Academic literary criticism, as we know it today, is only about a hundred years old. The discipline likes to claim ancient antecedents (anthologies of literary criticism and theory frequently start with Plato), but if we’re talking about writing that resembles what contemporary English professors still produce en masse—closely argued interpretations of literary texts in modern languages, aimed at a specialized scholarly audience—it’s difficult to find much that fits the description before the third decade of the twentieth century. Academic criticism can thus be regarded as an innovation of the 1920s, like the lie detector, water skiing, the timed traffic light, and the bread slicer.
The academic study of literature, of course, is a great deal older: scholars were doing things with literary texts long before interpretive criticism became the paradigm. In Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study, John Guillory is interested in recovering that longer history, reaching back to the roots of the profession in the Middle Ages. He also appears to strongly suspect that academic criticism is nearing its end, though he’s not entirely sure what will replace it. The book reads as both chronicle and (slightly premature) elegy, the story of a discipline’s rise written by a practitioner anxiously awaiting its fall.
Guillory’s original plan for Professing Criticism, ultimately abandoned as overambitious, was to write a chronological history of academic literary study in Britain and America from the medieval era to the present. His debt to Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature (1987), the most estimable previous attempt at such a history, is signaled by his title, but they are very different books. Graff first published Professing Literature in the midst of the late-twentieth-century “theory wars”: a time when young American literary scholars were heavily influenced by French maîtres à penser like Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault, to the consternation of many of their elders, who were still tending the flame of the (old) New Criticism. In those exciting but contentious times, Graff offered his history of literary studies as a way of understanding how the discipline had defined itself and negotiated seemingly insurmountable disagreements between warring factions in the past. He favored a pluralistic curriculum that introduced students to as wide a variety of theories and methodologies as possible; his slogan was “Teach the conflicts.”
Guillory’s might be “Manage the decline.” Professing Criticism arrives well into an era of diminished expectations and low morale for literary studies and the humanities in general. The number of tenure-track jobs for literature professors had been low for decades but fell still further after the 2008 financial crisis, and was buffeted yet again by the Covid-19 pandemic; only about 55 percent of the jobs offered in English literature in 2019–2020 were tenure-track (compared to 75–80 percent before 2008). The raw numbers are even more dispiriting: the most recent data compiled by the Modern Language Association show that a mere 360 tenure-track jobs were offered in 2019–2020, down from 757 in 2012. To make matters worse, the number of undergraduate English majors has also fallen by 28 percent over the past decade.
Guillory, who declares at the outset of Professing Criticism that he will proceed “according to a guiding principle of what the Greeks called parrhesia, or speaking the truth freely,” doesn’t sugar the pill; indeed, he seems to take a certain perverse pride in delivering bad news. “At present, literary study oversees a domain that is large, but shrinking,” he warns in his preface. “Long ago, literary education was the chief requisite for a voice in the public sphere; that day is over,” he tells us a hundred pages later. Once the shared possession of a ruling elite, it is now the specialized province of a downwardly mobile subset of the professional-managerial class.
Guillory has been issuing these kinds of warnings for a long time. Though he is a scholar of early modern literature whose first book, Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (1983), is a respected contribution to the field, his reputation rests on his sociologically informed critiques of the discipline and of the cultural politics surrounding higher education generally. His previous book, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993), was where he first advanced the arguments that underpin Professing Criticism. The term “cultural capital” was borrowed from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: the argument, in essence, was that literary and linguistic knowledge was a status marker that was declining in social value, and all analyses of political and educational questions within the academy ought to proceed from a recognition of that stark fact. A corollary was that the pitched battles over curriculum and methodology waged both inside and outside the profession were largely beside the point, given literature’s dwindling share of the cultural pie. As Guillory puts it in the new book, “It does not matter how politically ambitious the aims of literary study might be if literature itself continues to contract in social importance.”
