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Does Literary Criticism Do Us Any Good? 

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How can we best reach the most precise and complete knowledge of a literary work? Ought we to take in to account the historical, political and social contexts surrounding the writing and reception of the work? Are we to trust the avowed intention of the author, or disregard it…or even contradict it? Which approach – feminist, Marxist, formalist, linguistic, psychoanalytic – is most effective in making sense of a text? Such questions are the cause of critics’ incessant pounding at typewriters, their scribbling and scrawling over the classic works of centuries past, in another attempt to more fully comprehend a text already appreciated.

While almost all criticism dates from the 20th Century, such a quest for deeper and more comprehensive meaning in literature can be traced back to Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics, which pose questions still of prime concern to critics today. From Plato’s distrust of the poet, whose literature, he believed, can only mislead the veritable seeker of truth, to Aristotle’s defence of literary art as useful: to have failed to reach a conclusion two thousand years later seems a frightening indictment of critics’ inherent inability to leave a legacy or make true headway, even after hours of research and pensiveness. Ought we thus simply to banish the parasitic critic, feeding on innocent creativity to fuel his own career, while polluting the minds of the reader and author, from our printing presses? Although such a solution may well be simplest, the world of literature would ultimately be impoverished.

French philosopher and author, Jean-Paul Sartre, recognized that “a work is never good unless it escapes the artist in some way.” (Sartre, 1965). If it escapes the critic too in some way, therefore, is it not truly magnificent? Although criticism, as of the 20th Century, has taken on a more significant role in academia, it ultimately remains a discipline devoid of concrete answers. Truth in literary criticism is an elusive quality since it instead must be viewed as a science of communication and discussion. Through such a discussion over the minutiae and larger themes of a text, comprehension of an otherwise complex and oblique work can be fostered. Literary critics, rather than murderers of flowing poetry and profound prose, in fact, are life-giving. As well as providing an explanation, critics allow for creative reinterpretations of age-old texts in light of changing social contexts and insightful new perspectives. By way of these in-depth discussions, critics elevate the status of a work, drawing to our attention weighty themes battled in the text. Although dissenters of literary criticism remain who condemn the discipline’s formulaic reduction of art to study, these people ought merely to disregard the critics, and leave the rest of us to enjoy their insight in peace.

In contrast to the elegiac stanzas of Keats’s Odes, or the melancholic, contemplative stream- of-consciousness inherent to Woolf’s Modernism, the formulaic discussions of literature produced by critics are often resented for reducing art to study. Enforcing hermeneutics – fallacious and overly convoluted readings that engulf an artwork and begin to destroy it – Sontag, in her famous essay, Against Interpretation, sees the modern style of interpretation as harmful, instead of wishing to return to a primitive and sensual appreciation of art. “In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art” (Sontag, 1994). By this, Sontag advocates that, rather than interpreting artwork, stripping it to its bare and unattractive bones, we make love to it. For Sontag, criticism never represented the life-force of literature, but rather a hostile purveyor of overly complex interpretations that poison our own sensibilities – “the intellect’s revenge upon art” (Sontag, 1994). While the formalist criticism of Shklovsky or the structuralist considerations of Levi-Strauss could be seen to undermine the ease of understanding and relatableness which authors may primarily have sought, criticism must not be seen as “revenge”, but rather a prop to our understanding which we are entitled either to respect or to disregard.

Though a copy of Wuthering Heights is sure to be found on a bookshelf in most households, rarer are those who would claim to have read Terry Eagleton’s enlightening study Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës. To say that the wealth of criticism surrounding Brontë’s classic novel, which “reads like the history of criticism itself” (Nestor, 2003), somehow prevents our ‘love-making’ with it seems naïve. Rather, as the reader’s liaison with the 350-page novel must inevitably end, the critic offers the lovelorn lector a further source of fulfillment. Sontag proposes a ‘one-night-stand’ relationship with literature, where one ought to enjoy the rush of emotions which comes from this ephemeral reading experience, then simply move on to the next novel to find another source of pleasure. Literary criticism, however, offers an alternative: it allows us to build on our knowledge and appreciation of the text, to foster a longer-term and more sustainable love affair with our favorite literature. Though Eagleton’s style may differ considerably from the flowering Gothicism of Brontë, rather than the prisoner of our sensibilities Sontag would vilify them as critics too must be respected as artists who do not hinder our enjoyment of the text in isolation. Instead, critics allow us to maturely maintain a deeper relationship with literature.

Literary critics do not dictate our relationship with literature, but rather allow us to more fully consider our connection through communication and discussion. The functions of literary criticism are diverse, stretching from the reviewing of books in biweeklies to systematic theoretical discussion that forms the lifework of scholars. Though reviewing does not enshrine a novel’s failure or success commercially – a prime example being Herman Melville’s Moby Dick which went on to sell widely despite critical hostility – it at least allows us to understand the cultural revelations and shifts which facilitate this change of mind-sets. In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling concludes that literature possesses an independent value and the deepest faithfulness to reality. It is when viewing criticism as the hallowed truth that critics become the “perennial target of resentment” (Crews, 2016), as their far-flung theories are perceived as overly complicated, thus undermining, or even disrespecting, the original intention of the author. Indeed, Crews perceives a period of literary criticism which was “not always…distinguishable from…censorship” (Crews, 2016). In an era of liberalism and free speech, however, criticism rather acts as a science of communication and discussion, where disagreement is welcomed and viewed constructively. Instead of acting as lawmakers, declaring which works deserve respect, critics recognize themselves as open to dispute and in this way facilitate progressive and beneficial discussion of literature.

