Academic blogging and literary studies

by John Holbo on April 18, 2004

For the longest time I’ve been meaning to post something grand and insightful on the timely meta-theme of academic blogging. Since Brian and John got the ball rolling below, this will have to do.

I agree with Brian about the specific utility of blogging for academic philosophy. The form is manifestly efficient (nay, superlative) for batting around ideas in the development stage. As such, it is to be encouraged – as is drinking in bars with philosophers. Which is to say: you should, but maybe not put it on your CV. Just yet. But I would go further. I think Brian is too modest when he neglects to come right out and declare that academic blogging, such as is found at TAR and here at CT and many other fine places, is not infrequently higher quality than a lot of pretty high level seminar and conference talk, just because the latter is genuinely off-the-cuff. It really does make a huge difference that even off-the-cuff posts really aren’t off-the-cuff, despite typos. You read, reread, think – tweak, reword, rethink – then post. Yep, obvious. But seriously. Think what a difference it makes. I think we are sometimes overly modest about the virtues of blogging because we are leery of looking like cranks, foisting our hobby on bemused colleagues. Or maybe we are conscious of having used our blogs for distinctly non-academic purposes, and do not wish to appear as though we are ridiculously trying to get academic credit for that. That’s me. But we ought to just separate out any concerns about the propriety of mixing academic and non-academic productions.

Every class ought to have a blog. Every professor ought to have a convenient way to share brief thoughts about his/her work with colleagues and students, who might be interested in leaving comments, so forth. Not that it needs to be mandatory or anything – I’m not crazy – but it is hard to believe that if what I just said came true, it would be a bad thing. Blogging is like email. It’s a useful utility for intellectual work and we ought to just say so.

Think about the gap between a published paper and some verbal comment, tossed out in seminar. Both are useful, but the one is solid, the other gas. The gap between is so wide it would be crazy not to strive to plug it with something a bit more liquid – and not just at the bar: to wit, blogging.

What really interests and excites me personally is not academic philosophy blogging, however – although I am an academic philosopher blogger – but encouraging blogging about academic literary studies and cultural criticism. (Some handier handle is needed.) This is not just because I’m a compulsive, voracious consumer of literary and cultural criticism, in case you hadn’t noticed. It’s also because – you may say I’m a fool – I see the genuine prospect for making things much better in academic literary studies. A really big literary studies group blog that generated some interest and excitement – i.e. found ways to do so – would be a huge boon to the field. And isn’t it obvious such a thing is possible? And also that literary studies needs it more than maybe any other field right now? Needs to snap out of its shame-spiral of doubt and anxiety? (NO, not EVERYBODY, Chun. Not you. But lots of folks.) And there is a dire publishing crisis to boot. Yeah, that’s the humanities and social sciences all over. But the lit studies people really have got it bad, if I make no mistake. It seems to me quite unnecessary for things to be in this bad state. Seriously.

I’m pretty much going to leave it there tonight. I would like to hear from literary studies bloggers – everyone else, too – about what they think the role of blogging could be in making things better. And what they think about the state of literary studies generally. I’m also hereby resolving that this will be the first of several posts, in which I will actually make arguments and offer evidence and so forth, not just wave my hands in dramatic ‘j’accuse, but the internet will heal all wounds’ fashion. Since this is the first time I’ve raised the topic at CT, I thought it might be nice to start with an almost open-thread: blogging and academic literary studies and its/their discontents. So what about it?

The posts that I’m planning to follow this up are really follow ups to the likes of my ‘How bad is the PMLA?’ post. You can dig back from there, if interested. For example, my Just Being Difficult? post. Oh, and the safety valve knows the worst truth about the engine. And you can read my long mock-Platonic dialogue which I’m constantly flogging in public because it’s damn good and I crave attention – “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Theory For Life” (PDF). Hopefully coming out in Arion in a modified form in the not too distant future.

I’m promising to keep things positive and upbeat and constructive in future posts. Don’t smash more than two things for every one thing you build. That sort of thing.

Let me then conclude positively by acknowledging and helpfully advertising that there are, in fact, a wide variety of really great literary blogs for you to enjoy out there. Most of them are not written by academics – although many are: see CT blogroll – but it seems to me academic literary studies folks would be doing themselves a huge favor by meditating long and hard on the question: why are our journals not as exciting as these non-academic literary blogs, day after day. (Hint: the answer is NOT ‘because the journals are so much more rigorous and concerned with constructing sophisticated arguments and so forth.’ Because that answer wouldn’t be true.)

Well, here are a few of my favorites. If you have any interest in lit blogging these deserve your regular custom. And there have been mutterings lately in this crowd about where they want to take the whole thing next. So maybe they’ll humor me by offering up two-cents worth about academic literary studies.

First, my fave: pseudopodium. I’ve plugged Ray before. I just plugged him again. I know what he thinks about the academic stuff.

Clearly my notion of “real scholarship” is as one with my notion of good fannishness. Again, I think of the amateurish era of Joyce studies, when the bulk of a journal could be taken up by “Notes” – aperçus, speculations, elucidations, emendations, and jokes – and its later aridity, talking long and saying little.

Grad school can’t alone be responsible for thinning that fannish energy. As proven by the tender verdancy of academic weblogs, the joy of shared discovery continues ready to burst out, given half an opportunity. There’s something herbicidal about professional academic publishing itself.

And he’s right. And that’s the sort of thing we need to discuss.

And Scott McLemee is great.

