Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why Criticism Matters

It happens every so often that a student will, in the midst of a particularly detailed discussion of some poem or story, make something like the following objection: “It just doesn’t seem likely that the author was thinking about all of these things when they wrote this.”

Something about reading deeply into a text, pulling and prodding and exploring, bothers this kind of student, and they think that by appealing to the improbability that the author was thinking about diction or metaphor so minutely, they can short-circuit the analysis and guard against “over-analysis.” I’ve never quite been able to peg this student’s concern, why it is they are worried about seeing something that the author didn’t mean. Part of it might be that close-reading, if they allow it in, means they can’t read unthinkingly anymore. Part of it might be that they are afraid they can’t do this kind of work. Part of it might be that they see literary analysis as taking away some of the magic of literature. Whatever it is, they just want it to end.

This passively reading student, however, is asking a better question than they know. The interesting part of the question isn’t the “likelihood” but the “not thinking this” part. This student assumes that a writer knows exactly what it is that they are doing (they don’t) and that any readerly deviation from that intent is somehow contaminated and contaminating (it isn’t).

 What they don’t realize is that for the truly gifted, ability exceeds understanding. Whether some innate sense or learned sensibility or acquired skill, great writers can do things with language that escapes their own comprehension. Language itself is so rich that no one can claim to be the absolute master of the words they use and sentences they assemble. The task of criticism then is to re-attach the effect with the art, to fill the gap between what is written and what is conveyed.

The question the student should be asking is not “can we do this?” but “why should we do this?” The answer, which is rather unsatisfactory to an earnest 18-year old, is understanding and the mastery that understanding brings. To understand something is to no longer be subject to it, it is to intervene on your own behalf. In short, criticism allows us to be in conversation with art rather than subject to it and to our own unthinking reaction.

So to the student who protests that an author wasn’t thinking all of this stuff when they wrote it, I always respond: “You’re probably right. That’s why we need to.”


  1. Aha! This absolutely answers the question I asked on your Atwood-First-Line post (whether you intended that or not [which somehow seems relevanyt to the topic at hand]).

    I definitely agree that 'ability exceeds understanding' in great writers, but I hadn't made the connection between that and criticism -- and the passive turnaround, the conversation.

  2. Amen. I took a class last semester where we looked at the history, development, and structure of the English language, and it was very difficult for the class, which was mostly composed of English majors—we'd been getting by on an innate understanding of English instead of an explicit understand of it. The idea that ability exceeds understanding is this same phenomenon on a grander and more talented scale.

    On top of that, nothing is created in a vacuum.

  3. As someone who frequently was that student...and sometimes still is that reader, I can tell you where I was coming from. I always assumed (don't know where I got this) that an author's work was intentional- that the author was trying to TELL us something. On PURPOSE. Coming from that place, I didn't have a problem with criticism until it felt like we were putting words in someone's mouth who may not have wanted them. Also, part of reading for me was and sometimes still is "do I care what this person is saying enough to keep reading?" And if I think the person doesn't even know what s/he is trying to say, I felt like there was no point. And if s/he isn't trying to say anything at all, there definitely was no point...which is one of the reasons why I love the classics, I guess. They always had a Point.

    I distinctly remember a day in high school when we were reading BELOVED and we read an interview with Toni M where she said that she didn't even know who Beloved was. I stopped paying attention after that. As a 16 year old, it was about trust. I trusted this author- who many told me was a genius- to take me somewhere, to know what she was doing, and I felt like I had lost that when she made that statement. For a lot of young readers, I think the dislike of over-analyzation is a trust thing. If this super-smart adult doesn't have a grasp of what he's doing, who does?

    (sorry for the novel)

  4. Twenty-five years ago I was also that "kind of student." I remember saying something snarky to my Russian lit professor to the effect that I preferred Chernyshevsky to Pushkin, because at least Chernyshevsky got to the point and said what he meant - it's a wonder the poor man ever forgave me.

    My issue wasn't trust in the writer or instructor (though the last comment seemed quite valid to me). I simply couldn't see the point of reading for anything other than pleasure at that time in my life. You read Eugene Onegin five stanzas a night, 3 nights a week, for 6 weeks, and I promise you won't tell me that it's reading for pleasure!

    What my Russian professor perhaps should have told me was this: when you become an independent adult, no one else is going to be responsible for examining the world and determining its meaning on your behalf. Not Mommy or Daddy. Not Professor X. Maybe a boss or a lover will try it - but that's a relationship you shouldn't trust, and should leave. Mastering the art of critical reading of a text changes one's outlook on the world. It's applicable to many things beyond the pages of a novel: reviewing a mortgage or car loan document, deciding for whom to cast a vote, even reading and analyzing reports that help to locate enemy submarines in wartime.

