I like this question of his:
1. How can American professors learn to write about literature in language that isn’t a crude, pseudo-technical insult to the text it’s supposedly explicating?Interesting: the structure and tone of Mallon's question shows us nearly exactly how not to answer his question -- to do the complete opposite of what he asks. He assumes that nothing of worth comes out of literary criticism these days (ever?), a "crude...insult," "pseudo-technical," and inferior to the text "it's supposedly explicating."
There's a lot to unpack here. If we take on Mallon's position, we have to answer how to completely overhaul an entire discipline with a strong and long (and alliterative) tradition that's been lost. Well, like having them students read Plato's "Republic," perhaps writers of literary criticism should read Matthew Arnold and Sam Coleridge essays, instead of Judy Butler's latest. That would be a start.
It is, in fact, Mallon's question that is crude. Literary criticism from English professors covers so many topics: poetics, history, philosophy, critical theory, cultural inquiry or "studies," sociology, psychology and the list goes on (architecture and "quadrilateralism"?). What literary criticism does well is to focus on specific language and its implications, something few other scholarly disciplines have taken the time to do. So: words have meaning which need explicating. Or: word, you got some 'splainin' to do. In sum, literary criticism's interests are as wide and varied as the creative, or "creative," texts which it explores/investigates/tortures/analyzes.
Different academic journals of literary criticism have entirely different editorial specifics and styles. To couch them all together as worthless seems unhinged, uninformed, and hyperbolic. The assumption of a "pseudo-" (to use Mallon's term) monolithic Shitty Literary Criticism -- one's own shit don't smell! -- is the original mistake.
There are good articles; there are bad ones. I read ctheory.net; the prose is light, the content futuristic. I receive PMLA and reel back in horror at the superficial mix of "technical" language, cringe-inducing articles on new "global" texts (diversity-hires-as-articles, if you will), and writing seemingly unbound in its appetite for self-congratulation. Then I read an introductory sentence to a paragraph duller than a composition student's, or at least a three on a scale of ten for a graduate student in English:
Bagese shows the failure of the boundaries that have been imagined and mandated to separate human beings from all else; she reminds the reader of the fluidity of identity. (John Blair Gamber, "'Outcasts and Dreamers in the Cities': Urbanity and Pollution in Dead Voices", PMLA 122.1)Agreed, there's a lot wrong with LitCrit -- too many people writing articles just for the sake of writing articles. Guess what, that's how the discipline's economics have developed. At every level of society, little behaviors, etiquette, and style help people differentiate the good from the bad, so the collective can get better. There ain't no good with no bad.
If anything, comparing the entire set of literary criticism, all the good and the bad, to the entire set of fiction writing, Mallon's forte, shows us that literary criticism isn't doing so bad. Read Liz Fielding's The Best Man & The Bridesmaid (Harlequin, 2001) lately?
Mallon writes in his 2001 Afterword to his Stolen Words (originally published by Harvest 1989):
For students, especially, the Internet may sap the very need to create. It's all there already, or so it seems; all the knowledge on a given subject, and all the competing viewpoints...This quote, Mallon's own words, seems an appropriate response to his question to humanists:
How can American professors learn to write about literature in language that isn’t a crude, pseudo-technical insult to the text it’s supposedly explicating?Bear down and do good work -- that's the best answer I can give. Write like H Saussy and E Hayot. And quit being paranoid, profs: nobody really read LitCrit in the first place.