I like to read literary criticism sometimes because it’s some of the hardest stuff out there to understand, at least for me. Forget philosophy. Don’t even go there. Lit Crit is different. With Lit Crit it’s hard as hell to understand and it’s incredibly smart and dense, but you can pretty much understand most if not all of it, so it’s worth it. I call it giving my brain a workout, and to me it’s similar to going to the gym for your body.
I recently read a couple of Hemingway’s best short stories. Then I found and read two Lit Crit articles about them. Lit Crit is very useful this way. If you haven’t already read the work, I’m not quite sure how useful it is or how much you would get out it. But if you’ve read it, Crit is often great for explicating the work and explaining deeper meanings, themes, etc. hidden in the text.
One was in a journal called Journal of College Literature from 1980. It was remarkably down to earth for a Lit Crit journal, especially the issues around published around that time. So I started going through a few decades worth of the journal.
I noticed that the Lit Crit from ~40 years ago was much different and frankly much superior to the gobbledygook out nowadays. It then focused on individual books and was fairly straightforward, simply looking for explications of the events, characters, plots, and themes in the book.
As I moved forward a couple of decades, everything changed. Now it was all postmodernism. Lit Crit about individual works were less common. The crit became ridiculously politicized with SJW and PC Leftist slants towards everything. Now I am a Leftist myself (albeit a weird one) but for the life of me, I do not understand why we need to litter our Lit Crit with Leftist political theory.
In addition to Marxism, there was also inordinate focus on women (feminism, mostly a joke field called Women’s Studies), gays and lesbians (from the lens of a ridiculous and bizarre field called Queer Studies), Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other non-Whites (same thing- focus on non-fields like Black and Hispanic Studies), on and on.
Pretty much all they wrote about were these “oppressed minorities.” Cringey Queer Studies essays searched for and discovering non-existing homosexuality in perfectly straight stories (Did you know Moby Dick is a gay novel?) and secret homosexuality in completely straight authors (Did you know Shakespeare was gay?). It’s weird and stupid.
There was also a strange attempt to find some silly “woman angle” in novels where women were not particularly important to the story. There was also a focus on older books written by women and minorities which are apparently good books merely because they were written by a minority or woman and not for any other reason.
Why Lit Crit has to be all about oppressed minorities is beyond me. Fine, some minorities are oppressed. We need a politics to address that. But why trash up Lit Crit with leftwing obsessions with minority groups? Last time I checked, straights, Whites, and men also existed. Can we maybe keep the politics out of our Crit and just talk about the books without turning everything into a political rally?
Another worse problem went along with this. The essays became dominated by postmodernism and were much harder to understand. There were references to philosophy scattered all through everything (particularly unintelligible Continentals like Sartre, Derrida, Lacan, Cixous, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Foucalt, Frankfurt School, DeLueze and Guattari).
That’s all fine and dandy but why can’t we keep unintelligible philosophers out of our Lit Crit? What do incomprehensible Frenchmen spouting nonsense have to do with the novels we read?
It is true that the essays became much more demanding, but there was also a lot of silly talk about things like the Body (?), the Male Gaze (!?), the Text, the Author, the Reader (Barthes), on and on with weird, silly postmodern concepts.
In addition, somehow they became strangely repetitive in that they obsessed over the same postmodernist tropes and views in essay after essay. After a while, it seemed like I was reading the same essay again and again and learning little about the actual books being discussed. Finally, it became quite boring as a result of this repetition.
tl/dr: Lit Crit has completely deteriorated over the past 40 years. It’s now a swamp of barely comprehensible postmodernism and obsessions with women, gays and minorities. Leftist politics and incoherent Continental philosophers litter every essay, turning it from a brain workout into muddy slow trod up a mountain in the rain without boots or a poncho.