Amateur literary criticism has the intimacy of gossip for the benefit of the foreigner

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Unlike the recreational figure of the amateur engineer or scientist, the amateur literary critic is often an important figure, sometimes deceiving the academic and professional figure of the glory of his authority.

Much of Donald Trump’s appeal to American voters in the 2016 presidential election that changed the game was something very simple: the idea of ​​the political outsider. In this game, it was child’s play for Trump to beat Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, former Democratic nomination contestant and finally, wife of a famous ex-president. She was there Ultimate Insider – much like a dark video game character. The American people, Trump announced, were tired of seasoned politicians and their endless betrayals. They wanted an outsider, an ordinary Joe like him.

Bold and glorious

When it comes to politics, being an insider or a career politician can sometimes trip you up. Politics is a dirty business, and a fresh-faced (even orange-haired) hobbyist often seems preferable to a seasoned professional who has become part of the problem. American politics, critic Marjorie Garber recalls, is full of examples: basketball player Bill Bradley became senator, artists Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood became governor and mayor respectively, entrepreneur Ross Perot mounted an impressive presidential candidacy, and finally, Donald Trump won and changed everything.

When and where do we welcome professionals? What about doctors, lawyers, accountants? You don’t want an amateur accountant to do your books any more than someone who wields a scalpel for fun to open you up. But then things start to look gray.

The amateur athlete, symbolically registered in the Olympics, was for a long time considered better than the modest mercenary who played not for love but for money. Detective work? What professional could surpass the intuition of Sherlock Holmes, Auguste Dupin or the great talkative and fluttery Miss Marple? What puny professional from Scotland Yard?

Theater? There are bold and glorious experimental traditions of theater – traditions that can only be attempted by courageous amateurs who are not tied to risk-averse trading models that keep the professional on a leash.

What about art and literature? What about the people who write, and those who think and write about artistic and intellectual experience? How to talk about love? What qualifies your judgment to be taken seriously? Is love enough or do you need a degree? In other words, what about the people chatting and chatting in those same pages?

Uncommon reader

In 1998, author and critic Pankaj Mishra published an evocative essay in The New York Book Review called ‘Edmund Wilson in Benares.’ It was a poignant story. He told the story of a young provincial’s thirst for books, and the awkward way he goes about trying to satisfy it, in the dusty bookstores of small towns, on the moldy shelves of forgotten libraries, and how the research shed a hazy light on himself. world.

This was Mishra himself, being an amateur reader, living an aimless life in the holy and opium infested city of Benares, hanging out at the Hindu University of Benares without any affiliation, reading accidentally chosen books, books that seemed absolutely out of place in this rambling North Indian Campus Ambience of unemployment, cynicism and violence.

‘Edmund Wilson in Benares’ is an amateur critical tale. In a more complex sense, this is also an example of the same. This results from Mishra’s failure to write a more traditional “Wilson’s Key Books Exhibition”. Knowing nothing of the context of Wilson’s work – or that of Wilson’s key subject, Gustave Flaubert – Mishra ended up reading both in light of both what he knew and what surrounded him at that time. then: Uttar Pradesh at the end of the twentieth century, its caste and class politics. But the real protagonist of this life story was Rajesh, a former student but in fact a hitman turned hooligan. In the company of Mishra, Rajesh also came to indulge in a reading of Western writers and critics of whom he knew nothing, but through whose work he came up with magical, albeit tragic, ideas about the vicious functioning of the class. , caste and other powers. structures that kept him spellbound. The lack of professional scholarly knowledge has given gold. Mishra realized the humanism inherent in literature that transcends national and historical boundaries.

Mishra’s admission of amateur status also gives us an important origin story. He predicts the future trajectory of Mishra’s own development as a popular critic. In a transparent way, amateurism broadens to the alluring appeal of the public intellectual.

Reverse tide

In art, as in the world of sport, being an amateur was once better than being a professional.

Think of the word ‘virtuoso’, used in 17th century England. It is a prestigious antecedent of the now less prestigious “amateur”. The virtuosos, Garber tells us, embodied a unique intersection of power, privilege and cultural literacy. They were connoisseurs and collectors, gentlemen of wealth and leisure, identified with the aristocracy.

Intellectual, social and economic privileges have come together to make the virtuoso a gentleman-scientist. She distinguished him not only from those who had no money, but also from the newly rich who could not claim an old surname. Throughout the 18th century, the dilettante humbly rubbed shoulders with the “better informed” virtuoso. Neither term had yet been dismissed as trivial, but alas, it would happen soon, with the increasing professionalization of literary studies.

Finally, it was in the 19th century that the virtuoso, the dilettante and the belletriste were gradually devalued. A donation from Oxford could now measure academic success by claiming that “we have gone beyond the mere Belletrist treatment of classical literature.” And in the 1920s, writer and editor John Middleton Murry had decisively dismissed the hobbyist: “No amount of sedentary aperitif or mosaic of words will make a writer the dilettante belletrist.”

Anti-professional specialist

During the 1920s and 1930s, English established itself as a serious academic discipline on both sides of the Atlantic. At the University of Cambridge, professors like FR and QD Leavis and IA Richards have done a lot to give it rigor, distinguishing it from an area of ​​debates about aesthetic taste. Meticulous examination, launched in 1932, was the famous platform for Leavis’ championship of this disciplinary rigor. A similar position was taken by the American poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, who also advocated literary criticism as a specialized activity and founded the Kenyon Reviews in 1939 as a platform for this. Ransom’s famous 1937 essay, “Criticism, Inc.,” argues for a rigorous, scientific model of criticism, something that requires a level of collaboration possible only in academia: “Criticism must become more scientific , or precise and systematic, and this means that it must be developed by the collective and sustained effort of learned people – which means that its proper seat is in the universities.

Rejection begins

By becoming a science, criticism rejects amateur practice. “It’s strange,” writes Ransom, “but no one seems to have told us what exactly the review’s good deal is. There are a lot of reviews that could tell us that, but most of them are amateurs. It’s far too likely that what they call criticism when they produce it isn’t the real thing. ”

Criticism becomes both achievable through the collective model of scholarly scholarship and accountable to it. This is how literary studies fought and ended up overcoming some of this skepticism to become an academic discipline. But unlike purely recreational figures like the engineer or the amateur scientist, in the artistic language of literature, the amateur often becomes an important figure, sometimes deceiving the fully accredited scholar of the glory of his authority.

The professionalization of the literary university therefore involves an element of contradiction. The rise of literary criticism as a figure of expertise is the story of the emergence of anti-professional specialist.

From there is born the present conversation, that of the literary supplements of the newspapers, the reviews, the reviews. It’s not a college scholarship, but in its ideal life, it’s not just a storm of opinions either. It has the intimacy and energy of a chat between caring, and deeply caring, people who have spent more time with the archives so that they can suggest directions for popular taste, but including the cat. is for the benefit of the foreigner. They are speakers who stay outside the rigid dedication to scholarly records and specialized language that do not exist for the public, but for the advancement of a discipline. Like Mishra and Rajesh, they are partially foreign to their own realm, if only for the moment.

The author’s most recent book is the co-edited collection of essays, The amateur critic (2019). @_saikatmajumdar


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