Our reader Chris of Intelligent Life alerted me to this wonderful essay by Frank Lentricchia. It should be required reading for all aspiring ‘Literary Theorists.’ I want to quote and quote and quote. But read the whole article (the whole shorter article: this is a reduced version of the original from Lingua Franca.)
Over the last ten years, I’ve pretty much stopped reading literary criticism, because most of it isn’t literary. But criticism it is of a sort—the sort that stems from the sense that one is morally superior to the writers that one is supposedly describing. This posture of superiority is assumed when those writers represent the major islands of Western literary tradition, the central cultural engine—so it goes—of racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism: a cesspool that literary critics would expose for mankind’s benefit. Just what it would avail us to learn that Flaubert was a sexist is not clear. It is impossible, this much is clear, to exaggerate the heroic self-inflation of academic literary criticism.
Just exactly what we’ve all (all we anti-Theorists, naive readers, lovers of literature as literature, Shakespeareolators, etc) been saying all these years. On the nose.
Then, seven years ago, I lost my professional bearing and composure. The actual crisis occurred in a graduate class, just as I was about to begin a lecture on Faulkner. Before I could get a word out, a student said, “The first thing we have to understand is that Faulkner is a racist.” I responded with a stare, but he was not intimidated. I was. He wanted to subvert me with what I thought crude versions of ideas that had made my academic reputation, and that had (as he told me before the semester began) drawn him to my class. And now I was refusing to be the critic he had every right to think I was. And I felt subverted. Later in the course, another student attacked Don DeLillo’s White Noise for what he called its insensitivity to the Third World. I said, “But the novel doesn’t concern the Third World. It’s set in a small town in Middle America. It concerns the technological catastrophes of the First World.” The student replied, “That’s the problem. It’s ethnocentric and elitist.” I had been, before that class, working hard to be generous. After that class, I didn’t want to be generous anymore and tried to communicate how unspeakably stupid I found these views, but had trouble staying fully rational.
Well what more is there to say? There it all is. Heads I win tails you lose. [Insert novel or poem or play here] is ethnocentric or elitist or sexist or homophobic or Orientialist or colonialist or all those and more because it doesn’t mention any of them but just goes ahead and talks about something else. That is, as Lentricchia so trenchantly says, an unspeakably stupid idea. That’s pretty much all there is to it. What a good thing there are apostates in the world.