In the Chloroformed Sanctuary

Kiel Academicians.jpeg

Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

University scholars marching in Kiel, West Germany, 1965.

“Walk around a university campus,” fumed Geoff Dyer in Out of Sheer Rage, “and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.”

In my last piece in this space I suggested that writers are anxious to present literature as somehow more alive than life itself—a place of great intensity and courageous engagement—perhaps out of concern that the profession they have opted for is actually a space of relative refuge and fearful retreat. But what about those who write about writing, the reviewers and academics? Is Dyer correct that while original literature throbs with life, literary criticism is the work of cloistered drudges who suffocate the very creature that provides them with a living?

At least on this score reviewers can be quickly exonerated; it may be miles away from facing and firing bullets, or performing open heart surgery, but reviewing does have an immediate impact on other people’s lives. Panning or praising a novel, the reviewer is aware he is administering pain or pleasure and that quite possibly there will be a reaction, as when Jeanette Winterson turned up on a reviewer’s doorstep to berate him in person for a poor review. One celebrated novelist who felt I had reviewed him unkindly spent an hour making a transatlantic phone-call to my own publisher to complain about my wickedness. A reviewer fearful of the fray would be well advised to find another job.

Not so the academic critic. While the reviewer is generally freelance and may hope to increase his or her income through a policy of lively provocation and polemics, the academic, though hardly well off, is more reliably salaried within a solid university institution. Rather than being part of the market with the obvious function of swaying reader’s purchasing choices, these critics treat literature as an object of quasi-scientific research. They’re not obliged to entertain, but then nor is there any question of their findings being used to propose any program of improvement; they needn’t fear the moment when their work is measured against reality. In short, the academic critic’s task is purely one of exegesis and clarification. So it may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with this kind of writing how frequently it resorts to a jargon and manner that guarantees ordinary consumers of literature will be repelled.

Here are three typical passages, nothing extreme, the first pulled (at random) from an essay by Paul Davies in The Cambridge Companion to Beckett:

From its first words, then, Comment c’est acknowledges the aesthetic of recommencement that Beckett had already developed with such compaction in Texts. Working together, these two projects carry out the wisdom of the pun: ‘commencer’ is ‘comment c’est’. Beginning again, he returns again. Commencing, he quotes. As I argued above, it was the insistence of this insight that had led Beckett in the Texts to the strategic deployment of the gap between texts. These twelve gaps were in their turn yet another seed for How it is. They grew into roughly eight-hundred-and-twenty-five gaps, each of which, as John Pilling has pointed out, enabled a formal re-enactment of the book’s inception.

Here, equally at random from the shelves beside my desk, is Amit Chaudhuri writing about Lawrence’s poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers:

What is agreed upon generally then is that, to appropriate a term from linguistics, the “signified” of the poem is undefinable, powerful, ineffable, but mysteriously transmissable and even paraphrasable. This “signified” which may be called “otherness” or “life,” lies outside the text, out there in the landscape or object described, while each signifier—bat, snake, eagle, tortoise, fish—makes a connection with the “signified,” thus capturing, conveying or evoking it.

Finally, from the realm of translation criticism, this is Lawrence Venuti, in Rethinking Translation, talking about Iginio Tarchetti’s 19th century Italian “adaptations” of stories by Mary Shelley:

Yet Shelley’s authorship comes back to worry the ideological standpoint of Tarchetti’s intervention by raising the issue of gender. To be effective as a subversion of bourgeois values which deterritorializes the Italian literary standard, his text must maintain the fiction of his authorship, referring to Shelley’s tale only in the vaguest way (‘imitation’). At the same time, however this fiction suppresses an instance of female authorship so that the theft of Shelley’s literary creation has the patriarchal effect of female disempowerment, of limiting a woman’s social agency.

