Writing for the Reader

A response to Jonathan Kramnick’s Criticism and Truth

Paul Saint-Amour

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

what a pleasure it is, sharing this folio with my esteemed colleagues Ankhi Mukherjee and Elaine Scarry, and getting to think together about and with Jonathan Kramnick’s Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies. Within that field of inquiry, Kramnick’s is a vital book indeed, in the senses of both lively and necessary. Given how forcefully it insists on the importance of sustaining “the counterflow of ideas and practices from the young to the old,” I imagine Kramnick would agree that the book’s most vital respondents will ultimately be those emergent and future scholars for whose sake, principally, it aims to describe and celebrate and defend what we do as scholars of literature. But Criticism and Truth is also a clarion call to senior scholars to join in that work, and I am grateful for the chance to say what tones and timbres in that call have sounded most clearly to me, and to what work I hear them summoning us.

To my ear, one of the clearest and brightest notes is rung early on, in Kramnick’s claim that much of our knowledge in literary studies is “craft knowledge,” a knowing that which is garnered by means of knowing how. This includes how to fit our writing adeptly to the writing of others, how to channel the worldview and idiom of a literary text in analyzing it, and how to produce synopses that are at once accurate and partial to our reading. For me, Kramnick’s argument about craft knowledge crucially contests the notion that our writing is nothing more than the container we build to hold thinking that we have already done—in other words, that our writing is just a writing-up. (Eric Hayot also rejects this notion in The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities.)

To date, I have encountered the write-up theory of literary critical writing in two students’ attempts to explain why they submitted ChatGPT-authored papers as their own, the defense being that they had themselves done the important brainwork of coming up with a thesis statement, and had in effect just asked the AI to supply a prose box filled with prose packing peanuts. Many of my colleagues attempt to dissuade students from using AI by showing them the egregious hallucinations of which it is capable. But I think that acquainting them with Criticism and Truth’s craft-knowledge argument may be a more effective way of persuading them to drop the write-up theory of literary criticism. The following aphorism from the book might do the trick, not least because it incarnates its claim: “Anyone can come up with something interesting to say. Few can embody something interesting in practice.”

I realize that so far I have sounded as if I think I’m exempt from this bad theory of writing. I’m not, and I’m probably one of many experienced writers of literary criticism who are in the sway of a lower-intensity version of the same bad theory. It shows whenever we exhibit preciousness or anxiety about starting to write. At my keyboard I am a Muppet concert pianist, screwing the bench up, mopping his brow, adjusting the bench down, clearing his throat, scooting the bench forward, cracking his knuckles, walking off in a huff. Criticism and Truth has convinced me that what we call “close reading” is in fact a skilled way of writing in intimate contact and coordination with the writing of others. The crucial corollary to this is a powerful charm against writing avoidance: that until we begin writing, we have not yet begun to close read.

Kramnick’s claims about literary criticism as craft knowledge are advanced by way of a running analogy between the handmaking of criticism and the handmaking of physical artifacts, the first example of the latter type of object being furniture. The book’s introductory and only epigraph quotes the furniture maker and handcraft theorist David William Pye, from a passage in which he defines craftsmanship as a “workmanship of risk” insofar as “the quality of its result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises while he works.” Pye’s lines, with their emphasis on moment-to-moment skills that can never eliminate the possibility of error, offer a strong counter-model to the write-up theory of literary criticism. But they do not tell us much about the article of furniture’s relationship to its user or, by analogy, about the critical article’s relationship to its reader.

Because Elaine Scarry is a fellow contributor, I cannot resist drawing on her inexhaustible book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World to delve a bit farther into this question of the artifact, in part because it will help me to consider what kind of critical artifact we have in Criticism and Truth. In Scarry’s chapter “The Interior Structure of the Artifact,” she posits that the intention of all human making is “to distribute the facts of sentience outward onto the created realm of artifice”; only by doing this is the human maker “relieved of the privacy and problems of that sentience.” Of course, an artifact made by a human can possess neither the aliveness nor the sentience of its maker. What an artifact does possess, according to this passage, is the capacity to materialize its maker’s awareness of another person’s pain as well as the same maker’s wish to remove that pain. An artifact such as a chair is a kind of repository of sentience, a mimesis of its maker’s perception and counterfactual wish. If the dual event of perceiving a body suffering for lack of a chair and wishing things otherwise were to have a shape, Scarry writes, the shape of that “percipient event . . . would be the shape of a chair.” And she continues, wonderfully: “The shape of the chair is not the shape of the skeleton, the shape of body weight, nor even the shape of pain-perceived, but the shape of perceived-pain-wished-gone.”

