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Literature Against Criticism

Martin Paul Eve

Part V: The End

9. Conclusion

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1Throughout this book I have demonstrated a variety of ways in which the university — and specifically university English — is used and abused in works of contemporary fiction. While far from a conclusive study, the representative range of texts here examined leads to several conclusions about the interaction between the novel and the academy. Roughly speaking, these findings can be schematised into aesthetic and political critique, legitimation, and disciplinary feedback loops.

  • 1 Saul Bellow, ‘Foreword’, in The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom (New York: Simon & Sc (...)

2My argument has been, to reverse the order in which this book initially progressed, that the ‘writing back’ to the academy that Judith Ryan has previously identified has a triple interlinked function. Texts discipline the academy in order to legitimate their own voices so that they can speak in the same critical space as academic discourse. This makes for an increasingly competitive space in which fiction and university English vie with each other for the cultural authority to speak. We can trace this paradigm back a fairly long way, such as when Saul Bellow pronounced his disdain for the academy, noting that although he felt that the university helped to discard “bad thought”, he “preferred to read poetry on [his] own without the benefit of lectures” and believed that his novel, Herzog (1964), demonstrated “how little strength ‘higher education’ had to offer a troubled man”, associating the institution with “pedantry”.1

3In much contemporary fiction, we can see the traces of university English engrained more subtly within narrative paths. When Sarah Waters distracts academics with Foucauldian tropes to be unpacked, it is no longer simply a ludic exercise in occupying the professors, but is instead crucial to the textual pleasure of the narrative that we derive from her diversion cons. When Ishmael Reed or Thomas Pynchon now satirise the venues in which academics publish, it is not simply a blustering critique of a fusty institution, but is rather about the authority of institutional voices and claiming a right to speak in public. When Tom McCarthy places his own works in a canon, it is not just about marketing and sales, but about working in the same labour space as formalist, aesthetic critique.

4None of this would be possible, I have argued, without the metafictional paradigm that runs throughout much contemporary fiction, albeit perhaps more gently than it did in its postmodern heyday. Metafiction is, in the way I have described it here, an overlapping of creative and critical practices; a way of operating that pitches university English and its objects of study into the same discursive space. When we conceive of fiction and criticism as operating in the same discursive field, the reasons for ‘writing back’ become clearer but should be seen as more aggressive and competitive.

5Objections to the argument that I have made here might begin with a hostility to the idea that fiction and the academy might ‘compete’ or be in conflict. Some will probably not accept Robert Scholes’s and Mark Currie’s arguments about the definition of metafiction. Still others will say that the interaction between the university and fiction is more complicated and comprised of many more historical factors than have been covered here. These are all fair criticisms that can freely be made. However, without an understanding of the ways in which discursive spaces overlap and the modes by which narratological approaches can countenance the presence of the academy in fiction, even these broader arguments will remain partial. This is what I have sought to argue in this book: that one of the paradigms under which university English appears in contemporary fiction is a space of competitive discipline, legitimation, and critique. I call this type of presence, an ‘incursion’, fed off an economy of anxiety. An anxiety of academia that pitches literature against criticism.


1 Saul Bellow, ‘Foreword’, in The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), pp. 11–18.


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