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On Loving Literature

ISSUE:  Winter 2015

Loving Literature: A Cultural History. By Deidre Shauna Lynch. University of Chicago Press, 2014. 352p. HB, $40.First, a distinction. When I employ the term academic in what follows, I will not mean the first definition, the technical one: individuals who teach college students. I will mean the second definition, the sullied one: individuals for whom the academy is not a place to work but a way to think, those priests and priestesses of palaver for whom literature is never quite okay as it is, and to whom literature begs to be gussied up in silkier robes. These are politicizers who marshal literature in the name of an ideological agenda, who deface great books and rather prefer bad books because they bolster grievances born of their epidermis or gender or sexuality, or of the nation’s economy, or of cultural history, or of whatever manner of apprehension is currently in vogue. You might think of the distinction as one between those for whom the academy is a meaningful paycheck and those for whom it is a meaningless principle—teaching at a university does not ipso facto transform one into an academic. The distinction remains a crucial one, a distinction defined by much more than mere differences, because there are thousands inside the academy whose souls have not been spoiled by it—untold English professors who can write with clarity and speak with passion, who don’t conflate art with personal identity, or aesthetics with politics, and who every semester impart their love of beauty and wisdom to students savagely in need of it.

Now, let’s talk about love. Deidre Shauna Lynch, the Chancellor Jackman Professor of English at the University of Toronto, has just published a book titled Loving Literature: A Cultural History. To canvass the history of this concept called literary love, the book winds its tortured and tortuous way through that important British cultural chunk between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Lynch wishes to uncover “how it has come to be that those of us for whom English is a line of work are also called upon to love literature and to ensure that others do so too.” Except I’m not certain that anyone is really calling upon academics to love the subject they study—the point is that they seem categorically incapable of such love, and so they are being pitied for so ardently missing the point of literature. For Lynch, it’s unfortunate that we have “this tendency to identify literary studies with the love of the subject and to identify that love with amateurs not yet subjected to the affective deformation that supposedly comes with formal education.” She uses “amateur” in the literal sense and not the derogatory one, and by the awkward phrase “affective deformation” she means, I think, theory’s habit of grabbing hold of students and smacking from their pretty hearts their love for the beauty and wisdom of literature.

Lynch dislikes that academics “must make their peace with the fact that viewed from the outside their work does not look like work,” but this again misses how academics are perceived by those sensible enough to dwell outside their ranks: The problem is precisely that their work looks too much like work—onerous, meticulous, pointless, jargon-soaked work without application either to literature or to living. “My experience,” writes Lynch, “does not suggest to me that the personal is repressed when departments of English go about their ostensibly clinical official business.” Very glad to have her word that her own experience refutes our perception of English departments—although that term “suggest” seems rather unsure of itself, does it not?—but the rest of us have had our own experiences of reading what those English departments produce. We have the fruits of those experiences, and the fruits are rotten: unreadable prose and classes with incomprehensible names. Also: Think twice about any writer who doesn’t mind using the term “business” when referring to “literature.” (Lynch’s previous book has the mind-warping title The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning.)

Seemingly displeased with the conception of literature as having the rare ability to enlarge our understanding of ourselves and others, Lynch has this to say: “We don’t treat literature as a thing but as a person: lovers of literature construct the aesthetic relation as though it put them in the presence of other people and with the understanding that the ethical relations so conjured must not be instrumentalized.” Good luck parsing whatever that last part is supposed to mean, but clearly she prefers to treat literature as a “thing” and not as a “person,” and one wishes that academics would do just that, because it would be an immense improvement over what they actually do, which is to treat literature neither as a thing nor a person but rather as a frog splayed and pinned to a table. They then dispose of the frog’s innards and insert a tract for their own ideological purposes, a tract that has little or nothing to do with how that poor frog croaked its song in life.

Here is Lynch’s version of the always-modish platitude that says love is complicated: “[T]he phrase ‘the love of literature’ gets used as though its meaning were transparent and as if the structure of feeling that it designated were wholly healthy and happy. It is as though those on the side of the love of literature had forgotten what literary texts themselves say about love’s edginess and complexities.” Never mind what she could possibly mean by “the structure of feeling,” and never mind, too, that love is edgy and complex only for those unwilling to give wholly and freely of themselves; instead beware of anyone who refers to imaginative literature as a “text,” because before long she’ll be referring to you, dear reader, as an “organism.”

