"Who are you kidding?" I wanted to get up and ask the English professor who was giving a talk at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association convention in November. He was analyzing a graphic novel, the spaces between panels, the line widths of the panels, the lettering inside the "speech bubbles."Perhaps, though, the traditional forms survive away from the workshops and the refereed journals. But the practitioners don't realize that they're using the traditional forms, if the title of tonight's Book Review No. 5, Secrets of The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code Sequel. It's a cumbersome title, and literary criticism, particularly if it's applied to the works of dead authors, is by definition unauthorized. (I'd conjecture that only a very poor author would leave program notes, as it were, behind in a notebook for some future researcher to discover and quote from.)
Maybe he was trying to keep his job in a field that by job postings indicates increasing irrelevance. Students are leaving English departments in droves. "This is a profession that is losing its will to live," proclaimed William Deresiewicz, former English professor himself, in 2008 in the pages of the Nation, no less.
It's been a death by slow suicide. The reference to "spaces" coming from the podium was the same kind of self-abusive parsing, I had seen applied by deconstructionists in the 1990s when I was a graduate student. The depressed patient, failing to see any worth in his work, had leveled the greatest works to "texts." Reading between the lines of "text" has evolved into reading the gaps between panels: "Lots of stuff happens in that silent space," said the professor.
The other English professors and graduate students in the audience nodded in complicit agreement, knowing that to acknowledge his intellectual nakedness would reveal their own. Or maybe they've really convinced themselves they're clothed in real scholarship.
I've already reviewed The Lost Symbol, and a few years ago ran a doubleheader reviewing The Da Vinci Code and Cracking the Da Vinci Code, a work in the same spirit (there being, apparently, plenty of commercial opportunities for anthologies of literary criticism, or approximations to the traditional forms, if the object of criticism is a Dan Brown page-turner.) The comments I made there apply in approximately the same measure to Secrets. I note only that there's a lot of intellectual talent either going to waste or seeking commercial, rather than academic, recognition uncovering the hidden meanings in Mr Brown's work; the myth of Someone In Authority has great staying power; there are more than a few New Age reactionaries who like the idea of a more spiritual time in which life was Nasty, Poor, Brutish, and Short (the discovery of Laws of Nature means doubts about a God in Heaven); and bright people can still engage some of these ideas and perhaps enlighten their readers.
(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops