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Playing for love: The amateur literary critic vs. the academic, professional critic

Mere recreation? Harold Harvey’s 1922 oil, ‘The Critics’.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

A big chunk of Donald Trump’s appeal to American voters in the game-changing presidential election of 2016 was something very simple: the idea of the political outsider. In this game, it was a breeze for Trump to beat Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, former candidate for the democratic nomination, and last but not the least, spouse to a famous ex-President. She was the Ultimate Insider — a bit like a dark video game character. The American people, Trump announced, were tired of seasoned politicians and their endless betrayals. They wanted an outsider, a regular 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 dirty business, and a fresh-faced (even orange-haired) amateur often seems preferable to a seasoned professional who has become part of the problem. American politics, the critic Marjorie Garber reminds us, overflows with examples: the basketball player Bill Bradley became a Senator, entertainers Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood turned governor and mayor, respectively, entrepreneur Ross Perot mounted an impressive presidential bid, and finally, Donald Trump won and changed everything.

When and where do we welcome professionals? How about doctors, lawyers, accountants? You don’t want an amateur accountant doing your books any more than you want someone wielding the scalpel for fun to cut you open. But then things start to look grey.

The amateur athlete, symbolically enshrined in the Olympics, was for the longest time seen as better than the lowly mercenary who played not for love but money. Detective work? Which professional could improve on the intuition of Sherlock Holmes, Auguste Dupin, or the great gossipy, fluttery Miss Marple? Which puny Scotland Yard professional?

Theatre? Bold and glorious experimental traditions of theatre exist — traditions that could only be attempted by brave amateurs who are not tied to risk-averse models of commerce that keep the professional on a tight leash.

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

Uncommon reader

In 1998, author and critic, Pankaj Mishra, published an evocative memoir-essay in The New York Review of Books called ‘Edmund Wilson in Benares.’ It was a poignant story. He told the tale of a provincial youth’s hunger for books, and the bungling way he goes about trying to satisfy it, in dusty, small-town bookshops, in the musty shelves of forgotten libraries, and how the search threw messy light on his own world.

This was Mishra himself, being an amateur reader, living an aimless life in the holy, opium-infested city of Benares, hanging out at Banaras Hindu University without any affiliation, reading books chosen by accident, books that felt utterly out of place in that desultory north Indian campus atmosphere of unemployment, cynicism and violence.

‘Edmund Wilson in Benares’ is an account of amateur criticism. In a more complex sense, it is also an example of the same. It emerges out of Mishra’s failure to write a more traditional “exposition of Wilson’s key books.” Not knowing anything about the context of Wilson’s work — or that of Wilson’s key subject, Gustave Flaubert — Mishra ended up reading both in the light of what he knew, and what surrounded him at that moment: late-20th century Uttar Pradesh, its toxic caste and class politics. But the true protagonist of this life-story was Rajesh, a sometime student but actually a hooligan-turned contract killer. In the company of Mishra, Rajesh also came to engage in a reading of Western writers and critics about whom he knew nothing, but through whose work he arrived at magical, if tragic, insights about the vicious workings of class, caste, and other power structures that held him in a spell. The lack of professional scholarly knowledge yielded gold. Mishra realised the inherent humanism of literature that transcends national and historical boundaries.

Mishra’s admission of amateur status also gives us an important origin story. It predicts the future trajectory of Mishra’s own development as a popular critic. Seamlessly, amateurism widens into the seductive appeal of the public intellectual.

Turning tide

In art, as in the world of sports, being an amateur was once preferable to being a professional.

Think of the word, ‘virtuosi’, used in 17th century England. It is a prestigious antecedent of the now-less-prestigious ‘amateur’. The virtuosi, 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 privilege came together to turn the virtuoso into a gentleman-scholar. It distinguished him not only from those who did not have money, but also from the newly rich who could not claim an ancient family name. Through the 18th century, the dilettante sat humbly next to the ‘better-informed’ virtuoso. Neither term had yet been dismissed as trivial, but alas, that would happen soon, with the increasing professionalisation of literary studies.

Finally, it was in the 19th century that the virtuoso, the dilettante, and the belletrist gradually came to be devalued. An Oxford don could now measure academic success with the claim that “we have risen above the mere belletristic treatment of classical literature.” And by the 1920s, the writer and editor John Middleton Murryhad decisively dismissed the amateur: “No amount of sedulous apery or word-mosaic will make a writer of the dilettante belletrist.”

Anti-professional specialist

Through the 1920s and 30s, English came to be established as a serious academic discipline on both sides of the Atlantic. At the University of Cambridge, professors such as F.R. and Q.D. Leavis and I.A. Richards did much to give it rigour, setting it apart from a domain of dilettantish debates about aesthetic taste. Scrutiny, launched in 1932, was the famous platform for Leavis’s championship of this disciplinary rigour. A similar position was taken by American poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, who also made a powerful case for literary criticism as a specialised activity, and founded the Kenyon Review in 1939 as a platform for it. Ransom’s famous 1937 essay, ‘Criticism, Inc.’, argues for a rigorous and scientific model of criticism, something that requires a level of collaboration possible only at the university: “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 persons — which means that its proper seat is in the universities.”

The rejection begins

As criticism becomes a science, it rejects amateur practice. “It is strange,” writes Ransom, “but nobody seems to have told us what exactly is the proper business of criticism. There are many critics who might tell us, but for the most part they are amateurs. It is far too likely that what they call criticism when they produce it is not the real thing.”

Criticism becomes both realisable through, and answerable to, the collective model of academic scholarship. This is how literary studies fought and finally overpowered some of this scepticism in order to become an academic discipline. But unlike the merely recreational figures like the amateur engineer or scientist, in the artistic language of literature, the amateur often becomes a significant figure, occasionally cheating the fully credentialled academic specialist of the glory of her authority.

The professionalisation of the literary academic, thus, has an element of contradiction in it. The rise of the literary critic as a figure of expertise is the story of the emergence of the anti-professional specialist.

Hence springs the present conversation — that in literary supplements of newspapers, magazines, reviews. It is not academic scholarship, but in its ideal life, neither is it just a storm of opinions. It has the intimacy and energy of a chat by people who care, and who care deeply, who have spent more time with the archive so as to be able to suggest directions for popular taste, but whose chat is for the benefit of the outsider. These are speakers who stay outside the rigid dedication to scholarly archive and specialised language that do not exist for the public, but for the progress of a discipline. Like Mishra and Rajesh, they are partial outsiders to their own field, if only for the moment.

The writer’s most recent book is the co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). @_saikatmajumdar

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 7:47:25 PM |

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