Maud Newton. She’s sort of queen bee of the bonnet. If you have any interest in this stuff, you know her already.

The Reading Experience. I have had a truly great time reading Daniel Green’s stuff for the last few weeks. Check out his open letter to Sven Birkerts. And then read the Book Forum piece by Birkerts he links to. Interesting thoughts on snark and the decline and fall of Partisan Review. And Dale Peck. And you should probably read the latest from Dale Peck on Birkerts for the full picture. Birkerts comes off smelling better. But he isn’t always right, lord knows. (Sometimes you start with “I am going to stick my neck out and just say it,” And then, at the end of paragraph one, you don’t have anything above your neck.)

That last link via the Old Hag. Who is funny.

The Mumpsimus. Sci-fi lit blog. Very good. His lead post right now is particularly good.

A few others:
Cup of Chica
The Elegant Variation
Golden Rule Jones

Lat but not least: The Literary Saloon.

That should do for now. There are lots of others. Good stuff out there.



themoabird 04.18.04 at 6:31 pm

“is not infrequently higher quality than a lot of pretty high level seminar and conference talk,”

Which is a pretty sad indictment of high level seminar and conference talk, then.

You guys really should get over yourselves…


Russell Arben Fox 04.18.04 at 8:57 pm

Ignore themoabird, John. Your remarks are right on the money. Blogging really is a big deal when it comes to substantive intellectual exchange. I strongly suspect that as blogging (or whatever eventually replaces it) becomes more common, what happens at conferences will only improve–because it’ll be more and more likely that participants will have seen the papers presented in more than one form, will have had time to think and rethink their disagreements, and authors will have already been exposed to thought and critique. While I’m sure there are probably some downsides to blogging in terms of its effects on academia, I can’t think of any way in which blogging about my papers prior to giving them at APSA won’t improve things over all.

Sorry I’m not a lit-crit guy, so I can’t help you out there. But thanks for all the recommendations and links; I’ll have fun checking them out.


chun the unavoidable 04.18.04 at 9:13 pm

There’s popular criticism, and there’s academic literary study. These are different things. I enjoy bookchat as much as the next person, but the field does not need to become middlebrow to solve its problems. This is as sensible as demanding all philosophy be as tepid as Isaiah Berlin.


chun the unavoidable 04.18.04 at 9:19 pm

And, also, your remark about the relative sophistication of non-academic blogs versus the professional journals of the field would be comically ignorant if you actually meant it, which of course you do not.

Contrary to Holbo, I’m coming to believe that blogs are a cancer upon the internet and public discourse in general. Most should be shut down immediately. I’d even favor punitive taxation to make this happen.


themoabird 04.18.04 at 9:20 pm

“Ignore themoabird, John.”

Brilliant demonstration of high level seminar and conference talk. Well done.

Do you guys know about self-serving bias, I wonder?

The stuff on here is medicore. The stuff spouted in most seminars and most conferences is mediocre. Most academic work that most people ever do is mediocre (notwithstanding that that might not make sense). Don’t kid yourselves that this is anything other than – sometimes entertaining – fluff.


Ralph Luker 04.18.04 at 10:24 pm

I clicked on themoabird’s sig in hopes that it would take me to the really first rate stuff found lacking at CT. Alas, I got an e-mail address rather than the wisdom site I was in search of. I didn’t bother.


harry 04.18.04 at 10:35 pm

bq. Most academic work that most people ever do is mediocre (notwithstanding that that might not make sense).

So…? I guess I agree that its almost all not brilliant. If so, take John’s comments to be framed by that context. Most art, novels, lives, etc are not brilliant — mediocre — if you judge by high enough standards. We simply plough on, doing the best that we can, or, perhaps, something less than the best that we can, given the other (mostly in my case welcome) constraints on our lives. I think we all understand this — sorry to themoabird if he (and why do I bet he’s a he?) doesn’t take it for read. The world must be such a disappointement to you.


themoabird 04.18.04 at 10:48 pm

“I clicked on themoabird’s sig in hopes that it would take me to the really first rate stuff found lacking at CT.”

A perfect example of the mediocrity of this place. Why on earth would you think that I was capable of anything more than mediocrity? I’m not – in fact, I don’t even reach mediocrity – but at least I know it.

Harry —

Why do you think that I put “notwithstanding that that might not make sense” in the brackets, if it wasn’t to make that precise point?

The trouble is, though, this place oozes a kind of smugness which suggests that really for most of the time people don’t get it.

And, actually, I think that’s also the case with academia. Sure, if you push people, they’ll own up to mediocrity, but then the next minute off they’ll go to a publisher begging them to publish a monograph that really nobody wants to read (except maybe their pet).


harry 04.19.04 at 12:46 am

And what area of paid human activity , precisely, do you think is exempt from this charge? The Arts? TV? Marketing? Farming? Politics? Advertising? Manufacturing? Healthcare? Sport?… I’m puzzled.


DJW 04.19.04 at 12:48 am

Isn’t the statement “Most work in (field X, academic or otherwise) is mediocre” actually true by definition? Substantively if not technically.

I agree that the quality here and elsewhere can be better than seminars and conferences. I suspect part of the reason might be taht everyone who participates wants to–seminars and conferences are often things people participate in becuase they have to or should for their career, but don’t directly interest them. Here, we get no credit but we do it anyway.


jholbo 04.19.04 at 2:02 am

So, Themoabird: when you referred to ‘you guys’you were not addressing me, or CT, or bloggers, or academics, but the human race? (Is there any particular reason you chose MY comments box, then? Just my bad luck, eh?)

