Friday, May 27, 2011

Legitimate Literary Criticism

What is "legitimate literary criticism," especially in the digital age? Prompted by this phrase from a student's recent blog post, I thought this was well worth thinking through.

"Legitimate" as she was using this term seems to mean "conventional," or at least it refers to something that would be considered respectable by typical teachers or students of literature. As far as that goes, I think one must consider whether and how the format, method, style, length and audience for literary criticism affect its legitimacy.

What will we find? That many of the traits of traditional literary criticism are essential to carry forward into the digital domain, but that issues of audience, length, and media use are prominent incompatibilities between traditional literary criticism and emerging best practices in online writing.

By the end of this post, I will turn the question of legitimacy around. Rather than thinking of traditional academic and print literary criticism as the baseline for legitimacy, I will work from the assumption that online writing is the default intellectual medium and therefore literary criticism, to be legit in the 21st century, must play by the rules of the emerging dominant cultural medium.

But first, let's look at the legitimizing features of traditional literary criticism in terms of five questions:

  1. Does format give literary criticism legitimacy?
  2. Does method give literary criticism legitimacy?
  3. Does style give literary criticism legitimacy?
  4. Does length give literary criticism legitimacy?
  5. Does audience give literary criticism legitimacy?

Does format give literary criticism legitimacy?
It certainly does. The format for standard literary criticism is an academic paper -- either the amateur sort created by students or the professional sort published by literary critics in traditional journals of literary criticism such as PMLA or Shakespeare Quarterly. Within those traditional genres of writing or publishing can be found a whole set of design and formatting norms that signal "hey, this is serious literary criticism." In a student paper, the format clues include length, use and appropriate documentation of sources, and physical format (8 1/2" x 11" double spaced paper).

Does method give literary criticism legitimacy?
Yes, it does. There are clear, traditional expectations for literary criticism. These include

  • A focus on primary texts
    This should go without saying, but the traditional literary critic identifies and discusses specific primary texts. These texts are not merely references nor pretexts. The primary texts receive sustained, close attention from the literary critic.
  • Use of secondary texts
    While some academic exercises in literary criticism do not require research or the citation of other critics, the most legitimate kinds of traditional literary criticism are those that show awareness of and make use of secondary sources -- prior works of interpretive criticism that the current critic cites, quotes, disputes, or otherwise connects to his or her own interpretation.
  • Textual analysis: content
    The traditional literary critic finds and draws attention to specific themes and subjects within the primary texts.
  • Textual analysis: form
    The traditional literary critic identifies and takes into account various formal qualities of a given literary text (genre, plot, character, language use such as imagery and diction, rhetorical devices, etc.).
  • Interpretation
    The traditional literary critic does not merely identify themes or aesthetic forms in literary texts: he or she interprets the literature, connecting the themes and formal traits to other texts (primary or secondary), to history, to society, to culture, and to whatever else is the emphasis of the critic's theoretical approach. 
  • Argument
    The traditional literary critic's interpretation is not merely observational; it is persuasive. Traditional literary criticism makes interpretive claims that focus their topic and aim to engage their audiences.
  • Coherence
    The traditional literary critic creates a work of criticism that is complete and coherent; the various parts of his or her argument fit tightly together both sequentially and logically as the critic makes his or her point.  
Does style give literary criticism legitimacy?
Yes. In order for traditional literary criticism to be recognized as such, the literary critic must use a formal and detached style, effacing his or her own personality and foregrounding the interpretation of the text. 

Does length give literary criticism legitimacy?
Yes. While there exist very short forms of literary assessment that can be considered a minor sort of criticism (such as reviews, notices, or entries in an annotated bibliography), by and large legitimate literary criticism is expected to have sustained treatment of the primary text -- at least 750-1000 words on the short end for a short student paper, with a more typical length of around 5000 words for an article or many thousands more for a book. 

