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The Vocabula Review

March 2003, Vol. 5, No. 3

Kvetching About Literary Criticism David Isaacson

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You heard the one about the Jewish mother who says, "My son, he's not a lawyer or a doctor, but he does okay anyway. You know what he does? He kvetches for a living. He's a literary critic." It's not good form to explain a joke, but I'm going to here because in my judgment too much of what passes for literary criticism today is itself a joke — but a grim one — on those of us who think criticism is supposed to help us better understand and "appreciate" literature. (Often it is the reader who is not being appreciated — the literature is doing okay by itself.) The Yiddish kvetch loosely translates, according to Leo Rosten, as "to fret, complain, gripe, grunt, sigh."1 To suggest that the once noble profession of literary criticism — with its lovely image of a life devoted to the aesthetic pleasure of elucidating texts and sharing this pleasure with students — has become vulgarized into a game of mere fault-finding is an insult. I mean it to be. I love literature too much to take most contemporary academic literary criticism seriously. It seems to be written by and for people who have forgotten the sheer joy of reading literature. The critic is more interested in arguing abstruse literary theory than interpreting literature. He's got points to make, scores to settle, a reputation to defend.

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Like, He Said by David Isaacson

Something ironic happens to many English professors when they write for scholarly publication: they forget how to write. The same professors who try to teach students how to write clear expository prose themselves write a clotted mush unfit for human consumption. The very same professors who may be subtle interpreters of irony in literary works don't see the vast gulf separating their professional writing not just from common sense but good taste. Academic criticism not only smells of the musty lamp; it makes the reader's eyes smart.

Mind you, I'm not complaining about shoptalk. Every occupation and profession has its own useful code and shorthand to facilitate communication. English teachers need "extended metaphor," "epic similes," "iambic pentameter," and even "iambelegus" as much as carpenters need useful jargon like "Phillips screwdrivers" and con artists need coded language like "marks." I will even concede the seeming necessity of physicians to use "myocardial infarction" and this to mean "heart attack." But there is a difference between legitimate jargon and gas. There is something suspicious when "strategies of discourse" is not only the preferred but virtually the required substitute for "ways of writing." It is not always necessary to call a story a "narrative." Not all fixed ways of looking at the world are "paradigms." (A pair of dimes isn't worth twenty cents — with grade inflation in the Academy it's more like a plugged nickel.)

This is more than a shame; it's a scandal. Instead of using the direct, active voice, critics are more likely to use a distant and distancing abstract voice. If something can be said economically, you can usually depend on the critics to find a verbose substitute. We can tolerate, if not quite forgive, social scientists for writing this tripe: they have been "acculturated" to do so. But English teachers are not only supposed to know better; they're supposed to practice what they preach. They supposedly teach composition, but too many practice something resembling decomposition. Jargon-ridden, impenetrable prose not only insults students who are presumably being taught to be articulate. It also prevents general readers from learning anything from the presumed literary experts.

There are cultural implications to this sorry state of affairs. Much of the politically correct jargon that purports to be speaking on behalf of oppressed or neglected minorities and "disempowered" people itself creates an ironic verbal barrier between words and sense. A reader expecting good sense is victimized by gobs of ugly rhetoric that assumes that texts are always problems to be decoded rather than words to be read.

I am not just kvetching at the kvetchers. There's a world of difference between a necessary and useful way of talking about literature, such as:

Huck Finn is a shrewd boy who only pretends to be naive. On the surface his speech seems to be that of an ignorant fourteen year-old boy who knows virtually nothing about the adult world. But Twain is often ironic. You can't fully appreciate this book without paying close attention to the difference between what Huck apparently says and what Twain probably means.

