Everyone's a Critic
The New Yorker|January 23, 2023
What are literary studies for?
By Merve Emre

Of the character sketches that the English satirist Samuel Butler wrote in the mid-seventeenth century—among them “A Degenerate Noble,” “A Huffing Courtier,” “A Small Poet,” and “A Romance Writer”—the most recognizable today is “A Modern Critic.” He is a contemptible creature: a tyrant, a pedant, a crackpot, and a snob; “a very ungentle Reader”; “a Corrector of the Press gratis”; “a Committee-Man in the Commonwealth of letters”; “a Mountebank, that is always quacking of the infirm and diseased Parts of Books.” He judges, and, if authors are to be believed, he judges poorly. He praises without discernment. He invents faults when he cannot find any. Beholden to no authority, obeying nothing but the mysterious stirrings of his heart and his mind, he hands out dunce caps and placards insolently and with more than a little glee. Authors may complain to their friends, but they have no recourse. The critic’s word is law.

Butler’s sketch would still strike a chord with aggrieved writers today, but, in his time, the Modern Critic—part mountebank, part magician—was a new phenomenon. The figure’s shape-shifting in the centuries since is the subject of John Guillory’s new book, “Professing Criticism” (Chicago), an erudite and occasionally biting series of essays on “the organization of literary study.” Guillory has spent much of his career explaining how works of literature are enjoyed, assessed, interpreted, and taught; he is best known for his landmark work, “Cultural Capital” (1993), which showed how literary evaluation draws authority from the institutions—principally universities—within which it is practiced. To suggest, for instance, that minor poets were superior to major ones, as T. S. Eliot did, or that the best modernist poetry was inferior to the best modernist prose, as Harold Bloom did, meant little unless these judgments could be made to stick—that is, unless there were mechanisms for transmitting these judgments to other readers. (Full disclosure: I have written an introduction to a forthcoming thirtieth-anniversary edition of the book.)

“Cultural Capital” emerged when literature departments were in the throes of the “canon wars.” These were curricular skirmishes fought between progressives, who wanted to “open the canon” to work by authors from marginalized groups, and conservatives, who feared that identity politics was being elevated over aesthetic value. Guillory’s insight was that these differences of opinion were, at root, almost secondary, less structural than cosmetic. Progressives and conservatives alike were participating in a system whose main function was the production of what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital”: the distinctive styles of speaking, writing, and reading that marked degree holders as members of the educated class. To be the kind of person who could translate the Iliad in 1880, or do a close reading of a poem in 1950, or “queer” a work in 2010, was to be manifestly the product of a university, and to reap economic and social rewards because of it. Any claim about what should be taught had to be seen in light of the academy’s institutional role. Whether one spoke of the Western canon (as Bloom did), the feminist canon (as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar did), or the African American canon (as Henry Louis Gates did), the idea of a literary canon was a form of cultural capital.

If “Cultural Capital” was a sociology of judgment, then “Professing Criticism” is a sociology of criticism, an argument about how, during the twentieth century, the practice evolved from a wide-ranging amateur pursuit, requiring no specialist training or qualifications, into a profession and a discipline housed within the academy. The book’s chapters take us on a strange journey, across a landscape haunted by ghosts: the bygone disciplines of philology, rhetoric, and belles-lettres; the half-glimpsed figures of the New Critics and the New York intellectuals; strident culture warriors past and present. Guillory chronicles it all with a certain Olympian detachment, a special acuity of vision that brings history into focus with painful clarity.

Professionalization, he argues, secured intellectual autonomy for criticism’s practitioners. They could produce knowledge about literature in a manner intelligible chiefly to others producing the same kind of knowledge—a project that became both increasingly specialized and increasingly justified by political concerns, such as race, gender, equality, and the environment. “This is a world in which some of us can specialize in the study of cultural artifacts, and within this category to specialize in literary artifacts, and within literature to specialize in English, and within English to specialize in Romanticism, and within this period to specialize in ecocriticism of Romantic poetry,” Guillory writes. The cost of this professional autonomy is influence. “How far beyond the classroom, or beyond the professional society of the teachers and scholars, does this effort reach?” he asks, knowing that the answer is: not far at all.

At the same time, the shifting economic order has made the cultural capital of literature less valuable in market terms. The professoriat has struggled to demonstrate a connection between the skills cultivated in literature classrooms and those required by the professional-managerial jobs that many students are destined for. (Writing the previous sentence, I was startled to recall, for the first time in years, the lyrics of the song “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?,” from the Broadway musical “Avenue Q”: “Four years of college and plenty of knowledge/Have earned me this useless degree./I can’t pay the bills yet,/’Cause I have no skills yet.”) As a result, literary study has contracted. State legislatures have slashed funding for the arts and humanities; administrators have merged or shut down departments; and the number of tenure-track jobs for graduate students has dwindled. Since the nineteen-sixties, the proportion of students pursuing degrees in English has dropped by more than half.

The result is a tale of two crises—the economically driven “crisis of the humanities” and what Guillory calls a “crisis of legitimation” among the professoriat. These crises have a troubling and obscure relation to each other. 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. Whatever the case may be, the hard truth is that no reader needs literary works interpreted for her, certainly not in the professionalized language of the literary scholar. Soon, Guillory writes, the knowledge and pleasure transmitted by literary criticism in the university may become “a luxury that can no longer be afforded.” When that future bears down on us—and, barring a miracle or a revolution, it is a matter of when, not if—how will we justify the practice of criticism?

“Professing Criticism” proceeds on the basis that, in order to decipher the present and to prepare for the future, one must first turn to the past. “The study of literature—in the premodern sense of any writing that has been preserved or valued—is very old, the oldest kind of organized study in Western history, excepting only rhetoric,” Guillory writes. But a distinct genre of writing called “criticism” first appeared in the late seventeenth century. The earliest critics were the descendants of the Renaissance humanists—editors and translators well-versed in the art and literature of antiquity, from which they derived the standards they used to judge modern works. Theirs was a “Science of Criticism,” Lewis Theobald, a fastidious editor of Shakespeare’s plays, declared in 1733. It consisted of three duties: “Emendation of corrupt Passages,” “Explanation of obscure and difficult ones,” and “Inquiry into the Beauties and Defects of Composition.” Emendation and explanation required the kind of intimate linguistic and historical knowledge that could be acquired only through extensive schooling. Inquiry, however, lay “open for every willing Undertaker,” Theobald wrote, “and I shall be pleas’d to see it the Employment of a masterly Pen.”

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