Category Archives: academic writing

why academic criticism leaves me cold


When asked to describe my activities as a research/writer, I say that I am “independent scholar.” I am not and never have been an academic or professorial type, despite having taught literature and writing as an adjunct professor briefly. I have no academic credentials, other than a B.A. degree in the humanities, that would qualify me as an English professor.

My interest in literature comes from a lifetime love of books and reading, of literature and good writing.

I love the books I read for their own sake and am interested usually (very interested) in learning about the authors themselves — their lives and times. I take a great interest in learning about the writers I read qua writers: their style; how they compare to others writers; how they fit into the literary landscape and tradition; their development. Which is to say that, besides reading books for their own sake, I am constantly reading them from a scholarly/critical point of view. But, I never lose sight of the works themselves, which for me are paramount. To put it another way, the pleasure for me of reading is elemental. Yet, at the same time, there is great intellectual pleasure (the greatest I have derived, for the most part) in reading. And, I like to be challenged by deep writers who make one think and earn my admiration.

I am thoroughly uninterested in academic criticism such as that in the latest issue of the journal American Literary History (published by Oxford University Press), the contents of which are below. What this sort of criticism has to do with the actual works, with literature, is problematic — to put it bluntly, there is no connection. This is tendentious, polemical criticism. It shows what academia is up to when it comes to the study of literature, and it seems to be getting worse.

It’s depressing to contemplate.

— Roger W. Smith

  November 2018



American Literary History Table of Contents

Volume 30 Issue 4

Winter 2018


What Was Black Nostalgia?
Jonathan D S Schroeder

American Alternatives: Participatory Futures of Print from New York City’s Nineteenth-Century Spanish-Language Press
Kelley Kreitz

Crime Fiction and Black Criminality
Theodore Martin

The Book Reads You: William Melvin Kelley’s Typographic Imagination
Kinohi Nishikawa

The Novel and WikiLeaks: Transparency and the Social Life of Privacy
Scott Selisker

Liberalism and the Early American Novel
Stephen Shapiro

Attention Spans
Elizabeth Duquette

Debunking Dehumanization
Jeannine Marie DeLombard

Queer Sociality After the Antisocial Thesis
Benjamin Kahan

Archives of Ecocatastrophe; or, Vulnerable Reading Practices in the Anthropocene
Nicole M Merola

Four Theses on Economic Totality
Mitchum Huehls

Rethinking Pauline Hopkins: Plagiarism, Appropriation, and African American Cultural Production
Richard Yarborough; JoAnn Pavletich; Ira Dworkin; Lauren Dembowitz



See also my post:

“Theodore Dreiser under the microscope (of a nutty professor or two)”

Theodore Dreiser under the microscope (of a nutty professor or two)

Theodore Dreiser under the microscope (of a nutty professor or two)


For the American Literature Association (ALA) conference in San Francisco this coming May:

“Papers are invited on theoretical approaches to [Theodore] Dreiser’s canon and life. Some suggested approaches include Poststructuralism, Feminist Gender Theory, Material Culture, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy (such as Foucault’s Technology of Self). Topics may include Dreiser’s philosophical writings, fiction, plays, essays, autobiographies, and journalism.”

Yes, but only if they are viewed through the prism of one of the opaque, recondite, and virtually incomprehensible lines of inquiry dear to academia specified in the second sentence above, almost all of them having nothing to do with Dreiser.

The living, breathing Dreiser and most of his works (unless they can be used to support an academically fashionable theory) are of scant interest to them.


— Roger W. Smith

    December 2017





an email to me from Professor Emeritus Arun P. Mukherjee

August 18, 2019

I admire you for sustaining your research and a passion for reading and writing outside the university. This morning, before I read your attached letter, I looked at your Dreiser blog and your responses to Alfred Kazin’s “Introductions.” I loved reading them. I fully agree with you that Studies in American Naturalism is no replacement for Dreiser studies.

I find the way literature is taught in the university under the rubrics of romanticism, naturalism, modernism, postmodernism etc. so deadly. To give you an example from my personal experience, the writers I teach are labeled postcolonial by the academic categorizers. So. I would be often asked by my students as to tell them the “postcolonial aspects of the book.” So, they are not reading the book for the portrayal of the human life in the book, but for an “ism.” It defeats the whole purpose of reading literature.

The majority of academic papers are unreadable and I am thankful that I no longer have to bother reading them.