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The newly formed Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (ALSC) recently held its inaugural convention at the Radisson Hotel Metrodome on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus. Founded in 1994 by Professors John Ellis (University of California, Santa Cruz), Gerald Gillespie (Stanford), Norman Fruman (Minnesota), Ricardo Quinones (Claremont McKenna), Renee and Judd Herbert, Seymour Menton, and Myron Simon (all at Irvine), it has grown to almost 1500 members in less than a year. As the association describes itself, it has come about "because of a deep and widespread concern about the present state of literary studies," in which "narrow, highly politicized" conceptions of literature have come to dominate the profession, creating enormous rifts not only between critics and creative writers, but also between critics and the general reading public.
Opposition to the Modern Language Association of America (MLA), the 32,000-odd professional organization whose conventions and journal, PMLA, are blamed for the wholesale politicizing of the profession, is nothing new. Ever since the first wave of structuralist and poststructuralist theory in the 1970s-when semiotics, deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalytic theory, reader response theory, and New Historicism followed hard on one another's heels in staking out their various turfs in literary study-so-called conservatives, liberal humanists, and old-style (read "positivist") literary historians and scholars have voiced their dismay at the burgeoning of what they see as reductively ideological approaches to literature.
Some-E. D. Hirsch, Jr., for example, whose cogent defence of authorial intention, Validity in Interpretation, fuelled twenty-five years of debate-quietly dropped out of the profession years ago. Hirsch has fought on a more productive front (starting a veritable revolution in his nationally and internationally acclaimed project to bring cultural literacy to America's disadvantaged grade-school children).
Others, safely tenured but refusing to engage in theoretical polemics, let their MLA memberships lapse and plodded steadily along doing what they'd always done, ignoring the latest trends to the extent possible but sagging perceptibly under the increasing burden of loneliness as they found they had to tell more and more graduate students it would be best for their careers if they studied under someone else. Still others-including and especially graduate students-embraced without conviction whatever was hot, making themselves over with greater and lesser degrees of anguish into what was "marketable".
But most remarkable, perhaps, is what seems to be happening now. The latest response to what's come to be called (as a useful if misleading catch-all term) "theory" is that even some of its most avid practitioners have reached a kind of saturation point, a state of intellectual exhaustion, a plaintive where-do we-go-from-here. After years of squabbling about authorial intention; about objectivity vs. indeterminacy of interpretation; about positivist vs. New Historicist ideas of history; about referential vs. non-referential functions of language and literature; about the possibility of non-ideological readings that nonetheless need not be "naive", both sides in these debates have become exhausted by the very terms of literary discourse. Lingua Franca (the Village Voice of the profession, always with its ear to the ground) reported in April 1994, for example, on the new phenomenon of autobiographical writing, to which formerly high-powered theorists like Jane Tompkins, Cathy Davidson, Frank Lentricchia, Eve Sedgewick, and Mariana Torgovnick (all at Duke) have turned, apparently as a deliberate rejection of the abstractions of theory for something that might be called "life" (to say nothing of a return to the individual "self" after its supposed deconstruction by poststructuralist attacks on the self as "autonomous subject").
Whether this is in fact a reaction against postmodernism or just another move in the game remains to be seen: as Frederick Crews of Berkeley (quoted in the same article) aptly puts it, this move may be either "an exit lane from theory" or entirely "consistent with poststructuralist epistemology. One just gives up making propositions about literature and the world-one retreats into a kind of affective reporting." Whatever its status, this turn to "moi" criticism (as one critic sardonically terms it) seems just one more symptom of a pervasive dissatisfaction with the academic literary profession as it's come to define itself since it first launched its attack on the "old orthodoxy", the New Criticism of the 1940s and 50s.
One of the greatest ironies of this attack is that it was launched against the supposedly ahistorical "formalism" of New Critical methods of reading: for style, tone, diction, imagery, rhythm, metre, point of view, etc.-all "aesthetic" properties allegedly abstracted from ethics and politics, from "social responsibility". Ever since New Criticism fell into disfavour, there has been an attempt to reinvest literature with its "content", understood primarily as moral, political, "ideological" content. Yet never has literary criticism so succeeded as now in turning literary works into narrowly programmatic theoretical abstractions-in turning them away from what might be called "the world": the richly various worlds to which works themselves "refer", and the world of readers wanting to understand them. Never has literary criticism so fully identified works with the rigorously articulated logical a priori interpretive paradigms brought to bear upon them, to the point that the works as they might be "in themselves" (an idea disparaged as naively positivist) have virtually ceased to exist. Surely it is no surprise that exhaustion over this paradoxically moralistic formalism-a kind of formalism run amok-is so widespread. People read literary critics not to learn anything new about, say, Keats, but to marvel at the sophisticated Bakhtinian analysis of Keats; they school themselves in this critical discourse in hopes of advance their careers by emulating it. But what if one's real interest here is in Keats?
The ALSC, then, clearly speaks to a deep-seated and urgent need for new life within the literary profession. But can it offer that? One of the questions repeatedly raised at Minneapolis was whether the organization simply advocates a return to New Criticism or whether it offers a genuine advance that takes full cognizance of the skepticism and self-awareness that poststructuralist theory has insisted should define the terms of literary debate. Two of the three convention panels did seem quite New Critical: the opening one, "How to Read a Book", featured close readings of W. H. Auden's "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" (by the poet and critic Rosanna Warren of Boston University), passages from Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (by the poet and critic Sven Birkerts), and passages from Dickens's Dombey and Son and Our Mutual Friend (by Robert Alter of UC Berkeley).
