Why Literary Criticism Matters: An Excerpt from the NUCL Keynote

I was delighted to be invited to give the keynote at this year’s Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature at the beautiful University of Portland.  You can read about the conference here, on their English Department blog, and here’s an excerpt from the remarks.

Scenes from a Life Loving Books; Or, Everything I Think I Know about Stories I Learned from Barry Manilow

I actually do think that reading literature makes you a better person, which sounds positively 19th century — maybe even 18th or 17th century — but also kind of 21st century, as cognitive science, the emerging field of “literary neuroscience” proves irrefutably that Jane Austen makes you smarter.  Literature does make you a better person by engaging people in big questions of humanity and civilization, or at least it gives you the equipment to recognize when those questions are being asked, and maybe even to grapple with their answers, myriad and various though they are.  But more and more I think that literature is important because it allows us to give in to our impulse for play as well.  AND, perhaps an even more important point, and an even weirder thing to say, is that literary criticism is important because it allows us to give in to our impulse for play.  

We don’t necessarily think of literary critics as the types to go in for fun.  But that’s sort of why I began with a kind of “autobiography of the reader,” writing the life of the critic, in order to model just one version of how a reader gets to be who she is, and in the telling of my story I’m offering an instance of play.  Such a story provides an opportunity to think about how we develop a sense of who we are as readers, and how we begin to understand the questions and ideas that are most important to us.  You all have a story like this, and while I’m talking you might even think a bit about what it is.  In the time remaining to me, I’d like to focus on what I’ve done with these origins and this still-emergent critical stance, and how I think criticism works — how the incredibly important empathic and affective function literature serves exists in what is to me a very exciting and productive dynamic with play — and how the job, the use, the delight, the necessity of literary criticism is to illuminate that dynamic — and, finally, how literary criticism does this by performing and enacting both the incredibly important empathic function and the play.  Literary criticism explains by doing, it doesn’t just tell, it shows, and this is why we need it.  It shows us how to play, how to care, how to have an intelligent conversation — indeed, how to fulfill what Lionel Trilling called “the moral obligation to be intelligent.”  Who would ever say, in our world today, that we don’t need more empathy and more play?