The Chronicle Review

In Praise of Tough Criticism

Geoffrey Moss for The Chronicle Review

June 13, 2010

Professor Jones is well known for her generosity. She encourages nonconfrontational exchanges of ideas and is always upbeat and positive about her colleagues and their work. She is patient with her graduate students, encouraging them to be patient with one another as well. When a student makes a comment in class that is weak or off base, unlike some other faculty members in her department, Jones will not make a fuss. When the appropriate opportunity presents itself, she will try to work with the student to improve his or her thinking. Jones's critical credo is, "If you don't have something positive to say, then it is best not to say anything at all—at least not in public."

Her colleague Professor Smith is quite the opposite. He has built a successful career by telling people that they are wrong. The goal of criticism, he believes, is to persuade other people to see the world his way, and if they don't, then he will do everything he can to prove to them—and anyone else who will listen—that they are wrong. Criticism is a competition of ideas, a nasty business in which it is acceptable and sometimes necessary to be a brute. Strong ideas survive, weak ones perish; there is no room for wishy-washy opinions and people. Smith's assessments are harsh but well argued and persuasive. His critical credo is, "Public criticism is as valid as public praise."

Most of us probably know someone like Jones. Others have either heard of someone like Smith—or have been attacked by someone like Smith. The bulk of literary scholars and critics, I think, believe that our profession would be better off if it contained more people like Jones and fewer people like Smith—more compassion, less confrontation. The critic Jane Tompkins has bemoaned scholarly attacks as evidence of a "decline of civility," and Herbert S. Lindenberger, a professor emeritus of humanities at Stanford University, has lamented the "warlike atmosphere" of English studies.

Such comments are indicative of a broad dissatisfaction with harsh criticism, which is frowned upon both because of its potential for emotional disruption and for its alleged divisiveness. Therefore critics like Jones, who believe that solidarity is not possible in a climate where ideas are publicly dismantled, call for the adoption of a more civil form of criticism. But when it comes to criticism, is compassion really preferable to combativeness? Does an upbeat style actually encourage positive tendencies in the profession? Is compassion an intellectual virtue? The answer to those questions is no. If a compassionate, caring form of criticism entails removing the "critical" from "critical exchange," then I would rather see the field move toward a more combative, confrontational style—even if it means ruffling a few feathers.

The scholarly community is closed and tight-knit. Some go so far as to maintain that professors are of like mind. Louis Menand, for example, argues as much in his recent book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (W.W. Norton). "Professors tend to think alike because the profession is increasingly self-selected," he writes, even suggesting that the similarities go beyond mere like-mindedness: "The university may not explicitly require conformity on more than scholarly matters, but the existing system implicitly demands and constructs it." In academe, behavioral norms are constructed and enforced. Young professionals are introduced to them in graduate school, master them as junior faculty members, and become protectors and advocates of them as senior scholars. Success is in large part dependent on the comprehension and observance of entrenched protocols.

Some of the rules are straightforward and noncontroversial: We are never prohibited from using the ideas of another scholar, for example, as long as we acknowledge their use. Elaborate mechanisms for citation—the handbook of the Modern Language Association, The Chicago Manual of Style—map out the protocols. Failure to properly cite another's ideas is generally not grounds for expulsion from the community, but failure to even attempt to acknowledge another's ideas is. Few scholars advance without using other people's ideas. One could not write an article or book about, say, Virginia Woolf without at least nodding at the critical trends in Woolf scholarship. In fact, the more adept a writer is at situating his or her work within the larger body of Woolf scholarship, the more favorably it will be viewed. Indeed, being cognizant of the work of others often trumps original and heterodox thinking.

One could not imagine, for example, the formally innovative novels and criticism of Raymond Federman, or the ideas of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, coming from thinkers who acknowledge every interpretation of Spinoza or Beckett before offering their own opinions. Dissenting voices like Federman's and Deleuze's have little time or interest in keeping up with the scholarship—and therefore produce work that has a problematic relationship to more-orthodox lines of scholarship.

Using the work of others is not without potential problems. For example, it is far less complicated to register a positive than a negative influence. Thanking those who help you establish your point is less fraught with difficulties than is noting the ideas of people whom you seek to set straight. Still, the latter is the essence of critical scholarship: Find a published if not respected position, and set one's own position against it. If everyone thinks that Professor Jackson's reading of Hamlet is brilliant, then enter the scholarly fray by opposing it. But criticism of this type is much more complicated than one would assume on first blush, particularly when the position that you feel intellectually obligated to criticize is that of a colleague whose work you believe it is your categorical duty to support. At such moments, the ethics of criticism collides with the politics of affiliation.