Compare this straightforward language with what a contemporary literary critic might say instead in "translation" into litcrit speak:

Huck Finn's pretense of the perspective of a naif is fraught with intertextual, not to say intersubjective complexities only partially revealed when the distance between the narrative voice which utters his words is measured against the authorial voice which writes them. In point of fact, the reader's response is always a hermeneutical problem of translation between the author's presumed intention, the narrator's voicing of that intention, and the evanescent understandings within the ever-changing consciousness of the reader. In the text of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it is as if Huck were writing Twain rather than Twain writing Huck. We, as putative and presumably perceptive readers, are always at a distance from the discourse both known and assumed in problematic texts like this one. As informed readers, we need to be humble (though not to the point of humiliation) before the ur-text. We should be all the more humble because of the canonical status of this most intricate of texts. Our humility as readers depends too, whether we admit it or not, on gender as well as race issues permeating this book right from its inception in the divided man sometimes known as Clemens one moment but Twain the next. This Clemens was anything but clement and this Twain dared not meet his twain, or Doppelgänger. Even though we intrude upon the sanctity of this multilayered narrative even to begin to consider parsing it, we must acknowledge there are stratified layers of discourse here ranging from the surface Southwestern Missouri dialect of Huck's outer narrative to the concealments within concealments — the penetralia, as it were, of Twain/Clemens's sometimes unfathomable satirical vision.

I just made up this example of constipated prose to see if I could write some of this stuff myself without wearing a gas mask. Despite the gas, however, I hope I made some sense here. Which is more than I can say for the actual published language of many of the fashionable literary critics. We don't need a modern-day Dunciad to hold the mirror up to the Unnatural. There's something like a formula that's understood among the elite sect who write this drivel. If you want to join the cult of academic literary criticism, ignore all the good advice of Strunk and White in The Elements of Style. For good measure, follow all the rules of obfuscatory bureaucratic prose in Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." There's a rule — not yet, to my knowledge, written in a handbook — among these critics and scholars: their analysis is successful if the reader needs twice as much time to understand one of their sentences as it took to write it. As a matter of fact, much of what passes as literary criticism seems not to have been written so much as simply word processed. It passes through some region of the writer's psyche without ever encountering the cerebrum. It is apparent that the writer of such prose has not in fact read it. But I think we know that an editor must have revised the writer's words, seeking to translate vestiges of clarity into murk and murk into totally impacted dreck.

You may think I'm exaggerating. Here is an example of what is beyond my poor powers to add or detract. I grant that we are reading an English translation of a difficult French text. But still the reader should beware. The following, to quote my friend Huck Finn, gives me the "fantods." This comes from Jacques Derrida (not to be confused with the hopelessly backward-looking Jacques Derriere):

The verb "to differ" [differer] seems to differ from itself. On the one hand it indicates difference as distinction, inequality, or discernibility; on the other, it expresses the interposition of delay, the interval of a spacing and temporalizing that puts off until "later" what is presently denied, the possible that is presently impossible. Sometimes the different and sometimes the deferred correspond [in French] to the verb "to differ."2

To which any red-blooded respecter of either langue or parole must say "vive le difference!" Don't ever beg to differ with someone as supersubtle as Derrida or one of his minions. You will be skewered on a distinction so fine it will be hard to know what is a distinct distinction and what is a real difference.

It may seem churlish of me to appear to denigrate such learned discourse. But the charge is baseless. I represent perhaps a dwindling, but still sentient group of people called general readers. Hell, I'll come right out and admit it: I'm a booklover. I even used to be an English professor, but I got out in time before the academic Establishment killed my interest in literature. Let's be honest and call them the academic Mafia. Literary critics used to be in the business of stimulating interest in good writing. On occasion, some works of criticism were themselves fine pieces of writing. You don't have to agree with T. S. Eliot, Samuel Johnson, or Lionel Trilling to take pleasure in their style. But the litcrit industry, with all its obligatory paradigms, privileged texts, gendered relationships, and deconstructive insights, can offer little literary pleasure to a reader obligated to read it, and none to those, like me, who are under no such obligation.

