if we read literary histories, why should we be afraid of machine-reading?

After reading D.G. Myers and the Little Professor on the timeliness of literary history, especially in light of Mark Bauerlein’s discussion of the “diminishing returns” of literary criticism as performance, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way literary scholars read each other’s books.  And one of the things that struck me was the (obvious?) fact that scholars routinely read literary histories about books we’ve never read before, because we want to learn more about them, and possibly read them ourselves.  Not so, I suspect, with the conventional close readings of literary critical monographs, which I’m assuming are pretty well useless with authors or works we are unfamiliar with or uninterested in.  Am I wrong about this?  Because my intuition tells me that close-reading monographs are books that are only useful for those who are already committed to the value and interest of the works studied.  And this might account for the decline of such single author books, in the absence of a clear consensus about which books to focus on.

Although I usually disagree with Bauerlein, I think he has a point about the overproduction of literary criticism, and think that LP and Myers are probably correct to focus on literary history.  (That’s why I’m writing one myself)  But while I was mulling over this, I realized that I’d just read an entire series of exchanges on EMOB and on this blog about the allure of “machine reading” books for literary criticism.   And I myself get nervous about being led through a huge database without reading everything myself, and allowing the machine to do the searching for me.  But then I realized that we often read literary histories for exactly this kind of searching/sorting through of possible leads for our own research.  So why not use such “finding aids,” especially when we have an entire category of scholarship devoted to producing such “aids”?  Or is this too deflating a description of our own scholarship?


9 responses to “if we read literary histories, why should we be afraid of machine-reading?

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,
    I too have been thinking about the Bauerlein essay. Your post raises many interesting issues, but I want to respond to the question of whether or not we need more literary criticism. On the one hand, some of the statistics that MB cites indeed suggest a plethora and I agree that there is too much pressure on people early in their careers to publish and I also agree that we need to pay more attention to teaching (although not necessarily along the lines he proposes). On the other hand, one important purpose of literary criticism, IMHO, is to help me prepare for class. If I’m teaching Milton, I’m all set (actually overwhelmed, as MB would predict). But interestingly, there are many very canonical figures in our field about whom relatively little has been written. Can you get more canonical than Addison? Boswell? Yet there is relatively little criticism out there on *The London Journal* or *The Spectator.* There’s not much on Lady Mary’s letters, with one spectacular exception. There’s not all that much on Susanna Centlivre, Hannah Cowley, or even RB Sheridan. There is quite a bit on *The Country Wife,* but less than you would think on *The Man of Mode.* I was in the library looking for a biography of Etherege the other day, but didn’t find one.

    I’m sure there’s some explanation for this uneven distribution (probably multiple ones) and I will admit that it is relative as there is some very good writing on these figures; my point, though, is that certain areas don’t feel glutted to me. There are some texts that I think we haven’t thought about enough.

    (Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be writing literary history.)

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hi Laura,

    No, I agree with you that the 18c is one of those fields that doesn’t seem to have reached a saturation point for the majority of its canonical figures, at least in genres other than the novel. I suspect that those working in Austen, Richardson, Fielding, Defoe, and possibly Behn or Burney have that feeling, but specialists in the other genres tend to feel that they are trying to overcome the resistance of scholarly as well as lay audiences.

    Your sense of the unevenness might come from the fact that you’re working in the drama, too, which I think is particularly underserved by contemporary academic scholarship. I remember working on the Davenant section in my Cynic book, and realizing that there seemed to be no modern scholarly edition of the corpus, a small scholarly bio, and only a handful of articles about the works, none of which discussed the piece I was talking about. This seemed strange to me, but that was how it was, and addressing the whys of that unevenness would be a post in itself, though an interesting one.

    One of the points, though, that I’m most interested in hearing about is whether the single-author, close-reading monograph really was done in by the canonical revisionism of the past 20 years. My suspicion is that the confidence to really break down a single work by a single author really needs to precede the project itself as some kind of institutional given; “of course we all know this passage” etc. etc.

    Close reading, of course, is not by any means limited to familiar works. But my feeling is that the sense of the interest and importance of the exercise really has to come from a work that has attracted a lot of sustained critical attention over the years.