Chun, to give a very short response. (A longer one will follow, or else be implicit in one or more of my projected follow-ups). When I read PMLA – and I have been reading bunches and bunches of lit studies journals since – I was struck by the fact that, frankly, about half the pieces needed to be seriously rewritten as ‘bookchat’. (And nothing wrong with that.) Or rather: they could hope to be nice, bookchat-grade cultural criticism, that being the more popular mode, and fine with me. Cultchat. And the other half of the pieces – with a few sterling exceptions – were hopeless and shouldn’t have been written at all. And trying to rewrite them as bookchat would have also made clear, in these cases, what the intellectual problems were. And the rare, sterling exceptions that are doing something truly intricate and intellectually sophisticated beyond the scope of possible ‘chat’ – that are attempting to do critical philosophy, say – would be well served by having all the rest fade into the bookchat woodwork and stay there, so we can see the real critical deal more clearly. Very few people in literary studies take critical philosophy (in anything like the geniune sense) genuinely seriously. Because they are so used to everything around them being an ersatz version of it: strayed bookchat puffing itself up into a fundamental assault on logocentrism, or Enlightenment instrumental reason.

In literary studies, you see philosophy all over the place and everyone reasonably assumes it’s most all just cheap plaster facade. Certainly it’s not load-bearing. This is not a situation in which respect for the architectonic glories of philosophy is encouraged, actually. So the bookchat benchmark is not so trivial, let alone debasing, as it might seem. And one effect of saying ‘we might as well up and admit this is what we are and mostly should be doing’ would be: greater recognition of the value and interest of abstract, philosophical approaches to literature and culture. Which are extremely rare.

There is another way at this point (and yes, this is all inadequate). Literary studies is a leviathan with poor circulation, if you will. You need to rub the giant limbs vigorously to get any worthwhile, large-scale activity out of the thing. And that sort of rubbing is: bookchat, frankly. There needs to be some constant buzz of low-level literary energy entering the system and zapping about. That is totally lacking at present, for a variety of institutional and cultural reasons. The journals, as they exist, are poor at it. (Well, this is a big one. I’ll talk about it later.) Now I’m not inclined to make apologies for bookchat, or grant the point that academic literary studies is in any way shape or form more sophisticated than good literary journalism. I fail to see the reasonable benchmark according to which it turns out that academics know things that smart journalists and other serious, devoted bookhounds don’t. But it seems to me that even if you thought this was low-grade stuff to be academically disdained, you would still admit that it is an indispensable catalyzing precondition for anything much happening higher up. If you don’t rub the giant limbs, getting the fannish blood flowing, the big guy won’t get up and run around the block. So if you think only mighty activities are worthy of us it ought to come to the same in the end, prescription-wise.


DJW 04.19.04 at 2:34 am

Holbo, Chun, anyone else:

Can you give a relatively simple, precise and concise (I’m looking at you, Holbo :)) elaboration of the technical differences between bookchat and serious literary criticism? It would help me, and no doubt others, follow this conversation. And of course you may mean different things by them, which might be part of the problem.


Adam Kotsko 04.19.04 at 2:46 am

I am not a literary blogger and lack any notable academic credentials (I gave a lecture at Villanova — or was it a street corner?), but I think John’s proposal is sound. One benefit he did not mention is that academic blogging would also allow for the general public to become more involved — perhaps somewhat parallel to the public lectures at the College de France.

It would also have the benefit of decreasing the pressure to publish half-ass journal articles and books, thus perhaps increasing the quality and value of the genuinely monumental contributions to scholarship. (In short, it may well help to heal our wounded academic system — and a pony!)

While I agree with Chun that blogs are generally terrible, I fear that the putative taxation would only happen, however, once blogs really got off the ground as far as providing genuine cultural criticism (beyond the level of “George W. Bush sux!”).

Also, even though it’s not quite what you’re talking about wood s lot is a great blog in terms of putting some serious ideas out there in an accessible form.


Russell Arben Fox 04.19.04 at 3:07 am

Themoabird strikes me as a man with issues. But who doesn’t?

John, I second djw’s request for a definition of “bookchat” vs. “literary criticism.” Your association of the latter with “critical philosophy” is intriguing. Actually, I’m fairly certain I know exactly what you mean, in an I-know-it-when-I-see-it sort of way, but I’d like to hear your more nuanced definitions nonetheless.


jholbo 04.19.04 at 4:16 am

Response to djw (who clearly knows I am brevity-impaired). Scott McLemee gave a nice acceptance speech when he got a well-deserved award for reviewing. He uses the term ‘bookchat’, which he takes from Gore Vidal, apparently. I mean it the way Scott means it. (Can’t speak for Chun, but I expect we are on the same page, despite his differences with McLemee.)

It’s not a terribly sharp, precise term, obviously (nor need it be.) Scott talks about a Great Chain of Critical Being stretching from humble chat – hey, isn’t this interesting? (and if so, it’s worth mentioning) – up to critical philosophy at the top. With stuff in between. The trouble with academic lierary studies is that the bottom and the top have fallen off: precious little enthusiastic chat, little serious abstract critical philosophy. And the center does not hold, with the ends lopped off like that.

Chat: saying what you like, what you are enthusiastic about, trying to be smart about it, trying to interest others, but not really worrying about the Big Picture right this second.