Roger Shattuck of Boston University (the incoming president of the ALSC) began the session with a paper which playfully laid out five paradoxical "rules of thumb" for reading well, culled from writers as diverse as Charles Darwin, Ezra Pound, C. Wright Mills (The Sociological Imagination), Proust, and Leo Spitzer. "Read blind," he advised, meaning, ignoring who wrote the book, what genre its jacket declares it belongs to, all a priori expectations of whatever sort; "read with both eyes open. reciprocally," in an alternation of inner and outer worlds, imagination and reality, the only salvation from "the abyss of solipsism"; read "synaesthetically", with one's "whole, divided being", including reading aloud whenever possible; take notes and keep files "as if your life depended on it," because reading well involves the cumulative accomplishments of an entire lifetime's reading; and finally, "don't take advice, especially about anything so intimate as the act of reading."
The papers that followed exemplified such intimate encounters with the works, demonstrating the inseparability of form and content (Auden's use of the Alcaic stanza to mourn the loss not just of Freud but of an era; the use of tone, imagery, diction-or "style"-to create the distinctive worlds of Ford, James, and Dickens) in detailed explications de texte. The literary criticism exemplified in the closing panel, "Poet and Critic"-in which the poets Mark Strand of Johns Hopkins and John Hollander of Yale read poems that were then explicated by Charles Berger (Utah) and Eleanor Cook (Toronto)-offered similarly detailed explications de texte.
Does this make them necessarily "New Critical"? Explication de texte is in fact the hallmark of poststructuralist readings themselves; no-one has been a more deft and subtle practitioner of it than Jacques Derrida himself. The most enduring and invaluable legacy of New Criticism may well be the habit of close reading it engendered in generations of critics. But there are close readings and close readings: ones that find only, for instance, the same ideologically loaded dialectical oppositions of self-other (postmodernism's most tedious refrain), male-female, East-West, black-white-oppositions that inevitably result in a few equally sterile interpretive options: the "hierarchy" of one over the other (always inherently tyrannical), the oscillation of both in "indeterminacy" (which may or may not signal stalemate or victory), the merging of both in what is most likely a tyrannical subsumption of one within the other, etc. Other close readings of the less politicized, more New Critical sort used to yield paradoxes, tensions, ironies, ambiguities of form and meaning usually resolved by the reading. But close readings can yield much more than this: marvellously evocative renderings of Auden's grief, for instance, a grief that owes none of its power to dialectical oppositions; or equally evocative renderings of Dickens's London or the long shadows of a Jamesian summer afternoon. And all of this is not simply in the name of an aesthetic "evocativeness", but in the name of fidelity to the distinctive worlds of these works, to their authors' ideas and feelings about these worlds, to their unique visions of what it means to live-to think and breathe and have one's being.
"Close reading" did not dominate all the sessions of the convention. As John Ellis explained the rationale behind the program, not only were all sessions to be plenary ones because of the shared audience experience this fosters, the program aimed to provide a forum for a wide range of interests: for classicists (in this case, the keynote speaker, Bernard Knox of Harvard, who spoke about the necessity for ideas of authorial intention in classical studies) and modernists (the jazz writer and journalist Stanley Crouch, who gave a vigorous reading of Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet); and for poets and critics (in all three panels). The centre panel on the program, on "Dante and the Western Canon", was designed to put an author firmly centre-stage; and again, to put poets (in this case, the poet-translator Robert Pinsky, who explained his principles of translation and read movingly from his new translation of the Inferno) with critics (Ricardo Quinones; Paul Cantor, University of Virginia; and Steven Botterill, UC Berkeley, who spoke on Dante's relation to the twentieth century, his relationship to Islamic thought, and to Islamic thought, and his theory of language).
A second repeated question about the association was whether it was "against theory": had its members "kept up" with literary theory at all? John Ellis (himself a well-published theorist) responded that he deplores not theory but "bad theory", that is, theory ignorant of its own roots in philosophy and indiscriminately applied to literary works. "Theory" is not an area the association is at all prepared to concede to postmodernism.
A third topic of concern introduced by various graduate students was what the association planned to do for them. To this Ellis replied that graduate students were in fact its primary concern, since they are the future of the profession. By providing a forum for genuine diversity of approach, fostering scholarly excellence of various kinds, the association hopes to make it easier for them to preserve their intellectual integrity and still succeed. While it doesn't want its conventions to become "hiring halls" or "meat markets", it plans to provide a job-listing service for departments and candidates with mutual interests, as well as forums for discussion on the Internet.
Just what did the convention actually achieve? The first person in the audience to comment on "How to Read a Book" probably said it best: "Listening to this panel," he exclaimed, "I've had a sensation I haven't had for years at a literary conference: it makes me want to go back to each of these works and RE-READ THEM." Others-for example, Lee Rust Brown of the University of Utah, a Yale Ph.D. asked to participate in a final "summing-up" session-expressed their relief that misgivings they'd had that the conference would be wholly anti-theoretical, wholly polemical in defining itself over against the MLA, had not been confirmed.
Most of us are tired of polemics against the current state of the profession; and organizations thus defined will die along with their opponent. What many hunger for right now are real alternatives-not new theories but concrete examples of what kinds of literary-critical work, in the wake of poststructuralist critique, are worth doing. The proof of the pudding, after all, is in the eating. The ALSC recognizes and at least promises to satisfy this hunger-an excellent beginning.

Lorraine Clark is an associate professor of English literature at Trent University in Peterborough.


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