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In that sense, Kramnick’s book is every bit as exemplary of our moment as Barthes’s was of his. Kramnick’s Criticism and Truth might seem to work against the grain of present calls for large-scale professional reinvention, but its attention to what literary scholars already do well is its own kind of quiet activism. We need to remember what we are fighting for, its argument goes, when we bemoan the humanities’ crises in the post-Covid, STEM-dominant era. In Kramnick’s view, the best way to do this is to emphasize rather than transcend disciplinary distinctions, insisting on the importance of maintaining a well-honed plurality of means to reaching the same broad end. “The collapse of the discipline risks our knowing less about the world,” he writes, “about works of literature and the people who create and read them.”
Such willingness to invoke “the world” as an object of literary knowledge is Criticism and Truth’s boldest and most vulnerable move. It is bold because it refuses to cede literary studies’ access to truths beyond personal experience, and vulnerable because doing so opens up a host of thorny questions about how to measure truth as an interpretive outcome, what Kramnick calls “Verification” in his final chapter. To what standard, barring that of replication, should the truth claim of a literary reading be held? The answer that Criticism and Truth offers is that literary critics are more like craftsmen than scientists, literally working with our hands to mold textual material into a new form that is responsive to its original one. While literary criticism cannot rightly be said to be accurate, in Kramnick’s account it can still be “apt.” The bulk of his book is dedicated to showing how critics from all walks of the profession engender this sense of aptness, by employing learned skills like quotation and interpretive plot summary. In this account, our so-called method wars have drained the lifeblood from what we do, because good criticism is not only or even mainly a matter of politics, affect, or tone, but of mundane attentional labor with texts that reward it. What unifies us, so to speak, is how we get our hands dirty with ink.
There is plenty to quibble with in Kramnick’s account of literary studies, and in this conversation — with Emory University’s Dan Sinykin, the University of California at Berkeley’s Elisa Tamarkin, Case Western Reserve University’s Michael W. Clune, and Harvard University’s Jesse McCarthy — quibbles are not in short supply. Is “close reading,” even in his robust definition, really the sine qua non of our training? And even if so, are the rewards of good critical artisanship really enough to justify our distinct institutional presence to a hostile interlocutor — or administrator? How many other essential aspects of our subdisciplines, to say nothing of different geographical fields, have to be downplayed to find the sense of shared mission that Kramnick so earnestly seeks? The great virtue of Criticism and Truth is that it asks us to have these conversations in broad daylight, and in a spirit of fair-minded communion. It is a deeply optimistic book, perhaps even naïve. But in bringing us back to our basics, Kramnick offers a rare opportunity to rebuild.
Jeanne-Marie Jackson: What do you think the stakes of the word “criticism” are in the title of this book?
Dan Sinykin: I understand it as a disciplinary term, drawing on the history that John Guillory recently charted in Professing Criticism, which argues that literary criticism as a thing that we do in English departments came to be described as such after I.A. Richards and the New Critics in the 1930s. The criticism that Kramnick’s interested in is clearly delimited by the word “discipline.”
Elisa Tamarkin: Kramnick is setting out to defend literary studies as a unique contribution to knowledge, as a discipline with a “distinctive epistemology” at a time when worries about our discipline are existential. The academic job market has collapsed; the number of majors is in decline. He’s proceeding from the assumption that every method of every discipline tells us something unique about what he calls “our corner of the world.” Disciplines matter; they cannot be collapsed into one another or ignored without “epistemic loss.”
He’s trying to describe how criticism makes its objects intelligible in ways that no other discipline can. And he’s also trying to insist that the knowledge criticism creates is worth having. He says, “I have no desire to change the methods of literary study. I want only to understand them.” The foundational method or practice at the heart of criticism is close reading. So “criticism” for him is really close reading, and close reading is a set of practices of writing about writing.
In trying to figure out what “criticism” is, I think one thing we have to discuss is whether this definition of criticism is enough to account for a discipline as a discipline. Does criticism as close reading really account for all the forms of knowledge and understanding our discipline offers?