Again, grossly oversimple. I mean to do better. And I’m sounding more abusive of literary studies than I really mean to be (let alone am entitled to be.) It’s not that there isn’t lots of good stuff being done. It’s that there’s so much overproduction of stuff that’s not good enough that it’s not worth your trouble, poking around to find the good stuff. And almost the worst is stuff that might be decent chat but simply must pretend it is more, thereby making it tedious and laborious to deal with – rather than light and interesting and potentially rewarding. This is not because the inhabitants are dumb or immoral. It’s a function of lots of institutional factors. And I don’t mean just the sinister or stupid institutional factors. Just think of the damn size of the Beast: tens of thousands of lit profs, all expected to write not just articles but (god help us) books. Who’s going to read them all, I ask you? What clacking difference engine of a reputation economy is up to the task of really chewing through all this chaff for the sake of the wheat? The journals? I don’t think so. A lot of people just sort of saying what they really find interesting, and letting all those little moves add up? You could do worse.

I hereby begin to get at what I mean about a serious circulation problem. It’s one of my reasons for speaking up for chat (apart from the fact that I like it.) Chat is accessible. (We can almost define it that way.) Literary studies has very bad circulation. I keep saying that. It’s important. Folks don’t read each others stuff, and that’s not healthy.

Hey, if Stephen Greenblatt said so in 2002 in his MLA Presidential Address – and he did – then I’m not being nasty by repeating it. I quote the man on the crisis in publishing.

“The problem, according to university presses, is that we are not reading one another as much as we once did – or at least that we are not buying one another’s books and assigning them to our classes. There are, I know, economic factors here: we are reluctant to buy, let alone compel students to buy, expensive books. But judging from the fate of even modestly priced academic books in our field, the problem is not exclusively economic. Somewhere over the past decade, our interest in one another’s work – or again, at least in owning one another’s work – seems to have declined . . .

Our great failure in recent years is not that we no longer write for a general public – as if every significant literary scholar in the past lad been a Lionel Trilling or an Edmund Wilson – but that we no longer write for one another, not well enough in any case to inspire one another to buy and assign our books.”

Chun criticizes me as though I’d said academic literary studies ought to be just chat. No, I didn’t mean that – even if it sounded like that. I mean: if literary scholars aren’t furiously trading their little enthusiasms, constantly, the Beast has bad circulation and will just lie there like a big, stupid thing.

Or put it this way, either/or. Either there really are tens of thousands of happy little enthusiasms out there, getting blocked by the system. In which case: why not let these loose to help cure the dullness? Or there aren’t. Most literary scholars are hunger artists about their books, after all. I don’t think so, but it would be good to learn, if it were true. (And I know that Chun loves his books and likes chatting about them.)

Chat is an essential part of the overall organic health of literary studies. No point being all embarrassed about our bodily functions, I take it. Literary studies needs healthier body image, maybe. And what with all this ‘circulation of social energy’ I’m encouraging, I ought to be getting a pat on the back from every New Historicist in town for my thoroughly sensible proposal that there ought to be a bunch of big, happy group blogs run by literary studies folks, just chatting merrily and getting the juices flowing.


chun the unavoidable 04.19.04 at 6:03 am

I admire high-handed opinions–the more extravagant and presumptuous, the better. Thus, I found Holbo’s assessment of the quality of current literary scholarship above quite enjoyable. I’m not bothered in particular, as I imagine some might be, by Professor Holbo, on the evidence of a previous blogpost and of his undoubtably representative reading, stating that half of the journal articles published (which range, I should remind you, over thousands of years and hundreds of national literary traditions) were non-starters but for the low standards of the field. I’m no more bothered by this than I would be by a literary academic blogger making similar pronouncements about the state of academic philosophy, which I may in fact do myself–with greater warrant–if the notion strikes me. No readers, this troubles me not at all.

What does trouble me is the repressive tolerance of bookchat Holbo endorses. I, Vidal, and all freedom-loving peoples use the term contemptuously. Like the masturbation it is, I often find reading 4500 empty words about the eternal verities of Henry Green pleasurable. A forty-five word blog-post pointing me to it is even appreciated. The idea, however, that it’s a catalyst for textual and historical scholarship on this novelist is astonishing. Rather, inane, evaluative bookchat is parasitic on scholarship–generally low-level, biographical scholarship–but scholarship all the same. It does not advance knowledge; it uses an appeal to taste and kulchur to sell a certain class of audience to advertisers.

Like all good educators, I’m an obscurantist. The circulatory function of bookchat that Holbo mentions is very real and dangerous. The blog can exercise chat. If there is a problem with literary studies, it’s that it isn’t sufficently phlegmatic. Consider Pinker’s parable about the elephant’s trunk, for example.


jholbo 04.19.04 at 7:17 am

Chun wants literary studies to stay the same, only more so? Phlegm fatale. Yeesh. (And wasn’t Pinker’s point just that the elephant is really good with the thing? Can do a lot with it? It’s an organ as astonishing as our organ of language? If that’s the point, what point are you making, Chun? I’m not seeing the connection.)

Apart from that, let’s get this red herring out of here.

‘Chat just appeals to taste and kulchur’. I’m just avocating a reactionary lifting of our skirts to make sure they are unsoiled by politics and all that? No, no, no. I take it to be obvious you can chat about politics as well as literature – chat about culture, race, gender and class. Chat about them all at once. Or by turns. The revolution will probably be chatted about. Whatever. Don’t frown at me. This has nothing to do with what I’m saying, near as I can figure.

Chat is parasitic on good scholarship. Yes, but good scholarship is also parasitic on chat. Circle of life kind of thing.