If you’re looking to trace the more recent history of how the English department came to be known as a bastion of muddled thinking, you might begin with those two paladins of post-structuralist theory, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Their deconstructionist shenanigans, their absurd and absurdist skepticism, posited that language doesn’t really mean what it says, that language must always be a puzzle pointing to other puzzles. The real puzzle was how anyone could have erected a theory upon a void, a theory that chose to ignore what lay on the page and focus instead on what wasn’t there. To deconstruct was to be deluded and then call those delusions conclusions. (Remembering Elias Canetti’s useful phrase “the smashers of language,” I’ve always thought that a better term to describe deconstruction would have been “pro-destruction.”) Theirs was a crusade to demonstrate the essential vacuity of sentences, but of course the only vacuity to be found was in their own obscurantist pages, language that assaulted everything you knew and admired about words. Deconstruction began as a breed of nihilism born of cultural despair and, it must be said, pure silliness, an inability to appreciate the aesthetic beauty and intimations of wisdom all good books have to offer.

No one, I hope, will dispute that language has its inadequacies, its organic shortcomings, but to have built tedious theories upon its wholesale contamination was to show how quickly casuistry leads to calamity. Derrida’s and de Man’s cynical rhetoric against meaning, against the significant struggle every good writer goes through in order to arrive at le mot juste, had a calamitous effect in English departments across the land from the 1970s to the 1990s. You could have spotted those darkening skies in the 1960s, the political perversion of literature in outfits such as the Modern Language Association (MLA)—Edmund Wilson tussled with the MLA in 1968 over their “unreadable articles”—and as far back as the 1930s and 1940s you could have found critics such as R. P. Blackmur and René Wellek warning against the folly of employing literature for ulterior purposes. 

Derrida’s and de Man’s was a vampiric campaign that sucked the lifeblood and beauty out of great books, and the damage from that campaign can still be seen today every time some tenure-track hopeful utters the word “iterability.” (You can always reply to that word with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s line from “A Defence of Poetry”: Literature “creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.”) Show me someone who can no longer recognize beauty and I’ll show you someone who has lost his faith not only in writing and reading and loving but in living, too. 

In his 1991 essay “The Academic Zoo,” Joseph Epstein commented that “the contemporary university is a place of deep conformity, despite its … appearance of being an Elysian Field in which the spirit is allowed to roam freely.” And in his 1954 comic novel of the academy, Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell got it right with a typically Jarrellian epigram: “The really damned not only like Hell, they feel loyal to it.” Part of that loyalty is a self-satisfied devotion to writing badly. Epstein speaks of “the vast amounts of hideous prose required to do the job” of the academic, and this is why it remains nonsensical to read academics on the topic of loving literature: not only because their mission is to usurp and debase great books, but because the thing that is lovable about literature is the very thing they are incapable of approximating, never mind replicating. 

How can one say with any surety that academics don’t sufficiently love literature, and why, per Lynch’s inquiry, does love even matter in literature? Nobody can tell for certain what moves in another’s heart, but any engaged reader can tell exactly what’s on the page, and the reason academics are indicted for having no love for literature is because their prose is incapable of giving pleasure. Pleasure is the test, not only for literature but for criticism too—pleasure en route to wisdom. Criticism that does not attempt creativity, that does not aspire to meet imaginative literature on equal footing in the manner of Walter Pater or Oscar Wilde, will fail both to register now and to be remembered later. In forsaking pleasure taken and pleasure given, academics have forsaken much indeed, including any claims they might make on love. They will never admit to taking no pleasure in literature, but don’t bother about that. The evidence is right there on the page—it always is. 

And as for why love should matter in the first place: When shouldn’t love matter? Lynch wants us to question our affection for the literature we love because she believes—so hard to tell in sentences you have to read twice even though it hurt quite enough to read them once—that affection can lead to deception, that love can disarm our critical faculty. She’d be right about that—witness the Harry Potter scrum—except that some critical faculties need all the disarming they can get. And the love we’re speaking of here is not a sentimental and uncritical affection for a particular author but a wider understanding and valuing of literature’s central place in our inner lives. Remember, too, the Socratic assertion that says excellence in love is a species of knowledge.