Although literary criticism does not profess to offer concrete answers to the nebulous and philosophical concerns in literary works, it acts as a support to allow the reader to make sense of otherwise incoherent and overwhelming texts. Since the end of the 19th Century, particularly in Germany, England, and the United States, literary criticism has become an academic study even at the doctoral level; philology, linguistics, folklore study and myriad other disciplines have allowed modern criticism to achieve an unprecedented level of detail to foster our comprehension of the world of literature. Described by the Cambridge Online Dictionary as “explaining the importance and meaning” (Dictionary and Thesaurus, 2016) of works of literature, academic criticism at its most fundamental level acts as an explanation. New Criticism, for example, has proven instrumental as the methodological counterpart to the strand of Modernist literature which is characterized by its opacity – paradox, allusiveness, and disjointedness – thus allowing even the layman to profit from the profound yet otherwise unintelligible insights of authors such as T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Indeed, literary creators themselves have seen the importance of literary criticism, writing an illuminating commentary on their own principles and aims. Perhaps most famously, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is accompanied by several pages of the author’s own notes.

After receiving the manuscript in 1922, the poem was referred to to by lawyer, and patron of Modernism, John Quinn as a poem “for the elect or the remnant or the select few or the superior guys, or any word that you may choose, for the small number of readers that it is certain to have” (Eliot, Eliot and Haughton, 2011). Eliot’s notes, however, purport to explain the plethora of metaphors, references, and allusions vital to the comprehension of the work. Citing sources as diverse as Dante’s Inferno to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, without Eliot’s footnotes, such allusions would likely escape the common reader and leave the poem with an even smaller and more select body of readers than even Quinn anticipated. Added after his publisher requested some longer explanation to justify the publishing of The Waste Land in a separate book, these notes thus embody the value added by criticism to an otherwise complex and elitist poem. While poets such as Eliot, Pound, and Valery, playwrights as respected as Bernard Shaw, Artaud and Brecht, novelists as esteemed as Proust and Lawrence, have all offered the public enlightening insights into their own thought processes, most often, it remains the duty of the critic to allow the public to share in the revolutionary thoughtfulness of authors less adept at turning their own hands to the art of literary criticism. By delving into deeper layers of meaning and providing a fresh perspective, critics are able to immortalize literature via creative reinterpretations, as the literary criticism itself becomes a work of art. As historical and social contexts fluctuate, criticism of texts varies in accordance, allowing a fluid timelessness of works, and acting as a life-force. Rather, therefore, than serving solely as an explanation, literary criticism also functions as creation.

Even Shakespeare himself, an author never lacking in either creativity or innovation, has profited from diverse readings of his works, such as Northrop Frye’s construct of ‘the green world’. Following neglect by Victorian audiences which recognized it as ‘a mere romantic comedy’ to be enjoyed, Twelfth Night has since been the focus of much diverse and profound academic study. In the 1950s, literary critics, schooled in anthropological approaches, such as structuralist Northrop Frye and anthropologist C.L. Barber, began to examine Shakespeare’s romantic comedies in the context of social myths and rituals. Rather than mere punning and innuendo, devoid of deeper significance, Frye posits that comedy subconsciously embodies the “cyclical movement” of the seasons of the year, where “life and love [triumph] over the wasteland” (Frye, 1958). Frye’s views on this seasonal movement were picked up by Kenneth Branagh in his 1988 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, as the set moves progressively from the snowy stagnancy of Illyria populated by mournful characters, to the bright vibrancy of summer in the denouement. In this way, rather than merely parasitic and pedantic, critics creatively foster new interpretations of age-old classics which enhance them with greater significance and depth, thus allowing for their immortalization.

Through perceptive and creative criticism, which battles substantial and challenging themes, critics are able to elevate the status of a work beyond its supposed superficial frivolity. Traditionally denigrated in the academy, it is often posited that it is simply due to the absence of an important treatment of the genre in the Classic tradition that comedy, for example, occupies a lesser status than tragedy. Andrew Stott recalls that “in Hellenic philosophy, comedy was thought to belong to the lower human instincts, and, as such was to be avoided by reasoning people” (Stott, 2005). Critics such as Stott cite the loss of Aristotle’s sequel to Poetics, thought to explain comedy’s significance, as a major factor in comedy’s inferior position in the academy. In the 20th Century, Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose imagines the existence of this sequel, which lends comedy intellectual legitimacy. As the characters of the novel panic over the possibility of “the operation of the belly” becoming “an operation of the mind” (Eco, 1983) due to the existence of such a work, Eco depicts an almost dystopian world where comedy is viewed as equally significant to tragedy – a fate made possible only by literary criticism. Aristotle, as the author of Poetics, thus serves as an icon as to the power of criticism to elevate a whole genre’s status (either for the better or for the worse!) – a marker of the importance of literary criticism to affirm meaning and significance to justify what may otherwise be seen as low-minded or inconsequential art.

In conclusion, literary criticism, though bringing with it a plethora of seemingly unanswerable questions, ought not to be disregarded. While it may forever be faced by hostile opponents such as Sontag who call for a sensual appreciation of art itself, instead of the concoction of erroneous interpretations which pollute our sensibilities and intellect, literary criticism ought to be viewed as a companion to our favorite works of literature. Acting as an explanation, literary criticism allows the reader to build a firmer relationship with a loved work of literature. In Sontag’s hedonism, she seeks a ‘one-night-stand’ relationship with literature, whereas critics promote a stable and more appreciative relationship, blossoming further as time moves on and understanding deepens. Through in-depth study, academic criticism is able to elevate the status of literary work, attaching significance to themes which otherwise, as Sartre recognized, may have escaped the author. Critics, far from being pedantic parasites draining creativity and insight from authors and readers alike, themselves act as creator. Similarly to theatre directors, critics foster new and creative interpretations of age-old texts, breathing life back through otherwise dusty covers.

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