I think we are at this point putting WAY too much weight on the term ‘chat’. Quite absurd for this of all terms to become so comically top-heavy.

Let’s try a different angle. Chun is right that I’m saying all this bad stuff about his tribe without providing a shred of evidence. I’m talking complete smack, basically.

I am far in advance of needed support for my claims, fair enough. I am going to follow up and try to do better. I’m going to talk about the journals I’ve read, what was wrong with them, the good pieces they contained. I’m going to finish up with PMLA, move on the Critical Inquiry, move on to Diacritics. Then … I dunno. Couple of books. Of course, I’ll give up in exhaustion before then and try to find a dozen lit studies natives to take my place. Seriously, maybe even Chun will agree that there is a need for a Review Review. That is a review – maybe a group blog – where people try to comb through all the journals and smile at the good and frown at the bad. And [insert appropriate verb here] about it sharply and pertinently, thereby making life go better.

I really don’t mean: everyone should get a blog and bash ‘theory’ all day long, by the by. There’s that, yeah. And it’s OK. But it really doesn’t offer much of a positive alternative.

Chun is in favor of scholarship. Well, I like it too. But the problem in literary studies is that there is widespread and seriously deep crisis of confidence about what counts as scholarship. (Again, I mean to document this phenomenon, although I take it to be more or less freely granted by a high proportion of the natives, because I’ve read them saying this is the problem.) What are our methods? What is the point and subject matter of lit studies? Not that [insert verb here], of all things, is going to fathom these deep imponderables. But my distinct sense is that a certain amount of ‘well, what do I like? what genuinely interests me?’ would be tonic. Would do more good than harm.

Erin O’Connor used to have up a tag line over at Critical Mass: ‘bluntness is at present a therapeutic necessity’. Something like that. I guess I must seem pretty blunt in my attacks, so maybe I’ll just amend that line a little. I would say that bluntness is OK if the target is very clear and very in need of total demolition. There are many such targets. Literary studies is a target rich environment, I should say. And if you are just so pissed off that you have to scream – i.e. if you are therapizing yourself. Fine.

But what I think is really necessary at present is not so much bluntness as frankness. People have a sense that if they drop certain elaborate mannerisms – tokens of literary studies belonging – they will be branded as naive. But the reason people don’t read each others’ work, as Greenblatt says, is they are bored of those mannerisms and tokens of belonging. The scholarship is overgrown with them until it’s too much bother digging it out. Prune it back to frank chat and let’s see what we’ve got.


DJW 04.19.04 at 9:04 am

On the circulation problem as a problem, you get no argument from me, at least in theory. In my current dissertation research I’m discovering all sorts of ways in which circulation difficulties in my (entirely different and largely unrelated) field lead to serious wheel reinvention problems.

On chat: I think I get what you’re saying, but I still wonder if you’re not thinking about chat in a couple of different ways.

WARNING: what follows is quite long, self indulgent, and quite possibly evidence that I’m not getting the point.

You say:

Chat: saying what you like, what you are enthusiastic about, trying to be smart about it, trying to interest others, but not really worrying about the Big Picture right this second.

This raises several different ways you might be asserting that chat differs from literary criticism/serious scholarship/whatever the other of chat is properly termed. I’m not sure which it is. Here are three interpretations that suggest themselves.

1) Chat is about, as you say, what you like and why. Whereas scholarship could simply be about something, with no particular interest in whether it’s good or praiseworthly or not. An argument about the deployment of a literary device, an argument about thematic connections between two authors or texts, etc. might be agnostic regarding likes and dislikes. Ergo not chat. Chat’s other (let’s call her not chat, or NC, for the purposes of the rest of this post) is officially agnostic re: likes and dislikes.

2) Chat is less rigorous than NC. It doesn’t purport to be systematic, it’s cautiously adventurous and eclectic in method, and doesn’t justify its methodology, etc. Whereas NC is more careful, cautious, systematic and perhaps boring, but more conclusory.

3) Chat is narrower than NC. Whereas NC purports to tell us something important about the big picture (possibly a contribution to ‘critical philosophy,’ possibly the trajectory of the history of the novel, or some other big important thing), chat simply purports to tell us why we ought to give Little Dorrit a closer look, take P.G. Wodehouse seriously, or whatever.

Now, I’ve read about 1/100 as much contemporary literary scholarship as you have, quite possibly less, so I’m not qualified to speculate as to whether there is a problem, what the possibly non-existent problem is, and what ought to be done about it. So what follows is a response to the application of each of the three possible conceptions of chat distilled above, applied to academic work in the humanities and social sciences more broadly, primarily if fields I’ve encountered, coz, well, that’s what I can talk about.

On 1) I think being clear about what you ‘like’ is a fine suggestion for academics in the social sciences. Preferences often lurk pretty close to the surfaces, implausibly hidden behind a wall of scholarly dispassion, erected for reasons of scholarly convention and fooling exactly none of the readers. Work on women’s studies, multiculturalism, and markets (from both sides, depending on the field and fits this bill). A recognition that the goal of objectivity is really a goal of fairness and openmindedness, and needn’t require a literal commitment to an impossible objectivity is an appropriate place for scholarship in lots of fields to go. But I don’t see this as particularly relavent to the circulation problem.

