05/23/2010 12:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Harvard Against Yale in the New York Times Book Review

Arguments between academics are usually entertaining, and arguments between academic literary critics are often the most entertaining of all.

Literary criticism is not a science, it's more like an ennobled conversation in which one's values and attitudes masquerade as substantive statements about literary art. The irony is that literary artists are hardly ever literary critics (mostly due to disinterest) and literary critics are hardly ever literary artists (mostly due to incapacity). People toss whipped cream at each other. It's all in fun--and the university pays you for it.

The latest brouhaha is between Harold Bloom and James Wood (that's Yale against Harvard--without raccoon coats). Bloom says antisemitism is now rife among British intellectuals, and Wood replies that's merely one of Bloom's illusions, that the Brits are less antisemitic than Americans.

This is a heavyweight match carried on in the New York Times Book Review (May 9 and May 23, 2010), a weekly review of twenty-eight or so pages whose relevance to reality often escapes us.

Are British academics antisemitic? As a group, no. But there does exist a sub-group of British academics virulently anti-Israel, so much so that they recently called for a ban on visiting Israeli scholars in ANY field in British universities, plus dismissal of all Israeli visiting fellows on British soil. Nothing of the sort known to me exists or has existed in America in recent years.

As for James Wood, who bills himself as "Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism" in the English department at Harvard, he says there is more anti-Israeli discussion in Britain than in America because "Americans live in almost complete ignorance of the fierce relevance of political realities and facts."

My dear Professor Wood, the issue, in the first place, is not whether the American general public is ignorant, but whether the American academic community of intellectuals is ignorant--and there's no evidence this is so; and in the second place, whether your so-called "political realities and facts" are indeed what you call them--rather than some hash derived from personal values and attitudes. "Political realities and facts" routinely escape practicing politicians and political "scientists"--and we have no reason to suspect literary critics to be more astute.

Truly, this is another vacuous academic argument parading as an argument of substance.

Of course letters in the New York Times Book Review are just sound bites--squawks and screeches and ego riffs, rather than reasoned arguments. It's a pity the New York Times Book Review--an important piece of cultural real estate--still needs a major developer. It stands as an almost empty lot littered with unsightly debris.