Lit. Crit. (was: Re: More than you ever wanted to know (was Re: answers from Diana))

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Mon Jun 4 18:25:21 EDT 2001

On Wed, 30 May 2001 18:03:56 +0100, Philip asked:

>Can someone please explain to me what "Literary Criticism" is?

I took this question seriously, Philip.  I just don't know if I can explain
it, or if I even really know what it is, or ever did, despite having majored
in English literature.  It's a simple question that has no simple answer.

In learning to read, we are trained to see the whole rather than the parts.
It's not enough to decode each individual word--we have to understand how
the words fit together, or the text makes no sense.  Critical training
begins by teaching readers to do the opposite, to pick the parts out of the
whole, to become aware of reading rather than submerged in it.  Who are the
characters?  What is the plot?  What details create the setting?  Why do the
characters do the things they do?  What might the author actually be saying
that isn't stated in the text?  This is the stuff that is mainly taught in
grade school.  It is not criticism, but the beginnings of it.  Calling it
"analysis" is very accurate: these are techniques for examining a text and
gathering data from it.

It sucks.  People who really truly love reading love it because they are
able to fall headlong into a book and live in it for however long they're
reading.  You're not thinking about character and plot and theme, you're
thinking about the story.  Sure, you can answer the above questions, but in
order to do it, you have to stay aloof from the story.  This is supposed to
be fun?  It's made less fun because very rarely are students given any
reason why this analysis matters.  Readers already like to read; they aren't
likely to read *more* as a result of their high school English class.  And
it's not like your future employer at Burger World is going to care whether
or not you know why the color yellow matters in _The Great Gatsby_.

For a reader, taking this first stage seriously requires a leap of faith.
It's like you're standing on the shore of a really nice tropical island,
comfortable and warm with plenty of food, and someone tells you, "There's a
much better island out there.  You can't see it from here, but I promise
it's there.  But to get there, you'll have to swim.  And there might be
sharks."  Ideally, the person telling you this is someone you trust, someone
who's willing to row in front of you yelling directions.  But most of the
time, an unseen hand just throws you into the water, and you flounder around
screaming, possibly get nibbled on by sharks, and eventually make it back to
the original island swearing that you'll never leave shore again--not to
mention convinced that there is no other island.

Okay, that metaphor derailed my train of thought.  The point is that even
though it's necessary to learn this kind of analysis if you want to proceed
on to criticism, it isn't pleasant and can be actively painful.  The good
news is that eventually you adjust and learn to immerse yourself in books
again--you learn to gather the data without thinking about it.  This is at
least the point that everyone on this list is at.  If you're able to
participate in any of these discussions, if you're able to voice an opinion
about why you like or dislike a book, you've reached this point.

Criticism is what happens next.  Beyond analysis is synthesis--the creation
of something new that arises out of, or is based upon, something that
already exists.  Literary criticism is synthesis.  This is the simple
answer.  But it's a non-answer.  You can define plot and character, but you
can't choose a single interpretation of a novel as the only criticism of it.
(Well, you *can*.  But only if you're a moron or a desperate English teacher
who hates grading essay exams.)  A critical essay or book can be enjoyable
in its own right, though highly dependent on the reader being familiar with
the text it's based on.  (This is one of the reasons for canonical
literature; it gives students and scholars a common ground.  The problem
arises when people disagree about what the canon should be, or what values
it should represent, or when this common ground becomes instead a
requirement for membership in an exclusive club.  But I digress.  I think my
canoe has sprung a leak.)

And criticism changes all the time.  At one point I could have summarized
the changes from Matthew Arnold to the present day, with dates, but I've
been out of school too long.  The short version is that some time in, I
think, the 1960s, traditional kinds of criticism started being discarded in
favor of new ways of thinking about reading and writing.  Today there are
more ways of reading a text (and, by the way, calling a book or story or
poem a "text" is also a piece of fallout from that silent revolution, as I
learned the hard way when trying to defend my honors thesis) than I even
know about.  So this is the point where I have to stop, because beyond this
I just don't know the specifics.  Deborah probably does; maybe she'll step

Backing up a little, I can say what *I* mean, for myself, when I talk about
criticism.  My university experience leaned heavily toward feminist
criticism and reader response.  I taught myself about deconstructionism,
only to learn that they teach a different kind of it at BYU.  I gave up on
the feminist thing the first time I heard the word "phallologocentrism,"
which I still can't say or write or read with a straight face.  (Feminist
criticism is good, serious stuff, but I am not a serious person and it just
didn't matter to me very much.)  Out of all this, I ended up with a
mish-mash of ideas.  

For one thing, every book is a possible subject for literary criticism.
It's a lie that only the "classics" are worth studying.  People who say that
science fiction, or romance novels, or Westerns, aren't valid subjects for
criticism are unaware of the marvelous possibilities for study inherent in
these genres.  And what's taught as criticism is sometimes not what people
are actually writing about, outside the university.

Following this idea is the one that says the most interesting criticism is
the inobvious one.  One obvious thing to look at with Heinlein, for example,
is chauvinism versus feminism in his novels.  (Okay, so I didn't give it up
entirely.)  But what about a picture of the 1950s based on what he doesn't
say?  _Farnham's Freehold_ is very revealing about things like childbirth
and casual use of tranquilizers and domestic relations.  Sometimes what
isn't written is more interesting than what *is*.

The third idea is that reading isn't a monolithic experience, but depends
heavily on prior experience.  Some books make more sense when you're fifty
than when you're fifteen.  Some books matter more when you've experienced
what's in them; some matter less.  A book that to me might be cliched and
overdone might be a revelation to someone who'd never read about the topic
before.  The logical conclusion to this idea is that any criticism I might
write is going to be self-revelatory--saying that this-and-such is what a
book is "about", universally and for always, is just putting myself at the
center of the universe.

Which leads to number four--the point of literary criticism is to understand
people better, including myself.  Which could also be said to be the point
of reading, period.

I have spent an entire afternoon on this question and I don't know how much
of an answer it is.  In the end, the only person I can confidently speak for
is myself.

Melissa Proffitt
To unsubscribe, email dwj-request at with the body "unsubscribe".
Visit the archives at

More information about the Dwj mailing list