On 2) I’m fairly convinced good scholarship is going to run the gamut. Methodological rigor is important and good and necessary for the advancement of scholarship, including literary scholarship. On the other hand, some quite worthwhile ideas simply don’t fit in this form, at least not in their initial stages, but the scholarly community would still benefit from getting those ideas out there before they’re worked into a more rigorous and methodologically clear form. And trying to cram them into the trappings of rigor and consistent methodology before they belong there becuase of the conventions of scholarly publishing is unfortunate, and perhaps obscurantist. So you may have a point here, if this is what you mean by chat.

On 3), almost all work in just about any field is actually quite narrow in scope. Couching it in the big picture narrative about Theory, the good life, the history of the novel and whatnot is a standard hand-waving gesture (look at me! I’m important! Hire and promote me! Pay attention!) And when done in the way that goes beyond credibility and reason, it can quickly become a turn-off. I’d say it potentially remains valuable, though, for authors to at least speculate about the larger significance of their work is–it’s a great invitation to continue the conversation. It should be done modestly and not entirely permeate the work, but asking our academic writers to be modest in this regard is likely a non-starter, for professional and temperamental reasons.

I haven’t considered the accessibility issue as a possible distinction between chat and NC. If that’s what you mean, I just don’t buy it. chat, under all three above definitions, can be profoundly inaccessible, and NC can be entirely accessible. Not always, of course; all fields will have some segments of the literature that just won’t be accessible to those who aren’t familiar with a bit of the language. But in general, I don’t see much to say here, except that we should be as accessible as possible without unduly sacrificing nuance.

BUT, the accessibility understanding of chat vs. NC might go the furthest to explain the circulation problems. It’s a bit more tangential under chat 1, 2, and 3.


DJW 04.19.04 at 9:17 am

Cross-posting. And Holbo’s latest post is much more precise and speaks to my latest interpretive muddle.

Of course, if the difference between chat and NC is the lack of annoying rhetorical mannerisms in the former, this all seems like more words than is necessary to make a fairly minor point. And really, that may be why people say they’re not reading, but I don’t know if I buy it. I can’t imagine they’re not a discipline that doesn’t have annoying quirks that adorn it’s scholarship. Would we be better off without them? Sure. Are the litcrit ones more annoying and pretentious than most? Quite possibly. But it’s something you really can get around if you’re serious about reading. Or at least so it would seem–like I said, you’ve read a lot more of the stuff than me. But why are these particular mannerisms and platitudes so distracting as to make reading a no-go?


Simstim 04.19.04 at 12:04 pm

Has anyone mentioned Sturgeon’s Law yet?


jholbo 04.19.04 at 4:04 pm

Simstim, if Sturgeon’s right, then my proposal is reasonable. Because if it’s mostly crap, it would be nice if someone sorted through it for you. (And yes, they would be foredoomed to sort it crappily, but we are beating back the brown waves as fast as we can here.)

In part what I am proposing is very modest and should be agreeable to everyone – even people like Chun. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the guy, but we disagree about a lot.) It would be really helpful if there were reviews of the reviews, as it were. Many more levels of secondary literature. Because there’s frankly just too much stuff and people distrust it. Greenblatt says: people aren’t reading each other. I think it would be nice to have, e.g., a really good group blog devoted to trying to improve the situation. I would enjoy reading it. It would help me find stuff to read. (And sorry to keep harping on blogging, which is making me sound obsessed. But that’s what the post was about. And that’s what I asked people to comment about: do you think more academic blogging would make lit studies a healthier, happier place?)

As to djw’s comments. One big point: Chun takes me to be advocating lowering critical and argumentative and evidential standards. I take me to NOT be advocating that. Very definitely not. What I want is the very antipodes of lowered standards. Because lowering scholarly standards would be bad. My point is that you can keep the standards just as high as they are now, or actually raise them, while producing something much more accessible and engaging.

Now at this point there isn’t much point pushing the point, because either I follow this post up by putting my money where my mouth is, by exhibiting problems with the way things are, by showing how things could be better. Or I don’t. By just claiming this thing I’m annoying Chun (easy to do, admittedly) by restating my view over and over, even though he perfectly well knows what I think. He just thinks I’m deluded. It really all comes down to me thinking that lit studies is totally lacking in any disciplinary discipline, so it seems tonic to say: doesn’t it show something that non-scholars just chatting off-the-cuff are producing stuff no less rigorous, and a good deal more fun to read? And Chun thinks that’s totally wrong – a gross exaggeration, if not outright libel of a discipline in OK shape.

It is true that by listing some pretty chatty lit blogs that I like to read and just firing off – ‘look, this is as good as PMLA’ – I am getting a bit out of line. Exaggerating to make a point. And then the word ‘chat’ got in the mix, and I regret that.

So I’m sort of not going to respond to the rest of your long post, djw, even though it is very reasonably laid out. Because I just need to marshall my evidence and make my case more fully. And try to be as agreeable to folks as I can, because I want them to agree with me. (Because then they’ll do what I say.)

But one last quick point: as to the ‘liking and disliking’. I guess I don’t want to insist that everyone always be announcing to everyone at the top of their scholarly lungs what they like and don’t like. That sounds vaguely silly, doesn’t it? I guess I feel that ‘because we like it’ is sort of the reason why there is such a thing as literary studies, and I feel that gets lost. (This is a very common complaint, I realize. And it can be banal, but I think it’s also seriously important.)

