Nicholson Baker Explains What Happened to Criticism

Read these interviews, people.

JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism? That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in Literature departments?

NB: What happened was that people like Pater and Swinburne overdid the rapture and tired everyone out. The idea grew up that we had to set aside our likes and dislikes, and even our knowledge of biographical context—and sometimes that impulse was helpful. New Criticism and Close Reading aspired to be a little like the f/64 school of photography, where everything was in focus. No softness, no mists of emotion. Panovsky was searching for iconographical symbols with a magnifying glass, and I.A. Richards was, if I remember right, making diagrams that supposedly demonstrated the neurological effects triggered by lines of poetry. After a few decades of poking at lyrical joys with the tools of forensic prose, we’d had enough of pseudo-objectivity and instead spiraled out into the deep dark-mattered space of Franco-Grecian vocabularies and learned, humorless puns. Now there are fewer English majors, and we’re back to square one—reading and writing reviews, celebrating and spurning.

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