In a 1911 lecture at the University of Cambridge, A. E. Housman remarked that “the aim of literature is the production of pleasure,” and of course his conception of pleasure included not only aesthetic pleasure but the pleasure that derives from useful intimations of wisdom, from knowing ourselves and others a minim better than we did before sitting down with a novel or poem or play. (In that same lecture he also made sure to say that “large departments of literature are also departments of lying.”) With those words, Housman was paying homage to the Horatian prescription for literature, dulce et utile: sweet and useful. John Dryden believed the same: “Poesy only instructs as it delights.” For Horace as for Dryden, dulce without utile rendered literature impotent, and this prescription became codified throughout the Renaissance and endured mostly in good health until the contagion of French theory infected American academics in the middle of the twentieth century.

All English professors, alas, are not created equal. To have studied under Lionel Trilling or F. R. Leavis is not identical to having studied under an obscurantist, deconstructionist academic who believes in his middling spirit and mind that, say, Homer is harmful to the morale of those who proudly make a profession of being offended. Trilling crafted incisive, agile, memorable sentences that corresponded perfectly to the undulations and contours of his thinking. And while it’s true that in England Leavis exerted a mafioso’s control over English departments, marshaling literature to perform an ethical scrutiny—tell him what books you love and he’ll tell you your moral coordinates—it’s also true that his insights, relayed in that donnishly charismatic prose, are capable of increasing our pleasure in and understanding of novels and poems. Derrida and de Man, meanwhile, are capable only of pleasure-death through their glutinous obfuscations in prose so clotted with plaque it practically begs for a blood thinner.

You know that your spouse loves you because he or she demonstrates that love in deeds. And sentences are a writer’s deeds. To call a prose “academic” is one of the worst defamations you can possibly inflict upon it. And if you believe, as you should, that how one writes is the most accurate indication of how one thinks—“Writing is thinking in slow motion,” said Walter Kaufmann—then not only are academics not worth reading, but they are also not worth listening to in the lecture hall. Here’s Aldous Huxley writing on a bit of academic folderol he found in a textbook: “It is not only aesthetically disgusting; it is also completely untrue.” And there you have the Keatsian beauty/truth duet and also the reason all those postmodern theories of literature will never be valid—they’re ugly. 

Lynch’s academic sentences are not the most egregious you can find. They don’t quite sink to the inky depths of de Man or Derrida or their American progeny, all of whom call to mind William Hazlitt’s immortal barb against Jeremy Bentham: “His works have been translated into French—they ought to be translated into English.” Her prose relaxes, unknots itself slightly when considering Samuel Johnson’s contribution to this concept of literary love—those passages can be read without pain. 

But all too often you’ll be assailed by such shibboleths as historicize, canonicity, disciplinization, relationality, individuated, aggressivity, supererogatory, ethicalization, and verticality before you are mugged by talk of affective labor, gendered schema, sociably minded animism, the rhetorical orientation of a socially responsive and practical pedagogy, historical phenomenology of literariness, associationist psychology, hermeneutic procedures, the autonominization of art, an idiolect of personal affection, the hierarchy of munificent genius, and textual transactions, and then you’ll be insulted by such quotidian clichés as speak volumes, love-hate relationship, the long haul, short shrift, mixed feelings, and playing dumb. 