    (And for whatever reason, I feel that literary history is the most suitable mode for critical thought (or my critical thought) at this point in time . . . . )

  3. Eleanor Shevlin

    Very interesting post and follow-up comments. I often assign presentation projects that require undergrad students to construct brief annotated bibliographies of articles on a particular (typically fairly canonical) author/text–and I have run into problems with a dearth of material. I also suspect that this is not just an 18th-century issue–to varying degrees, there’s unevenness across the centuries.

    Literary histories that examine texual production within a given period would not seem to me to rule out the need or desire for close readings–and could even encourage the practice (albeit often in more truncated than extended form). Dave’s feeling that literary history is “the most suitable mode for critical thought” at our current moment seems to tie in with calls for scholars to gain a better sense of the full landscape of textual production (though of course this is only one form of literary history). Yet as that landscape is being fleshed out, it may well generate an interest in both once forgotten authors/texts as well as a need to reconsider certain aspects about canonical figures and their works. Understanding more about, say, the works of Edward Kimber, whose popularity vied with that of Richardson and Fielding, might be worth pursuing. Hugh Kelly offers another example. In his review of Robert Baitaille’s The Writing Life of Hugh Kelly: Politics, Journalism, and Theater in Late-Eighteenth-Century London (2000), Rob Hume notes that Kelly is " a very minor writer, but he connects in interesting ways to people of importance (Garrick, Goldsmith, Lord North, John Wilkes), and his career offers many insights into the world of Grub Street in the 1760s and 1770s" and that "his chequered career has much to tell us about the hidden connections between theatre managers and newspapers, political writings and riots in the theatre" (149, 150). Baitaille admittedly does not offer much in the way of extended close readings, but he does offer some.

  4. Anna Battigelli

    As Bauerlein suggests, the transformation in self-definition–from the critic as “explicator” to the critic as “performer”–suggests one reason why literary criticism has an ever diminishing audience. This change in scholarly self-definition seems as problematic in winning over audiences as the oversaturation of books. I like Bauerlein’s two suggestions:

    “One, departments should limit the materials they examine at promotion time. If aspirants may submit only 100 pages to reviewers, they will publish less and ensure that those 100 pages are superb.

    Two, subsidizers should shift their support away from saturated areas and toward unsaturated areas, in particular toward research into teaching and even more toward classroom and curricular initiatives.”

    To return to Dave’s initial question, don’t we bring different needs to literary histories than we do to single-author monographs? And don’t we need both?

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    I’m not sure that books on single authors are dead. What about, for example, Helen Deutsch’s excellent work on Pope and Johnson? Derek Hughes on Aphra Behn? Perhaps there is just so much more of everything else that this is no longer the dominant mode. I also think economics more than canon shifting has diminished the market share, so to speak, of this form–at least that is what I was told at the beginning of my career. Books that range over a greater variety of texts and authors are thought to have a wider audience, and they probably do.

    I do agree that work on teaching and learning in higher education is greatly underserved. Most people I think are understandably reluctant to put more weight on teaching because we don’t generally seem to know how to talk about it beyond student evaluations. This is something that really needs to be fixed, and more support for this area would be a great start. (But like unevenness, this is a big topic.)

    To return to Dave’s original post, though, perhaps it would be helpful if you said a little more about what exactly you mean by literary history.

  6. Dave Mazella

    There are a number of issues here, but let me tackle a few . . .

    I wouldn’t dream of claiming that the single-author literary monograph is dead, but I do think any scan of the academic presses would show fewer studies like this getting printed nowadays, and that those that do tend to be the preserve of well-established scholars. I think it’s safe to say that dissertation directors have been warning students away from single-author dissertations for some time, but I could be wrong.

    And how many of single-author books could be published on figures of the stature of Hugh Kelly? (I’m saying this as someone who owns and likes Bataille’s book, which I think valuably connects HK to his political milieu) But when will the next book on Kelly be published?