Does audience give literary criticism legitimacy?
Sadly, no. For professional critics who submit their literary criticism for publication, the editors and peer reviewers constitute an evaluative audience whose stamp of approval gives credibility to the substance of that literary criticism, but once this "audience" of about five people or fewer is satisfied, the standard of legitimacy has been met without any regard to an actual audience. And while some literary critics gather citations and acclaim for their publications, these are secondary legitimizing methods for their work. Traditional literary criticism is NOT legitimized by an audience, except in the very loose sense of someone building a reputation through their publications over time. Traditional published literary criticism requires no audience, no accountability to readers outside of the peer reviewers.

Audience is even less relevant to legitimizing literary criticism for student critics. They have no audience for their literary criticism except their teachers, with rare exception. What gives their literary criticism legitimacy is not actually reaching, persuading, or engaging an audience, but merely the credentialing process of their academic institution.  If student critics adequately fulfill the standards of format and method mentioned above, their literary criticism is legitimized by a grade. Considerations of audience happen all the time as teachers require students to think of their rhetorical stance and ask them to address a generally educated audience. But it is the student's success in adquately writing to a potential, not actual, audience that legitimizes his or her work. Traditional literary criticism deals only in terms of potential, not actual, audiences, to be legit.

Digital Threats to Traditional Literary Criticism
I've been asking my students to investigate works of literature through digital means -- both in the consumption and analysis of primary texts, and in their written interpretations of those literary works. And this has presented some serious problems that must be acknowledged. The traits I've mentioned above are good guides for considering the viability of online literary criticism.

  1. Do digital formats threaten the legitimacy of traditional literary criticism?
    Yes. Primary texts are dangerously unstandardized and increasingly varied due to the absence of conventions for online editions. They are also unstable, since it is no longer publishers or formal institutions that provide (and therefore control) how texts are created, distributed, formatted, or archived. The referencing of texts is thrown into chaos because there is nothing comparable to page numbering to keep consistency across different versions of the same text, and because linking to texts is problematic. A URL is not as stable as a title page. Added to this is the complication of media-enhanced texts, remixes, derivative works, or translations/transformations of texts into various audio/visual media. When studying a "text," is one studying the print version, the eBook version, the hyperlinked version, the audiobook version, the video performance version, the serialized version, the adaptation -- what? And as for secondary texts, writing about writing is also being complicated in the digital age. Purely in terms of format, does a book review posted on or constitute a form of literary criticism? If a literary critic analyzes a text and includes various media within his or her critique, is this a capitulating to popular culture at the expense of serious analysis? Can a blog be a vehicle for legitimate literary criticism, with its continuous, reverse chronological order?
  2. Do digital methods for analyzing literature threaten the legitimacy of traditional literary criticism?
    Yes and no. None of the methods listed up above for how literary criticism is conducted are at odds with online writing. In fact, a case can be made that both primary and secondary texts are more easily found and referenced online, and the analysis of form is only accentuated by the problems of format listed in the previous point (That is to say, it becomes inescapable for critics not to attend to the function of form when they are faced with so many differing formats for primary texts). However, methods for online writing differ markedly from traditional literary criticism, which emphasizes "publishing" one's ideas only after they have been polished through private drafting. Online writing emphasizes more frequent, less formal, continuous discourse that showcases the formative processes of literary investigation and that does not simply lay out a completed argument. Online writing can be coherent, but not in the same ways that coherence is recognized within traditional works of literary criticism. The design of a blog, or the use of internal linking, can provide cues for coherence that operate as strongly as good transition or topic sentences within traditional academic writing. These methods for connecting ideas are foreign to traditional writing about literature and can be seen as illegitimate.
  3. Does the style of online writing threaten the legitimacy of traditional literary criticism?
    Absolutely. The informality of online writing makes analysis of literature seem more casual than would be acceptable in traditional academic writing about literature. Moreover, expectations about  spelling, paragraphing, etc. in online writing are very relaxed compared to traditional academic writing. The citation of sources is not well established in online writing. Where do the footnotes go? Is a link a legitimate citation? To what should someone link when citing a source? The lack of a clear way of using or citing sources makes online writing seem less real than traditional literary criticism where those conventions are well established and firmly expected.
  4. Does the length of online writing threaten the legitimacy of literary criticism?
    Yes. Seriousness is correlated with length in traditional literary criticism, and online communication favors briefer froms of writing. A tweet will not be viewed as legitimate literary criticism, nor will most book reviews. Blog posts can be lengthy, but are typically briefer or written like traditional newspaper articles with all the key info summarized "above the fold." Both length and style here are out of keeping with normal literary criticism.
  5. Do online audiences threaten traditional literary criticism?
    Yes. Traditional literary criticism is a monologue not to be interrupted by readers. And while one article can "answer" another article, that "dialogue" is so time-shifted that this "conversation" is only loosely so. However, online writing with its built in commenting, sharing, and response mechanisms cries out for constant interaction with audiences. This leads to a kind of collaborative interpretive act that is foreign to the solo act of the traditional literary critic. In traditional criticism, a peer review can provide feedback during the composing process, but this is typically a one-time thing, whereas online writing promotes ongoing feedback and interaction. The literary criticism made online then becomes as much a product of that interaction as it is of the author's private interpretation.

