What Is Literary Criticism For?

Thirty years ago, it was common to pick up a newspaper or a magazine and read about high drama in university literature departments. Star professors were either master thinkers introducing new rigor and glamour into a tweedy profession gone stale, or theory-addled tenured radicals taking a hatchet to the masterpieces of Western culture.

These days, though, the news out of literature departments — and the humanities writ large — tends to be less about juicy faculty-lounge flame wars than about declining majors, shrinking budgets and the collapsing job market for Ph.D.s.

Enter another professor, with a big book that aims to shift the conversation. In 1993, John Guillory published “Cultural Capital,” a dense study of the then-raging canon wars that has become a stealth classic. Now, in a follow-up, “Professing Criticism,” he takes on an even bigger question: What is literary criticism — specifically, the kind of highly specialized, theoretically sophisticated textual readings generated by academic critics — really for?

Guillory’s answer (if it’s even an answer) is complex. But what literary criticism is not for, he argues, is what many of his colleagues think it is for: changing the world.

“When people read the book, I suspect they’re going to be upset,” he said in an interview. “They’re going to say, ‘You’re saying we don’t do anything, we accomplish nothing.’ That’s not what I’m saying.”

“Professing Criticism,” published last month by the University of Chicago Press, is no throaty defense of the Great Books in the manner of Harold Bloom. Readers seeking culture-war red meat will be disappointed. Still, it has stirred unusually wide response for an exhaustively researched, intricately argued book by an author largely unknown outside the academy.

There have been long, admiring reviews in The New Yorker and London Review of Books, as well as a more mixed one in Public Books, and (this being the 21st century) a full-blown fracas on Twitter.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, called it “truly a landmark work” that should be read across the humanities.

“Consider it a red alert, a cautionary tale, a fire bell in the night and an omen and admonition about how professionalization, specialization and bureaucratization can damage a field of study, even as it has benefited those with tenure,” Mintz wrote.

In an interview last month in a Brooklyn coffee shop, Guillory hardly seemed like an academic Paul Revere. Genial and slightly rumpled, he was also a far cry from stereotypical notions of the master critic, whether glowering in emo portraits à la Derrida or lobbing gleefully Zizekian outrage bombs.

Guillory’s style may be muted, but his message is blunt. He wants scholars to get real and acknowledge the field’s genuine strengths, which don’t necessarily lie in direct response to today’s political issues.

“We have this sense of urgency in the classroom: We’ve got to get in there and make our political points!” he said. “And that’s fine.”

“But the other things we are doing that we don’t even see we are doing are just as important,” he continued, “and have just as significant a political effect.”

Guillory, 70, grew up in New Orleans in a working-class Catholic family, and attended Jesuit schools. For a kid like him — “socially awkward, intellectually inclined, loves to read books, gay” — there were two options: professor or priest. “I would have made an unconvincing priest,” he said.

After college at Tulane, he enrolled in graduate school in English at Yale in 1974, when the tide of high theory was rising in the academy. The English department housed some of the last heirs of the midcentury New Critics, while the Belgian critic Paul de Man, a principal exponent of deconstruction, held court in comparative literature.

The era of high theory brought a dizzying and contentious parade of new approaches and isms, including deconstruction, Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, semiotics and reader-response theory. Guillory, who taught at Yale, Johns Hopkins and Harvard before arriving at New York University in 1999, gravitated toward a more sociological approach.

“Cultural Capital” was published in the thick of the so-called canon wars, which pitted traditionalist defenders of “Western civilization” against those who called for adding women, people of color and other excluded voices — if they didn’t want to blow up the canon entirely.

The cover of Guillory’s 1993 book “Cultural Capital” showed a protest banner hung across the façade of the main library at Columbia University in 1989, which added women authors to the building’s all-male lineup.Credit…The University of Chicago Press

His argument questioned the premises shared by both sides. The canon, he argued, wasn’t an impregnable monument, but an imaginary construct that had always been contested. And the big question wasn’t which groups were excluded or included, but the university’s role in the unequal creation and transmission of “cultural capital.”