Michael Clune: He understands “criticism” in a way that is quite different from how it was understood in the classic texts that inaugurated it as a method in the early- and mid-20th century, when it was indistinguishable from judgments of literary value and from specific kinds of high-value literary texts. Kramnick silently accepts a vision of close reading that is different from the vision associated with it in that period, which held that close reading was justified only for works possessing levels of significance, a kind of semantic and symbolic richness, that would reward this practice.
Sinykin: On the other hand, he does restrict the core definition to what we do with literature — not with images, not with TV or film or new media. It’s very important to his argument that what we do is work with words. But “judgment” — and I’m thinking about your book A Defense of Judgment, Michael — is a keyword that gets a bit elided here. Or I should say, Kramnick is concerned to understand how we judge criticism but elides how critics do the work not only of knowledge production but also of judgment.
Jackson: I thought of Michael’s book as well, because the language Kramnick uses to describe close reading is shot through with judgment, even if he doesn’t announce it as such. Criticism can be “deft,” “sensitive,” and so on.
Tamarkin: And there’s a lot of emphasis on “dexterity.” Literary criticism is very much a craft, a kind of handiwork. He turns to examples of what he describes as the everyday practices of close reading — including the use of embedded quotations (that “weave” other people’s words with our own), the ways in which quotations point to specific moments in texts, as well as creative paraphrase — that he says are so ordinary we have stopped noticing them. He’s doing this to make a case for the field as having an actual method that is ubiquitous among us.
Now whether or not our craftwork is good is the question of judgment which his vocabulary raises. Do we judge good criticism by the ways in which our writing about writing is “elegant” or “attuned” to other people’s writing, the ways in which it feels “apt” or “fitting” to the language at hand — is that the basis for criticism that has value or that describes the value and meaning of a literary text?
Jesse McCarthy: One thing I admire about this book, maybe instinctively, maybe self-interestedly, is that it feels like a very well-done guild defense. They should hand it out at MLA! Rally the troops, invigorate the spirit: We have a method; we have expertise; we know what we’re doing; we bring something useful to the table. Which is quite wonderful.
I feel like Kramnick nevertheless falls prey to a lure, which is this emphasis on “knowledge” and “knowing,” as opposed to other categories that are pretty fundamental and inextricable to our method: evaluation, judgment, various aspects of aesthetic appreciation. Or even “understanding” — why not that, as opposed to “knowledge”? There is something about this need to defend the discipline on the terms of a kind of analogy to the sciences, an analogy that he explicitly invites, that I think unnecessarily strains the argument.
Sinykin: Because it is an apologia, that distorts some of the other things he’s attempting to accomplish here. I admire very much the project of getting down to these micropractices of the discipline — plot summary, in-sentence quotation — and I hope that this book opens up more attention to those practices. But because he is writing a brief on behalf of criticism as a knowledge-producing discipline, he insists on taking these micropractices to be truth-bearing, which, I think, gets him into trouble. Writing a good summary is difficult, but is a good summary “true”? We come closer to “truth” via argument, but he is not concerned with argument, with inductive reasoning or inference, which aren’t ideas that come up, presumably because they are not unique to criticism, but which are practices that we all use. And when we evaluate each other day to day or peer review, these are things that we’re evaluating each other by. Because of the way he needed to delimit his argument, as a case for literary criticism as uniquely truth-bearing, the argumentative, or the inductive, the inferential, all needs to fall out, and everything needs to happen through “aptness” or “elegance.” Truth is too much for aptness and elegance to bear.
