What is a critic’s role? What motivations shape their decisions to write about the books they defend and those they dismiss? And what are the ethical or moral dimensions of those decisions? Beyond mere conflicts of interest, what lines do they draw for themselves in their work? What personal forces or experiences affect their preferences about what to read and review?
In this ongoing series of interviews with critics, one of the central questions will be, “What is a critic’s role?” It’s a broad question, open-ended, but one which can be used, if the critic chooses, to address the personal side to their lives as critics, and perhaps how they see their work affecting society and culture.
For the first post in this series, I’m very pleased to present an interview with Rohan Maitzen. Our conversation took place over email in recent months.
Maitzen was born in Berkeley, California, and raised in Vancouver, B.C. After doing her Ph.D. at Cornell she moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she has taught in the English Department at Dalhousie University since 1995. She specializes in Victorian literature; her academic publications include Gender, Genre, and Victorian Historical Writing and The Victorian Art of Fiction: 19th-Century Essays on the Novel. She is an editor and regular contributor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.
At Novel Readings, you’ve written frequently about your career as a critic. In a 2010 post you wrote, “Most of the posts on criticism show me wrestling with my desire to reconcile the values inculcated over many years of academic training with a strong wish to write in a different way, with a different sense of purpose and for a different audience.” You also wrote in the same post, “I just want to get on with it: trying to find a critical voice, and to hone and articulate perceptions that reflect both rigorous reading and a more personal, affective, and engaged vision of criticism.” Can you say a little about your development as a critic? What were some key turning points?
I was going to say that my career as a critic began with my training as an academic, but then I realized that really, like all critics probably, I started down this path as a reader first! My love of reading actually made me hesitant to take a more analytical or academic approach to books, and in fact when I went to college I did not intend even to be an English major: I had very little idea what such a person would even do or talk about, and I think I also had a vague impression that whatever they did, it would spoil the fun.
I owe a great debt to my first-year English professor, Don Stephens. (I wrote a bit about him here.) He was the first one to help me see, not just how literary interpretation was done, but that among its rewards was enhanced, not reduced, pleasure—that serious intellectual engagement did not have to mean spoiling the fun but could introduce more ways of having fun! This discovery that I could be both a passionate reader and a rigorous critic was an important turning point.
What has your experience been like with this push and pull between identities, reader versus academic-critic?
It wasn’t always easy to sustain both of these identities. The further I advanced in my academic career the more it sometimes seemed that I was in retreat from the books I loved and the kind of reading and writing I really enjoyed.
I don’t want to say that there are no rewards in academic literary research and criticism. There are also good and important reasons for sustaining a rich, open-ended program of inquiry of this kind—not just because many scholars thrive on it in a way that I eventually did not, but because academic critics are always testing and changing and challenging our understanding of literary culture.
But I reached a point in my own research when I realized that I was looking for projects to serve professional priorities that did not entirely reflect my own. My work at the time focused on gender and genre issues in Victorian historical writing—frankly, that meant a lot of time poring over really second-rate books! I felt stifled by the parameters I was working within and the head-down burrowing required felt irrelevant to the world around me. I think this restlessness may have had something to do with being a new mother at that time, too: I wanted my work to matter more to the world my son (and then also my daughter) would grow up in.
So the next major turning point for me was deciding that I would shift my research to ethical criticism, to work that tried to understand the moral use or value of certain kinds of literary writing. The freedom of tenure meant that I could experiment with other ways of being a critic, and for me this meant finding ways that felt less cut off from the world of books outside the academy.
It was at this point that I started blogging, which in retrospect is perhaps the most significant turning point for me as a critic.
Before I ask more about your blogging—when you decided to pursue your interest in ethical criticism as a research topic, can you say more about that particular choice, especially how becoming a mother made you want to do work that mattered more in the world? It sounds like several things going on then affected the approach to your reading, writing, and research.
It was really a convergence of things that led me to change the kind of academic work I was doing. I published my first book and not long after I was awarded tenure: this meant I had a secure opportunity to reconsider my priorities, and I found that doing more of the same was not high on the list. Then, being a new mother made doing any research and writing more difficult: there’s nothing like being both very busy and very sleep-deprived to make you ask hard questions about the value of how you spend your time.
Anthony Trollope once observed that “(No) man … can work long at any trade without being brought to consider much whether that which he is doing daily tends to evil or to good.” I have rarely had this concern about the teaching part of my job. Sure, I worry plenty about what exactly I’m doing in the classroom and whether I’m doing it well, but that teaching students to be better readers (more attentive, more questioning, more informed) is a good thing to attempt has always seemed to me inarguable. I wanted to feel as urgent and committed to the other facets of my work.
I realized that the questions I was most interested in were ones about how art affects our lives, especially our moral lives. Thinking about art in moral terms seemed natural to the writers I read, studied, and taught the most (the Victorians) but had not been part of the critical theories and approaches I had studied and practised so far. Where had that overtly moral impulse gone? How could we resuscitate it in a meaningful way?
I started reading work about ethical criticism by people like Martha Nussbaum and Wayne Booth (whose The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, has been very influential for me) and eventually tried to join in the conversation they were having. I wrote an essay on Middlemarch as moral philosophy, and later, for Open Letters Monthly, one on re-reading Gone with the Wind: both of these attempt to model the kind of ethical criticism I’m interested in, which asks moral questions while looking closely at literary form.
I also researched how the Victorians themselves did ethical criticism. What I found really interesting is that while they have a reputation for being both prudish and didactic, the 19th-century critical discussion actually emphasized the treatment of morally difficult subjects rather than objections to their mere presence—that is, the Victorians too were looking at morality in fiction as a function (at least in part) of literary form.
Can you discuss how you got started seriously writing criticism for the Web?
