A few days ago in the Guardian philosophy professor Jonathan Wolff decided to figure out why academic writing was "boring." He laments, "That I ended up in a job where I have to spend half the day blinking my way through artless, contorted prose is a cruel twist of fate." Wolff ventures an explanation for why literary criticism is such a chore to read: Academic essays lack the suspense of narratives. "A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: 'In this novel I shall show that the butler did it.'" He goes on to explain:
Academic writing needs to be ordered, precise, and to make every move explicit. All the work needs to be done on the page rather than in the reader's head. By contrast, good literature often relies on the unsaid, or the implied or hinted at, rather than the expressed thought. But as we tell our students: you will only get a mark for it if it is written down, however obvious, and however infantile it seems to spell it out. Such discipline applies all the way through as the pressures of writing for peer-reviewed journals are much the same. To call a paper "thorough" is high praise.
There's something to Wolff's explanation. As anyone who has published in an academic journal knows, the peer review process can suck the life out of any essay. It should be noted that the primary audience for most academic essays isn't students or general readers. Instead, academics--especially young ones trying to write themselves out of dead-end jobs--write for hiring and tenure committees.
Wolff is hardly the first person to complain about the tediousness of contemporary academic literary criticism. A larger question that Wolff doesn't consider is why anyone should care if literary criticism is so boring. No one seems to object to the dreadful prose produced in the physical and social sciences. Literary critics, to a greater extent than philosophers, have felt a responsibility toward a general readership. Literary criticism has had a special role in the public sphere since the 18th century, when the role of the literary critic first appeared. At that time cultural products became objects that had to be interpreted and evaluated, rather than just simply consumed or enjoyed. At a time when emergent capitalism was forcing people to become narrower and more specialized, critics were central to the project of becoming a well-rounded, educated person.
Another key moment in the history of critical prose was the arrival of structuralism in the American academy during the 1950's and '60's. Structuralism offered a "scientific" means of interpreting texts, so that literary studies could lay claim to the same objectivity and rigorous methodology as the sciences. Literary criticism gained a powerful array of analytical tools, but at the cost of a language accessible to the general reader, who was abandoned to newspaper book reviewers, themselves now an endangered species.
There isn't an English professor in the world who doesn't long to approach someone reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven in an airport gate and slap them upside the head. However, re-engaging with a broad public audience is tricky. Critics could regress back to belle lettrism, which basically means sending mash notes to great authors. No one has the stomach for that. But the alternative is becoming Professor Eat-Your-Peas, insisting that a subway reader pore over every line in Paradise Lost.
There's a third way, but it's still in development. Some English professors like Michael Bérubé have ventured into the messy world of blogs, while MySpace is developing into another forum for discussions about literature. Developing a criticism that's a pleasure to read, or at least tolerable, means going back to criticism's roots in the early public sphere of open, and un-refereed, debate.