The Writer-Critic and Literary Studies
Despite Socrates’s imputation that the great tragic poets didn’t know what they were up to and why they were up to it, writers and creative practitioners are often deeply self-reflexive, which is why their contribution to criticism has been formative and radical. I’m thinking of Socrates’s near-contemporary Bharata; Abhinavagupta and other rasa theorists from the 8th to the 10th century; in the same line of thinking several centuries later, Wordsworth and Coleridge; Eliot, Tagore, and Woolf and the theorists of modernism; the anti-humanist Lawrence; the American New Critics; the Bengali poet Buddhadeva Bose and the Kannada novelist U R Ananthamurthy, both of whom taught literature – ‘comparative’ and ‘English’ respectively – for much of their lives; Nabokov, of course, lecturing at Wellesley College; William Empson; in our time, the Irish poet-critic Tom Paulin, who taught at Oxford; Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and his many years at the University of Allahabad; Charles Bernstein, Joan Retallack, Anne Carson, and Rosanna Warren, all of whom have taught outside of creative writing departments at North American universities; others not mentioned in this hastily put-together list. The New Critics – Ransom, Tate – may have been among the first to have found a home in literature departments and to teach literature for a living while attempting to write it, and about it. The demands of livelihood may have made this necessary; but the idea (to what extent it was realistic is open to question) of the possible freedom and idealism of literature departments at a certain point of the twentieth century may have also drawn writers to them.
We have been in a different place since the 1990s and the onset of economic deregulation. For one thing, we have forgotten how literature was experienced before deregulation, and, for those of us who studied it at university, how it was taught. We’re aware of the cultural turn represented by the emergence of critical theory and, in the 1990s, of cultural studies (although even that memory is fading, and many of us now might believe that literature was alwayscultural studies), but we neither connect these turns as rigorously to globalisation, the collapse of the Left, and deregulation as we should, and nor do we connect them to the vanished everyday markers of literary studies from forty years ago. For instance, many of my teachers, when I was both an undergraduate and graduate student in the 1980s, were Misters and Misses rather than Doctors. Many of these teachers – and these Misters and Misses, like Dan Jacobson, Gay Clifford, John Fuller, and Jon Stallworthy – were writer-critics or poet-critics. The bifurcation of pedagogy by the end of the 1980s, especially in America, meant writers who gravitated towards jobs in institutions would henceforth teach creative writing and craft and (because they didn’t have PhDs) be kept out of literature departments, and teachers of literature themselves would be entirely professionalised – that is, inducted into a self-perpetuating system. This meant that literature was no longer taught by poets or novelists; in an offshoot of counselling, they provided ‘feedback’ to students on craft and/or character. Increasingly, ‘literature’ itself ceased to be a site of productive engagement for academics who had jobs in literature departments. Writers – whether they were eighteen or fifty years old – forgot, in the meantime, that what had brought them to writing was not their devotion to their own work but the excitement of literature. These shifts are in some ways more important than the so-called theory wars and the attempts to formulate post-theory positions, or developments like ‘world literature’ or even ‘decolonisation’, all of which run the danger of slipping into institutionally mandated discussions – partly because, through a combination of deliberate oversight and a mutual pact between academic and writer, the latter no longer contributes self-reflexively to the form of thinking we still invoke constantly and continue to call ‘literature’. We often ask why the humanities and literary studies departments have become shells, or are in crisis. We don’t ask what impact the marginalisation of writers has had on literary pedagogy and scholarship. The impact, both for imaginative writing and literary discussion (which includes the teaching of literature), has been transformative.
It’s neither possible nor desirable to return to some version of a golden age; to close down creative writing departments, to proscribe discussions on craft undertaken en masse, to make the mandatory doctorate for teachers of literature obsolete, and to ask writers to participate in fashioning a vocabulary for what it means to encounter the problem of literature, and read it, in the present day. In what way, then, can writers return to literature, and literary studies, and vice versa? Are either writers or literary studies ready to pursue this line of thinking? Would recovering a history of criticism beyond the academy comprise a starting-point? Are there locations, within and outside the academy, that can be identified as being possible venues for the writer-critic-teacher-of-literature? Or are writers in a uniquely promising position, with the potential to open things up, as was the case with modern artists from different parts of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in relation to what then was the orthodoxy of the academies of art?
9th October 2022
Dedicated to the memory of Dubravka Ugrešić (27.3.1949 – 17.3.23)
The Literary Activism symposia began in December 2015, and here‘s the link to the first mission statement for this project.
Matthew Beaumont, a Professor of English Literature at University College London, is the author of several books, including Nightwalking (2015) and The Walker (2020). A short story, his first foray into fiction, was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize in 2018. He has recently written a novel.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj writes in various forms of prose, from conflict zone reporting and investigative journalism to fiction and literary criticism.
Lisa Borst is the web editor of n+1 magazine, where she has also contributed writing about self-publishing, zine culture, and other topics.
Michel Chaouli teaches literature and philosophy at Indiana University Bloomington. His book Thinking With Kant’s Critique of Judgment was published by Harvard University Press in 2017. In his next book, he develops the idea and the practice of poetic criticism. It is entitled Something Speaks To Me and will come out with the University of Chicago Press next year.
Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, poet, essayist, and musician. He is Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Centre for the Creative and the Critical, Ashoka University. He conceptualises the ‘literary activism’ symposia.
Rosinka Chaudhuri is Professor of Cultural Studies and Director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. She has written and published extensively on literary culture, history, and poetry in three monographs and several edited books and anthologies.
Martin Crowley is Professor of Modern French Thought and Culture at the University of Cambridge. He is the author most recently of Accidental Agents: Ecological Politics Beyond the Human (2022), and serves as General Editor of the journal French Studies.
Jane Goldman, poet and academic, Reader at the School of Critical Studies, Glasgow University, and a founding General Editor of the Cambridge University Press Edition of Virginia Woolf’s works, has published widely in avant-garde poetics, modernism, and Woolf studies, and is author of three volumes of poetry: Border Thoughts (2014), SEKXPHRASTIKS (2021), and Catullus 64 (2023).
Rita Kothari is Professor of English and Director, Centre for Translation, Ashoka University. She has written many books and articles, the latest of which is Uneasy Translations: Self, Experience and Indian Literature (2022).
Vidyan Ravinthiran teaches at Harvard. He is the author of two collections of verse. Worlds Woven Together, a selection of his essays on poetry, came out last year, as did Spontaneity and Form in Modern Prose. Asian/Other, a fusion of poetry criticism and memoir, is forthcoming from Icon in the UK and Norton in the US.
Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree, a work of nonfiction, Missing: A Novel, My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories, and two poetry collections, Out of Syllabus and V. I. P: Very Important Plant. She is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University.