If I may make a stab at a correction. Following up my emendation of Eric O’Connor’s late slogan: be blunt about what you don’t like in literary studies. Be frank about what you like. Because if you are saying the whole thing is messed up, you owe some sort of picture of what an alternative would look like. I mean: something for thousands of profs to do all day. I don’t think the answer is: just blogging. But I think, given that everyone pretty much agrees there is a bloodbath coming in publishing, and a lot has to change, a much saner system of literature could be evolved. I just want to be able to say more often: oh good, a new journal full of interesting essays I want to read about literature and culture.

I may not post to this thread again, because I’m hoping if I pipe down others may pipe up. I am in all seriousness interested in hearing a range of perspectives on this issue, preferably from literary studies folks. (This of course includes Chun, whose sassy and irreverant comment stylings are always very bracing and welcome.)


Ray 04.19.04 at 5:16 pm

I thank John for the link, and aplogize for Pseudopodium’s current sluggishness, brought on by day-job crunch and my finishing an online edition of T. H. Mallock’s The New Republic (wherein a proto-Young-Republican rips the veil off fashionable PC nonsense in 1876 Oxford).

For whatever it’s worth, I would describe what I do as “criticism” and “reprinting” rather than “scholarship”. I rarely delve into closed archives, decipher manuscripts, or interview primary sources, and when I do it tends to be in the service of a critical piece.

But then I wouldn’t describe everything that goes on in English and Comp Lit departments as “scholarship” either. I somehow remain stuck in the old-fashioned notion that one’s relationship to the art of one’s own culture is better viewed as a personal matter than as an academic one.

Not that I want to wipe out English and Comp Lit departments. It’s nice for non-commercial writers who can’t program computers to have some other hope of making a living, and, for good or for ill, we’ve become culturally dependent on university libraries and presses. I merely and humbly want to wipe out the notion that access to cultural material “for scholarly reasons” is somehow more legitimate and important than access “for pleasure” or access “for knowledge.”

Otherwise, and speaking as an academic outsider, John’s suggestions seem enticing and sound. I think it’s been proven already that online self-publishing can lead to a more engaged community, easier access (whether for scholarship, pleasure, or knowledge), and less insular backbiting. Given the costs of traditional journal publishing and the frustrating limitations of tradtional peer review, I also (like John) anticipate greater integration of gen-u-ine 100% scholarship with online self-publishing–not a replacement but a natural synthesis. It’s easy enough to imagine “Behavioral & Brain Studies” responses implemented as a trackback list, for example.


chun the unavoidable 04.19.04 at 6:06 pm

The rightward tilt of bloggers in general is very prominent in the academic literary blogs (how is Philadelphia big enough for two Camille Paglias, e.g.), and thus any effort to marshal existing resources for a group blog would inevitably produce the same tired PC-warrior spin we can read in any number of print publications, some of which go so far as to have VDH on their editorial boards.

Now if that sounds great, then great.


Richard 04.19.04 at 6:41 pm

“My point is that you can keep the standards just as high as they are now, or actually raise them, while producing something much more accessible and engaging.”

Hmm. I must admit that I’ve often lamented the lack of excellent literature/arts weblogs. My conclusion has been that is that the problem originates with the subjectivity of the field. It’s perfectly possible for two advocates of differing works to disgree, not just on their respective merits but on the grounds for advancing those merits. One person’s merit can quite easily be another’s flaw, and such discussions typically tend to degenerate into one person shouting black while the other shouts white. While I’m sure this occurs in other humanities subjects I nonetheless suspect it is especially acute for arts subjects; and, frankly, is usually extremely tedious to read. This lack of a common ground is absolutely ideal for the kind of the balkanisation of literary studies that you seem concerned with.

With that in mind, I’m not especially convinced that literary studies influenced criticism is as much a cause (assuming I have interpreted John’s comments correctly) of these problems as a symptom. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t have considerable reservations about theory.) From my perspective at least, the criticism that preceded the current theory vogue, though probably more accessible, was frankly even less engaging…


Richard 04.19.04 at 6:42 pm

“My point is that you can keep the standards just as high as they are now, or actually raise them, while producing something much more accessible and engaging.”

Hmm. I must admit that I’ve often lamented the lack of excellent literature/arts weblogs. My conclusion has been that is that the problem originates with the subjectivity of the field. It’s perfectly possible for two advocates of differing works to disgree, not just on their respective merits but on the grounds for advancing those merits. One person’s merit can quite easily be another’s flaw, and such discussions typically tend to degenerate into one person shouting black while the other shouts white. While I’m sure this occurs in other humanities subjects I nonetheless suspect it is especially acute for arts subjects; and, frankly, is usually extremely tedious to read. This lack of a common ground is absolutely ideal for the kind of the balkanisation of literary studies that you seem concerned with.

With that in mind, I’m not especially convinced that literary studies influenced criticism is as much a cause (assuming I have interpreted John’s comments correctly) of these problems as a symptom. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t have considerable reservations about theory.) From my perspective at least, the criticism that preceded the current theory vogue, though probably more accessible, was frankly even less engaging…


Ray 04.19.04 at 6:55 pm

I should also mention a point that Lawrence L. White likes to make: Not all scholarship easily expands into a published paper any more than all critical thoughts easily fit into a publishable review. The weblog and related forms are particularly well-suited for publication of such scholarship and criticism–not quite “chat,” but easily coexistant with it.


Richard 04.19.04 at 6:56 pm

Ahem. Sorry, must remember to ignore error messages when positing in future..


Amardeep Singh 04.19.04 at 7:18 pm

I’m a literature professor, and I’ve been doing a blog for about a month.

I think Holbo is absolutely right, both about the possibly productive nature of literary blogging, and about the currently moribund status of journals of literary criticism.