    Being a critical thinker is a way of being in conversation not just with art but with LIFE. If one isn't in conversation with Life, one risks being subject to it, reactive rather than proactive, unable to intervene in Life on one's own behalf. Isn't at least part of the conversation with Art a discussion of its relationship to Life?

    There will be a few students who go on to pursue advanced degrees in literature and a career in some kind of literary criticism. More will leave the university and go on to do other things. All of them need critical reading and thinking skills. None of them should be excused from developing those skills to the greatest extent possible.

  5. Beautifully expressed and very thought provoking - thank you for the new perspectives to consider.

  6. Fantastic post here. I was always one of those students and disliked English classes through high school because I hated pulling books apart. I felt it took away some of the magic, and also it was reading things into books that weren't there. As I've started doing it more and more on my own (at least a little bit, I don't do super well at it!) I've realized how important it is.

    One of the things I've talked about and gotten in trouble for is talking about things like how a lot of the young adult books coming out lately have these crazy, scary relationships in them where violence and stalking and sexual harassment is normalized and romanticized - and I've realized that it's not necessarily something the author is purposely doing, it is just our larger culture influencing the writing.

    This experience has made me realize that just because an author didn't mean to say something doesn't mean that it isn't there, and that it shouldn't be discussed. In fact, I think it means that we should discuss it even more, pull it apart, examine why it is there and how it got there and what that means. And this goes for any type of book and any themes or meanings.

  7. I am concerned that you don't read deeply enough into what the student is saying. Yet you claim to be able to read deeply into any other text.

    We shouldn't do interpretation lightly because we may come away with something solely of our own creation, which negates the intent of literature to communicate. The problem with close reading is that the result, the meaning recovered, may be entirely coincidental or a manufactured artifact of the analytical frameworks that you use.

    The student worries rightly--if interpretation is not concerned with what the author intended to convey, then it has no purpose or meaning as it assigns to the writer ideas and meaning of its own making, rather than what the writer intended.

    Understanding can begin only when we're sure that our analytical tools are being used in a way that allows us to discover truth. How is that possible in literary criticism if you don't have the background to understand Marxism or Freudian analysis or any other theory that literary critics so blithely use, theory that they've appropriated from disciplines they do not comprehend or have training in?

  8. Ben-
    Your comment got me thinking about this again, but the spirit of your comment was quite a bit different. I'm glad you found this interesting.

    Literary Omnivore-
    Language use is a good metaphor. I may not understand syntax exactly, but I know how to use it. Comedy is also similar: many funny people don't really understand the structure of comedy, but can wield it anyway.

    I think I understand your frustration, though it is considerably more sophisticated than my generalized student's concern. I guess what I would say is that what good close-reading does is deal with complexity and ambiguity; works that don't deal in such things aren't particularly good candidates for close-reading. Still, I think even the most accomplished writers do things they don't fully grasp, that they create better perhaps than they understand.

    Your Morrison example is illuminative; my sense is that Morrison knows her writing to be interesting and beautiful and doesn't need to be the final authority on its meaning. The great classics pose questions as much as they answer questions, even if that means we don't always get an answer.

    Yes. Yes. Yes. This is a longer post, but the extension of the ability to think about art critically is the ability to think about life critically. And that way lies freedom.

    The post is blushing.

    Analysis sometimes turns up unsavory realizations. If we've learned anything about art in the last century, it's that representation matters. The way we represent and discuss things influences how we think and feel. With effort, we can identify things that we don't wan to let into our consciousness that might otherwise come in through the side door of cultural consumption.

    I don't claim to be able to read deeply into any text, but I am trying to understand this student's objection. You articulate his point better than he does and I understand that the concern is about a decoupling of intent from interpretation.

    For my part, intent is only one element of analysis, and not even the most interesting part. To be clear, I don't think any work of art has a stable meaning to be discovered, even if the creator says it does.

    That's not to say that all interpretations are valid: a case still has to be made for a close-reading with evidence, logic, and claims. This prevents the "entirely coincidental" or "manufactured" reading.

    "A meaning of its own making" suggests an autonomy to the interpretation that I think is impossible in a fully formed textually-based analysis.

    Lastly, I don't think that a work of art has a single "truth" that is the only key to encountering it. The meaning is what we can understand of a work of art, regardless of what the author was trying to do.

