Scholar or Celebrity Critic? The Scratch-and-Sniff Test
November 12, 2008
One night last week as the early signs of winter began to settle in around me – the leaves have fallen, the rhubarb plants and potted herbs have succumbed to the frost, and I’ve ordered a new pair of snow boots from Land’s End – I cozied into the corner of the couch to read a newly received anthology of essays on W.G. Sebald. Even though it had been published more than a year ago and contains only English-language essays, W.G. Sebald and the Writing of History (Wurzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007) is currently only available in Germany (try Abebooks or Amazon.de). Go figure.
Co-edited by well-known Sebald scholars Anne Fuchs and J.J. Long, W.G. Sebald and the Writing of History begins with a piece by Long called W.G. Sebald: A Bibliographical Essay in Current Research, in which he summarizes the research (i.e. the critical positions) of numerous scholars who have written about Sebald. Long’s overview provides a welcome assessment of the areas of Sebald’s writing that have proven to be particularly rich for scholars, and I was just about to move onto the next essay in the book when one phrase caught my eye. Long makes reference to an essay by Scott Denham (Davidson College) on the critical reception of Sebald’s books.
[Denham] considers the role of celebrity critics, such as Susan Sontag, Paul Auster, Gabriel Josipovici, Cynthia Ozick, and James Wood…
What, I wondered, does this mean. Is a celebrity critic first cousin to a celebrity chef? Do we suspect that Susan Sontag really doesn’t know how to make a proper soufflé or that someone ghost-wrote James Wood’s recipes? I knew I should have been suspicious when Gabriel Josipovici brought out his own line of cookware. And what is Auster doing in this list? He’s never written about Sebald. His crime, apparently, was to provide a jacket blurb for Vertigo.
So, with all due respect to the excellent Professor Denham, here is my modest proposal. We need a simple scratch-and-sniff test to help separate true scholars from celebrity critics. Something so easy it comes with a money-back guarantee. Maybe like this:
Real scholars don’t blurb.
Real scholars don’t scrimp on footnotes.
Real scholars do research; celebrities do reviews.
Real scholars never write fiction on the side.
Real scholars never have their portrait made by Annie Leibowitz or Elizabeth Peyton.
Well, it’s a start. I’ll just have to give this a little more thought as I read the rest of the essays on the anthology, not one of which appears to have been written by a celebrity chef.