If Professing Criticism is not, as originally intended, a full-scale history of academic literary studies, the basic plot Guillory has constructed is clear enough, if sketchy in places. He doesn’t revise Graff’s narrative so much as extend it, beginning several centuries further back and (simply by virtue of writing and publishing thirty-five years later) encompassing several crucial recent developments within the discipline. Whereas Graff only gestures toward anything preceding the mid-nineteenth century, Guillory—as befits a scholar of the early modern period—is deeply interested in the long history of rhetorical instruction in anglophone schools and colleges. For centuries, rhetoric—which Guillory describes as “the full array of pedagogic techniques for raising language to the level of a formal practice”—was not conceived as one useful skill among many; it was at the heart of the educational project. And the surest way to acquire the facility to use language well, it was agreed, was to study Greek and Latin literature.
Rhetoric’s long dominion collapsed very suddenly.1 The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of the modern bureaucratic research university, organized into discrete departments and committed to the promulgation of specialized research. In short order, the rhetorical curriculum was abandoned, and Latin and Greek became mere, and increasingly marginal, specializations. “Once the elite institutions threw off this regime, its strongholds throughout the educational system quickly surrendered,” Guillory tells us. “The ‘empire of Latin’ was long lasting but a fragile structure in the end; it was overthrown much faster than the supposed barbarians dispatched the Roman.” The study of literature survived, but it was no longer integrated into the mission of universities as it had been during the rhetorical era.
What filled the void left by rhetoric, before the advent of academic literary criticism as we know it today? For a time, it was occupied by what Guillory calls “two failed disciplines”: belles lettres and philology. The former, which now survives mostly as a mildly dismissive epithet, was once a respectable university subject; no less an eminence than Adam Smith delivered a series of lectures on it in the mid-eighteenth century. Belles lettres surveyed what now seems like a broad and only tangentially related collection of forms of writing, including poetry, history, and moral philosophy. (Prose fiction, then considered too vulgar to merit scholarly attention, is conspicuously absent.) Running parallel to the rise of the periodical essay as practiced by journalistic critics like Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, belles lettres sought to cultivate literary taste rather than improve students’ overall linguistic abilities, as rhetoric had; and it dealt exclusively with vernacular writing in modern languages, not classics in Greek and Latin.
Belles lettres’s origins were French (the historian Charles Rollin popularized the term in 1726 and it was imported into English shortly thereafter), and it was always closely linked to journalism and the periodical criticism of the public sphere; philology was German, and a pure product of the modern university. Where belles lettres pursued the cultivation of taste and aesthetic sensibility, philology aimed at the accumulation of knowledge. Though the word is ancient, modern philology can be dated to the early nineteenth century, when German scholars became interested in how various languages in Europe originated in Sanskrit and other Eastern languages. The philologists, unlike the belletrists, were methodical and systematic, and given to expounding those methods and systems in lengthy treatises. For the first time, language was presented as something that could be studied scientifically, with rigor and precision. Moreover, while the philologists often worked on literary texts, “the true object of study was the living language that loomed behind the textual evidence…. ‘Modern philology’ came into its own by relegating literature to a subordinate object.”
Philology was a German import, but it caught on around the turn of the twentieth century in British and (especially) American universities, offering a vast program of scholarly research and a coherent new way of structuring undergraduate curricular requirements. (It is thanks to philology that literary history is now divided into discrete periods, usually encompassing about a century but sometimes much longer or shorter, in which scholars are expected to specialize and on which students are expected to take survey courses.) Meanwhile, “belles lettres continued to be represented,” in Guillory’s words, “by a cadre of lecturers who saw their function as communicating an appreciation of literature but were as incapable of making their discourse scientific as they were disinclined.” The philologists were better scholars, but the belletrists were better and more popular teachers, as “the extension of philological methods from language to literature often failed in the classroom to rise above a boring recitation of facts.” The war for the soul of literary studies was thus fought on two fronts: the research library and the lecture hall.
