SCHOLARSHIP, CRITICISM, REVIEWING: FINE DISTINCTIONS, DIFFERENT JOBS

Today I’m quoting from an essay by Gary K. Wolfe, “Pilgrims of the Fall: Critics and Criticism” from his highly stimulating volume Evaporating Genres (2001, p. 205) He discusses the differences between ‘reviewer,’ ‘critic,’ ‘scholar’ and ‘academic,’ explaining that for “ a great many practicing writers” reviewer and critic mean the same, that is to say, the persons assessing their work in periodical publications for a general readership. Yet, in academia, he adds, “the distinction can be crucial” for we call ourselves ‘critics’ but we are not reviewers “working under ‘journalistic’ constraints.” We may do review work for academic publications but it usually involves academic texts and not literature.

Criticism, Wolfe adds, remains, however, within academia a “much vaguer term” than ‘scholarship,’ meaning “the uncovering of new or newly combined knowledge by means of formally described and peer-reviewed processes” with a view to obtaining a “degree, a job, or promotion and tenure” (p. 206). Wolfe then proceeds to praise the work within SF and fantasy of John Clute, known for his indefatigable task as a reviewer and encyclopaedia writer outside the circuit of academia, though actually straddling this and fandom (he’s, em, an independent scholar). Wolfe also proceeds to chastise scholars and academics for using too little time to read literature and too much energy to read theory; we are also guilty of patronising the reviewers who, like Clute, may lack a theoretical framework, as once Rob Latham famously complained, but who do much to map a particular genre on a regular basis and thus, I would add, pave the way for scholarship.

The key problem worrying Wolfe is how to tie “literary criticism directly to the actual world of readers” (p. 213) which chimes in directly with the complaint by the only Amazon.es reviewer of Historia y antología de la ciencia ficción española, edited by Julián Díez and Fernando Ángel Moreno (Cátedra, 2014). This lonely voice complains that although the anthology is “impeccable” the study is a bit marred for being “too elitist, neglecting the task of fandom within the genre.” Indeed. Certainly, SF and fantasy, secondarily horror, detective fiction and romance, are very different fields from literary and mainstream narrative (middlebrow?), and other genres like poetry, since the emergence of scholarship is posterior to the emergence of fandom. As Wolfe explains this created a strange situation for academics within SF and fantasy who had to adapt to a pre-existent vocabulary or risk excluding themselves completely from communication with the readers in this genre.

Yet, this is not where I was going (if I’m going anywhere today!). The internet, forums like Amazon and Good Reads, give us the chance, as I have already noted here, to contrast the opinions of academic critics and scholars with the opinions of common readers, to which, of course, we need to add those of professional reviewers. Although academic work must include a certain measure of reviewing in the case of works relatively unknown, few academics ever work on a text untouched by reviewers, whether professional or amateur.

I might even say that a complete lack of professional reviews for certain contemporary texts bothers me far less than a lack of reviews by common readers, a void which seems to me a clearer indication of the indifferent quality of a particular text. Whenever I start a paper on a contemporary novel, I read the reviews first, with appreciation, and try to quote them. Although it might seem that expressing an opinion is easy enough, I find reviewing a very difficult art, as a reviewer must be knowledgeable without being pedantic, and communicative without being arrogant and, above all, s/he must be fair.

Proving his point that an academic critic/scholar must also be a well-informed reader, Wolfe uses in his volume an encyclopaedic approach–the one I also miss in theory-oriented scholarly work. He inserts mini-reviews of a few lines as he theorizes, using an almost jargon-free, elegant prose which keeps you reading as if his academic book were a novel. This, let me stress, is bold and surprising for, as he complains (and I complain), if you want to publish within the habitual academic circuits you need to accept restrictive style rules. When I let myself go a little bit in my own academic work, I kick myself hard: girl, this is academic work, not a blog post! Yet I know that I’m possibly doing my most significant scholarly work here, writing informally in my blog, if by scholarly we understand as Wolfe does, the dissemination of knowledge.

Wolfe recalls interviewing a candidate for a college teaching position who declared that she had no time to read fiction as she had to read so much theory; he adds that this is what this woman thought she needed to say, though it might not be true at all. In my own case, I seem to have developed a strange sort of guilt about reading fiction. It seems that academics do not work unless they’re using a computer so, somehow, I started pushing my reading to the evenings and weekends. Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 16:30, except for the time I spend in class, I sit at my table trying to produce something publishable, preparing classes, answering emails, etc, etc. I haven’t spent a weekday reading for a long, long time and now that I have the chance, as I need not teach this semester, I feel, well, guilty of enjoying a very strange kind of privilege. The sense of guilt increases if I do my reading in glorious sunshine, on my terrace… but decreases a little if I read theory, pen and paper at hand. Spending my day reading a novel is not really working, is it?? I know it is, but this guilt must be a remnant of the time when reading was what I did for a hobby after school was over…

So, funnily, reading theory feels like more real work than reading fiction even though the criticism of fiction is, in the end, my main aim. Or is it? Wolfe says it’s the other way round: theorizing is the real aim of contemporary scholarly work, and the fiction is there just to pepper the theory. Could it be, I’m wondering, a kind of puritanical attitude against the idea of reading fiction? Is this also why we, academics, do not review fiction (unless it is properly literary and in the proper newspapers)? Waste of time, read serious work…

Although I am a doctor in English Philology, I don’t call myself a philologist. To be honest, I don’t call myself much of anything, as I find that, generally speaking, we refer to our task by speciality (‘I do Masculinities Studies’, for instance) rather than by name (‘I’m a scholar’). When I try to define what I do to myself, I prefer the label ‘cultural critic’, though perhaps ‘academic cultural critic’ comes closest. I use ‘cultural’ because I work with a variety of texts, literary and audio-visual. When I think of ‘scholars’ I tend to envision colleagues working in archives or libraries, unearthing the secrets of the past. As I work on contemporary texts, and tend to produce knowledge by making connections rather than discoveries, I’m not sure whether I am a scholar, though it seems I am indeed an academic.

Wolf, as I have noted, claims that scholarship is produced to obtain a “degree, a job, or promotion and tenure” (p. 206). I see it the other way round: one aims at obtaining tenure in order to be able to produce scholarship (or academic criticism, whatever you want to call it). Wolfe seems a bit jaundiced here for I believe that genuine scholars are as vocational as, say, literary writers. I see many people around me producing fine academic work with little hope of achieving tenure because they feel, shall we say?, naturally inclined to do so. A strange vocation calls us to try to disseminate knowledge though in the end we may produce very obscure knowledge that only a handful ever read. No wonder there is a little of bad blood between academic and journalistic critics for, in the end, they have a higher impact, not to mention the millions of amateur reviewers crowding Amazon, GoodReads…

So, thank you, Gary Wolfe for the salutary reminder that as academic critics/scholars we need to read fiction and not only theory. Sunshine on my terrace is calling, as is this alluring novel on my table… yet it only 10:45 and there are papers to write…

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