The stakes of literary criticism sometimes turn out to be higher than prevailing preconceptions about it would suggest (you know, the preconceptions involving elbow patches, overpaid obscurantism, and social irrelevance). For instance, earlier this year a New York law professor faced criminal libel charges in France for publishing a critical book review. Around the same time, a Kuwaiti blogger got sued for posting a bad restaurant review.
The counter-discourse about literary criticism as a matter of life or death has roots in the pamphlet and periodical hostilities that marked (and marred) print culture in the Romantic period. The most famous example is the poet Keats, famously sensitive to critical reviews. “Who killed John Keats?” asked Byron in 1821, promptly answering on behalf of one particularly persecuting periodical: “‘I,’ says the Quarterly…”
But Keats’ case is still figurative, not literal, after all: it wasn’t bad reviews that actually killed Keats — it was tuberculosis, whose close reading skills apply only to deconstructing the ambiguities and aporias of the body’s immune system. Rather, the real life-or-death stakes of literary criticism surface in the fact that most negative reviews themselves were published anonymously — as were numerous now-famous novels, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Walter Scott’s Waverley series, to Austen’s oeuvre. As William St Clair argues in his endlessly absorbing study The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, “anonymity protected publishers and printers from the law of libel” (174).
Perhaps that’s a protection that some of the aforementioned present-day critics wish they had, just as, perhaps, it’s a protection that explains the death of netiquette and the ubiquity of commentating trolls. But anonymity warded against more than just libel in the romantic period:
Anonymity also reduced the risk of being called out to fight in a duel, a form of literary criticism which killed more than one writer of the romantic period. (175)
Such wryly observed literary history puts in perspective “the death of the author,” reminding us of a time when an act of reading represented a kind of re-writing that was radically and literally tantamount to murder (not even murder most foul, but murder socially sanctioned, at that). Let’s hope that, amidst increasingly extremist, neoliberal forms of deregulation, IP law enforcement, and extreme sports (like ultimate fighting or chessboxing), the current spate of libel actions against critics doesn’t augur a return to the good old bad old days when running an unfavourable critique could risk catching a bullet.
Cross-blogged from the AU Landing