In a recent edition of English Studies in Canada, Margery Fee writes that “we often talk about the importance of good writing without explaining what it is or how we know what it is… our knowledge of what makes good writing is tacit.”
I’ve found this rings true for me on both sides of the classroom. As an undergraduate, I mucked my way though my university’s English department, aping the conventions of scholarly writing well enough to get into grad school; as a grad student, I’ve TA’d classes in which the professor’s advice to me—after I asked what my students needed to do to achieve a good mark on a final essay exam—was a shrug and the words, “Be smart.” I was annoyed, but only because it rang uncomfortably true. All the rubrics in the world can’t do justice to “smartness,” that je ne sais quoi. It’s the ineffable quality in writing, both our students’ and our own, that can tip good into excellent or nudge mediocre to good—and whose only recognizable hallmark is that we’ll know it when we see it.
I study Romantic theories of genius, and the critical consensus seems to be that while genius was a key concept for an age obsessed with artistic originality, we academics no longer “really” believe in it. I’m not so certain.
The past two decades have opened up the canon to works whose importance is cultural or historical: we do not read them for their literary merit or uniqueness, but for what they can tell us about a particular time or place or topic. In this milieu it’s interesting that our standards for good critical writing are still constituted by the twin qualities of smartness and novelty, though not necessarily under those labels. One of the first questions asked of a new critical work is inevitably some version of “what does it add to existing scholarship?” This sounds like a pretty sensible benchmark. It recalls Hazlitt’s distinction between development in the arts and sciences: art reaches perfection almost immediately, so each new product of genius is by definition a reinvention; science is a cumulative, ever-expanding body of collective expertise. Surely literary criticism falls into the latter category? Maybe. But we’ve got some odd notions as to what constitutes an “addition.”
A brief survey of recent positive reviews at Romantic Circles shows how reviewers overwhelmingly employ the prefix “re” as a sign that a work is worthwhile: good books “repattern,” “rethink,” “revision,” “reconsider,” “re-read,” “reappraise,” “reassess,” etc. Though we clearly don’t expect each new monograph to (re)invent the scholastic wheel, in some small way we are committed to the idea that praiseworthy criticism is defined by its ability to overthrow what has come before it. Books that don’t can be solid or thorough, but they’re still missing a certain something: I recall hearing a colleague dismiss Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder because it reportedly contained nothing “new.” As critics we’d blackball the Biographia Literaria, which wouldn’t survive a spin through turnitin.com, or call Hazlitt to task for reheating an art/science distinction that had been kicking around since the eighteenth century. Is it a problem that we, as self-identified students of literature, retain a set of standards for our own work that we have comfortably relaxed for its object? I wonder if one source of this disjunction is a lingering belief in the critic as artist, and the critical artist as genius: tasked with producing something original and groundbreaking (preferably in monograph form, every three to four years).
But I especially wonder what message we send to students when we imply that Coleridgean plagiarism or a kitschy Hunt essay is worth inclusion on a syllabus, but that their paper is only worth a C+. I realize this is a silly example; the alterity of history and the text as artifact are handy excuses for studying material that wouldn’t pass our own critical muster. But what about when students encounter a piece of recent scholarship that breaks all the “rules”—no strong thesis, obscure style, casual generalizations—but is still applauded, because it’s new or smart? I can’t promise to be able to teach my students to think like Geoffrey Hartman, but so many of the comments I leave on their papers—“read more closely,” “think harder about this,” “reconsider this passage,” “try and be more critical”—seem to be veiled requests for precisely this maddening intangible, this elusive je ne sais quoi we bury in attainable-sounding categories like “critical thinking.” And it bothers me—maybe because I’m too close to it—that in most eighteenth-century aesthetics and natural philosophy, genius was defined by its very inability to be taught. What are the implications of prizing such a quality in our students (and ourselves)?
There are a host of other issues related to this topic, but in the interests of time I’m going to end here. I would love to hear your thoughts on any aspect of the above.
Also, hello! I decided to save the introduction until the end of the post. I’m Brittany Pladek, one of the NGSC’s new bloggers and its resident wanna-be Canadian (I’m at the University of Toronto but hail originally from New Jersey). I look forward to writing and thinking with you all over the next few months.