The ethics of criticism requires pointing out the faults in a colleague's thinking. That obligation, however, presents a problem to those who affiliate with the more compassionate, caring school of criticism—that is, those who are loath to point out their colleagues' shortcomings. To such critics, silence is preferable to saying something negative. Here's an actual example—the names have been changed—from my work as editor of the American Book Review: Professor Jones is appalled by a negative review of a colleague's work. Feeling a sense of filial obligation, she offers to review the book for ABR. After commissioning the review, however, I receive a letter from Jones asking to be relieved of the assignment: Having read the book, she concurs with the harsh review. She couldn't find anything positive to say about her colleague's book, so she decided to beg off reviewing it. The weakness of Jones's position is not that she strives to be compassionate or caring in her dealings with her colleagues, but that she believes that anything other than praise is a violation or betrayal of filiality—or even collegiality.

What to do? For compassionate, caring critics, there are a couple of ways around the reluctance to criticize others in public. The most common method is using faint praise, that is, criticizing someone indirectly by not praising them enthusiastically. In her book Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press, 2007), Gail Pool notes that "praise rather than nastiness has generally been the central problem in American reviewing." She advises editors "to look for writers who are above all critics." Her study draws attention to the ways in which American reviewers have gravitated away from harsh criticism because they are "wary of being viewed as jealous" or "enviously unfair." In pointing out that critics are "bending over backwards to praise books more than they deserve," Pool is describing behavior that not even Jones would condone: praising something that is actually believed to be unpraiseworthy. Pool seems to believe—and I definitely believe—that what readers really want in book reviews are honest and direct opinions.

The problem of faint praise (and overpraise) extends deeper into literary studies than the level of the book review. From letters of recommendation to peer reviews of performances and manuscripts, faint praise runs rampant. Scholars like Jones prefer faint praise because it allows them to engage fully in critical exchanges—albeit a rather watered-down version—without coming across as overly critical. But giving faint praise is far worse than saying nothing at all. Why? Because silence is not a critical judgment—but faint praise, in contrast to honest and direct criticism, is empty criticism, the most banal form imaginable.

Another way that compassionate, caring critics get around their credo is to shroud their negative comments in anonymity. While it is difficult today to publish a book review anonymously in print (whereas in the 19th century it was commonplace), it is possible to assess students and colleagues without revealing one's identity. Would Jones have offered a negative review of her colleague's book if her identity were concealed? What is interesting about that question is that if Jones did conceal her identity, then she would in effect be betraying her critical affiliation. Remember, Jones is a compassionate and caring critic. To conceal her identity when offering a negative review would reveal the hypocrisy at the core of her credo. If Jones offers negative assessments anonymously and positive ones under her own name, then it seems wrongheaded to hold her in higher esteem than her colleague Smith, who doles out praise and censure with equal zeal and transparency.

Like faint praise, anonymous criticism is empty criticism. Consider a recent example from The Chronicle Review. Carlin Romano's article "Heil Heidegger!" was savaged in numerous anonymous comments. "Romano writes like an undergrad convinced by the argument of the last book he has read," wrote one critic. "And, yes, he is a professor of philosophy, and yes, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but his understanding of philosophy is so paltry that it beggars belief." To that and other similar comments, Romano responded: "Those who savage me and my article from behind anonymous Internet tags emulate the cowardice, dishonesty, and taste for mobbing of the Nazi thinker they revere. It has often been that way with dupes who defend Heidegger—an abysmal thinker and writer, an immoral monster, and a disgrace to the historic enterprise of philosophy."

Whether or not one agrees with Romano's views of Heidegger, his take on anonymity is worth thinking about. Anonymity has more in common with cowardice than with courage—and is antithetical to critical dialogue. The common rationale for academic anonymity is quite clear: Honesty and truth require anonymity. To offer critical judgment anonymously, or, as Michel Foucault puts it in The Archaeology of Knowledge (Pantheon Books, 1972), as "a nameless voice," allows one to stand outside the order of discourse, dialogue, and language. Writes Foucault, "I don't want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final; I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open, with others responding to my expectations, and truth emerging, one by one." In other words, anonymity is more calming and less risky—or even more cowardly—than named criticism.

The future of critical exchange stands at a crossroads. The increased reliance on faint praise, along with the rise of anonymity online, threatens to enervate the free flow of ideas in academe. While Smith's harsh critical style is not warm and snuggly, at least it promotes an exchange of opinions and the production of knowledge. It is time for literary scholars to question their critical affiliations, to question behavior that encourages conformity over nonconformity; faint praise over pointed criticism; anonymity over transparency. Telling a colleague "You're wrong" shows more compassion and collegiality than remaining silent—or hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.

We need to grow thicker critical skin. Why? Because critical behavior that always results in a chorus of affirmation is nothing more than conformity; because allowing views to persist that need to be challenged is nothing less than critical mediocrity; and because failure to tell our colleagues what we truly think about their work is simple dishonesty. A reshaped critical culture will help build a more robust, honest, and transparent academy.

Jeffrey R. Di Leo is dean of arts and sciences at the University of Houston at Victoria. His next book, Academe Degree Zero: Reconsidering the Politics of Higher Education, is to be released in November by Paradigm Publishers.