Why the needless redundancy “binding together”? Have you ever tried to bind something apart? And why, pray tell, are academics so fond of using “evidence” as a verb? (“It does not communicate, but evidences the incommunicable.”) Do they also use a brick as a hammer when the hammer is at hand? Of the new, more personal reading practices that emerged in the eighteenth century, Lynch writes, “What literature isn’t, is something to be used,” and first you’ll scratch your head at the existence of that comma and then scratch it again when you wonder what possibly could have prevented her from simply writing, “Literature can’t be used.”
Early in her study, Lynch pauses to castigate David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (1996), about how in the center of his life Denby returned to Columbia University to test ride two freshman humanities courses. Lynch is irked that Denby “turns to denouncing the joylessness of the academic left”—he calls them “dry-souled clerics” deficient in literary love—and then dismisses Denby’s telling of his experience as a “caricature.” You will recall how Lynch asked us to trust her own experience in the labs of English departments, and yet she sees nothing wrong with dismissing Denby’s experience of what those labs have cooked up. Personal experience, like eyewitness testimony, is usually the fastest way to a false verdict, and so you must judge the teller, the one who’s dispatching from the trenches, and you must judge the telling, the manner in which that dispatch is delivered. Denby’s book you want to remember having read; Lynch’s book you can’t remember why you’re reading.

Literature will not be harnessed for any cause, no matter how an academic distorts it, and literature that harnesses itself in the service of a cause is not literature at all but agitprop. If you agree that literature is, in Kenneth Burke’s words, “equipment for living,” a necessary asking of the right questions, and if you don’t question your own love of living, your own love of children and nature, of justice and language and storytelling, then why would you question your love of the best expression and assertion of that love? Denby speaks of literature’s “special character of solitude and rapture,” and that’s accurate enough, but let’s leave the last word for Marcel Proust: “Real life, at last enlightened and revealed, the only life fully lived, is literature.” 


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Bonnie F.'s picture
Bonnie F. · 8 years ago

I enjoyed this very much.

David C. Smith's picture
David C. Smith · 8 years ago

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I thought we were getting well past this hollow, selfish polemicism, but I suppose that as long as we have people who were educated under the circus tent of theory and deconstruction, they will continue to publish this drivel. It is the voice of a generation, sadly. 

Polybius's picture
Polybius · 8 years ago

This is a superb indictment of the cult of the academic. I am sure the author knows David Lodge's 'Small World' - a whole novel aimed at mocking the English Department as the very model of the smallness of mind that these departments today resemble. Milton once said that 'books are the lifeblood of the master spirit'. Perhaps, mediocrity is the price we pay for becoming the modern-day Levellers.

Sharon Pollock's picture
Sharon Pollock · 8 years ago

Thank you.

happy academic's picture
happy academic · 8 years ago

Sorry, but art IS politics and to fail to understand or see this is to undermine much of the meaning and purpose of art in human history.  That some have found awkward ways of expressing this truth should not mean that we abandon the enterprise of criticism, whether you love literature or not.


happy ex-academic's picture
happy ex-academic · 8 years ago

For art to BE politics, just about everything would have to BE politics. As with many academics I've worked with, I have to ask, what's the basis for that assertion? Of course I disagree strenuously. Not only IS art not politics, it's not even partially politics, because art qua art isn't instrumental. This is not to say politics can't be the subject matter of art works or that there isn't plenty of polemical pseudo-art.

That said, I do feel the article went too far. There needs to be room for a community of people who love and wish to discuss art as such, doesn't there? We needn't call it "academia," if that term offends. The trick would be to keep the cooperative from degenerating through attempts to politicize what is loved.

Andrew's picture
Andrew · 8 years ago

Instead of seeing argumentation here, I see mostly politically-motivated assertion.

E.g.: some people find Homer incomprehensible on a first read. If more people, including Giraldi, find Derrida incomprehensible on a first read, this is not a reason to dismiss Derrida. And we shouldn't distinguish between the two by accusing the latter of using "jargon". This seems to be Giraldi's tactic, but in dismissing Derrida he turns jargon-laden prose into a straw man. He shows himself willfully ignorant of the fact that scholars of Derrida -- not to mention Derrida himself -- are capable of writing lucidly and pleasurably. Yes, their writing is more difficult than Hazlitt's. But so, too, is Hazlitt's language more difficult than the clear, condensed, direct language of 30-second television ads. At times, Girardi makes it seem that he prefers the latter. 

Wombat's picture
Wombat · 8 years ago

I haven't read Derrida but I have read essays by many post-modernists.  The question is not are they difficult to read, which can be justified if the concepts you are trying to explain are complex.  The question is do they right badly, deliberately, in order to disguise the fact that they have nothing to say. 

