teaching or how they ought to teach it.

The American critic, Merve Emre, has also been spending time with Guillory. The result was a late-January New Yorker piece under the arresting heading “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?” (a comparable title might be “Can Excrement in Woods be Associated with Bears?” or “Is Appearance on Vatican Balcony Proof of Pope’s Catholicism?”)

Emre doesn’t muck about, and her response to Guillory’s crisis-talk is notably hard-edged: “It is not clear that even the most robust justifications for literary study would be effective in the face of overwhelming socioeconomic pressures, the rise of new media and the decline of prose fiction as a genre of entertainment.”

With the collapse of hierarchies comes a terrible relativism

“No reader, Emre goes briskly on, “needs literary works interpreted for her, certainly not in the professionalised language of the literary scholar.” It is that reference to “professionalised language”, of course, that moves straight to the heart of English Studies’ dilemma.

To legitimise itself, as Guillory would put it, and to demonstrate that it did something ordinary readers and reviewers couldn’t, University English spent decades perfecting a language (and a bureaucracy) designed to protect its own interests. You can see it whenever an academic let loose on the TLS or the London Review of Books starts talking about “authentications” or “valorisations”, uses the word “ludic” or introduces the phrase “liminal spaces”.

You can also see it in the large number of academic works that are simply factitious — written reflexively, as a means of showing that the author can talk the talk rather than having anything new to say about the subject under discussion.

Yet, if most contemporary literary criticism is a matter of don addressing don, and in a style (and at a price) expressly designed to exclude ordinary people from the debate, then another, equally off-putting aspect of contemporary academe is its reluctance to pronounce a judgement about most of the cultural artefacts that come its way.

The canon, of course, has been under siege for decades, and with the collapse of hierarchies comes a terrible relativism. “Better,” the novelist Maureen Duffy declared half a century ago at a meeting of the Arts Council’s Literature Panel convened to discuss handing out grants to deserving authors, “is an elitist word.”

Most dons should never be let near the review pages of a newspaper

Hilarious, of course, and yet there are dozens of modern English dons, highly intelligent and trained for years at the public’s expense, who would think it somehow infra dig to suggest that the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize is not actually a very good writer and to provide a convincing explanation of why they think so.

It is an axiom that most English dons should never be let anywhere near the review pages of a newspaper or magazine: the average literary freelance will always give a much better idea of what the book under review is about and whether the reader ought to lay out £16.99 on it. But ought they be allowed anywhere else?

Emre ends her New Yorker piece with a bracing paragraph in which she opines that lit crit “as it is currently institutionalised in the university” may not be the place from which the journey towards a future in literary criticism starts. She adds, “Literary criticism may have to be de-professionalised before its practitioners will allow themselves to openly embrace aesthetic judgment or to speak in the voice of the lay reader.”

The sooner this happens the better.

By chance, the day before he wrote this piece, the Secret Author read a scintillating review of Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel in The Times — pithy, witty, judgmental (the book is rubbish, apparently) with not a “valorisation” or “liminal space” in sight. It was the work of Dr Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.

It is possible to teach English at a modern university and yet write intelligibly for a mass audience. The sooner English departments learn this lesson, the less precarious their future will be.

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