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Literature Against Criticism

Martin Paul Eve

Part I: Introduction

2. What, Where?

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  • 1 See Karl Ameriks, ‘Introduction: Interpreting German Idealism’, in The Cambridge Companion to Germ (...)

1A few remarks on textual selection, then. To continue a theme from the preceding discussion of scientism and On Beauty, a central anxiety for academic literary studies in the contemporary era of scientific dominance pertains to the extent to which groupings, taxonomies, and classifications are methodologically derived and how far they help us to understand literary production. How sound are our methods of textual selection? Are there a set of scientific methods that could aid us in the selection of texts? These questions are important because, regardless of the fact that many defences of the humanities resist the language of science and ‘methodology’, there is a clear shared history between contemporary literary criticism and scientific practice that emerges from the historical philosophy of idealism. For, at least in the caricature of German idealism, philosophy told us that our senses had only primitive access to an underlying truth and that the structuring forces of our perceptual apparatus overrode that truth, reforming it in its own image.1 There was more than really met the eye, the story went, and the phenomenon was different to the noumenon. As science went on to show that what we thought were solids are, in fact, mostly air and atoms, symptomatic reading too emerged as a method of ‘unveiling’ a deeper truth. The idea that textual things must never quite be what they seem in literary criticism is a direct result of this lineage. Some kind of desired access to a further essence or thing-in-itself pervades both science and literary studies to this day.

  • 2 See, for example Stephen Neale, ‘Questions of Genre’, in Film Theory: An Anthology, ed. by Robert (...)
  • 3 Norbert L. Kerr, ‘HARKing: Hypothesizing After the Results Are Known’, Personality and Social Psyc (...)

2How, then, do we select and exclude texts for analysis in a world of abundant and overflowing literary production? How do our groupings and classifications come about? Within the discipline, but also in the literary marketplace, we all invariably use and create such classifications as terminological shorthands; from the potential periodicities of (early to post) modern (isms) through to the generic descriptors of sci-fi and cli-fi. However, regardless of whether this is seen in the circular theorisations of genre theory or in bookshop sales categories, literary taxonomies are generated post hoc — formulated in the light of observation, rather (usually) than being hypothesized and then confirmed by observation.2 This was recently described to me by one of my scientific colleagues as HARKing: Hypothesizing After Results are Known.3 The logic here runs that a hypothesis should not be formulated by recourse to the data against which it will be tested, since this can only ever lead to a hypothesis being true. In statistical disciplines there are a set of procedures (usually a z-test or t-test) for deciding whether or not a sample (in our case, a novel) differs from or is likely part of a larger population (in this case, a genre). For a statistician, the first step would be to define a null hypothesis. The null hypothesis is a statement that we wish to disprove but that here might posit: there is no difference between this novel that we are ‘measuring’ (perhaps measured by various stylometric factors) and the generic corpus (perhaps ‘science fiction’). The alternative hypothesis could be: this text is likely to be very different from the tropes found in science fiction novels. But statistical inferential methods could not be used, after the fact, to posit a different alternative hypothesis (say, ‘this novel contains more terms pertaining to rural England than most science fiction novels’), since this would be fishing for an answer that we wanted to find and that we are predisposed to believe might be true if we have already seen the data. The other related methodological ‘flaw’, at least so far as those versed in scientific methods would see it, is that commonalities between texts are created by ex post facto subgroup analyses. Rather, say, than positing a causal relationship that might give predictive force to measurable stylometric and thematic contents across all works, classifications are first read out of a corpus and then the data are dredged to select only works that exhibit such characteristics. In other words, again, any ‘hypothesis’ or theory here contains all the data that could also confirm it; a type of circular ‘p-hacking’, as the practice is known (the term p value refers to a test of statistical significance that denotes ‘significance’ when there is a 95%–99% confidence that the null hypothesis is incorrect).

3But literary studies is not, in most forms of its work, science, even if science can sometimes take ‘fiction’ to mean ‘made up’ or ‘untrue’ in a derogative sense. The methods used as critique in literary studies might not pass muster in a laboratory or a clinical trial, but they have resulted in startling critical insights and fruitful groupings of texts. This is probably because, although statistical methods can be applied to literary works through stylometry, literary works are unique and non-repeatable. The one-time classification of literary works from a single dataset is not always (or even usually) meant to answer future speculation but profitably to understand past production. Criticisms of a limited corpus aside, an accurately drawn taxonomy would have already used the entire available dataset and would, therefore, be using the only source that could either confirm or deny its truth. Accusations of HARKing and p-hacking are only valid within inferential sampling or predictive environments and so do not frequently apply to the work of literary studies. And yet, the nagging voice continues to point out, we do sample in literary studies. As ever, there is always too much to read. Certainly when it comes to close reading, we therefore resort to case studies that are supposed to function as metonymic/anecdotal stand-ins for the broader corpus (inferential samples). As computational, quantified and scientistic approaches to literary study continue to gain traction, I suspect that this methodological debate will only grow louder.

