This week’s reading list looks at the art and practice of criticism. Rocket science and brain surgery are pursuits best left to the professionals, but can the same be said of reading?
Vladimir Nabokov liked to ask whether there are such things as good and bad readers. What do professional readers notice that mere amateurs overlook? Good readers arm themselves with a dictionary, Nabokov thought, and they are sensitive to principles of aesthetic construction. By contrast, bad readers lack critical distance; too concerned with psychology and politics, they fail to appreciate literature as art. As Merve Emre argues, however, supposedly “bad” readers were integral to the literary institutions of postwar America. “It is all too easy to dismiss reading that does not look like Nabokov’s good reading as unworthy of critical attention,” Emre writes. “To do so is to fail to grapple with the historically contingent production of speciﬁc kinds of bad and good readers.”
Emre’s historical approach contrasts with an arguably “purer” style of literary criticism in which the formal qualities of the text take center stage. Yet as Gregory Jones-Katz demonstrates, a historical perspective is essential to grasping the vicissitudes of literary theory itself. Focusing on the intellectual history of deconstruction—a word so ubiquitous it now applies to “recipes and men’s wear”—he shows that it is not the exotic French import it is often assumed to be. “Viewing deconstruction as a foreign mode of interpretation obscures the fertile soil in which it took root and flourished in the United States,” he writes. “Central to the story of deconstruction are the various American contexts that cultivated and disseminated deconstructive undertakings.”
Other contributions to this week’s list reflect further on aesthetic value, social context, and literary significance. A second piece by Emre—which “put her on everybody’s radar,” according to critic Christian Lorentzen—assesses the state of the personal essay; Johanna Winant considers the limitations of new historicism and the legacy of literary modernism; Calvin Bedient takes issue with the methodological preoccupations of “conceptualism,” defending the place of affect in poetry; Farah Jasmine Griffin reflects on teaching African American literature during the COVID-19 pandemic; Ulka Anjaria examines Arundhati Roy’s impact on Indian literature; Daniel Tiffany investigates the class connotations of poetic diction; Jonathan Beecher Field responds to the perennial charge that English departments have forgotten Shakespeare; Adrienne Rich reads the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop; Roger Boylan describes his brush with Samuel Beckett; and we reach deep into the archives for an interview with Arthur Miller.