Tamarkin: He’s making the claim that the truth of criticism is the sense that we are explaining something about a text, getting it right, in a way that is true to the text — in the sense that the words that we are contending with or engaging are actually true to those words that have limited what we ourselves are able to say. In this sense, his claims for truth in literary studies are actually coming right out of a New Critical tradition. Monroe Beardsley describes not what is “true” in a work of art, but what is “true to it.” Thinking about literature issues in a claim to truth, which for someone like Beardsley means getting as much meaning out of a poem as possible. So in that sense the critical claim to truth is only a claim to value. What the New Critics give us are methods for proceeding, for getting the most out of a work that we can and so for appreciating it the best we can. Kramnick is also equating these forms of appreciation, ways of finding meaning or value in a text, with the truth claim. The truth of a text is understanding what is true to it and being able to express what is true to it. He’s equating truth with value.
Sinykin: I found that frustrating. I think it’s a slippage. It’s the distortion of the apologia; it’s the distortion of the defensive pose of trying to put literary studies on the same footing as the sciences, because being true to and making a truth claim are not the same thing.
McCarthy: “Does literary criticism tell truths about the world?” It just struck me, reading that sentence — what are we doing here? About the world? That’s what we ask science to do.
Sinykin: You don’t respond to someone’s close reading by saying, “Is it true?”
McCarthy: And certainly not “of the world”? About a work of literature, yes. There are wonderful moments in the book where he describes a reading “latching” onto its object. I’m in a position to tell whether or not a given claim or argument is “latching” — but to the work, not to the world. I’m not going to get into an argument with a biologist about whether this poem can explain ecology. That would be a kind of category error.
Jackson: That seems like a place where he could go harder on the distinctive claims of humanism, which tells truths not about the world but about an experience or vision of the world. That intervening level is weirdly downplayed or absent from a lot of this book. Why “the world” and not a refraction of it?
Academic disciplines and institutions are the base for supporting people to do literary work, and no one has even fantasized any way of replacing that.
Clune: For me, the problem is entirely an artifact of trying to talk about criticism and what criticism knows, without talking about literature and what literature knows. I’m totally willing to say, for example, that Gwendolyn Brooks’s poems know something about urban experience in the middle of the 20th century — that’s a claim about the world, but it’s her poems that make it. I think literary criticism can speak truths about the world, but you cannot discuss that without talking about the literature, because ultimately literary criticism’s truth claims are parasitic on literature. That’s the nature of the enterprise.
Tamarkin: To try to stake all the claims for knowledge and truth in the discipline on method alone, and on the method of close reading, might not address what it actually takes to write well about writing: the sort of knowledge, the sort of training, that it takes to write elegantly or dexterously about literature, to embed other words in our words. This requires not only learning a method of writing; it often requires a deep base or stock of knowledge, a resourcefulness about where to turn. Sometimes that stock of knowledge includes a great deal of linguistic knowledge; sometimes it includes literary-historical knowledge or historical knowledge; sometimes it includes knowledge from other kinds of disciplines. Something prepares us to be able to read well.
Sinykin: There are moments, though, where he brackets what he’s doing and says in effect, “This is just the very first step on top of which you add history and context.” But I think he doesn’t want to get into that because they are not distinctive of literary studies alone.
Tamarkin: Well, a knowledge of literary studies is distinctive to literary studies. A deep training in the literature itself is distinctive to literary studies in the same way that a deep training in biology is distinctive to biological studies. You need traditions; you need an old knowledge in order to transform knowledge.
Sinykin: You need a knowledge of lyric poetry in order to understand Gwendolyn Brooks and what she’s doing with it.
Clune: I completely agree that close reading is central to the practice of English. That skill, that practice, that orientation towards evidence. One of the things I liked about the book is that it shows that we do have a sense of what the empirical means, what objectivity means; it involves taking evidence from the text. What I didn’t like was the odd choice of examples: He seemed to want to choose “ordinary” or “average” examples of close reading. But if one were trying to make a case for the value of the methods practiced by the discipline, I doubt one would choose any of these examples. One would want great or especially powerful instances. I tried a few of Kramnick’s out on colleagues from different fields, and they were profoundly unimpressed.