“It threw a really interesting wrench into the whole canon debate,” said Michael Bérubé, a professor of English at Penn State and a former president of the Modern Language Association. The book’s arguments and detached tone weren’t universally appreciated, he noted, including by those who saw Guillory as dismissive of marginalized groups’ desires to see themselves in the canon. But 30 years later, Bérubé said, “it looks like a much more foundational text.”

And to some younger scholars who weren’t around for those canon wars, it also looks prophetic.

“It’s interesting to me how many of the governing assumptions of the canon wars have re-emerged, whether in calls to ‘decolonize’ the curriculum and various D.E.I. initiatives,” Merve Emre, an associate professor of English at the University of Oxford, said, referring to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Emre, who has written an introduction for a forthcoming 30th-anniversary edition of “Cultural Capital,” said the book remains “very useful for understanding both the possibilities and limits of those initiatives, and for placing them in a longer history.”

In “Professing Criticism,” Guillory does not posit some lost golden age of literary criticism, from which today’s scholars have fallen.

In the 19th century, critics commanded a wide audience in periodicals, creating their own authority as they wrote. But as the study of modern, vernacular literature (that is, not just the Greek and Latin classics) was institutionalized in the university, it defined itself against journalistic criticism, without clearly articulating a positive justification for itself.

In “Professing Criticism,” Guillory argues that as academic literary criticism has become marginalized, its claims for its political impact have become more and more “overstated.”Credit…The University of Chicago Press

The mid-20th century brought the rise of New Criticism, which emphasized the close readings of texts, which were seen as self-contained aesthetic objects, shorn of historical context. But by the 1960s, it was increasingly challenged by more politically inflected approaches, which saw everything as a “text,” and equated literary criticism with critique of society itself.

Criticism, Guillory writes, has long wanted “to wield an Archimedean lever,” and “move the world.”

And today, as academic literary criticism has become increasingly marginalized in the academy and distant from general readers, he writes, its claims for its own political potential have only become more and more “overstated.”

In recent years, some critics have looked for a way out of the cul-de-sac, by urging a shift away from debunking, deconstructing and unmasking to focus on the positive meanings and attachments that literary works provide.

But Guillory is sharply critical of this “postcritical” turn, which elevates and idealizes “lay reading,” he argues, while still leaving the role of professional criticisms unspecified.

In the long history of academic criticism, “professional reading defines itself over and against lay reading,” Guillory said. “I feel very strongly you have to have both things. But how do you make connections between the two?”

Some of Guillory’s readers have expressed frustration with the vagueness of his solutions. In a review in Public Books, Sarah Brouillette, a professor of English at Carleton University in Canada, criticized his “fatalist view of literary criticism’s absent future,” including the bleak job market.

Guillory, who devotes a chapter to graduate education, said the current system — tenure-track jobs for the few, poorly paid adjunct work for the many — is “exploitative,” but also deeply entrenched in the economics of the university.

As for literary study’s political effect, it is nestled within the broader sociological effects of higher education, he argues, and lies more in teaching than in research.

One of the crucial effects of higher education, according to Guillory, is the creation of “the professional profile” — the habits, attitudes, vocabulary and mores broadly shared by the professional-managerial class.

No matter what you study or where, he said, “you come out the other end and you belong to a college demographic, which is a real thing” — and an important component of the electorate.

Literary study “has a contribution to make” to that process, which happens “unintentionally and collectively in the university,” he said. But it can’t take most of the credit (or blame).

Which isn’t to say that academic writing has zero effect on the real world. Guillory cited the example of queer theory, whose concepts and vocabulary — like the philosopher Judith Butler’s ideas of gender and “performativity” — have entered popular discourse (and, recently, become the target of conservative activists).

But he also said the profession needs to face up to a broader reality: the declining cultural capital of literature in a wildly expanded media universe.

Not that he sees only gloom and doom. He’s encouraged by the growing ranks of younger scholars who straddle the line between academia and journalism, via magazines like the The Point and The Drift.

As for himself, Guillory retired from teaching last summer. That has left him more time for pleasure reading, if not exactly the unmediated “lay reading” exalted by his postcritical colleagues. “I’ll never find my way back to that paradisiacal, innocent state,” he said, laughing.

But he’s plugging holes in his education, and recently started “Tristram Shandy.”

“To be frank, I thought it was going to be boring,” he said of the novel, which consists almost entirely of digressions. “But it’s wonderful.”

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