These tensions between philology and belles lettres set the stage for the more familiar battle, analyzed in detail by Graff in Professing Literature, between scholars and critics in the early twentieth century. On one side, there were literary historians, working in the philological tradition as well as practicing more belletristic modes like biography; on the other, the insurgent New Critics, many of them practicing poets, all of them committed to microscopically close reading and to a conception of the primacy of the literary text over its historical background. While Graff emphasizes the clash between scholars and critics, Guillory minimizes it, skipping over the conflict to its midcentury resolution in what he calls a “postwar settlement”: “In the two decades after the war, conflict between the scholars and the critics came to a peaceful conclusion, and a new discipline coalesced that called itself by…a new name: literary criticism.”
This new discipline borrowed features from philology and belles lettres—period specialization and close reading, respectively—but abjured their emphasis on facticity and appreciation in favor of a new goal: interpretation. Ingenious critics such as Cleanth Brooks and William Empson modeled what Guillory calls “the projection of reading into ‘readings’”: bravura performances of verbal analysis that purported to demonstrate what literary texts were really about. The interpretive tendency then became supercharged with the introduction of powerful new philosophical traditions from continental Europe (structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and so on). While these practices harked back in some ways to older traditions of explication and exegesis, learning to interpret texts had never been conceived as a primary objective of literary education before. It was this commitment to critical interpretation, as opposed to philological fact-finding or belletristic appreciation, that unites the various disparate theoretical trends and tendencies that proliferated after World War II.
And it was the primacy of interpretation, in Guillory’s view, that licensed literary critics of his own generation to wander away from, and in some cases abandon, literature entirely, in search of new worlds to conquer: “By the later 1960s, the literary professoriate had begun to tire of producing ‘readings’ of literary works.” But rather than finding something to do with literature besides interpret it, they simply moved on to producing interpretations of everything: films, works of visual art, philosophical systems, archival documents, feelings, society itself. “A door was opened leading beyond literature to all of culture,” Guillory writes. “But having passed through this magic portal, it was difficult to return to literature, to be content with that object.”
The crucial word in the term “literary criticism” turned out to be the second one: it no longer mattered so much whether the object of analysis was literary, or even textual, so long as criticism was being conducted. This expanded conception of criticism was not unprecedented—periodical critics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Guillory allows, also “saw all of society as their legitimate concern,” and there had long been a dialectical relationship between literary criticism and “critique” in the philosophical or Marxist sense—but it was in tension with the logic of academic specialization. Ventriloquizing academic criticism’s critics, Guillory describes it as a discourse that “plays both sides of the street, pretending to be a specialization among the specialized disciplines but tacitly specializing in everything.” This opens the discipline up to charges like that leveled by the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who as early as 1942 referred to criticism as “the profession of the unprofessional.”
That’s about as far as Guillory gets in elaborating his new history of literary studies; this material probably occupies about 150 pages of a 407-page book. Though he has clearly done an immense amount of research, thinking, and reading across the centuries, his story is told in broad strokes and lacks the anecdotal richness of Graff’s more limited survey. And while Guillory’s extended narrative of the rise and arguable fall of literary studies is plausible and in certain ways provocative, it is more an impressive synthesis of existing scholarship than a revelatory new account.
Much of the rest of Professing Criticism consists of occasional essays, often expanded and revised from lectures given before professional associations and other academic audiences, that offer interventions in contemporary political and methodological debates within literary studies. While the disciplinary history Guillory provides elsewhere in the book often buttresses the arguments he makes in these sections, they stand on their own as engagements, often polemical, with disciplinary trends he finds interesting or objectionable. Here he presents himself not as a historian of the discipline but as an opinionated participant within it.
One chapter confronts the demands made by some students and faculty in recent years to “decolonize the curriculum,” occasioning a controversy that is, as Guillory sees it, essentially a reprise of the late-twentieth-century debate over multiculturalism that he reckoned with in Cultural Capital. As in his previous work, Guillory views struggles over the content of the curriculum as largely symbolic, an imaginary resolution of real social problems: “In the Western metropoles, diversifying the curriculum has proven to be easier than diversifying the student population and very much easier than making university faculties and student bodies truly inclusive.” He is sympathetic to the political aims of decolonization but suggests that “Western ‘high culture’ has become the low-hanging fruit for the decolonial project”: because we are powerless to change the real injustices and inequalities that have resulted from the long history of colonialism, we take out our aggressions on “figures who are no longer much read, who…have been roused from their dormancy to serve as representatives of Western culture, the face of imperial domination.”