Darren Cane's picture
Darren Cane · 6 years ago

Clearly, you haven't attempted to read Derrida's 'Of Grammatology.' Had you done so, you wouldn't have dared to compared it to Homer. One is a story, delightful, meaningful, amd coherent, the other is incoherence epitomized. I know a few fairly well known academics, and I was surprised when I was a student to hear one who writes about Derrida admit to me privately that not only had he not finished or understood Of Grammatology, but neither had most other deconstructionist academics he knew.

Chico Suarez's picture
Chico Suarez · 8 years ago

De Man and Derrida, for all their faults, at least did encourage pleasure and enjoyment of classic texts and deconstruction, in its earlier forms, encouraged critical 'play'. In my view it is "historicism" that really ruined things. Take the very title of the book in question: "Loving Literature: A Cultural History." Anytime an English professor uses the term "cultural history" they mean "a new historicist reading of...". It's the "culturalist" bent of "Cultural Studies" and "New Historicism" that have ruined literary study... deconstruction, for all its faults, still encouraged reading.

James Rusk's picture
James Rusk · 8 years ago

I majored in agriculture at the University oif Guelph 50 years ago. At one point during an especially detailed dequisition on the obvious by the instuctor of one of the mandatory English ciurse Aggies were required to take, one of classmates piped up: "I'm a zoology major, and any zoologist knows that to dissect something, you have to kill it first." Splayed frogs indeed.

Matt's picture
Matt · 8 years ago

I am a psychology professor, although for years I was going to earn my Ph.D. in English. I was very much in love with the poems of Wordsworth, Whitman, Eliot and Auden. Still am! 

Once I visited Dr. Harold Bloom at Yale. He was a true gentleman, and was very kind. I wanted his opinion about which graduate schools would be best. He just sighed.

I ended up switching fields. I like psychology well enough - but I agree with James that it is shallow. I try to not complain, but I miss English. I miss being an academic immersed with literature and poetry. I doubt that I will ever be able to return.

I came to agree with Bloom, and I agree here with Giraldi. This time period is no good for an English major, for a lover of poetry and prose. Sad.

gary's picture
gary · 8 years ago

I worked toward being an English and Literature major...even considered journalism,and switching schools...instead I became an Elementary School teacher. Loved it....but always missed the studies of classic literature,and poetry...then I began to try to incorporate it as much as I could with my students...mostly in 5th grade. I am now retired....but miss the literary scene,and still enjoy the classics. I am a moderator of a bookclub,and we try to read a mix of classic and contemporary novels,and some non fiction...I find most fiction these days to be quite lame and trite.....I really enjoy the classics. I finally read War and Peace last summer. The other bookclub members bitched and moaned about it,and most didn't even finish it. I read every glad I's sad how many people today just don't appreciate the arts as they once did.

You left out one thing...'s picture
You left out on... · 8 years ago

Excellent read, but I'd add one thing I think I've picked up over the years as a professor in a department that requires you to learn a bunch of foreign languages for your Ph.D. 

It's this:  What exactly is the bar to gaining a Ph.D. in an English department today?  There are no technical requirements beyond reading books in English, which is invariably the candidate's first language.  I think the inferiority complex this low bar confers on English professors is what leads them to write this silly garbage that fills all these books.  Since they have no technical expertise that the man or woman in the stress doesn't also possess, they have to make up for with big words of their own invention ("because complicated ideas require new vocabulary, just as in chemistry of physics").

A ton of this stuff could be cut out by requiring all English Ph.D.s to learn, say, German and French.  It would weed out those who can't and actually give a useful tool for bringing comparative perspectives to the one and only language they are purportedly expert in.

XX's picture
XX · 8 years ago

Nearly every English PhD programme requires at least two foreign languages, and many are actually English AND Comparative Literature programmes. One would hope, at least, that an English PhD teaches one not to write without first doing research, or not to right prose full of clichés (cf. whatever PhD you have).

Paul Hawkins's picture
Paul Hawkins · 8 years ago

An enjoyable essay.  However, I did wonder why Giraldi didn't make the obvious point that surely the teaching of anything requires that one love the subject.  Teachers of math, physics, business, art history all must love what they teach; it's only in literature departments that this is seen as suspect. 

