Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?

Merve Emre in The New Yorker:

If the character sketches that the English satirist Samuel Butler wrote in the mid-seventeenth century—among them “A Degenerate Noble,” “A Huffing Courtier,” “A Small Poet,” and “A Romance Writer”—the most recognizable today is “A Modern Critic.” He is a contemptible creature: a tyrant, a pedant, a crackpot, and a snob; “a very ungentle Reader”; “a Corrector of the Press gratis”; “a Committee-Man in the Commonwealth of letters”; “a Mountebank, that is always quacking of the infirm and diseased Parts of Books.” He judges, and, if authors are to be believed, he judges poorly. He praises without discernment. He invents faults when he cannot find any. Beholden to no authority, obeying nothing but the mysterious stirrings of his heart and his mind, he hands out dunce caps and placards insolently and with more than a little glee. Authors may complain to their friends, but they have no recourse. The critic’s word is law.

Butler’s sketch would still strike a chord with aggrieved writers today, but, in his time, the Modern Critic—part mountebank, part magician—was a new phenomenon. The figure’s shape-shifting in the centuries since is the subject of John Guillory’s new book, “Professing Criticism” (Chicago), an erudite and occasionally biting series of essays on “the organization of literary study.” Guillory has spent much of his career explaining how works of literature are enjoyed, assessed, interpreted, and taught; he is best known for his landmark work, “Cultural Capital” (1993), which showed how literary evaluation draws authority from the institutions—principally universities—within which it is practiced. To suggest, for instance, that minor poets were superior to major ones, as T. S. Eliot did, or that the best modernist poetry was inferior to the best modernist prose, as Harold Bloom did, meant little unless these judgments could be made to stick—that is, unless there were mechanisms for transmitting these judgments to other readers. (Full disclosure: I have written an introduction to a forthcoming thirtieth-anniversary edition of the book.)

More here.