McCarthy: There seems to be a revival of interest in close reading — a couple of months ago Guillory came to Harvard and gave a talk about it. I sense perhaps in this book an anxiety about its not being replicated as a distinctive skill. That made me try and think about some fairly practical things. When I advise graduate students who are doing a mock job talk, I tell them, “You’re not going to do a job talk with no close reading.” And if they do the mock and there’s no close reading, I tell them, “No, no, no. You need to go back and rework this and include a moment of close reading.”
Why am I telling them to do that? Because, as Kramnick says, close reading is a kind of lingua franca, a kind of currency within the discipline. There was a mid-century book by Stanley Edgar Hyman, an anthology called The Critical Performance, and Criticism and Truth made me think of that title. There’s a notion that criticism is a form of writing but also a form of performance. It’s showing the work, in the sense of drawing attention to language but also in the sense of showing your chops, showing that you possess a certain kind of skill.
Kramnick cares about the social replication of the field at large, and it seems like he’s saying that if we don’t focus on and pay attention to what it is that we actually do, our method, there is a danger that that skill will atrophy.
Sinykin: I agree, and I think the emphasis on what we do when we’re close reading is exactly right. I’m grateful to him for drawing attention to the fact that it’s a skill that takes time, that you have to learn, that’s really hard. We don’t have a lot of clarity when we teach or talk about it, about how exactly we go about doing it. It’s largely taught by imitation and trial and error. So I am grateful to him for drawing out that aspect of it as handiwork.
Clune: One thing I disagree with this book about is the idea that close reading is fundamentally writing. I don’t think that’s true. And making scholarly publication the heart of the profession — I think that’s wrong. The heart of the profession, really, is teaching. I don’t think we need 1,000 scholarly books a year. I remember something [Edward W.] Said wrote in the introduction to [Erich] Auerbach’s Mimesis, he observed that very few scholarly critical books survive. I just don’t think we need that many. Which gets to the question of the relation between the great exemplar versus the average work in the field. If you wanted to make a claim for how English as a discipline is making a difference in the world through its average everyday work, I think teaching is the place to look for that. Not that I think scholarship isn’t valuable, but its value has to be seen in the context of the wider enterprise. I think the relation of publications to the ecology of the discipline is very different in the humanities than in the natural sciences.
Tamarkin: But if we downplay our scholarship — if we downplay the research and the deep base of knowledge and expertise that goes into critical work — then we are diminishing that sense of ourselves as a discipline. And if we do that, we’re losing part of our institutional mandate, which is to say that we are a discipline that produces a unique form of knowledge that gets shared not only in the classroom, but in writing and research that future scholars take up, extend, and challenge. Part of the point of a defense like this is also institutional. Knowledge-producing research warrants the perpetuation of faculty lines, job security, and graduate fellowships in all the fields in which we teach.
Clune: But that’s totally wrong. That’s caving into a vision of institutions that are based on the model of the sciences. Think of the word “research” that universities, including my own, use to describe humanistic writing.
McCarthy: Toni Morrison said, “I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It’s one job.” We don’t have labs. We’re not scientists. But it does seem to me that if there’s something distinctive about the profession, it’s that we all use books to do things with books. We read, and our reading informs our writing, and our writing informs our teaching, and we read or reread as we teach. All of these activities are in a virtuous cycle. I learn about my reading when I’m teaching, and in order to understand my own thoughts about my reading, I have to do some writing. It’s not all about “the deliverable,” as they say in the corporate world. I want my students to write about this novel because they will actually figure out what they think only once they are forced to do the writing about it. The process is itself the raison d’être. There is something distinctive, and distinctively discursive, in this feedback loop. What we do can’t and shouldn’t be reduced solely to journal publications — I agree. On the whole, we could probably do with fewer and push for greater quality. But I still think we should have some! I would be against having none.
Jackson: I worked for a long time in South Africa, and that’s what they do: Their National Research Foundation incentivizes, at its worst, churning out 18 different versions of the same essay to get more money. And a lot of countries have a similar system. Is there a risk that making writing the main product encourages that kind of reification? Kramnick writes, “Remove that skill, and you lose the idea, not because the idea has no way to enter the world of visible things, but rather because skilled practice is the idea itself.”