Richard Nemesvari's picture
Richard Nemesvari · 8 years ago

It's difficult to believe that journals are still publishing this re-hashed "it all went to hell in a handbasket with deconstruction" pap.  Giraldi has nothing new to say about de Man or Derrida that dozens of New Criticism accolytes haven't said dozens of times since the 1990s backlash began.  The trauma is obviously still fresh - please continue to take your meds and see your analyst.

In the meantime, it's at least somewhat honest of him to recognize that Leavis was writing manifesto after manifesto, yet somehow the fact the his style was more pleasing "de-politicizes" his slanted efforts to dictate what was good and what was bad.  Sounds a lot like the kind of academic Giraldi is castigating, but then these types of hit-pieces rely heavily on cognative dissonance and an aggressive lack of self-awareness (oh, these terrible idealogues - if only they had a pure vision of truth/beauty/love such as I possess in my completely uninfluenced and luckily universal vision of literary value).  And then he also invokes Housman, for pete's sake.

We're fifteen years into the twenty-first century, and the problems of English departments have little to do with a theoretical approach that is now well in the past.  Get back to me when you want to talk about the broader cultural influences that continue to devalue all the Humanities - until then, the ennui of this kind of rant is close to overwhelming.

Brad Gregory's picture
Brad Gregory · 8 years ago

Ah, if only said ennui had indeed overwhelmed Mr. Nemesvari prior to the pennng of that post, itself being of the type of re-hashed pap that still gets printed, and has been ever since people noted, ever more loudly, that the Emperor Deconstruction had no clothes, and an unattractive exposed body.

If the best argument of the remnant of theorists is "You can't just assert something is good or beautiful just because readers find value and pleasure in it! We're just going to stand over here and shout "You just don't get it!" till Shakespeaere's dead!", then may it endure till the last tenured proponent expires. But not longer.


T. Pnin's picture
T. Pnin · 8 years ago

I remember at an on-campus interview a colleague asking a candidate whether he loved literature. Oh, yes, of course, was the answer. It was nothing more than lip service.

What students (some of them) still crave in literary study is an encounter with something much larger than themselves. What they too often find instead is a reductiveness that makes a travesty of human imagination. 

Extollager's picture
Extollager · 8 years ago

Thank you.  I often wonder if literature has happened for many of the epigones of Theory.  Politics has happened, class envy and resentment have happened, but has literature happened?  If it has happened for them, was that something long ago -- something since stifled by obsessions that attempt to steal energy from great literature, being otherwise without it?   Vote with your feet.  Stay away.  The present generation of theory mavens will die off.  There's hope for the future.  In the meantime it has never been easier to educate oneself.  The books are there.  Friends of literature are there, even if they are not hired by English departments.

Lit Lover's picture
Lit Lover · 8 years ago

Who is this windbag Giraldi?!  He paints an absurd caricature of English departments that reveals only his own anti-intellectualism.  So many third-rate novelists and journalistic hacks simply don't have the brainpower to work through a sustained argument; their only recourse is a tirade against people who don't "love" literature.  Really what no one loves -- no one inside or outside of the academy -- are the soon-to-be remaindered novels of people like Giraldi.

Artur Davis's picture
Artur Davis · 8 years ago

Why was I suckered into reading this piece?  This kind of hack work represents the worst of American anti-intellectualism.  My guess is that Giraldi dropped out of a Ph.D. program when he realized that he would have to grapple with some difficult philosophical issues.  Now he edits a journal no one reads and writes novels that no one loves.  

Origen's picture
Origen · 8 years ago

What if you find the theoretically influenced reading of writing pleasurable? What if you enjoy connecting texts to their historical contexts, exploring the paradoxes within texts using the most scrupulous tools? What you see as a recent phenomenon goes back to the early church fathers, the neoplatonists and the practice of hermeneutics. It's a 2000 year old tradition, not a 50 year one.

If you don't like fly fishing, don't go fly fishing. If you don't like such forms of reading, don't study it. Personally i would prefer to re-read Middlemarch and then a new critical reading of it, than try another two novels like yours, part of the endless tide of middlebrow art fiction, or the pointless short stories likely to appear in your subsidised university fiction magazine. No-one needs the work you do. Maybe you should spend some time arguing as to why we should read your sort of material, why it matters to the culture, rather than bagging stuff we're at perfect liberty to avoid if it is not to our taste. 


