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

Philip.Belben at Philip.Belben at
Tue Jun 5 08:50:13 EDT 2001

Melissa has written a wonderful reply to my question:

>>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

[the rest of the definition of analysis snipped]

> 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

Well, yes and no.  Thinking back to O level English (heck, this was 1983...):

When we started work on a set book - we did one a term for a year iirc - I read
it.  And with all three books, I was able to do just that - fall in and live
there for a week or two.

But the analysis didn't suck, as such.  I _was_ interested in some of the things
we were picking out of the books, and why they were there.  But I hadn't really
related to the books properly.  So I wasn't interested in analysing _those

> 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

That was indeed true.  The only reason it mattered, that I could see, was that
we'd need to know this stuff in order to get through the exam.  And English Lit
was compulsory.  And I was in top set for some unknown reason :-).  Gah!

> For a reader, taking this first stage seriously requires a leap of faith.

[Island analogy and stuff snipped]

> 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

Damn!  Can't remember the F&H quote - about making up something that nobody
quite has before.

> 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.)

Yes.  All this seems to be valid explanations for some of the reasons people on
this list have disliked lit. crit.

But at the moment I'm feeling as if you're all saying why you liked or disliked
a film, and I'm thinking "Where's the screen?"

> 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
> in.

This is the point at which, just as analysing books made people wish they could
just stick to reading them, I begin to wish that I could just have stuck to
discussing books :-)

> 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,"

Lol when I read that word.

> 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.

At the risk of getting into a major argument here, though, I have little time
for this idea that it is necessary to study things from a "feminist" point of
view.  I have every sympathy for the cause of Women's Liberation, but this idea
that there must be "feminist" criticism, "feminist" this that and the other,
makes me want to sign up for Men's Lib at the next opportunity.  What happened
to balanced viewpoints (even assuming that objectivity is impossible)?  Sorry.
End of rant.

> 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.

Well, of the novels I had to study, one was a romance.  But yes, Mr E---- didn't
help when he chose our three options.  Given my usual attitude to school at that
age, I'm surprised I didn't grab a syllabus behind his back, find out the set
Sci Fi, and study those in my own time.  At the time, I probably thought that I
wouldn't know how to study them, and also probably found out too late that SF
was an option.  Now, I can't help thinking that this would (a) have been fun and
(b) possibly have earned me an A grade instead of the B I actually got.

> 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*.

Yes, definitely.

> 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.

This, interestinly, accords closely with my own views _at a much lower level_.
Through discussions about meanings of words and phrases - like ours about Urban
Fantasy! - I came up with a theory of the meanings of words:

Outside of a dictionary (and even inside it, at some level), and in particular
in a human mind, a word doesn't have a definition.  What it has is layer upon
layer of connotations.  What I mean is, if we hear - or read - a word, what
comes into our mind is not some formal definition, but a collection of
experiences that tell us about the word, or that we associate with it.  This, I
think, is an inevitable result of the way we learn our native language.  (The
way we learn a foreign language is different, and we seldom if ever become
fluent until we've built up the layers of connotations based on experience).

One important upshot of this is that no two people ever have exactly the same
internal definition of a word, since no two people have the same experiences to
relate to it.  It occurs to me only now that this may be one reason why
languages evolve...

And if you are really, really set on a word having a formal definition for a
word, look it up in a dictionary.  And then look up all the words in terms of
which it is defined.  And so on.  I don't think it will take much so on to
generate several circular references...

Mathematicians have it easier - they start with rules of logic, and axioms, and
one or two basic concepts in terms of which to define everything.  But not much
easier - Goedel proved that if a system is formally defined, and broad enough to
cope with even basic maths, you can construct a statement that asserts its own
falsehood (and therefore doesn't make sense whether true or false) or one that
asserts its own truth (and therefore is totally consistent whether true or
false, and cannot be proved either way).  But I digress.

> 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.

Well, it seems that lit. crit. is something I've been doing all along, without
knowing it.  All I seem to lack is the formal training.  I also suspect that
something like this is true of others on this list, even the people who claim to
hate lit. crit.

> 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.

Well, it has certainly helped.  Thank you very much, Melissa.


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