A powerful charm against writing avoidance: until we begin writing, we have not yet begun to close read.

“The shape of perceived-pain-wished-gone”: I have taken the time to activate this phrase and the thinking that culminates in it because they capture an understanding of the artifact that Criticism and Truth embodies more than it proposes. The book’s professed theory of the artifact focuses on the kinds of knowledge exhibited and created by skilled practice, on the role of medium in craft epistemology, and on the aesthetic judgment used by makers and others in evaluating the artifact, whether that artifact be a chair or a close reading of a poem. The theory of the artifact that Criticism and Truth embodies has a great deal more to do with its author’s awareness of pain and discomfort among his readers, predominantly his fellow scholars of literature. What are the perceived-pains-wished-gone whose shape is the shape of Kramnick’s book?

For me there are several. They include the pain of reading many putative “defenses” of the humanities that blame scholars for not retraining or downsizing or entrepreneurializing fast enough to deserve survival. They include the discomfort of having too few defenses of literary study that attempt to describe and celebrate what we actually do, and do well, all the time. They include the compounding pangs felt over years of seeing too few colleagues think such a defense possible or desirable to mount, and of failing to mount such a defense oneself. They include the pain resulting from the impression that waging internal method wars, and continuing to wage them long after any intellectual returns have diminished, is one of the few means by which scholars can demonstrate their agency and their discipline’s vitality. If, to bring together Kramnick’s and Scarry’s work, we might think of close reading as a craft writing intimately coordinated not only with its objects but also with its intended users, then Criticism and Truth is such a close reading. It perceives its users, its readers, as practitioners of a “workmanship of risk” who are all too constantly aware that theirs is a workmanship at risk.

Kramnick has wisely, I think, kept Criticism and Truth scaled to a defense of literary criticism’s standing as a contribution to knowledge, rather than claiming such a defense may be smoothly scaled up to solve, say, the hiring crisis in the humanities or the threat to academic freedom. Yet there is another counterfactual wish running through the book that may well be scaled up to these broader fights for survival. This is not exactly a perceived-pain-wished-gone but something close: a threatened-loss-wished-unrealized. We find it in the book’s claim that when it comes to institutional support for our discipline, “We are in a time of radical habitat destruction” that threatens our unique forms of knowledge making and skill transmission. Kramnick’s portrait of the methods of close reading, critical free-indirect discourse, and interpretive plot summary is a picture of practical ways of knowing that will be lost if that habitat destruction continues.

Even if your own list of the disciplinary knowledge-forms worth saving is a completely different one, Criticism and Truth offers a powerful example of how the attentive and celebratory description of those knowledge-forms can double as a monitory portrait of what we stand to lose if the fragile institutional ecologies that sustain them were to collapse. To quote Scarry a last time, writing here about the poet as maker and the poem as artifact: “The poet projects the private acuities of sentience into the sharable, because objectified, poem, which exists not for its own sake but to be read: its power now moves back from the object realm to the human realm where sentience itself is remade.” In fighting for the survival of our discipline, we must be in the business of remaking human sentience, extending the acuity with which we and others perceive the worth of the knowledge we make and the everyday virtuosity through which we make it. In Criticism and Truth, Jonathan Kramnick offers us a vital resource and a knowing, well-crafted example in undertaking that project.

Paul Saint-Amour is the Walter H. and Leonore C. Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination and Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form. He edited the collection Modernism and Copyright and co-edits, with Jessica Berman, the Modernist Latitudes series at Columbia University Press.
Originally published:
June 17, 2024


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