    Like Laura, I don’t want the market to dictate our research agendas, and I am a little skeptical about the claim about the glut in canonical scholarship, which sounds reminiscent of the “glut” in PhDs, which turns out to be a structural issue, not a cyclical one, as Marc Bousquet has shown. So we should not, like Bauerlein, take this notion of a glut for granted.

    But the key question is how our research agendas (what’s interesting to us?) can connect to both literary values (what’s rereadable?) and classroom agendas (what’s teachable to people new to the field?).

    I probably need to do a separate post defining literary history, but I’m interested in this academic genre because, unlike a single-author study, a literary history is able to frame itself with an explanation of why it’s important. At some point in such a project, you have to put that up as an explicit part of your argument: “this is important because it shows us X about its time and place” (and nowadays lit history usually bleeds into cultural history)

    This aspect of lit history, its ability to spell out the value of the materials it contains, and the reasons for their inclusion and not other materials, is the kind of thing that also makes it useful for teachers, as well. I’d say that this is an important feature of lit history, and one that makes it useful for the present moment’s pluralistic attitude towards literary value. Am I wrong about this?


  7. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, absolutely–students are warned away from single-author projects. But I always thought that this was because of the economics of publishing (presumably larger market) rather than canon-shifting. And there probably are indeed proportionally fewer of these studies, but if it were canon-shifting, wouldn’t you see a lot of single-author books on newly-canonical figures? There are a few, but not that many. (Here’s where we need a computer to make this less impressionistic!) But maybe what you’re suggesting is that the whole idea of canonicity has changed, so that there really aren’t any figures who everyone has agreed to read anymore. Or many there are MORE figures who everyone is supposed to read, so there is less point in reading or writing a book on a single author.

    On the point of literary history: defining it would probably be pretty involved, but alternatively, what would be a good example or two of this genre in our field for you?

    • Dave Mazella

      These quotes from you capture my sense of the critical scene right now:

      “the whole idea of canonicity has changed, so that there really aren’t any figures who everyone has agreed to read anymore. Or many there are MORE figures who everyone is supposed to read, so there is less point in reading or writing a book on a single author.”

      If we look at the case of recent feminist literary histories, how many single-author book-length studies have we seen of the female writers recovered in the past 10-20 years? How many critical biographies? So, yeah, from the point of view of studies like these, when did Bauerlein’s supposed glut ever take place? Nonetheless, I think that critical pluralism works against the single-author study, if only because revisionist critics need to account for, and justify, the critical revision-process in the context of a larger system of literary value.

      As I mentioned earlier, though I was initially inspired by the literary history posts of the Little Professor and D.G. Myers, I don’t totally agree with their views about an early generation of scholarship. I’m troubled by what seems to me to be a nostalgia for the “minor writer” category. (I recognize that so-called minor writers do have value, especially for junior scholars) We don’t like to place writers nowadays into “major” and “minor” categories prior to interpretation, which is probably a good thing. But the consequence is a default pluralism that sometimes feels slack and unargued.

      The most interesting literary history I’ve come across lately has been Susan Staves’ A Literary History of Women’s Writing, which to me seems like a real achievement in terms of its scholarly breadth and its synthesis of existing arguments. And I’ve always been a huge fan of Jane Spencer’s Rise of the Woman Novelist, which SS’s study resembles, I think. Oddly enough, I also really like J.M.W. Tompkins, whose work on the novel feels very idiosyncratic compared to Spencer, but whose chapters always give me ideas. But when I think of literary history as a genre in its own right, I think of books organized around groups of authors in succession or around the development of a single genre. There must be more examples, but those are some names offhand.

      Does that clarify things at all?


  8. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, that helps. Although it also seems that one thing that makes them admirable about these works is that they offer ideas about the novels, so that the criticism is folded into the history. But I guess they also give you ideas for teaching things that you might not otherwise have thought of. (Then you usually find out that those things are out of print anyway.)

    The Bauerlein essay probably needs a separate post, but his larger point seems to be that all this criticism is leading to bad teaching. In many ways I agree with him that something has to change in regard to the demand and reward structure for publication, but I’m skeptical of his suggestion of a causal relationship between publishing and poor teaching.