The new modesty in literary criticism

Jeffrey J. Williams in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Literary criticismLiterary criticism once had an outsize reach, influencing the terms and concepts of disciplines like art and legal studies. With it came an outsize ego. During the 1970s and 80s, the heyday of literary theory, scholars aimed to explode the foundations of Western metaphysics, foment a revolution of the sign, overturn gender hierarchies, and fight the class struggle.

The battles weren’t just in their imagination. In 1991 the columnist George Will declared Lynne Cheney, then chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, “secretary of domestic defense” for staving off literary theorists who were threatening the canon and traditional cultural values.

But in the past decade, we’ve seen a new modesty. Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make “interventions” of world-historical importance. Their methods include “surface reading,” “thin description,” “the new formalism,” “book history,” “distant reading,” “the new sociology.”

Since the 1950s, the dominant practice in academe has been “criticism”; not the dusty excavation of facts about literature that had marked the field before that—the linguistic and historical background on Elizabethan England or Norse verb forms, or whether Chaucer traveled to France to hear his tales—but analysis and interpretation. Critics became seers who uncovered the special significance of texts, or warriors who critiqued society. Today they are still interested in “reading” texts, but their approach to what they read is different.

In part, the shift represents a generational turnover, and dispensing with some of the overblown assertions of literary theory is refreshing. But it also seems to express the shrunken expectations of academe, particularly of the humanities, and a decline in the social prestige of literary criticism.

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