Sinykin: It’s the heresy of paraphrase, but for criticism. The idea is in the skill, expressed as an apt and elegant performance that we cannot abstract from without a fundamental loss.
Jackson: There’s something potentially risky about that. When you emphasize writing, it’s not just that you’re emphasizing the time spent on writing over the effort of teaching. You’re also taking away the possibility of contemplation and reading as distinct, equally valuable, parts of the writing process. There’s a very strong anti-idealist line of philosophical argument.
Clune: You’re so right about that. Kramnick has been fascinated by figures like the philosopher Alva Noë, who studies embodied cognition, for many years. But the investment in embodied cognition here feels a little overboard. This philosophical theory is why scholarship has to be so important to Kramnick: It’s as if nothing is happening unless you’re writing that sentence. He’s so bought into this particular model of cognition that he’s made it look like if you’re not writing that sentence, then nothing at all is happening. I feel as if sometimes literary critics adopt philosophical models without understanding their limits and shortcomings. It would be interesting in literary studies, for example, if someone were to reflect on the limits of the embodied-cognition model in the way that, for example, Ned Block has in philosophy.
Knowledge-producing research warrants the perpetuation of faculty lines, job security, and graduate fellowships in all the fields in which we teach.
Tamarkin: I thought it was wonderful, actually, the way Kramnick makes us remember and hold on to the practice of reading our criticism aloud, word for word, when we present it. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson used to read his essays out loud word for word — there was no extemporizing at all — because the writing, the exactness, the choice of words in their order matter; they cannot be reduced to bullet points or downloaded as information. That’s what Kramnick means when he describes the way that knowledge resides in the fingers doing the writing, in the virtuosity of the practice: that the argument comes in the act of the performance and not prior to it in some fact or set of facts or proposition.
But it is true that he also claims that criticism does not require any kind of a priori contemplative act and describes it as something that is almost intuitive. For him, attuning ourselves to works of literature produces a knowledge of literature that can only be discovered in practice and in the experience of reading it.
Clune: Kramnick’s been very consistent and very strong for a number of years about the importance of disciplinarity and academic disciplines in relation to the public humanities. A lot of contemporary publishing is actually parasitic on the academic labor force. No one’s making a living writing $500 articles. A lot of the contributors are people like us, who have tenure-track jobs. That points out starkly that something is deeply suspect about imagining that there’s an alternative there.
Younger people come to me and say, “I want to be doing literary work. I want to be a writer or a critic or whatever, but I’ve heard the academic job market is terrible, so I don’t want to go that route.” Kramnick makes a great point, which is that academic disciplines and institutions are the base for supporting people to do literary work, and no one has even fantasized any way of replacing that. That’s a major question. I love that he ends the book on that note.
Tamarkin: He appreciates that while the public humanities can help develop an audience, it will not save literary studies. It will not save the discipline. Insofar as the book is also about forms of judgment, it makes us think about whether or how much the discipline should be looking outside itself for validation and recognition.
McCarthy: On the other hand, it seems like there’s a notion in this book that shoring up disciplinarity will allow literary study to survive. Kramnick says he wants to “advocate for its good standing.” I’m not sure we should even aspire to be in “good standing,” but I definitely don’t think doing so will spare us; the despicable dismantling of humanities programs at West Virginia University is, I think, telling in this regard. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t defend disciplinarity. That’s worth doing separate from whether it’s effective as a defense of the humanities.
But part of what’s happening is a broader crisis of valuation. And I don’t think we know what to do about that. There is, to me, a sense of a mismatch. Should we defend disciplinarity? Absolutely, and this book offers us a very good place to start. But I think the crisis that it is attempting to address, and that occasions the writing, is so much greater that I’m skeptical, alas, that it will be anywhere near sufficient.