A related bugbear of Guillory’s is what he calls “topicality”: the trend toward organizing teaching and scholarship around “political thematics…defined by their contemporary relevance” as opposed to more traditional categories such as period or genre. Much as he did in Cultural Capital, he argues that “topicality operates in the discipline as the expression of a surrogate politics”: in the absence of our collective ability to do anything about capitalism or racism, we offer a course on it (or rather on its representation in literature) and consider that a sufficient political act. Aside from his annoyance over the discipline’s political bad faith, Guillory is concerned with how topicality privileges contemporary literature at the expense of older works, since “works of earlier periods of literary history fit very imperfectly into contemporary political categories.” If crafting a canon in which twenty-first-century students can “see themselves” is the goal, then “only contemporary literature has any chance of representing real-world diversity, with obvious implications for the distribution in the curriculum between older and contemporary works.”
Certain literary forms and genres, such as the realist novel, lend themselves to the topical representation of social and political problems more than others. Guillory concludes:
The long-term effect of this pressure is twofold: the contraction of the disciplinary field historically to modern or contemporary literature and generically to the form of representation—prose narrative—most amenable to interpretation within a political thematic.
He notes that poetry, once the academic literary subject par excellence, is particularly disadvantaged by these dynamics, and that contemporary students often conflate “the novel” with “literature” per se. Moreover, when the literature of the past is condemned for its failure to meet the moral standards of the present, we get an increasingly foreshortened and distorted picture of literary history. This is why, in Guillory’s view, we should refuse the rhetoric of identification and relatability in favor of facilitating encounters with difference:
We want our students to become engaged by what is other, including persons who are different from themselves, but more than that, we want them to become engaged by whole worlds of otherness and irreducible difference…. There is no lack of difference in the literature of the past; figures who offer themselves for identification are harder to find there, however, and sometimes only seem to be like us.
This is Guillory at his crankiest; eloquent as his defense of historical difference is, he seems to know he’s fighting a losing battle here. (One notes in passing, too, the similarity of his argument to the conservative talking point that pits “viewpoint diversity” against social diversity: in this case, it’s the otherness of the past that’s held up as social diversity’s other.)
Yet another institutional hornet’s nest Guillory has a swing at is the long-standing dearth of tenure-track jobs in the humanities, and in literary studies in particular, a situation he describes as a “permanent crisis.” A little history is in order here: the golden age of American graduate education was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when graduate schools began admitting larger cohorts in order to keep pace with skyrocketing undergraduate enrollments and the demand for literature instructors. Simply put,
there were not enough professors to teach the mass of college students. The rapid expansion of the undergraduate population forced the graduate schools to open their doors to new aspirants and to mint new professors as fast as they could…. Before the 1960s, nearly everyone who applied to graduate school was accepted. Nearly everyone looking for a tenure-track job found one. The notion of a “job crisis” meant the opposite of what it means today.
By the end of the 1970s the spike in enrollments ended, yet American graduate schools continued producing new Ph.D.s, even as the number of tenure-track jobs declined.2 While there were some attempts to hold down the size of graduate cohorts in order to better fit the number of positions available, there was never broad support for this among the professoriate. Faculty, in Guillory’s account, chose democratization of access to the profession and diversification of their own ranks over restricting the supply of Ph.D.s in order to match the shrinking job market. (He notes also the presence of more self-interested motivations, such as “the desire to teach graduate students, to use graduate seminars as vehicles for research, and in this way to create a public for one’s work,” and the relief from lower-division teaching that graduate students provide for tenure-line faculty.) “The result,” Guillory laments,
was untold anguish, generations of young people who worked very hard to achieve a goal that from the beginning was only marginally within their grasp, who lost years of their lives and years of earning power and who had to reinvent themselves professionally when the academic job did not materialize.
