Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Frances Ferguson reviews Professing Criticism

John Guillory. Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. 424 pp.

27 July 2023

Review by Frances Ferguson

What Should We Do?

John Guillory’s Professing Criticism appears in a moment filled with accounts of declining interest in literary study, most notably a recent New Yorker article that described catastrophically reduced enrollments in literature courses at Harvard and elsewhere.[1] This sense of crisis overshadows questions about routine professional practice—what readings to put on a syllabus, how many papers to assign, how to evaluate a candidate for tenure, or how to prepare to be evaluated—are overshadowed. The question for the profession that overrides all others is What will become of us?

The best practices that organizations like the Modern Language Association have long worked to identify and disseminate seem almost beside the point. Faculty only need so much advice on the proper way to conduct an interview when deans are authorizing only a small number of hires. Yet in the face of this felt sense of crisis, John Guillory has written a thoughtful and wide-ranging book in which he refuses to let the aura of crisis prompt him to blame literary colleagues who abandoned some supposedly perfect approach to chase critical fashions, or on students allegedly concerned only to prepare for lucrative professions.  He acknowledges what he at least once refers to as a parade of distinctive critical approaches—New Criticism, structuralism, deconstruction, new historicism, gender criticism, Marxist criticism, sociological criticism—without ferreting out the limitations of those positions. Rather, he lodges a more general criticism of an impulse in the profession to imagine that we literary critics are and should be the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He never writes as if all was lost the moment that people became aware that membership in the literary canon was changing, or that deconstruction became temporarily more influential than a celebration of the Western canon, or that New Historicism centered on what Joel Fineman identified as anecdotalism in literary history. Instead, he objects to the kind of talk that Samuel Taylor Coleridge endorsed in his Lay Sermons (1816–1817) when he proposed something like life tenure for a literary clerisy that would see politics with particular clarity and would, in particular, understand both what others misunderstood and understand their misunderstanding.

In Professing Criticism, Guillory uses work on the sociology of the professions to hold a mirror up for all of us who are professional literary critics. He deploys an epigraph from Raymond Williams that concludes: “And there is no profession which can fail to learn from someone making explicit just the training, the usage, the taking for granted that underlie all practice” (p. 44). He underscores the connection between professional formation and professional deformation that Friedrich Nietzsche outlined in The Gay Science (1882) and We Philologists (1874). The breadth of his call for professional self-examination is particularly interesting precisely because he treats the disputes over theoretical position and method as relatively unimportant skirmishes within the profession. In his earlier Cultural Capital (1993), Guillory had echoed some of Pierre Bourdieu’s thinking and had skewered particular critics and their acolytes for mistaking their sense of the ready availability of certain readings for precision. In Professing Criticism, his criticism is broader-gauged. The professional formation that affords us insights and allows us to exchange them with our semblables also deforms us, most strikingly when we think that we are pushing against its constraints and claiming that we more readily see the whole soul in activity and affirming higher values.

Scholars in other professions have confessed to their own deformation, as the developmental psychologist William Kessen did in speaking of how “deeply carved into our professional intention is a desire to change the lives of our readers, to have them believe something that we believe.”[2] Yet Guillory is critical of the particular form that literary critics’ analogous desires take. He joins Stefan Collini in objecting to the importance that literary critics ascribe to themselves when they imagine that they are unusually well equipped, as Frederic Jameson says in Postmodernism (1989), to make a judgment of our historical period and its shortcomings or to imagine, in an extension of Matthew Arnold’s and John Stuart Mill’s account of literature, that literary critics have a privileged position for moral insight. Though Guillory does not, so far as I recall, refer to Ian Hunter in this regard, I think he would endorse Hunter’s objections to Immanuel Kant’s argument in the Conflict of the Faculties (1798) and would with Hunter dispute the idea that any profession should dictate terms to any other. Guillory would, I think, have no patience with our now-familiar disparagement of computer science majors for their supposed moral and aesthetic limitations. In his view, representing the humanities as morally superior disciplines disfigures humanists in general, and representing literary studies as the most superior of the superior leads literary critics to act as though other professions have no right to develop their own specialized knowledges. Guillory imagines that making judgments on our own historical period is an activity that everyone inevitably claims an equal right to, and he objects to any profession’s claiming superior insight. Casting aspersion on other professions for their moral limitations is the royal road to a professional complacency that is too ready to treat falling enrollments in literature courses as evidence of other people’s limitations.

Guillory endorses histories of literary study that highlight the degree to which the central exhibit for literary critics came to be the highly wrought language that is designated literature. Although he does not say much about I. A. Richards, the drift of his argument—and his occasional insights about specific literary texts from Chaucer or Shakespeare—resonates with Richards’s commentaries in Practical Criticism (1929). For Richards, the mistakes worth talking about are essentially mistakes of being unable to attend to ideas we hadn’t had before. In emphasizing the centrality of highly wrought language to literary studies, Guillory doesn’t so much aim to capture the originality of great writing as to think about the way teachers may help students discover how original such highly wrought language can be to its readers.


[1] Nathan Heller, “The End of the English Major,” New Yorker, 27 Feb. 2023,

[2] William Kessen, “A Developmentalist’s Reflections,” in Children in Time and Place: Developmental and Historical Insights, ed. Glen H. Elder, John Modell, and Ross D. Parke (New York, 1993), p. 229.