The Living Practice of Criticism

A reply to my respondents

Jonathan Kramnick

From a folio of responses to Jonathan Kramnick's Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies. To read the entire folio, click here.

i wanted to give an account of our practice. I wanted critics at once to recognize their own activity in my sentences and to consider that activity differently. I wanted finally to write a literary-critical book about literary criticism, using tools of the craft to understand the craft.

My reasons were simple. Like any craft, academic literary criticism is a living practice. It survives only as its habitat thrives. Recent years have seen tragic habitat loss for the discipline of English, manifesting most acutely in the frightening disappearance of jobs for the young. The situation is urgent. Without younger scholars moving up the ranks, the skills of the craft fail to be renewed or challenged. They simply die. My book was an attempt to describe what would pass with that death. I focused on the practice of interacting with and knowing the world that goes by the name of close reading.

Close reading isn’t exactly reading, I argued, at least not in the conventional sense of decoding graphic marks. Rather it is a way of adding one’s own words to words in the world and so altering that world in turn. Our practice is less ocular than tactile, our skill less visual than dexterous. Close reading is active and creative. It makes things. Ankhi Mukherjee, Elaine Scarry, and Paul Saint-Amour all point to the ongoing connection I draw between the practice of shaping words from words and that of other crafts, like woodwork or masonry. Scarry likens my picture of close reading to the work of the ancient rhapsode. I think that is right, and nicely so, as it puts a contemporary academic practice at the dawn of philosophy and letters and literature. The rhapsode joins the singer’s words to the words she recites, and rhapsody understands its material in the deftness of its quoting. The relation of the rhapsode’s words to the words that are recited is in this way “lateral.” Scarry wonders whether I am right to stress the creative nature of this kind of making. I see her point, especially if one imagines creativity of this kind to be “equal” to or a kind of repetition of the writing of literature rather than “lateral” to it, in a humbler, artisanal adjustment to a present world (and maybe literature is like that too?). I’m happy to think that this lateralness can become the occasion for significant change to the given and subject to aesthetic judgment.

I focus on the skill that goes into that change and the importance of medium in the creative, critical act. We share the same verbal medium as our objects, and our skill resides in the treatment of marks that have sound and meaning, joined by the glue of syntax. Saint-Amour looks at my epigraph (the only one in the book) from the craft theorist David Pye, who describes skilled practice as a “workmanship of risk” because the outcome is never guaranteed but always subject to the moment-by-moment care and dexterity of the craftsperson. I found that to be an apt description of close reading because it emphasizes the process of making something from the world in the act of having something to say about it—Scarry’s house of woven silk. Nothing holds unless it is made well, and one can always slip at any stage of the creation.

The “singularity” of criticism stems from the singularity of literature, a unique corner of any world.

That is one kind of risk. Saint-Amour also discusses another. He notes that I address my audience as practitioners at risk whose “fragile institutional ecologies” have been threatened by job loss and all that lies behind it. He argues that the book wishes the pain of that loss to be gone in the shape of its writing and its examples. I’m flattered by the argument, and I wish it to be true. It is certainly the case that I wanted the book to be literary critical in method as well as subject. I hoped to adduce the subject up close or in the act as much as or more than in statement. The “intimate contact and coordination,” as Saint-Amour describes the relation not only with the object but with intended users, was the presentation of “what we actually do” so as to make a case for its good standing.

Any relief from the pain Saint-Amour describes would be fleeting since the cause does not go away with a book or an argument. At best, users recognize the value in what they do and fight however they can for its survival. Mukherjee shares my view that work at the microscale provides insight different in kind from the insights of other disciplines. The “singularity” of criticism stems from the singularity of literature, a unique corner of any world. Critical engagement turns the words of the world so they speak to matters of concern in the distinctive idiom of the practice. I left it at that, with the idea that critical truths are valuable in themselves and the basis for any interdisciplinarity worth having. Mukherjee takes this a step farther by providing a quick example in the “native informant” as “an adept mediator between cultures and someone who understands the limits of cultural translation.” Her example of “a critic whose skilled practice tracks the decolonizing consciousness” while remaining with the “dream of meaning we term interpretation” expands or lifts the scale from the verbal artifact to postcolonial history and politics. She points to one area of inquiry illuminated by a practice and skill always at risk. There are of course many.

Mukherjee begins her reading of Criticism and Truth with Elias Canetti’s novel Auto-da-Fé and ends with Jean Rhys as interpreted by Gayatri Spivak. Saint-Amour weaves words from my book with words from Scarry’s The Body in Pain. Scarry thinks about craft and creativity with Plato and Dante. I wanted to write a literary-critical book about literary criticism. My critics have responded in kind. Their distinctive points of agreement or contention take shape from words stitched to words—a unique and creative encounter with the world. I can see no more fitting response, and I am grateful for its presence.

Jonathan Kramnick is is the author of Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies. He is the Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale University.
Originally published:
June 17, 2024


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