Wombat's picture
Wombat · 8 years ago

I agree that it is important academic work to connect literature ("texts") to their historical contexts and bring developments in psychology, history and other disclipines into a critical analysis.  I enjoy reading this myself.  You fail to address Giraldi's justified criticism that a lot of this writing is excruciatingly bad, both stylistically and conceptually.  Just because you don't like what he has to say does not justify your ad hominem attacks.

Shalom Freedman's picture
Shalom Freedman · 8 years ago

Is this fair? Is all academic writing incapable of giving Pleasure?

I once loved and still sometimes still do love reading about what others think about books that I have read. Most often they do provide some pleasure even if only the pleasure of knowing and understanding something I did not know and understand before.

With that there is no doubt Justice in the claim that much academic writing about Literature is dull, awkward, pretentious, even idiotic. What to do? We can't all be Dr. Johnson most of us, even Literature professors, can only be mediocre.

I liked the part of the article on the folly of Deconstructionism. 

But again there is much academic writing about Literature that is itself considerable Literature. It is not all as grey as so much of it is.

T. McG.'s picture
T. McG. · 8 years ago

Yes, Giraldi's argument is familiar, but at least it was motivated by love, by a real attachment to great writing and great books. Academics are zombies whose heads are disconnected from their hearts.  Their cold and bloodless thinking is reflected in their lifeless prose.

Diz Pareunia's picture
Diz Pareunia · 8 years ago

Here's a tip for happier reading, especially classics:

skip intoductions and prefaces and dive right into the work.

Frederick's picture
Frederick · 8 years ago

This is a very engaging and provocative piece that accurately captures a certain response to French theory. It makes its argument quite clearly. But the argument against deconstruction as being too difficult is not a strong one. Difficulty in itself is not necessarily a weakness in a theory. To argue that Einstein’s relativity is invalid because it’s difficult is not a claim that can be taken seriously. 

At its core, deconstruction is about the drawing out of implied information from a text, which stated this way may appear to share similarities with close reading, which Geraldi would seem likely to endorse. Where I think he makes an important point is in how deconstruction was used, and continues to be used, by political factions within the academy, how race politics, gender theory and other ideologies could be read between the lines of any text in an approach that reversed close reading by privileging the unstated over the stated, leading all too frequently to the conclusion that evidence of offensive politics abounds and the text is therefore offensive and something to be neutralized rather than enjoyed. It may be that Derrida and others provided the theoretical framework to be used towards these ends but the way that framework played out in the academy and its detrimental effects can’t be entirely assigned to the theory itself or to its difficulty

Paul hawkins's picture
Paul hawkins · 8 years ago

The many people bashing Giraldi here are not responding to his central points: many academics write poorly, and he blames Derrida and deMan.  The second part of his argument may simply be unfair and wrong, but does anyone really object to the first? In speaking of the delight that good writing, literary or critical, has to offer, Giraldi has fresh insight. I particularly thank him for reminding us that we should emulate critics of the past like Pater and Wilde, and for restating the Keatsian unity of beauty and truth. Giraldi's own clear and delightful prose shows he can apply his own advice. Bravo!

Ian Finseth's picture
Ian Finseth · 8 years ago

What a load of dung.  Giraldi ought to be embarrassed for attaching his name to it.  To hold himself up as one of the real lovers of literature, one who really understands it, while unnamed but sinister-sounding "academics" are bent on twisting it to their own purposes, is the height of narcissism.  It also reveals a shameful ignorance of the great diversity of writing that's currently being done by those "academics."  What we have here, instead, is a straw man, a bogey-man stalking Giraldi's imagination, a cartoon version of actual English professors, including those in his own department.  The attack is so needless, in fact, so misdirected, that one wonders what's really motivating it.  Academic writing in the humanities (whatever criticisms one might have of it) is not the problem.  The problem is the constant denigration of the humanities by the political right wing -- now joined by this self-appointed guardian of the chalice.



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