4It is not my intention here to resolve these dilemmas through some kind of scientistic turn, which form a broader problem of systematisation for literary studies. I do, however, want to use this speculation as a springboard to consider reflexively the challenges of corpus selection. The first question, then, that I need to broach is: what are the benefits of a classification of ‘academic’ or ‘anti-academic’ novels for the argument I am making in this book? The second core challenge is the explicit methodology of how we schematise texts and how we justify the parameters of exclusion, particularly since I have raised the problems of gatekeeping and market determinism.

  • 4 Ben de Bruyn, ‘“You Should Be Teaching”: Creative Writing and Extramural Academics in Perdido Stre (...)

5To begin with the latter component, it is easiest to demonstrate the types of fiction to which I am here referring by example and by negative exclusion. As stated from the outset, I am not, for instance, writing of campus novels in the traditional sense, which have well-documented histories from the 1950s onwards. These texts are certainly the historical predecessors of the contemporary novels that I claim exhibit an anxiety of academia, but their contexts of production and reception are so different to the broader span of contemporary fiction as to render comparison moot. However, even while some of the tropes of these early campus novels persist in the writings studied here (a few of the protagonists or narrators of the texts herein are professors, for example), the majority of the textual action in the type of books on which I focus takes place at sites distant from the university. In some instances, such as in the work of Sarah Waters, there is no formal connection to the university at all. Likewise, in the novels of Jennifer Egan, there is no specified university background setting, although Egan herself noted, after hearing an early version of this chapter, that she had originally intended a far-larger academic presence in A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010). What we see instead is an awareness of the practices of the university encoded into these novels’ narrative structures. For the novels studied in this book plot a similar phenomenon to that described by Ben de Bruyn in the works of China Miéville as the “academic unconscious”, in “books that take us away from, rather than to, the more or less familiar habitats of students and scholars that feature in campus novels”.4

  • 5 Womack, passim.
  • 6 Székely.

6The type of reference that I primarily have in mind is sometimes fleeting, off-hand, sly, and, perhaps, demeaning. At once, such novels may imply the form of “pejorative poetics” that Kenneth Womack has charted, even while they are not, themselves, clearly “university fiction”.5 I am looking for fiction that is not about saving the university, but about using the university in its own service. As Péter Székely has noted, it is not the setting of a text in a university, or the density of its references to academia, that make a text an ‘academic novel’.6 It is, instead, a type of ‘functional deployment’. This functional deployment of the academy is more likely to be seen in novels where the university is marginalised rather than central, I contend, because that is the logical outcome of the disciplinary and critical practices that these texts contain: to project the world that is wanted where the university has lost the competitive battle. The best way that I have found in which to characterise the type of interaction that I see and chart in this book is through the term ‘incursion’; moments of seemingly aggressive territorial squabbling in which the creative and the critical fields make ‘incursions’ into each other’s spaces.

Institutional Incursions

  • 7 Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document: A Novel (London: Picador, 2007), p. 45.
  • 8 Although I promised not to delve too deeply into the campus novel, this is also the exact strategy (...)
  • 9 Adam Kelly, ‘“Who Is Responsible?”: Revisiting the Radical Years in Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Documen (...)

7As an example of this type of incursion, take, for instance, the moment in Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document (2006) where the precocious young character, Josh Marshall, proclaims that he “[doesn’t] need some academic hack’s introduction to contextualise” a book. This is the type of statement that embodies the complex, double-layered conjunction of metafiction and the academy with which this book is concerned. This is because, on the one hand, it appears as a straight criticism: a character proclaiming his disdain for the university and its empowered community. In a slightly broader context, though, it appears very differently. Josh also states that he “hates books without indexes” and that he simply checks “the indexes to see what the reference points are and sometimes the bibliographies […] Sometimes I only read the index”. Nash scathingly replies to Josh: “[s]ome books of philosophy and social theory from independent small presses didn’t have indexes until someone, perhaps an academic hack, added them later”.7 At the isolated, sentence level, this appears to be a jab at the academy and probably a science vs. humanities, two-cultures-style rhetoric. With only a slightly broader frame, though, it appears that Josh uses the very ‘reading-avoidance techniques’ outlined above in Chapter One that are sometimes favoured by academics: he goes straight to the index to situate the work and to ascertain whether the rest of the book is worth reading within a limited economy of time.8 Nash’s further statement seems also to revalidate the academic stance. However, at the level of the whole text, the scene is once more complicated: Josh betrays the narrative of techno-liberation/idealism that he earlier espoused and turns tail to work for big business. Even if Josh appears to be aligned with the academia that he professes to be against, his eventual “smart cynicism”, as Adam Kelly puts it, bodes poorly for the presentation of the university, however it is framed.9 Eat the Document is clearly not a campus novel. This is far from claiming that it doesn’t have anything to say about the university, entangled as it is with the politics of’68 and its aftermath.