All three of these pieces contain useful, almost “common sense” observations on the texts they are talking about. Yet this common sense is made to seem arduous through the use of unnecessary jargon. There is also a solemnity that combines with the ugliness of style to push the writing towards bathos. I suspect Davies’ metaphor of “twelve gaps” being “a seed” that “grew into roughly eight-hundred-and-twenty-five gaps” would have had Beckett laughing out loud.


The mix of intellectual control and creeping tedium goes hand in hand with a focus on the arcane rather than the evident; technique rather than content. Areas where the critic can claim special expertise are stressed, while a book’s part in the writer’s life is played down, as if for fear that any layman could discuss such matters. Academics are naturally attracted to the kind of writer whose flaunted complexity offers scope for that expertise, rather than one taking on his material in a more direct fashion. So Joyce is infinitely preferred to Chesterton (in passing it’s interesting that Borges, himself the object of endless academic criticism, preferred Chesterton to Joyce).

What is in it for these critics? They stake out a field in which only a relatively small group of initiates can compete; their writing is safe from public scrutiny, it threatens no one and can do little damage; at the same time they may enjoy the illusion of possessing, encompassing, and even somehow neutralizing the most sparkling and highly regarded creations of the imagination.

This is what Dyer so comically hates in Out of Sheer Rage. Here he is opening the Longman Critical Reader to his favorite author, D.H. Lawrence:

I glanced at the contents page: old Eagleton was there, of course, together with some other state-of-the-fart theorists: Lydia Blanchard on “Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality” (in the section on “Gender, Sexuality, Feminism”), Daniel J. Schneider on “Alternatives to Logocentrism in D.H. Lawrence” (in the section featuring “Post-Structuralist Turns”). I could feel myself getting angry and then I flicked through the introductory essay on “Radical Indeterminacy: A Post-Modern Lawrence” and became angrier still. How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it?

But is Dyer really angry? Is he angry for the reasons he says he is? Might it not be that the creative writer, conflicted over issues of fear and courage (Dyer seems terribly eager to demonstrate that his own writing is alive, engaged, and courageous) is actually a little envious of the academic who is perfectly happy to retreat from life into the chloroformed sanctuary of academe and has no pretense at all of being in the front line?

Or, alternatively, could it be that the creative writer is delighted to find in the evident dullness of academic criticism a kind of writing in comparison with which his or her own work will inevitably seem vital and exciting? Dyer is wonderfully alive and engaged as he lets rip at the academics, “this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off.”

At this point you might begin to think that the secret purpose of dusty, phobic academe is to reassure the insecure “creative” writers of their own liveliness. This “vast graveyard of dust,” as Dyer would have it, is a place you visit to congratulate yourself you’re still up in the sunshine. It is also a very soft target. Nobody need be afraid, attacking academe, that the critics will lash back, or that they could hurt much if they did. Indeed the idea that academic critics ‘kill’ literature tells us more about Dyer’s lively imagery than about the critics’ lethal powers. These men are hardly killers. If there’s an assassin here, it’s the creative writer. At worst the academics will tuck an author to sleep in mothballs. We can enjoy getting a whiff of camphor and feel superior.

For myself, I’ve written too many novels, plenty of reviews and an academic monograph on translation and literature. Reviewing, I try to say what I think without actually being offensive. Writing fiction, I try not to worry how offensive the reviewers might be. Writing academic criticism—a ticket-punching necessity if one wishes to teach at a university—I’m relieved, of course, that offense and abrasion just don’t come into it, but immediately anxious no one cares what I write; life is passing me by.

But here’s a conundrum to close on. If, returning to Dyer’s claim that there is “an almost palpable smell of death” about university campuses, a critic were to remark that “almost palpable” is nonsense—in that you can either smell something or you can’t and if you can’t how could you know that you almost could?—would that critic be against life, because he was pedantically deflating Dyer’s lively rant? Or would he be on the side of life because he was reminding us of how things really are and what the words actually mean? Certainly the campus where I teach is full of young people, often in each other’s arms, usually far too busy with life to be bothered about literature. The only musty smells are in the library stacks.


Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in