Far from being pleasurable, this pish-posh insults the author who wrote the literary work. No, it's worse than that. The author is usually much stronger than the critic who flogs him. Twain will be read a lot longer than the majority of his politically correct critics. It's Twain's characters I worry about. Twain is dead. He no longer needs to defend himself against ignorant "intellectuals." But as long as books live, the character of Huckleberry Finn is alive. I think Huck has enough to do just inhabiting the wonderfully flawed masterpiece called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But ever since his book was published, it has been the object of numerous attacks by people who refuse to respect the main character. Puritans on both the right and the left object to Huck calling Jim a "nigger." Read the book and you know that Huck uses this word not as an ugly racial epithet but as a very ironic term of affection. When Huck Finn decides he will risk going to hell in order to help the runaway slave Jim escape downriver, he is making a courageous moral decision flouting the racism pervading the North as well as the South.

So why do so many professors lack Huck's courage, let alone Twain's? Why do they think they have to teach controversies about texts or not teach the books at all? Yes, I know: professors have to publish in order to get tenure and promotion. And they have to write what their guild accepts as the appropriate catch phrases and in-talk. But how many of these critics actually take the time to read a rich book like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Perhaps they don't have the time because they are duty-bound to master not only the small portion of criticism worth reading but the much larger portion that is not.

If these critics can't speak without mumbling mantras about multiple meanings, I think they should be ordered to observe vows of silence. Here, for example, is the last paragraph of a book-length study of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Most readers would appreciate this novel better if they read the novel twice rather than this study once:

The question we posed at the beginning of this section was whether literature should be reliable historical evidence. One answer is that it depends on what you are looking for evidence of. But on the other hand, and in a more general way, we could say that on the basis of a novel like Huckleberry Finn literature is not only good evidence, but is in many respects indispensable evidence, if we are to arrive at a complete picture of a given moment in the social process. Formal histories, even accurate ones, are frequently impalpable or even dismissive and uninterested in the actual felt experiences of most of the people who were there. The best imaginative writing, on the other hand, is strong precisely in this area. Of course, this is not to say that the only function of literature is to witness with integrity; but in many crucial literary examples, of which Huckleberry Finn is one, to ignore such a dimension is to deform the text and ignore its context. Twain's novel is one of the best histories of its period because it details and concretises, in an almost matchless way, the full experience of an entire way of life. It supplements, and in some cases completely replaces, the usual academic analyses. And it does this, above all, by being excellent in its own medium, by being superlative narrative fiction. The apparent paradox is the final twist to the Twainian dialectic.3

Mr. Egan could save his reader some work if he rewrote this passage something like:

Can literature provide reliable historical evidence? Huckleberry Finn may provide indispensable history if we acknowledge that the actual felt experience of people we believe in counts as history. That's one of the functions of successful imaginative literature: it seems to witness what is real. The concrete detail of this novel makes us believe the events actually happened. We don't need tedious academic history when we have such a vibrant novel as this. The best fiction seems like living history. Through Huck's voice as narrator, Twain plays paradoxical games with the reader: Huck is ironic the better to tell us the truth.

Unfortunately, much contemporary literary criticism makes it harder, not easier, to understand the literature it purports to explicate. Literary critics should know better. If they won't stop their nonsensical chattering, we readers who still love literature should "light out for the territory"4 with Huck. Yeah, Huck sometimes kvetches too, but he has a much better excuse for it than most literary critics.

David Isaacson


1. Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968, 200.

2. Jacques Derrida, "Difference," Bulletin de la Societe francaise de philosophie, LXII, No. 3, July–Sept. 1968; reprinted in Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. By D. B. Allison, 1973, as quoted in J. A. Cuddon, ed., A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, 225.

3. Michael Egan, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: Race, Class and Society, London: Sussex University Press, 1977, 133-134.

4. Huck's last words in the novel may be good advice to those of us who would rather read real language than litcrit-speak. Huck wants to escape into the as yet undeveloped Indian territory, far away from the hypocrisy of civilization. "But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before." Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: The Authorized Text, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, 362.

David Isaacson David Isaacson is the Humanities Librarian at Waldo Library, Western Michigan University. In addition to writing articles for library magazines, he has broadcast book reviews since 1975 for the NPR station WMUK. His major hobby is reading dictionaries.

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