Guillory, to his credit, recognized the severity of this problem long before most other academics of his generation,3 but he doesn’t appear to have many ideas about how to ameliorate it. He offers a few sensible suggestions for reform, most of which involve guiding graduate students away from teaching and toward so-called alt-ac careers and connecting them to networks of alumni who have left academia or gone into parallel professions.
Ultimately, though, these proposals feel weak and half-hearted. Indeed, Guillory doesn’t seem to believe there’s much chance of a revitalization of his discipline. When he thinks about the future of literary studies, he can only prophesy its continued contraction and perhaps balkanization. At one point, reflecting on the inhospitability of the “topical” model to older literature, he imagines
the English major in the future breaking into two tracks across the spine of World War II…. In the first track, students would study “English and American” literature, culminating in modernism. In the second track, students would study literature in English written largely if not exclusively after the Second World War, with an orientation toward issues of social identity…. It seems very probable that the study of prewar literature in English will become like the classics, in ways that we can hope will be as interesting as classics are today.
Other prognostications are similarly dour. On the book’s very last page, he contemplates “a future in which literary scholarship might be regarded as unnecessary, a luxury that can no longer be afforded.”
What is to be done? Guillory is not much given to solutions, but he does offer a few (again, half-hearted) prescriptions. He thinks the discipline needs to justify itself by rolling back criticism’s incursion into myriad domains and reasserting “literature”—however that term is defined—as the object of its study: “Literature needs to be recentered by the literary professoriate in order to reestablish its public claim to expertise.” Refocusing on literature, Guillory thinks, will help shift the ground away from unwinnable arguments about the social value of criticism, which he rightly observes automatically place literary studies in a position of structural weakness vis-à-vis other academic disciplines: “So long as there are scientists at work on a cure for cancer, the humanities will have a nearly insurmountable task in making a case in the public sphere for their great, if less obvious, social benefits.” Better, he thinks, to assume that there is still enough general interest in literature in our society to justify the existence of a discipline that studies it rigorously, at least for the time being: “Humanities scholars have devoted too much effort to declaring the purpose or value of humanities study—the why—and too little to giving an account of what they study.” The watchword, in other words, is retrenchment: back to what we do best.
Is Guillory too pessimistic about the future of literary studies? There’s no question that he gravitates toward grand postlapsarian narratives (an occupational hazard of Milton scholars?) and thinks in terms of irreversible trends rather than the quirky accidents that so often define real history, institutional and otherwise. While he never openly admits a nostalgia for, say, the “postwar settlement” of the 1950s and 1960s (during which, as he acknowledges in passing, the American professoriate was almost entirely white and male) or, further back, the heyday of classical rhetoric, he tends to emphasize what has been lost rather than what has been gained. But one doesn’t have to see any previous era of literary study as utopian to recognize the current one as flawed, fragile, and unsustainable. Guillory is scrupulous about avoiding hyperbole, but the picture he paints of his discipline is pretty unremittingly bleak. At times he seems to recognize that this is not helpful. In a telling moment toward the end of the book, he admits: “The emotion I should probably invoke in all honesty is despair, but as that would be highly unstrategic, I will attempt to elicit the opposite emotion of hope.”
Unstrategic or not, despair is the ground note of the unfinished symphony that Guillory offers us in Professing Criticism. From the point of view of a contingent academic reading a book by a tenured scholar who is in the latter stages of a celebrated career, I find this resigned presentation of the probable continued contraction of the discipline somewhat maddening. Guillory’s reluctance to embrace the empty radicalism of many of his colleagues is understandable, but his tragic realism can feel complacent: it’s always easier to give up on something after you and your generation have exhausted its resources yourself.
Still, I can’t quite bring myself to muster the strategic hope that the discipline will need if it’s going to avert the bleak future Professing Criticism predicts for it. For those of us who value not only literature but the idiosyncratic legacy of academic literary studies, Guillory does not bring good or welcome news. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.