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  • Bad Critical Writing
  • Donald Pizer


Why do we so often have to put up with terrible prose seeking to pass as legitimate expression? (By “we” I mean those professionally engaged in the study of literature in the university. No one else in their right mind would attempt to read a typical academic critical study.) I believe that there are two reasons; the first I will merely note, and the second I will discuss at some length. First, there are simply more writers writing. Too many university faculty with little talent for expression and even less regard for the time and intellectual energy of their readers are producing essays and books in order to advance professionally. Another reason for the prevalence of bad writing in academic criticism is that it can serve a rhetorical purpose in the expression of the critic’s ideas. This is of course too clever a paradox to be true for the wide range of critical strategies available in the contemporary critical marketplace. I can, however, seek to demonstrate its truth in a specific but characteristic area of present-day literary studies—that of the New Historicism—and thereby suggest its possible applicability as a hypothesis in other areas.

The three examples of contemporary academic critical prose I wish to examine in detail all deal with late nineteenth-century American literature and culture. I have chosen these examples because they are found in prominent works in one of my fields of interest, works which I have read and considered. The three examples are drawn from Walter Benn Michaels’s The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987), Michael Fried’s Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (1987), and Mark Seltzer’s Bodies and Machines (1992). [End Page 69] The three works are considered major studies and are by well-known scholars who hold professorships in major research universities.


Before taking up these exemplary passages, however, I would like to discuss briefly a statement by Stephen Greenblatt in his essay “Culture,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study (1990), edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin.

In any culture there is a general symbolic economy made up of the myriad signs that excite human desire, fear, and aggression. Through their ability to construct resonant stories, their command of effective imagery, and above all their sensitivity to the greatest collective creation of any culture—language—literary artists are skilled at manipulating this economy. They take symbolic materials from one zone of the culture and move them to another, augmenting their emotional force, altering their significance, linking them with other materials taken from a different zone, changing their place in a larger social design. 1

Of course, I do not cite this instance of elegant and forceful prose as an example of bad writing. Would that we could all write as well! Rather, the usefulness of the passage is that it contains a precise statement of the underlying premise of New Historical criticism and thus can lead to an understanding of what can go wrong in the prose style of critics who seek to translate this premise into a specific critical enterprise. One way of realizing what is contained in this premise is to compare it to a large concept inherent in the New Criticism. In that older form of academic criticism, the critic viewed all the language of a literary work as deeply implicated in a complex effort to achieve thematic and formal unity in the work—an effort not initially apparent and not easily described, but one which nevertheless characterizes the literary document as work of art. Critics who explored the work were able to reveal how all its metaphors were complicit in the expression of its symbolic center, how all its non-metaphorical language played a role in the web of association released by this symbolic center, and thus how the work finally revealed itself as a rich tapestry depicting a hitherto unrealized complex design.

Much recent cultural and historical criticism—and, more specifically, the New Historicism—adopts a similar methodology, though now, of course, it is the materials of the culture itself which have become the [End Page 70] language of...

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