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Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Academe Quits Me" by D.G. Myers

A post from the blog "A Commonplace Blog."

The primary post is here

There is a follow-up, "Replies to the Critics of 'Academe Quits Me,'" here.

(They are currently the first two posts in the blog, but over time they may no longer be, so I linked directly.)


when you no longer care about literature, it's hard to show you care about literature


A morning after consideration:

A couple comments by my friends on FB (comments on the Myers blog, not this post) showed me that most people will read "Academe Quits Me" as being about the situation of the job market, whereas I read it more toward the status of the idea of "literary studies" in US academia. Indeed, most of the comments I saw to the post were about the economic marketplace. But the two are not unconnected. One of the failures of English departments these decades is that they have tried to stake their importance on political situating, when they should be staking their importance on (1) literary-cultural appreciation, and (2) the fundamental recognition that reading is not wholly a subject of literature. To learn to read deeply is a skill that carries to success in every department, and English departments should be running tendrils through the whole of university saying "we can teach your students to be better students, better graduates, more successful in their fields, irrespective of that field of study."

But when social criticism has a stake in avoiding deep reading (because, usually, deep reading rather undermines their claims as regards literature), when MFA departments are afraid of what deep reading might do to their not-quite-so-talented and easily-ego-bruised student pool, there is a whole lot of "we don't want to go there" going on. You want to see a prof teaching social criticism blow up? Bring in someone capable of deep reading both the subject texts and the writings of the social critic. Like a cornered cat. It is hilarious how quickly their "scholarship" moves from pounding the scholarship to pounding the table.

So, let me give a qualifying statement to what is below. I did not yesterday, nor today intend Myers's post to be read as evidence or damning moment or anything substantial beyond a means to posit an idea in your head for to be thought about. There is something to be said for a required core knowledge, and there is something to be said for the idea that a field that eschews core knowledge is rather signing their own death warrant. Put it in your head and ponder it.

And give serious, serious thought to the statement "The idea of refusing to study the ideas of Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein, Kepler, Watt, Newton, Pasteur, Tesla, because they are 'dead, white men' is patently absurd."

(If you need a counter statement to that one to ease your moral self, try this one: "We in the West are still in the process of trying to climb out of the mass cultural suicide that was the Reformation.")

I am very reticent to post this link to this blog post as I do not want to set precedent in my head for such things. But this is something worth reading, worth thinking about, worth talking about, not only as regards English departments in U.S. universities, but also as it regard literature in the U.S., and the participation therein by readers, writers, and academics.

If you think I am stretching it when I say that MFAs (as they exist now) have no business in graduate education (or that the reason MFAs exist in graduate education is primarily economic and pop-cultural, and has little to do with literature), then I refer you to the comment made by Marly Youmans (currently at the top):

Strange, isn't it, that all this happens at the same time the creative writing MFA is seeding itself wildly in every crevice? Or maybe not so strange...


Now, to be fair, I put only half the blame on the currents in literature and literary studies that have created the MFA program as it exists in most universities. (That includes Iowa.) The other half I throw on the shoulders of social/political literary criticism, which spread through English departments like a cancer: a comparison I make because of how social/political literary criticism exists primarily on its willingness to accept very bad scholarship so long as that bad scholarship carries with political statements that will get the writers of that very bad scholarship on NPR.

That is the unstated point within "Academe Quits Me." When it is far more important to make a political statement than it is to maintain levels of competent scholarship, then the only possible result is the dissolution of the subject matter into little more than socio-political quibblings. When they stopped talking about literature as literature, when they decided it was more important to teach the presence of sexism in a play than the dramatic elements of the play, when it was decided it was more important to teach social opression as a theme in novels than rhetoric, style, aesthetic, genre, narratology, linquistics, grammar, theory, criticism, competent scholarship, or any other requisite to understanding a literary work at the most basic level, then what is the point of having literature departments?

When your MFA program is more than happy to wade neck deep in mediocrity and dedicates itself to writing publishable pop-lit, then what happens to the purpose of literature? It gets watered down to non-importance.


To be clear, I do not have a problem with social literary criticism. I have a problem with bad criticism -- and, unfortunately, social criticism is overwhelmed with it. Primarily because the progenitors, the major players e.g., Foucault, Baudrillard, Sedgwick, Butler -- took it seriously, and are difficult to engage and understand. And, simply, are beyond the abilities of most social critics. Which is demonstrated by how easily social critics can both invoke and contradict the majors in the same sentence. And how easily they can ignore literary theory any time it gets in the way of their political positioning. Especially when it demonstrates (and without much effort) how their own arguments are grossly fallacious.

But, then, as I said: social criticism exists mostly because of the acceptability of really bad scholarship in the pursuit of a righteous pulpit.


  1. I went browsing through that blog, and found this, which seemed relevant to your last post, but also possibly here (especially the pithy quote by Frank Wilson about whom I know nothing):

    “Literature is highly susceptible to demoralization, and ‘nothing is better calculated than irresponsible pedagogy to make it close its ears and lips.’ Since creative writing has relieved it of the responsibility for tutoring writers, criticism has become an even more unreliable pedagogue. Critics seem no longer willing to recognize that many books have ‘nothing to say to the critical sense, that they do not belong to literature, and that the possession of a critical sense is exactly what makes it impossible to read them and dreary to discuss them—places them, as a part of the critical experience, out of the question.’ As I have said so many times that I have become a bore on the subject, literature is a title which is bestowed by critics, and if they fail to perform their duty, literature becomes a tear in the ocean of books. This is the sense in which Frank Wilson hits the target when he says that ‘any accurate and precise description of anything is necessarily implicitly evaluative.’ Although descriptive utterances may be logically distinguishable from evaluative utterances, a critic must admit that some books are just too dreary to describe.”

    1. As is my habit:
      direct link

      I've started three times now different replies, but I think the above stands well enough on its own. Though, I will say I very much do like the phase "to say [something] in the critical sense." I brings a new approach to the idea of what makes as work valuable (rather than simply "fun to read").

      Thanks for the add.