I’m currently on sabbatical from my university, trying to write a book. One thing I’ve experienced this spring since starting my blog is that the sense of complete discursive isolation is less — I can talk about my ideas in bits and pieces, in progress. I can start discussions on things that might be tangential to my main research (still relevant), but which other people might be interested in nonetheless. I can communicate with non-academics, including friends and family all over the world, and give them a sense of what exactly it is I do everyday.

I enjoy it, and I think it has been beneficial to my scholarly progress. If more people did it, it might potentially be beneficial to all of us.


PZ Myers 04.19.04 at 8:56 pm

If Camille Paglia, taken pairwise or singly, is the type specimen of the literary academic, the whole discipline is doomed and I won’t shed a tear at its obliteration.

(Before I get zapped with the death rays usually reserved for Chun, I’ll protest that I hope Paglia isn’t representative.)


chun the unavoidable 04.19.04 at 9:09 pm

I should point out that Michael Berube first made the Paglia comparison, but I agree that, when the most-read blog in the field aspires to her condition, then things are very bad indeed.


DJW 04.19.04 at 9:53 pm

John, thanks very much for your reply. I eagerly await the unveiling of the definitive blog post on the ills of contemporary literary scholarship. Sometimes your blogging on this matter rubs me the wrong way, in large part becuase it reminds me of manifestly unfair broadside attacks on various subfields and scholarly trends in my own field (Political Science), which is hardly fair to you, except that in both cases the critics haven’t really made their case yet. But I’m now cautiously optimistic you may have something fairly worthwhile to say.

Amardeep Singh: thanks for the link to your great blog, in particular that outstanding post about Indian Cinema! A Sonatine influenced Ghosh film is exciting indeed, although God knows if I’ll ever be able to see it.


Richard 04.19.04 at 10:36 pm

“If Camille Paglia, taken pairwise or singly, is the type specimen of the literary academic, the whole discipline is doomed and I won’t shed a tear at its obliteration.”

Difficult to answer without knowing precisely the nature of your objection to Paglia, but to the best of my knowledge, she is far from representative. Most academics in the humanities that I know have always spoken of Paglia with visceral loathing, while she has always gloried in her status as self-appointed pariah.


Daniel Green 04.20.04 at 1:33 am

I’d like to make just one point: if academic blogging simply recapitulates the current norms of academic literary scholarship, it will get nowhere. To the extent it rediscovers an actual interest in literature–and this is what you find in the lit blogs, a real, honest-to-goodness interest in literature–as opposed to a commitment to so-called “scholarly” agendas that most often don’t even interest scholars, it might just rediscover the purpose of literary study and have something to offer the readers of literature. You can call this “book chat,” if you wish, but by this definition Leavis and Brooks and Frye and Burke and Fish and most other great literary scholars were also engaged in book chat.


Richard 04.20.04 at 1:17 pm

“by this definition Leavis and Brooks and Frye and Burke and Fish and most other great literary scholars were also engaged in book chat.”

Bleh. That was exactly what I was complaining about above; how anyone can feel nostalgia for that dreary, boring old nonsense I’ll never understand. As for Frye, he makes Lacan and Kristeva look sane.


Daniel Green 04.20.04 at 3:25 pm

The above comment illustrates exactly why literary study has come to a dead end and shows no signs of knowing how to get out of it.


Amardeep Singh 04.20.04 at 8:38 pm

I agree — this morning I felt compelled to do a short defense of Northrop Frye on my blog. Not that he really needs it.


Raindream 04.21.04 at 3:58 am

As a non-academic literary blogger, I kinda wish I could be more academic. That is, I wish I had more to say, more experience from which to draw, and more insight into literature.


Steve 04.21.04 at 2:38 pm

As a non academic, non–literary studies guy, I wonder if I could attempt to translate the above conversation into something resembling English:
1) One form of discourse is light, but pleasant. Think of cocktail party conversations.
2) A second form of discourse is more rigorous, but still pleasant. Think of book reviews, or critism in the form of articles in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Review of Books, etc.
3) A third form is theoretical, extremely rigorous, and extremely difficult: academic literary studies.

The current problem in the field is that while respected work has to be of form 3), above, nobody wants to read it-you all went into the field to engage in 1) and 2). Thus, you are all professionally obligated to engage in 3) in spite of the fact that it (with a few brilliant exceptions) bores you.

Perhaps blogs will fill in the gap, and open the field up to more 1) and 2), and due to more enthusiastic discourse, coincidently improve the quality of 3).

If the above characterization is correct, then I can suggest one problem: very few of you can write very well-by that, I mean, very clearly. Lots of name dropping, lots of weird allusions, lots of strange indirect argumentation which makes it difficult to follow your argument. Your habits of writing in the style of 3) has poisoned your discourse on this blog (i.e. your activity in writing 1), and perhaps light 2)) enough that it is difficult to follow your (collective) point.

If I have mischaracterized the conversation, then a thousand pardons-I am just an engineer ;)! On the other hand, if I am incorrect, doesn’t that support my thesis? I.e. if I am incorrect, then what exactly is the (collective) argument?


Steve 04.21.04 at 3:29 pm

by the way, I should qualify:
Writing style problems are not unique to literary studies. Philosophy is equally prone to unnecessary obfuscation (read Heidegger, understand that he’s basically having a conversation with Descartes, then read Descartes, and lament the fact that Heidegger didn’t write like he did!). And personally might very well be an academic if I could write…


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