So last time we talked briefly about literary criticism, and to get the ball rolling I provided a link to what I think is a pretty good article on the subject.(If you haven't read it yet, give it a look.) I also suggested we all ask ourselves what we think literary criticism is and, more specifically, what it is exactly that we are analyzing when we criticize a work of art?
Both questions--What is literary criticism? What do we look at when we critcize?--are important ones. But I think from a practical standpoint, the former is going to be less useful than the latter.
The topic of literary criticism is one of those wells in which the water seems fairly clean and clear at the suface, but the deeper you dive, the murkier the water becomes. Delving into the history of the form and trying to nail down a comprehensive definition will bring you no clear answers because, as the linked article will show, there are many forms within the realm of literary criticism and even a warped parallel universe of Literary Theory, which I won't even try to tackle here. So even if you have actually practiced literary criticism for years, whether in the form of academic essays, published book reviews, or even just assignments for a high school English course, you are not likely to find a definitive answer on the subject because the jury of "authorities" is still very much out for deliberation. They always will be, in fact. And that is as it should be. For this is a field in which the deliberation, the debate, the conversation is not just a means to an end, it is the end itself.
That latter question, however, is one for which I think I have found an answer. And it's probably not what you think. In the Holcombe essay I linked to above, you'll find the following passage under the section "Is Criticism a Sham?"
But does criticism really work? Do we analyze carefully and consult our books on theory before responding to a work? Not usually. Impressions come first. But we then have to think why and how we are responding in a certain way. Is the poem strained, hackneyed, overworked, etc? And if so, by what criteria?
Holcombe is talking here about the academic value of criticism, but I think he has also hit on an important part of the process. We do, more often than not, have an initial impression from reading a work, even if it's just in the first few sentences, that comes before any attempt at evaluation or analysis. That impression inevitably colors and biases any subsequent criticism concerning style, imagery, sense of place, etc. In other words, we have an intellectual/emotional (hopefully more emotional) response to the work (or we don't), then we analyze why the work produced that effect on us. So a big part, if not the part, of what we are really analyzing when we criticize literature is actually our own positive, negative, or indifferent response to the work.
I suppose there are some critics who would balk at a statement like that. They are interested in the work itself and nothing so silly and unreliable as emotion. Frankly, I don't buy it. Even if one can achieve this kind of removal from literature, it is only through a very conscious effort. And really, where is the fun in that? One thing I do know is that I'll never hear a critic say: "I hated every word of this book. But it is still undoubtedly a visionary masterpiece!" And if I ever find one like that, I'll know at least one half of the claim is less than honest.
To put it bluntly, I do not believe there is such a thing as a purely objective criticism. Not if to be objective is, as one dictionary puts it, to be "not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice," and literary criticism is, as many sources claim, "the study, discussion, evaluation and interpretation of literature." This does not mean, however, that a critic cannot be fair. He can be, and he should, if nothing else than to show that he is intellectually capable of seeing a piece from more than his initial perspective. But if we remove gut emotion from art, we do a disservice to both ourselves and art.
All this begs the question: If criticism is subjective, nothing more than a personal--though informed--opinion, then why bother? One reason is in the final sentence of the paragraph I quoted above.
In setting ou[r] thoughts on paper, and then attempting to substantiate them, we are honing essential skills.
Quite simply, learning to judge a novel, story, or poem, and learning to defend those judgments, can contribute to making us better novelists, story tellers, or poets.* It is from this perspective that I evaluate fiction. I'm selfishly looking for things--good and bad--that can make me a better writer, that can make me more aware of my own process and the ways I can improve it. In the coming book reviews (whenever they do actually come), 90% of my comments will deal with something in the work that I either want to emulate or want to avoid. It's not about trying to make myself seem smarter (which no one would believe) or to make an author look stupid (which would bring no benefit to me or anyone else). It's just an on-paper discussion on how the work affected me and the possible reasons it produced that particular effect. (I don't guess that disclaimer will be enough to shield me from angry anti-critics, but hey, it was worth a try.)
As always, I'm interested in your opinions. Think I'm right? Wrong? Out of my drug-dulled mind? Let me know and let's have a discussion. The discussion is what it's all about.
*I know in our "judge not" culture, the word judge has attained a negative connotation, but it's time we got over this. Judging between right and wrong is good. Judging between art and pornography is good. And judging your neighbor is not the same thing as judging his taste in flamingo yard art. And if politely suggesting that 137 pink birds look a litte crowded on a mere quarter-acre can somehow make for a nicer looking neighborhood, you can know you've provided a valuable service to the community. Such is the difference between judging authors and judging their work, imho.
Christopher Fisher's fiction, essays, and satire have appeared in The Wittenburg Door, the Thou Shalt Not... horror anthology, The Longwood Guide to Writing, and Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression. He currently lives with his wife and four children in East Texas, but you can find him on alternating Wednesdays right here on The Master's Artist.