  9. Anon's "if interpretation is not concerned with what the author intended to convey, then it has no purpose or meaning as it assigns to the writer ideas and meaning of its own making, rather than what the writer intended" is a misinterpretation of interpretation, if I may be allowed that construction. We are assigning meanings to the writing, not to the writer, which I think is a valid and possible act.

    I also like your final "meaning is what we can understand of a work of art, regardless of what the author was trying to do." The author is out of the picture when it's us finding our way with a text. All we have is the text and ourselves and our tools for understanding that text. The author isn't in the room, nor (and this is more important) is the author contained in the text.

    I don't claim to be a great writer but I am a novelist and I think it's true enough that a lot of the novelist's work is done unconsciously, the way any artist's work is mostly unconscious once technical proficiency is acquired. I don't have to be thinking about the use of metaphor at an abstract level to create a metaphor. Hell, I don't even have to know what metaphor is on any conscious level. After a while it's all just "writing" and not the components of writing; after a while it's all just a unified narrative, not a collective of plot, voice, character and themes. An object is created that mystifies even its creator in many ways. That mystification is one good reason to ignore ideas of "artistic intent," which is a slippery enough slope as it is.

    (Blogger has decided this month that it won't let me log in. Damn you, blogger!)

    -Scott G Bailey

  10. There are some things a writer, and indeed anyone, does without thinking too hard about it. It has become an innate skill. What many recreational readers don't understand, and probably don't care about, is that every aspect of a writer's life, experience, background and education (formal or informal) goes into each story and book they write. It is through examination that students come close to understanding the writer and thus how s/he creates. What a writer chooses certain names or characters, why this goes before that and how the subtext adds texture are all important, and they do indeed enrich and untangle the Gordian knot of many aspects of living and life.

  11. High school students often ask variations on this question (did Shakespeare really mean all this? aren't we just makng all this stuff up?). Sometimes I think there is a readerly resistance made up of many ingedients; when urged to push past that resistence, students often come to find delight in the thinking and the discovery that make up engaged, analytical, critical reading.

  12. Also for consideration, Ape: a metaphor coined by poet Donald Hall and used by children's author Avi in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech. I don't have the text in front of me, but the gist is that a writer creates with his words the letter "C". If he writes well, the reader fills the gap in the letter "C" with his self - with his own experience - making the "C" into an "O".

    By publishing and putting his or her work out in public, the writer is offering the reader the opportunity to engage with and to make new, personal meaning from the text. It is a gift to your students (and to all other readers), if they will only reach out to take it.

  13. A Memory TheaterJune 8, 2011 at 11:25 AM


    Think about what you're saying. If someone assigns a bad interpretation, based on his fears and agenda, to your story, what does that make you? This indeed happens quite often in totalitarian regimes.

    In a "democracy" books may be dismissed by regimes of theories and intellectual fashions dejure as will the writers who originate them, for they will be seen as having "nothing to say."

    Criticism gives card blanche to wild interpretations because there is no intellectual burden associated with doing the work of interpreting.

    The bottom line is that often interpretation relies on power--it is power that interprets and anoints or condemns.

  14. @A Memory Theater,

    Huh. If someone assigns a "bad" interpretation to something I've written, that doesn't have anything to do with me. A totalitarian regime banning an author's works--if that's what you're getting at--has little to do with the practice of classroom analysis of books. There are much bigger fish to fry in that scenario.

    "No intellectual burden associated with the work of interpreting" is a curious statement, since I'm awfully sure that most teachers in free societies, at least, try to think about what they are teaching and try to get their pupils to think about what they're being taught.

    -Scott G Bailey

  15. I think the real problem is that "ability exceeds understanding" is the key and it is a tough and unintuitive concept for non-artists to understand. At least this is my experience. The process of artistic creation and the idea that artists don't fully understand their own creation, inside and out...when they created it! In a way, this is exactly what makes art different from many other pursuits.

  16. Here's one more for you, Ape - from Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Jacobs is discussing some ideas of philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin:

    "...this situation means that listeners and readers owe a response to speakers and writers. Passivity is not enough, even if it's very attractive. Reading is more challenging and more enjoyable - more worth the candle - if we are willing to answer the questions a text puts to us, even (or especially) if the those questions are implicit. So Alberto Manguel: 'The existence of the text is a silent existence, silent until the moment in which a reader reads it. Only when the able eye makes contact with the markings on the tablet does the text come to active life. All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.'"

    I am LOVING the Jacobs book - not least because he spends plenty of time in the first chapter poking at Harold Bloom.

    You will be kind enough to forgive my frequent comments on this post - it's sticking with me, probably because I was once that difficult student - and I continue to find myself thinking about what you've said here.