Lit Crit was Re: More than You Ever Wanted to Know Was Re Answers From Diana

Ven ven at
Wed Jun 6 20:46:38 EDT 2001

Melissa wrote

> 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 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?  

You've set out the problem really neatly here, Melissa. I find that 
falling headlong into a book is still the way I like to experience a 
book, especially for the first time. I have a background awareness 
of what is happening in terms of plot, structure, character etc and I 
like to emerge from reading from time to time  to have a look 
around and a think. The best books however, imo, are the ones 
that draw me in and won't let me go. The sort of analysis that 
requires reading with a biot of distance is definitely for second or 
third readings.

(I've got a new keyboard table that is big enough for the cats to sit 
on and thrust their big furry faces into mine while I'm typing. They 
love it. I'm reserving judgement I say, spitting ginger fur out of my 

Isnipped metaphor
> 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.

One of the problems with school literature courses is that the point 
of learning the stuff tends to be in order to pass the exams. 
Another is that whatever paradigm of criticism is being followed 
may not appeal to the students. Certainly the way lit was taught in 
the 70s in the UK didn't suit me. I was certainly at odds with the 
idea of "the canon" and, in a way, I suppose I was waiting for all 
these fine new ways of thinking we have aquired in the last 30 
years. (Arguing against JA is, of course, another way of rebelling 
against the canon.).   

> 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. 

The process of learning to notice something, and going through an 
uncomfortable period during which that thing looms in the 
foreground getting in the way of everything else, is something I've 
gone through a number of times. And it's always settled down in 
the end, whether it's been plot, character, theme, sexual innuendo, 
class conciousness, gender awareness, political correctness, 
semioitics, or whatever it's all been assimilated into "how Ven 
thinks" in the end.  

 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.

I rather like the word text myself,. probably because as an 
archaeologistI'd long been interested in the way in which artifacts of 
all kinds are a means of communication. 

> Backing up a little, I can say what *I* mean, for myself, when I talk about
> criticism. 
 Out of all this, I ended up with a
> mish-mash of ideas.  

"How Melissa thinks" <g> 
> 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.

Absolutely. It puzzles me that it's quite respectable now to study 
advertising or soap operas or even filmed genre fiction but not the 
actual books. I guess its because film and tv studies tend to take 
place in new departments whereas the ones that deal with books 
are very old....................
Rest of Melissa's post snipped because all i could havve replied 
was "How right you are Melissa" <g

Just a final point to make on my personal experience of school 
English lit: I don't suppose I studied more than thirty books at 
secondary school: outside of school I must have read hundreds. 
Lots of genre fiction but also all kinds of classics (mostly 
suggested by references in the SF I was reading, some 
recomended by friends). I read Thomas Mann, Ariosto and Homer, I 
failed to get through Spencer or Milton or Ulysses. I had phases of 
Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maughm, Virginia Woolf. My francophile 
friend, with the half French Mum, got me into Gide and Cocteau, I 
introduced her to Colette. I read things then I doubt I'd have the 
patience for now and things that weren highly unsuitable like Jean 
Genet and quite a lot of the avant garde science fiction that was 
around at the time. The trouble was I couldn't see the way to use 
the kind of analysis I was being taught on the things I actually liked 
to read and, of course, that a lot of the time I was way out of my 
depth, without any waterwings. I really enjoyed Candide, even 
though I knew I hadn't a clue what it was really about. I could really 
have done with the internet then ......... 


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