A Day Late and a Dollar Short: Literary Criticism

Part of the purpose of this blog is to make me write, instead of spending all my time simply reading and scrolling through endless newsfeeds, but yesterday instead of squeezing in a post at the last minute I ended up reading through a Battle of the Books hosted by a friend of mine back in March.  I won’t link you to the whole thing, because if you haven’t read any of Megan Whalen Turner’s books I have to command you to go pick up The Thief and come back once you’ve finished A Conspiracy of Kings, but I will happily spoil you for the results of the battle.  Or at least, the comment section for the results, mostly because there’s a conversation about literary criticism, a subject near and dear to my heart.

What follows is basically an edited version of the late-night ramblings I sent Beth (organizer of the battle) last night.  At some point I will make a more coherent, foundational post regarding my feelings about academic criticism and its currentish state, but today is not that day.  So, in response to this thread:

I will say you COULD do a Marxist reading of Hans Christian Andersen!  It’s all about understanding how the theoretical critical lens works, though–it’s not a magnifying glass to bring out what Andersen put in there–it’s an angle that sheds light on the text’s underpinnings/cultural beliefs/etc., and some lenses are more illuminating than others, and maybe Marx wouldn’t be the MOST illuminating way to read Andersen…but you could try.  Or you could try Foucault.  But basically, you can analyze a text in and of itself (taking into account context and the author–I’m certainly not going to promote the text in isolation), but you can also turn to theory in order to give yourself a groundwork and a language/structure with which to approach the text, especially if you want to compare it to other texts.  (Rather like your thoughts on the necessity of criteria.)

On the other hand, I don’t really know why I am defending it–that sort of literary analysis generally drives me crazy (AUGH FOUCAULT)–and I have no doubt that Jess felt like she was supposed to find Marxism in Andersen’s fairy tales because I’m sure that’s how some people teach it, but–that’s not how it’s meant to be used.  I will say that I try to avoid the “critical apparatus” whenever I can (and when you’re not in academia, it gets a lot easier).

On this subject, my intro to lit theory/criticism class decided to try to teach me about different theories by giving me several essays from various theoretical viewpoints, all on the same work of literature, which happened to be “The Secret Sharer,” which is a terrible horrible awful boring novella by Joseph Conrad.  It probably has analytic value, but as a story I found it completely unengaging, and thus it was the absolute worst possible example to give me to try to make me understand lit crit, because if I didn’t care about the story I certainly wasn’t going to care about the five essays I had to read.  It was a waste of a semester, and I ended up learning what it was trying to teach me by doing critical history papers myself the next semester in 19th-Century Novel, where I was reading things I actually cared about.  And in that class we also talked about the things we cared about, and not just analysis. 

And some of this was probably due to the professors and certainly due to the reading list (I liked my Intro to Lit Crit professor, but I never quite forgave him for substituting Rock’n’Roll for Arcadia and I’ve never quite forgiven myself for failing to go see Rock’n’Roll when it was RIGHT THERE ORIGINAL LONDON CAST CURSE YOU FELLOW TRAVELERS WHO WERE UNINTERESTED IN IT).  And my Intro to Lit Crit professor was probably in his sixties, while my 19th-Century Novel professor was a first-year post-doc with a self-professed crush on George Eliot who started off one discussion with the question “Why do women find Mr. Darcy so attractive?”  So I’ve had both great and terrible lit crit/English class experiences and learned enough to learn to choose to write papers that just examine books as literature (a la criticism from before the 1970s, without all the sexism), taking apart their workings to figure out how they fit together and what makes them great. 

And there’s not as much room for that in academic criticism these days–today I read this somewhat incoherent ramble about how college students don’t know how to do anything but deconstruct, a valid point, but the author completely whiffed on its source, choosing to focus on people’s inability fo allow themselves to be absorbed in a work (a different problem, related certainly, but not quite so fundamental–a symptom of this other point) rather than what he himself pointed out:  “Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief.”

It was critical inquiry in pursuit OF TRUTH, but since we destroyed truth somewhere between 1888 and 1946 (and discovered its death in the 1960s), the inquiry has nothing to direct it, and THAT’S why it’s been reduced as he describes it.  (Contemporary philosophy has a similar problem: a discussion for another day.)  People have trouble becoming absorbed in works or allowing themselves to consider alternate viewpoints because ultimately their own views or convictions are so vague that nothing need deep consideration because someone thinks it so it’s probably at least somewhat valid.  The greater problem is that without Truth there’s no Beauty, and being unable to identify either, criticism can’t make judgments on Goodness or Meaning, and so it’s reduced to little, petty things instead.

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