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A Response to Jonathan Kramnick
"Criticism and Truth"

Originally Appeared in: Critical Inquiry: Volume 48, Number 1 | Published Autumn 2021

Jonathan Kramnick opens “Criticism and Truth” with a question as bold as his title: “Does literary criticism tell truths about the world?” (Jonathan Kramnick, “Criticism and Truth,” Critical Inquiry 47 [Winter 2021]: 218). The question immediately acquires two prongs. The question “of telling truths about the world itself” will have to hinge on making “true statements about literary texts” (p. 218). It is axiomatic for Kramnick that “both lines of inquiry take aim at method and therefore at epistemology” (p. 218). I admire Kramnick’s general project of questioning various centrifugal tendencies in literary studies that often weaken the discipline in the name of sweeping but shallow interdisciplinarity. Social theory, political theory, political economy, evolutionary biology, and cognitive science are among the fields that temptingly promise a more worldly discourse but whose own disciplinary complexity, traditions, methods, protocols, and debates are easily bypassed by literary scholars in search of usable axioms and theorems. Kramnick wants to wind the discussion centripetally back from the wide arc of interdisciplinarity to the specificity of the discipline of literary studies.

The article seems torn, though, between a polemic against influential theorists of literary studies who do not in Kramnick’s eyes understand method at all and, on the other hand, an emphatically antipolemical intent to identify the common denominator that gathers all us practitioners of literary studies together within a distinct, unique, and justifiable discipline. The common denominator of “our actual on-the-ground procedures of reading and interpretation” in “the everyday practice of literary criticism as it is done everywhere, all the time” is, he proposes, the ubiquitous use of “in-sentence quotation” in the practice that for the last half century has been called “reading” or “close reading” and which Kramnick quite rightly points out is in fact a specific practice of writing (pp. 219, 220, 221). There is an art to critics’ splicing of phrases from the text being analyzed into their own sentences of commentary and argument. Criticism is a skill, “craftwork in a literal sense. It is something one does or makes with one’s hands,” as the fingers dance on the keyboard or move the pen across the page (p. 223).

The strongly stated two-pronged determination of truth—truth about the text, truth about the world—undergoes a series of refinements and mutations in the course of the discussion that transform it nearly beyond recognition.

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