8However, there is a problem of exclusion here beyond the fact that I am not including unpublished works. Just because I am not dealing with the traditional campus novel does not mean that those texts are ‘simple’ with respect to the university. To proclaim that Lucky Jim, for instance, is ‘just’ a parody of post-war academic life is to do the novel a grave disservice. Likewise, Philip Roth’s multi-layered The Human Stain (2000) is nominally set on a campus while playing a complex (but perhaps ultimately conservative) game of politics, speech, and race. John Barth’s Gilles Goat-Boy (1966) is a campus novel, but strongly metafictional and postmodern: hardly a straightforward text. If these texts are also complex and worthy of scrutiny, then why exclude them? There are a conjunction of reasons, practical and theoretical, both pertaining to space.

  • 10 See, in particular, Székely which is fairly comprehensive.

9In a first sense, there is limited space within a book volume. Feeling that many of the complexities of the campus novel have been dealt with elsewhere, they are excluded from this book not purely for reasons of complexity, but rather pragmatically.10 Everyone has another text that features an academic in some way that I could add to this work. Likewise, everyone has a favourite cynical caricature of an academic in fiction.

  • 11 Alison Flood, ‘Lecturer’s Campus Novel Gets Black Marks from College Employer’, The Guardian, 21 N (...)
  • 12 John Sutherland and others, ‘This Is Your Life’, Times Higher Education, 20 November 2014, pp. 34– (...)

10On a second front, I have made a decision to investigate in this volume the ways in which university English has seeped into texts that seem far removed from the institutional spaces of the campus. This is undertaken to differing degrees in the various novels here studied but the purpose is to show how the ripples of the academy are often felt at greater literary-spatial distances than might initially be supposed. For this reason, in general and perhaps with the exception of Percival Everett (whose Erasure [2001] is too good a work to omit), I will generally exclude from discussion those texts that sit so close to their academic home as to seem embroiled in circular production and reception: written by academics for academics. Examples of this genre might include Stephen Grant’s A Moment More Sublime (2014), which seems to have landed the author in hot water with his institution, Julie Schumacher’s nonetheless marvellous epistolary Dear Committee Members (2014), Austin M. Wright’s Recalcitrance, Faulkner, and the Professors: A Critical Fiction (1990), Adrian Jones Pearson’s Cow Country (2015) (which caused a furore when Art Winslow suggested that this was Thomas Pynchon writing under a pseudonym), or Sheila M. Cronin’s The Gift Counselor: A Novel (2014).11 Indeed, current professional publications for those working in higher education are populated with articles on fiction that supposedly “capture truths about the sector”, which apparently range from Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), through Nabokov’s Pnin (1957) and Pale Fire (1962), to Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind (1983), and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party (2014).12 These texts have much to say about the university and are certainly metafictional. Nabokov, in particular, can be said to be drawing attention to the “parasitic nature of criticism”, as Laura Frost put it in the aforementioned Times Higher Education article. At the same time, though, she acknowledges that “academics are at once the novel’s target and its most devoted followers”, thus lending credence to my exclusionary logic. These texts are more insular in production and reception than the other books from which I here draw insights.

11These three elements, then, serve as the core touchstones that group the works discussed in this book: they enact more distant critiques of the university; they attempt to discipline the academy; and they have an ‘anxiety of academia’/legitimation to some degree. I do not have an overarching neologism to coin for such works but instead see the grouping as fluid. I have clustered these works for the purposes of analysis only so that, when their affinity is noted and has served its purpose, the binding may disintegrate again into its three constituent parts.

  • 13 Although, notably, even in Bolaño’s text it is the Anglo-American university that comes under crit (...)
  • 14 Sarah Kane, ‘Cleansed’, in Complete Plays (London: Methuen, 2001), pp. 105–51 (pp. 122, 146, 147); (...)