So, can one do "legitimate literary criticism" online? Yes, one can do so, provided that one is willing to violate the conventions of online communication.  Certainly, you can interpret primary texts in light of research and create interesting arguments for others to enjoy. But you cannot do so with the formality, isolation, length, and lack of media that characterize print-based literary criticism -- not if you want your literary criticism to matter. (Of course, since traditional literary criticism is directed toward potential, not actual, audiences, it is hard to know if the lack of impact is consequential to traditionalists).

Is traditional literary criticism legitimate anymore?
Only in some respects. As promised, I'd like to turn this question of legitimacy around. Rather than thinking of traditional kinds of writing as setting the standard, I claim that another standard is now in place for serious communication about things literary (as well as everything else). The ubiquitous, media-rich, interconnected, networked online environment is in fact our default intellectual medium, and therefore our literary criticism must be responsive to the conventions of communication developing there. Despite a lack of stability and standards in many respects, some principles have been solidified and any literary critic should know and abide by these.

If a student of mine were to submit an "A paper" work of literary criticism, I would have to say it was no longer legitimate to have a great interpretive argument without demonstrating the development of that argument, not just the finished product of his or her thinking. I would say this literary criticism is not legitimate if it has not been socialized, demonstrating interaction with people who value the issues or texts involved. I would say that a plain text interpretation, however well crafted the persuasive argument, is ineffectual because the long, continuous paragraphs unbroken by interesting design or media is unlikely to engage today's readers.

Literary criticism has always been about taking literature seriously -- taking seriously the form of a work and the many consequences of such formal choices. But if today's literary critics do not take seriously the form of modern communication, they actual violate the foundation of their entire enterprise. I want my students to write "legitimate literary criticism" not according to expiring standards, but by the emerging standards that emphasize frequent, informal, formative, media-rich, interactive prose. Better a living literary criticism than a dead or dying one.

Update (5/27/11 4:30pm)
I wanted to respond in greater length to Bri's comment, below, since she asked so many good questions and my response was too long for a comment:

THANK YOU, Bri, for your quick and appropriate response. You have asked excellent questions that deserve answers. This is why I love sharp students. They truly prove that interacting with them on an intellectual level improves the thinking and writing of the professor...

On Conventions
You asked if the conventions for eBooks are the same as those for online writing in general, and it is both yes and no. The eBook has not yet come into its own, but it is clearly providing a way to bring into the online world some of the best features of the print paradigm (especially the ability to taking readers through a focused and sequential topic without interruption). This is actually one reason why successful eBooks, in my opinion, will resist the many media features that are now commonplace in blogs. It isn't that one can't put images or even videos into an eBook, but there is both a pragmatic and intellectual efficiency in not doing so. Perhaps eBooks will evolve into several prominent flavors, and I'm sure multimedia will get easier to produce and consume in eBooks. But for the time being, an eBook should be considered more like a print book than a blog.

