The recent discussion of "academic blogging" at Crooked Timber prompts me to some further examination of the difference between literary "scholarship" and "literary criticism." To the extent that whatever becomes of "academic blogging" about literature proves to be continous with the current practice of the former, this distinction will remain relevant to those whose interest lies primarily in literature rather than the assumptions of academic scholarship, if likely not to the academic scholars themselves.
Perhaps a brief account of my own experience as an "academic critic" would be useful here. When I began to pursue a career as a "scholar," my assumption was that literary scholarship and literary criticism were just two different but complementary activities undertaken within the shared space of literary study. There were those who were truly scholars in the traditional sense--text editors, literary historians, etc.--and those who although they called themselves "scholars" were really literary critics concerned with the explication/critical analysis of works of literature as a whole. Eventually I came to understand that the very act of calling oneself a scholar was increasingly a way of actually distancing oneself from mere "criticism," especially criticism of a formalist or aesthetic variety.
Those who helped to install literature as a respectable subject of academic study--and this did not happen until at the earliest the 1920s and 1930s, and probably not completely until after World War II--were not innocent themselves of elevating the "academic" and the "scholarly" over the merely literary. Critical method was almost always more important than a mere "appreciation" of literature. I hate to quote myself, but I have written a "scholarly" essay on this subject (College English, January 2001) in which I maintain that "in the battle over the English curriculum between the partisans of cultural studies and the partisans of literary study the latter are in no position to charge that cultural studies relegates literature to a supporting role secondary to the promulgation of a particular critical method. The notion that as a discipline English has ever been, or even could be, essentially a preservation society dedicated to the inherent virtues of literature is mostly unsupportable." Even New Criticism, the critical approach most dedicated to these "inherent virtues" wound up advocating the values of the academy more than the values of literary criticism itself.
However, the earlier proponents of academic criticism were more focused in their efforts on the inherent value of works of literature--on the "literary" as that could be determined. This kind of criticism has been entirely rejected by the present generation of academic critics as "soft," politically incorrect, outmoded, as thorougly beneath them as "scholars." Academic scholars have a great need to feel superior to the mass of unenlightened and uncredentialed readers--I will foreswear the temptation to speculate on why this is the case--and increasingly academic literary scholars found it necessary to consider themselves superior even to the writers and the literary texts they ostensibly study. For this reason it is possible that scholars could never be persuaded to turn their attention back to the good faith study of works of literature for what they have to offer, and thus academic blogging is not likely to be very interesting to anyone other than academics--and many of them will lose patience with it as well, as battles over critical turf just get transferred to a different arena.
Literary criticism, on the other hand, to the extent it remains such, must apply itself to the sorting out of the claims that various works of literature have on our attention as readers. In short, it must help keep the possibility of reading literature in intelligent but also appreciative ways alive. The academy at present is only helping to kill this possibility. And to the extent that "literary scholarship" actually subsumed the very idea of literary criticism to itself--for a very long time criticism has really only been practiced by those with ties to the academy--it will be necessary, at the very least, for those still within the academy who nevertheless want to study literature to renounce the models of cutural study and critical theory now ascendant as the acceptable methods of what is misleadingly still called "literary study." If some of these folks were to see blogs as a way of returning to real literary criticism, this kind of blogging might actually succeed.
Some of the literary critics I greatly esteem--Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, Henry Louis Gates--do have ties to the academy, are in most ways "academics." Many of them are also derided as old-fashioned or too eager to engage in merely "popular" criticism by the guardians of the currently established "advanced" practices of academic criticism. My own field of scholarly study, postwar or "contemporary" American literature, has been ruined by these practices, except for the few "scholars" who continue to consider the great writers who have demonstrably emerged from this period and to monitor the developments initiated by current writers. There really aren't many who do this sort of thing without falling prey to the formulas and vapid pronouncements that characterize academic criticism in general. In many ways, unfortunately, it could be said that it was the scholars of contemporary literature who introduced these approaches to literature in the first place.
Literary webloggers would be well-advised to run away from the products of present literary scholarship as if from a plague. If academic bloggers deprecate the lit blogs as lacking substance or rigor (and it must be said that the original post at Crooked Timber did not do this--itself a promising sign), lit bloggers should take this as the snobbishness and unearned elitism that it is. The academy is increasingly proving itself to be the funeral home of literature--one presided over by the academic critic-embalmers themselves. A revived literary criticism, perhaps aided if not spearheaded by literary weblogs, might not be able to rescue all that has been consigned to the tender graces of these critics, but surely something can be saved.