Stanley Fish’s Comrades and Rivals
Your favorite critic has plenty of frenemies.
Love me or hate me, they just can't help but talk about me. I really stir up the discourse, as the academics say. Check out the sampling of some of the abuse I have received over the years (scroll down to the middle of the page for the list).
I have a soft spot for this lady of letters. On dark and lonely nights, I pull out the kind words she once said about my work on Milton. She has that incredibly unusual ability to see how brilliant my scholarship really is. See, back in the day when I published Surprised by Sin, Milton scholarship was in the crapper. The so-called "Milton Debates" were flaming up like the blazes of Hades.
I made everything shiny and new again. I quit trying to soothe frustrated Milton readers, offering the reader solace by explaining (not in so many words): "Come here. It's okay to be confused by this ten-thousand line epic poem about the fall of man. Here's a hug."
Blessed Joan Bennett pointed out how radical it was that I supported the reader in such a tender way. Well, that wasn't the word she used, but she did say that my claim about Milton readers provided much-needed support to teachers and students alike. Hey, I'll take what I can get.
I have no small gratitude for this professor of English and Education's fondness for me—and the fact that he's willing to discuss it publically. He has given deserved props to my role in intellectual life, pronounced that my enormous influence on literary criticism is undeniable, and best of all, got a good dig in at all of the "vulgar Fish-bashers." He really has my back on my idea of interpretive communities. So many people just reduce me to a provocateur, but come on! I'm just trying to give the reader a little credit. Every reader's reading adds to big melting pot of responses. It's all good in the hood.
Amitava is a good guy in that sort of "he agrees with what I say" kind of way. His flattery of my work is humbling, because he seems to really like everything I write, from my contemptuous pronouncements on the "Sokal Affair" to my more recent lovable little text called How to Write a Sentence . He really understands me: my passion for the perfectly constructed sentence and my (almost) religious dedication to profound expression. Best of all, he calls me "upbeat," which is something academics never call other academics.
This megastar Marxist academic got real cray about leftist loyalties, saying that I am as left wing as Donald Trump. Ouch. He then proclaimed, "For Fish, a man has no more control over his beliefs than some ideologues believe he has over his penis." That's just not nice talk, now is it?
Eagleton believes that I only care about issues that relate to and benefit me, and then accuses me of addressing certain issues (racism, the academy, television, pornography, abortion, free speech, religion, sexual discrimination), while dissing ones that (he thinks) really matter (i.e., "famine, forced migration, revolutionary nationalism, military aggression, the depredations of capital, the inequities of world trade, the disintegration of whole communities" [source]).
Of course, I had some strongly worded opinions about his book Reason, Faith and Revolution, but generously gave him an out by saying that I understand how he feels. We do share a hatred of extreme atheists, but I guess that's not enough for us to feel the love.
It's never fun when heavy hitters go public with their disapproval. I really wanted to like Martha Nussbaum because we share so much—both smart as a whip, with multiple appointments and university professorships—but she has trouble keeping her dislike of me on the down low. She throws around some of the severest condemnation an academic can muster: that I am a "relativist" and that my theoretical views are based on "radical subjectivism" (source) . This is just a fancy way of saying I lack critical distance and objectivity. She ultimately lobs this one: that I do not offer any ethical truths. That's like telling a supermodel that she looks healthy—just plain insulting.
Camille is one of those women you really really want to like you. Just one glance at how cool she looks on the cover of Vamps and Tramps and you're just aching to have her go to prom with you—or at least not attack you in a public lecture at MIT, which is what she did to me. Number one, she called me a "totalitarian Tinkerbell." (Where does she come up with this stuff?) Then she questioned my right to discuss multiculturalism from the hallowed halls of Duke University. She grouped me with other preachy types who write in a "gameplaying, slick, cerebral style." Grrrr.
When one intellectual calls another intellectual "professional," he or she is basically accusing that person of caring less about ideas and more about climbing the ladder of success. It's like when an indie band's song turns up on a Coke commercial: it's all about selling out for money and fame. So when Roger Kimball called me a professional in the pages of The New Criterion, I felt like a marked man. He gave gory details about my contradictions and any and all of the ludicrous, unfortunate assertions I have made over the years. The guy has the memory of an elephant!