Literary Criticism and Demand
You ask a great question about whether the academic world and its literary criticism can be driven by demand. It has been an article of faith for academia NOT to have markets drive the development of knowledge. However, I contend that we do not have a conventional economic market online. Yes, eCommerce is a big deal, and all varieties of books play into that, but don't mistake audience-sensitive content with market-driven content. "Marketing" to audiences happens rhetorically whenever we try to "sell" an idea, even when there is no exchange of cash. In the networked online environment, market dynamics are extremely important apart from actual cash markets. I believe that the niches that are academic specialities are not selling well (literally or figuratively) because they are not flowing through the long tail dynamics of other digital things (due largely to copyright and publishing practices). Ironically, the niche knowledge of academic specialties is not well suited to reach its potential (and new) audiences because it is not packaged to flow freely in the default medium.  But perhaps the more critical issue here is that writing for a faux audience (which I accuse most academic writing of doing) or even just writing for a real but limited peer audience, denies the capacity for that academic knowledge to be developed through interaction and through circulation. The very thing that print publishing was intended to do (broaden the exposure and quicken the impact of knowledge) is what academic knowledge systems are now working against by sustaining the practices of a scarcity model of communication within an abundance knowledge economy. What will happen? Knowledge will route around the outdating and self-limiting knowledge systems of traditional academic publishing.

Default Intellectual Medium
I am sure you are right that the online world is not the default intellectual medium for many, but the overwhelming majority of people in the world today are connected electronically, even if this is only via mobile phones. Just as it became silly historically to believe that one could sustain serious intellectual enterprises only through pen and paper (once print came along), so it will be equally silly to keep operating upon the principles of the print paradigm as the online networked environment truly becomes primary for all ages.

Legitimacy and Audience
This is another good question that you raise. I think that legitimacy is a social function, which may or may not relate directly to an audience or a market for an idea. For example, things gain currency and legitimacy through being acted on socially -- shared, remixed, etc. -- and not always because they addressed or were responded to by their primary audience. I think the key thing here is simply to understand knowledge occurring in social contexts that are not artificially restricted.


  1. ok, but are the conventions of an ebook the same as online writing or is it more like a go-between for the two mediums? I think our ebook feels more formal to me than most online writing and I feel almost compelled to make it longer than not. Interesting.

    p.s. THANK YOU for this post. It finally does what I feel like I've been waiting for this semester, a justification of the way this course is taught and of what we are doing (ie. "The ubiquitous, media-rich, interconnected, networked online environment is in fact our default intellectual medium, and therefore our literary criticism must be responsive to the conventions of communication developing there." and "I want my students to write "legitimate literary criticism" not according to expiring standards, but by the emerging standards that emphasize frequent, informal, formative, media-rich, interactive prose. Better a living literary criticism than a dead or dying one.")

    I've been trying to explain how this class fulfills the parameters of it's original intent as prescribed by the English department and found myself at a loss, but these arguments are pretty sound. They frankly address the tensions or issues the class presents. I do wonder (like our discussion about library database interfaces) if the academic world and its literary criticism can be driven by demand though -- I suppose I'm not as convinced that for everyone in the academic world (or even most) that their "default intellectual medium" is mapped out in the online sphere. Also, is legitimacy most largely determined by audience? or is that a more modern way of thinking? It sounds like our demand/ supply thought.

    I don't mean to be contrary ... or maybe I do. These are just all the questions I'm coming up with as I read and respond to your post.

  2. oops. that was long. should've made it it's own post maybe

  3. Great comments, Bri. I ended up updating the post to include my response to your ideas.