12As a closing remark before mapping the route by which this book will make its argument, it is worth pointing out the issues of geographical specificity that must be considered when talking about ‘the university’. The academy, its academics, its disciplines, and its practices vary from country to country, and even from institution to institution, around the world.13 In fact, it is a nominal irony that there is no universal university to which all abstracted remarks could be addressed. As with the creative writing programmes, much of the American system differs greatly from its European cousins, for instance, and the British system of funding at this time is radically opposed to that in, say, Germany. In line with this and to ensure a sensible scale of bounding, the particular ‘flavour’ of the academy that is studied here is the Anglo-American university. That said, the novels treated in this work span American, South American, and British authors and often deal with the globalised nature of twenty-first-century higher education, even if their notion of ‘the university’ is particular. In this book I will argue, on occasion, that the specific setting has consequences for the treatment of the university. I also, in this work, am dealing with novels as a deliberate selective choice. There is surely also a study to be had on this topic with respect to twentieth-century drama. It was, after all, Samuel Beckett who most famously turned the word “critic” into an insult in Waiting for Godot (1953) while Sarah Kane’s sadistic torturer, Tinker, in Cleansed (1998) is the character most obsessed with meaning-making and interpretation: “[y]ou know what that means?”, he asks; “I think I — Misunderstood”, he says; “I’m not really a doctor”, he confesses with a hint of PhD envy.14

13From here this book is structured into six further chapters and a conclusion. This respectively follows the pattern of two chapters each on critique, legitimation, and discipline. By the conclusion of this book, I will have reversed the order of this formulation to contend that texts discipline the academy so that they may find themselves legitimated to work critically. Until that time, however, I take the inverse pattern to build the argument. Following this introductory section, the next chapter examines the ways in which certain authors invoke the aesthetic value judgements of the academy with respect to literary fiction in order to situate their own work within various canons. In the case of Chapter Three this centres on Tom McCarthy and the lineages of modern and postmodern fiction that are implied, surfaced, and marketed by his extra-mural writings and his literary sales campaigns. In charting this lineage, I demonstrate the ways in which McCarthy’s novel C (2010) takes on the traditional preserve of the academy, performing the act of self-canonisation that university English usually considers its own right. This is, I suggest, an attempt by the novel to pre-master its own conditions of receptive possibility. Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that C is the only text to take on such a task. To claim a lineage is a well-worn tactic of literary marketing. The degree to which C plays this game, however, within highbrow discussions of literary history and genre affinity makes it an ideal opening for this work, a specificity from which broader conclusions about this widespread method of patrilineage can be drawn. It is also significant because C is not a text that mentions the university in any prominent way. This will give a better sense of the type of incursion of the academy and fiction into each other’s labour spaces that I am trying to demonstrate.

14Having explored notions of aesthetic critique as a function of metafiction that deals with the academy, the fourth chapter primarily examines Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), a novel that can be situated, aesthetically, within the traditions of utopian fiction and the North American encyclopaedic, postmodern novel. This chapter also contends, however, that Bolaño’s novel is exemplary of a type of didacticism that cloaks its mechanism behind an overloaded structure of metafiction. One of the explicit targets of this didacticism is the neoliberal university that, in 2666, is structurally twinned with the police department and is thus complicit in the novel’s femicides. This chapter suggests the ways in which Bolaño’s novel attempts to perform a type of ethical critique of the academy while also outlining its mode of crypto-didacticism: a political critique. Taking theoretical cues from Theodor W. Adorno and Pierre Bourdieu, I read 2666 as a metafictional work that signals its own desire to teach, thereby once more showing how the space of critique comes to be inhabited by certain types of novel.

15The fifth chapter begins the section on legitimation and examines Percival Everett’s riotously funny novel, Erasure. While Erasure is the text with the clearest feel of a ‘campus novel’ in this work, I here examine its aspects of postmodern play in relation to a legitimation function above academia. This centres around notions of sincerity and irony, as well as the mirror images within the text that tend to pre-empt an academic critique. By demonstrating an awareness of, but disdain for, the theoretical paradigms and strategies for critiquing race, Erasure becomes a novel that legitimates itself to speak critically about such matters, even while avoiding propagandist communication.

