Literary criticism and academic peer reviewing

TS Eliot’s Sacred Wood is a collection of essays in which Eliot writes about his opinion of various writers and literary works, the state of criticism, and critical writing. Probably most people are familiar with a quote from Sacred Wood:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

I think the applicability of Eliot’s observation is unquestionable for academic writers. One could list hundreds of papers that are no more than efforts to imitate and often we can spot the mind who can see above individual works and extract the best of many to mould them together in one piece which then takes us to the next level. Yet, what strikes me is the possible synergies between academic peer reviewing and literary criticism. Eliot points out that:

One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.

Simple, isn’t it, just get rid of confirmation bias, which is so inherent in any peer review in academia, and appreciate novelty. However, it is not to say that Eliot completely disregards the importance of previous achievements:

Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.

So it is about the right balance between genuine and still conform. Finding this balance is the art of criticism. The Sacred Wood is full of advise for academic reviewers, for example, the importance of the ability to appreciate the existing order but also be able to see how this order changes with the new work. Peer reviewing is so similar to literary criticism even to the extent that I think we could learn a lot from studying what literary critiques do.


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