The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"I did, however, gain useful insight into the nature of literary criticism: you need not make sense, add anything new to the body of human knowledge or spend much time researching a given topic to publish a monograph with a respectable publishing house."...  ... Mike Grayson.

Commentary of the Day - September 20, 2005:  The Rise of the Critic and the Death of the Teacher.  Guest commentary by Mike Grayson.

A few years ago, while researching Catch-22 for my Master's thesis on Joseph Heller, I came across a book promising "a new approach" to that seminal piece of postmodern American fiction.  The author of the critical study in question admits on the first page of his book that he had, in fact, "been entirely unfamiliar with the previous criticism" on Joseph Heller as he wrote the book, allowing him to "come to a different assessment of what Heller was doing…far from the interpretation of the herd, so to speak."  Needless to say, I was rather excited to have located a book that could potentially enlighten me as I sought to complete my thesis (and degree) in time to start work on my doctorate.

 On the second page, the author explains the rationale for his study: too many critics discussing Heller's fiction have been "listening to Heller," allowing the many interviews with the novelist to influence their research.

The author of Catch 22, I had forgotten, was dead.

Strangely, the critic paradoxically appends his Barthesian comment1 by justifying his reading of Heller's novel with a snippet from a letter the novelist sent him.  In the letter, Joseph Heller explains that he does not wish to discuss the "meanings and techniques of the novel," but that "the old adage that if you see something there, it probably is there" might serve as a useful guide for scholars researching Catch-22.

Indeed, if Heller's words are to be regarded as undeniable truths and the critic's study is accurate, Catch-22 is based on T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," James Joyce's Finnigans Wake, and The Gilgamesh Epic.

Of course, in his efforts to convince the reader that some very weak parallels existing between Catch-22 and these other works are, in fact, major critical oversights, the author of the study neglects to discuss the possibility that World War Two and Vietnam may have played some role in the novel's genesis.  True, these topics had been considered ad infinitum in many scholarly discussions of the novel, but their relevance at least added layers of meaning to the book.  When I finished reading this critic's book, however, I found myself with no greater understanding of Joseph Heller's fiction.

I did, however, gain useful insight into the nature of literary criticism: you need not make sense, add anything new to the body of human knowledge or spend much time researching a given topic to publish a monograph with a respectable publishing house.

During the year I spent researching and writing on Heller's fiction, I also encountered an anthology of critical essays on Heller edited by the mighty Harold Bloom of Yale University.  In his short introduction, Bloom calls Heller's novel a "Period Piece" destined to fade into irrelevance in a decade or so.
My second lesson in contemporary literary criticism: one need not actually respect a given work to write a book dealing with that work, and have it published by a major university press.

My third lesson in literary criticism came as I began editing a delightfully anachronistic academic journal called Stirrings Still: The International Journal of Existential Literature.  I was astonished to find that a single call for papers could stuff my university mailbox and email inbox with essay submissions.  What I found most interesting -- and ultimately, most sad -- was that scholars with Harvard or Oxford degrees would be willing to essentially donate their writing to a journal they had never read, seen cited, or even heard of previously.  In other words, people are so desperate to publish something that they literally give their work away to practically anyone.

This is what the academy has done to itself.  As the number of qualified candidates ballooned, the number of tenured professorships remained the same, leading academics in need of something other than a piece of vellum stamped with "Ph.D." to secure a job.  The replacement, of course, has become a sheet of eight-by-eleven paper stamped with "C.V." and listing as many publications as possible.

It seems to me that there was a period during which the majority of literary criticism was written by scholars wishing to share their love of a novel or a poem with as many people as they could.  Literary journals were basically ongoing conversations between true bibliophiles; and, the articles published in these forums were, by-and-large, reflective of the author's genuine enthusiasm.  Today, a significant chunk of literary criticism bears more than a passing resemblance to the comments made by a student hoping to get a good participation grade: what is said emerges more out of a desire to be noticed than out of a desire to communicate.  If there's no heart in writing, it tends to fall flat, sound hollow, induce yawns.

To be sure, there are still a good many literary critics whose writing emerges out of the impulse to communicate, but the glut of "mark me present, please" criticism makes such work rather difficult to locate, giving some people the impression that critical writing is, by its very nature, dull and forced.

With the remarkable emphasis placed on publishing, we seem often to forget the students we teach.  The sad fact that an impressive publishing record is more important to hiring committees at many large research institutions than the ability to teach undergraduates only exacerbates the problem.  If the goal of most junior and adjunct faculty is to land a tenured position, teaching frequently figures somewhere below finding a parking space on many academics' list of priorities.  After all, why would teaching help you get a teaching job?

©2005 Erik M. Grayson.
Mike Grayson teaches English literature and composition in New York State, where he is currently working on a doctoral degree
1Many of The Irascible Professor's readers may be unfamiliar with the French semiotician Roland Barthes but they can get a feel for his convoluted approach to the analysis of writing from this little spoof.

The IP comments: The IP has long been puzzled by the ramblings of the post-modernist school of literary criticism.  But Mike Grayson has made it all very clear.  There isn't much there there.

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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