16The sixth chapter examines the recent work of Jennifer Egan, and most notably A Visit from the Goon Squad. This novel, which Egan originally intended to feature an academic specifically pontificating on the “great rock ’n’ roll pauses”, is a text populated by a disproportionately high number of, often unfulfilled, postgraduate researchers: “I’m in the PhD program at Berkeley”, proclaims Mindy; “Joe, who hailed from Kenya [...] was getting his PhD in robotics at Columbia”; “Bix, who’s black, is spending his nights in the electrical-engineering lab where he’s doing his PhD research”; while only Rebecca “was an academic star”. In this text, academia seems a place of misery, of “harried academic slaving”, and, ultimately, of “immaturity and disastrous choices”.

  • 15 Kohlke, M.-L., ‘Into History through the Back Door: The “Past Historic” in Nights at the Circus an (...)

17In this book’s penultimate chapter, and starting the final section on ‘discipline’, I note that although, in some ways, Sarah Waters’s Affinity (1999) looks akin to historiographic metafiction, M.-L. Kohlke has persuasively argued that the text is more accurately dubbed “new (meta) realism”, a mode that demonstrates the exhausted potential of the form.15 This chapter suggests that genre play and a meta-generic mode, dubbed taxonomography, might be a further helpful description for the mechanism through which Waters’s novel effects its twists and pre-empts the expectations of an academic discourse community. This reading exposes Waters’s continuing preoccupation with the academy but also situates her writing within a broader spectrum of fiction that foregrounds genre as a central concern. Ultimately, this chapter asks whether Waters’s novel can, itself, be considered as a text that disciplines its own academic study in the way that it suggests that the academy has become, once more, blind to class.

18The final chapter, before this book’s conclusion, examines the works of Ishmael Reed, with a particular focus on his most recent novel, Juice! (2011). Honing in on the representation of the academic journal Critical Inquiry that appears in this text, I argue that the critical representation of scholarly communication paradigms is at once a comment upon narrow circulation and at the same time a critique of over-reading. Taking a paradigm of ‘over-reading’ to represent incommensurate output compared to authorial input, I note that Reed’s critique seems to preclude academic discourse through a triangulation effect in which it becomes impossible to speak. And yet, I finally close, academics continue to write. It may be, I argue, that while we perceive strong links and feedback circuits between university English and the fiction it studies, these loops of behavioural discipline seem to have fewer real world effects on practice than we might assume.


1 See Karl Ameriks, ‘Introduction: Interpreting German Idealism’, in The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism, ed. by Karl Ameriks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 1–17 for more on why this is a slight caricature.

2 See, for example Stephen Neale, ‘Questions of Genre’, in Film Theory: An Anthology, ed. by Robert Stam and Toby Miller (Malden: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 157–78.

3 Norbert L. Kerr, ‘HARKing: Hypothesizing After the Results Are Known’, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2.3 (1998), 196–217,

4 Ben de Bruyn, ‘“You Should Be Teaching”: Creative Writing and Extramural Academics in Perdido Street Station and Embassytown’, in China Miéville: Critical Essays, ed. by Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia (London: Gylphi, 2015), pp. 159–83 (p. 160).

5 Womack, passim.

6 Székely.

7 Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document: A Novel (London: Picador, 2007), p. 45.

8 Although I promised not to delve too deeply into the campus novel, this is also the exact strategy used by Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis’s well-known text: the protagonist tries “to read as little as possible of any given book”. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (New York: Penguin, 1992), pp. 16–17.

9 Adam Kelly, ‘“Who Is Responsible?”: Revisiting the Radical Years in Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document’, in ‘Forever Young’?: The Changing Images of America, ed. by Philip Coleman and Stephen Matterson (Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag Winter, 2012), pp. 219–30 (p. 222).

10 See, in particular, Székely which is fairly comprehensive.

11 Alison Flood, ‘Lecturer’s Campus Novel Gets Black Marks from College Employer’, The Guardian, 21 November 2014,; Alex Shephard, ‘The Hunt for a Possible Pynchon Novel Leads to a Name’, The New Republic, 12 September 2015,

12 John Sutherland and others, ‘This Is Your Life’, Times Higher Education, 20 November 2014, pp. 34–40; Michelle Dean, ‘Campus Novels: Six of the Best Books about University Life’, The Guardian, 29 August 2016,

13 Although, notably, even in Bolaño’s text it is the Anglo-American university that comes under critique.

14 Sarah Kane, ‘Cleansed’, in Complete Plays (London: Methuen, 2001), pp. 105–51 (pp. 122, 146, 147); I owe this thinking primarily to Dan Reballato, ‘Cleansed’, 2016,

15 Kohlke, M.-L., ‘Into History through the Back Door: The “Past Historic” in Nights at the Circus and Affinity’, Women: A Cultural Review, 15 (2004), 153–66 (p. 156), http://doi. org/10.1080/0957404042000234015.


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