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Monday, October 19, 2015

A Criticism of Literary Criticism

A Criticism of Literary Criticism

While in college, I took an obligatory literature class. I’m sure the school believed that this would make me a better person. Well, actually, it probably did. I read some good stuff and then some other stuff and then I had to think about it. So far, so good.

However, you can’t escape a literature class without being exposed to the insanity of ‘literary criticism.’ At first, I tried to take it seriously. I tried to imitate my mentors and masters. But, the more I tried, the more I cried. No, no, no. This was not an occupation for reasonable people with something useful to occupy their time.

I threw a hissy-fit. I wrote and submitted the following:

While preparing for this class, I reviewed parts of the textbook Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, by Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer. It seemed intimidating – obtuse – maybe recursive. Take for instance, part of paragraph two from page eleven of “Introduction: a Study of Criticism at the Present Time,” which asserts: “The scandal presented by contemporary criticism, which goes to the heart of the ontological difficulty, can be described as a radical division, a split-the “devastating experience,” Miller describes, “of a transformation of the scene which leaves it nevertheless exactly the same.” The pervasive figure of the split indicates a sense in contemporary theory of a fundamental division within texts, specifically as regards their involvement in time (Davis and Schleifer 11).” Or, consider part of paragraph three on page nine: “it is a commonplace of contemporary thought that so much contemporary criticism and cultural critique – de Man’s literary studies, Kristeva’s semiotics, Derrida’s “deconstructive” philosophy, the psychoanalysis of Lacan, Jameson’s Marxist analysis, Cixous’s feminist discourse – should be difficult to follow. (Davis and Schleifer 9).”

Yeah, tell me about difficult to follow. Overcome with trepidation and defensive aggression, I jotted down the following observations:

  • ·         Literary criticism is as bereft of meaning and consequence as playing cards, and especially analyzing the sequence of hands following their play.
  • ·         The textbook specifically recommends focusing on some single quality or aspect of an artistic work. This reminds me strongly of blind men describing an elephant, each from the perspective of the body part with which they are in touch.
  • ·         The reader can never actually know the process the writer went through in producing the finished product. He can only guess or peer at it from a distance – through a jaundiced eye and a single, very personal, perspective.
  • ·         A literary critic can say anything that comes to mind or propose any connection that a clever fellow can invent. There is very little anyone else can do to contradict or disabuse him of his position.
  • ·         A literary critic is someone who takes an image of a work, reprints it, cuts it into 1,000 jigsaw puzzle pieces, throws out the greater part of them, and prides himself in explaining it, reproducing it, and making sense of the original work, with only a handful of the original pieces consciously at hand for reference.
  • ·         Literary criticism is worse than plagiarism. With plagiarism, one takes a work that they admire and allows it to be perceived as their own. A literary critic takes an admirable work and robs it of its coherence. Dissected, he displays its parts, presuming to be a self-appointed master – fit to interpret and judge the original writer, or worse, preempting another reader’s impression and interpretation.
  • ·         Literary criticism is like painting an old hand-hewn and craftsmen-worked furniture piece that has lost its luster. It’s no improvement to the original; it only defaces it and distracts from its original beauty.
  • ·         Literary criticism seems to be an artless and self-centered indulgence. Lacking creativity, it depends on someone else’s work. Lacking substance, it occurs solely in the critic’s mind. Lacking grace and charm it rarely consents to speak well of the object of its attention. Lacking enduring satisfaction, the critic moves on, looking for yet another victim for his callous dissection.

Having disgorged that bile, I reminded myself that I dislike people who, in hubris, are overly proud of their ignorance.

Every field has its practitioners – justly proud of their ability to make intricate distinctions within their field of expertise. This is commendable and not to be despised. If you cannot reduce and analyze a thing in some detail, how can you know when you have found a different (or better) one? You show me your list of archaic irregular verbs and I will show you my collection of pastel colored cat teapots (really).

Looking back to the Preface, I am comforted by paragraph two on page ix, “Students who do well with this material not only recognize criticism as an activity to be performed but also see it as important. Other students tend to regard criticism as simply a body of knowledge to be learned, in which failure is always lurking so that each new critical position for scholastic effort could be something to confuse and confound them (Roberts and Jacobs ix).” Damn straight.

I’m beginning to understand that criticism may properly be considered a kind of stylized conversation. My public speaking class teacher used to say that public speaking is like a conversation between a speaker and a listener. She talked a great deal about the types of feedback that the speaker receives. My literature teacher also maintained that literature was a conversation between the writer and the reader.

It occurs to me that the Japanese have a long tradition of using stylized conversations. What is said and how it is said can have a precise form. This is true for more than just the Japanese tea ceremony or certain social interactions. When I lived in South Texas, I noticed some stylized conversations and greetings. For instance, “How are you doing?” is always followed by, “Just fine. Thank you.” This is so rote that, from cynical experience, I can testify that one could say “Good morning.” and still get the response “Just fine. Thank you.”

A few years have passed and my attitude toward literary criticism has not much improved. For starters, my college textbook classified literature into four genres. (Roberts and Jacobs 2) At the same time, my wife’s third graders were being given a list of eight genres. Which, now, is a more finely-graduated curriculum? Why shouldn’t literary criticism be considered a genre in its own right? My god, I’ve invented number nine.

I’m tempted to stick to my Agatha Christie mysteries, Batman comics and George R. R. Martin romps. George is the guy who wrote, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.” Yeah. Now that’s the thing. You shouldn’t read for the perverse intent of desecrating some story with a dental pick. You should read for the vicarious voyeuristic gestalt of losing yourself in another’s skin. Somebody should make a note of that. Someday, it will be in books of quotations.

And, a “conversation between the writer and the reader?” Posh. If I am to be obliged to have a conversation with Falkner, Kerouac or Giesel, they are welcome to rise up and meet me half way. Otherwise, I’ll read them or I won’t. (Well, okay, maybe an exception for Giesel for he must surely abide among the gods.)


Oh, by the way. I’m a living author. You can find me. You can hire me to come give talks. You can write to me. I’ll think about what you say and you’ll inspire me to write some more. Now that’s having a conversation!

David Satterlee