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

deborah deborah at
Fri May 25 12:41:46 EDT 2001

On Fri, 25 May 2001, Anna Skarzynska wrote:

|Am I the only person who dislikes lit crit and dissecting literature? I
|remember at school being told what the poet/author/whatever was thinking
|when s/he wrote the work several hundred years ago, and thinking: Yes? And
|how do YOU know that? And in what way is this relevant? And who, indeed,
|cares? Is this singularly pointless, or what?

ah, but it is a poor teacher who teaches you that literary
criticism is

 1) dissecting literature.  After you dissect something you have
 only component parts. *well* done literary criticism leaves you
 with a living frog once again

 2) figuring out "what the author meant".  This is only  one
 school of literary criticism -- 1 which I personally despise,
 for exactly the same reasons you state -- and one which is
 unfortunately often taught by poor teachers.

I suspect that those of us who like literary criticism were
taught by people who love literature themselves, and who don't
think there is only one way to read a book, and so don't destroy
students' potential liking for literary criticism by trying to
teach them the "right" way to read.

|If it's any good, it will stand up by itself. For example, I read Dylan
|Thomas in translation when I lived in Poland. I loved it. I then read it in
|English when I was living in London. Great. Another layer of enjoyment
|added, original always superior to translation etc. I then moved to Wales.
|It added yet another level to my understanding and enjoyment. But I liked it
|so much that I enjoyed it even in translation and no amount of dissection
|would have either added to it or detracted therefrom. My own experiences
|influenced how I related to it.

Of course a good work will stand up by itself.  But for me,
learning new ways of reading the book will only add to my
enjoyment, and will increase how awe-inspiring I find the
experience.  I found writing my thesis on Archer's Goon made me
like the book even more because I see so many more of the
subtle jokes and manipulations.  I didn't like Paradise Lost at
all until a professor helped me find new ways to read it.

Notice that this professor working with me, and writing my
thesis, became part of my own experiences.  In fact, there is an
entire school of literary criticism called Reader Response, which
has something called the Transactional Theory of reading.  In a
nutshell, that school says that a book can't be thought of as an
independent Platonic work outside of time, but instead is part
and parcel with the reading experiences which each reader
encounters with the book -- and each of those reading experiences
is influenced by each reader's personal experience and
environment.  So there is a school of literary criticism that
validates what you've just said about reading.  ;)

For a simple example of how seeing another layer can increase
enjoyment of a book, pick up a copy of Where the Wild Things are,
and look at the frames of each image, and how they change
depending on Max's location and state of mind.

But the big point for me is that people who talk about "author's
intent" are missing the point of literary criticism, and are
ruining its reputation.  ;)

deborah at
There were green alligators, and long necked geese
Humpty-backed camels and chimpanzees
Cats and rats and elephants, but Lord, I'm so forlorn
I just can't find no unicorn.		-- Shel Silverstein

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