I began writing Novel Readings with no particular agenda, but it became a platform for writing about literature with a freedom I felt nowhere else, for using the skills and expertise I’d developed over two decades in the academy in a different way, and for finding a critical voice that sounded more like me.
Blogging allows for a wonderfully open-ended kind of criticism: there’s no pressure to account for or include everything, no need to position yourself theoretically or as part of a pre-existing critical argument. You can do any kind or degree of contextualizing or theorizing that you want, of course (it’s useless to generalize about blogging as a form, since there are no rules or norms), but you can also just look directly at the book in front of you and say what you think about it, show what you observe in it. Everything else you know—all your habits of reading and thinking—will affect what you think and see, of course, but for me there has been something very liberating about writing a post knowing that I’m just writing as myself, for other interested readers, not trying to establish anything definitive but rather to offer what I can to the broad conversation about books that the internet enables.
That experiment of writing in public also led to opportunities I never would have thought of before. The most important was being invited to write for and then help edit Open Letters Monthly: this has been the perfect medium for me in so many ways, because with the trust and support of my co-editors I have been able to continue experimenting with my critical practice. I don’t really have a career as a non-academic critic or reviewer, but I’m less interested anyway in writing up the book of the moment than I am in writing the kind of essayistic piece Open Letters loves to run—something like the essay I wrote on George Eliot’s Romola, for instance, that grew out of my academic study but tries to open up the novel to a different audience. When I write a review, I try to bring the same reflective quality to that work as well.
I do feel I am very much still learning my craft; in particular I am trying still trying to clarify for myself what kind of critic I want to be. There are a lot of smart and much more experienced people out there writing all kinds of reviews and literary essays. What can I offer that’s distinctive and worthwhile? What kind of writing do I hope to be known for? One thing’s for sure: we all know that the way to get a big audience on the internet is by making grandiose, hyperbolic, polarizing claims, but I’d much rather have a small audience of people I can have a really good conversation with about literature than go that route.
How do you think these changes in your career, personal life, and writing have translated into an approach, gone from internal to external, in terms of the question, “What is a critic’s role?” Because these experiences you’ve described sound central to your ongoing answer to that larger question of what really matters most to you as a critic.
When I began posting at Novel Readings, I really had little notion of what public role someone like me might have, and I wasn’t deliberately setting out to create one. It was just a personal thing: I was looking for a one-stop shopping way to answer friends and family who occasionally asked me by email about what I’d been reading or what books I’d recommend.
As I experimented with writing online, I became increasingly excited about participating in a critical conversation that wasn’t as cloistered as my academic research felt. I don’t think that there is only one right kind of critic or criticism, but academia has traditionally rewarded only one kind of critical work, a kind which is often perceived by people outside the academy as inaccessible and irrelevant, and which has evoked some memorably hostile responses.
Just as I was starting to blog in 2007, for instance, Cynthia Ozick wrote a piece in Harper’s on the current state of criticism in which she said:
Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multi-syllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since, unlike the hardier customer reviewers, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.
Even though I was restless with the pressure I felt to produce increasingly specialized kinds of criticism, comments like these struck me as depressingly (and insultingly!) mistaken. I began to hope that I could use my blog to show that academic expertise is valuable, and that it can be worn lightly and used to further good conversations about literature, which is really what I see as the fundamental purpose of all criticism. Because negative stereotypes about “politically correct idiots” overrunning “lit departments” are pretty widespread, I also wanted to counteract them in my own small way by showing what really happens in at least one person’s classroom: I blog regularly about my teaching, and I’d be surprised if anyone could conclude from these posts that I have “forgotten the text.”
Being on both sides so to speak—as a professor you’re choosing what students will read, and as a critic your reviews naturally can affect the books people buy—what’s your take on this idea of power as part of the critic’s role to affect society, that is, to change the canon or make a book known as literature?
I think it goes along with that view of criticism as conversation or, to use one of Wayne Booth’s coinages, “coduction,” that I don’t really see it as the critic’s role to assert the kind of power implied in terms like “change the canon” or “make a book known as literature.” I don’t mean that I don’t recognize any kind of critical authority, and I know that as a teacher I am constantly engaged in drawing up lists that include or exclude books—but my criteria are always changing, as is the so-called “canon.”
I do like the slightly different idea that a critic can just “make a book known.” One of the best things a critic can do is tell us about something, carefully, with attention to detail, putting it in whatever light, or whatever contexts, help us see it as an interesting thing to read (and read about)—and then show us as clearly as possible what the critic sees as its successes and failures. That’s what I look for in criticism and what I try to do as a reviewer myself.
That kind of specific reading can be part of a larger argument about what matters in literature, and such arguments can be significant and influential, but I know enough about how tastes and standards have changed over time (or varied from critic to critic) to be sure that these can only ever be arguments, not absolutes. They are really important arguments, because at bottom they are about not just books but the kind of world we want to live in. That’s why it’s important to take them seriously and participate in them with both passion and responsibility. We just shouldn’t imagine that they will ever be conclusively resolved.
One of the hardest things to do in these debates, in my experience, is to distinguish one’s own individual taste from definitive literary judgments. In my teaching I focus on what I call “appreciation,” which is not the same as liking (though they may coincide, and the former can certainly lead to the latter). I appreciate Madame Bovary but do not like it; I like many books that I recognize offer only quite trivial pleasures. My students often don’t either like or appreciate Middlemarch: of course I think they are wildly mistaken, but all I can do is show them the novel as I see it.
Outside the classroom, it is certainly not my job to be the arbiter of which books are best, or to tell people what they should or should not read. I see criticism as a persuasive form, not a prescriptive one. Inevitably my values will be reflected in everything from my choice of book to the questions I put to it, but in the end my job is just to read carefully, think hard about it, write up the results, and then wait—no critic should ever imagine having the last word!