Literary Criticism: How It Works

So talking with some friends at work today, and the question came up as to what I actually do (or did, rather) in my English degree. It’s often something people ask as a quick and easy joke at someboy else’s expense – one of those low-hanging fruit reached for by those who don’t have the intelligence to get any higher. In this particular situation, however, the question was pleasantly genuine. It’s interesting, because beyond sort of high school, people might have very little experience with what we actually do. So I thought I might take a quick break from the usual stuff and talk about that for a minute. 

Whenever this question arises, it’s inevitably asked by someone from the sciences. Those in humanities already know what’s up, and I’m not convinced commerce students understand human speech. Perhaps more importantly, science students work in a different tradition of what counts as useful knowledge. As an English major, I’m not concerned with the objective laws of how the universe works – that much is obvious. What’s less obvious is that I subsequently don’t use the same criteria for judging what counts as ‘valid’ knowledge. The stuff we do isn’t objective knowledge that can be independently verified in a separate test – but that doesn’t make it invalid. Often when you’re talking about literature, especially aesthetics, you get criticisms like “Well, that’s not really an objective fact” – the implication seeming to be that because it’s not objective, it’s not worth treating as valid knowledge.

Alright, well, what do we consider to be valid knowledge then? What’s the difference between a good literary critic and a shit one? The really basic distinction that’s central to the discipline is between what you like and whether something’s good. Music is the easiest place to think about this distinction. If you think about a genre that you don’t like, there might be stuff that you’re willing to conceed is well constructed, and well performed, but you don’t like it personally and if you had to listen to it you’d go nuts. That’s basically how we roll. We’re less interested in the personal ‘this is what I like’ type stuff, and more interested in the things that are useful for everybody. So if I were to say that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness uses really stupidly obfusticated sentences in order to engage with the theme of darkness (it’s dark as in you can’t understand a damn thing), that’s on the useful half of the spectrum. Individuals might have personal reactions to that stylistic decision, but we’re still talking about a stylistic decision. That’s useful for everybody, because it tells you how this thing has been put together in a way that helps you understand what it is you’re actually looking at.

To me, some of the best criticism is stuff that gives you a framework to help you explain how you feel about the text. When a critic talks about something that you felt, and points at the things that contributed to that feeling, it’s some cool shit. Suddenly you begin to understand your own reaction to the text, and in that you learn something about yourself. You learn what you like, what you respond strongly to. So on the one hand, yes, there’s a very personal element to it, but it’s also heavily concerned with the structures and symbols that elicit responses in the first place. It’s not about describing the ‘proper’ or canonical response: it’s about pointing at all the different pieces and describing what they’re intended to do.

So we’re describing all these bits and pieces, and we can generally do that with some sort of broad consensus. It’s usually not too ambiguous. But that’s not actually going as far as to determine the exact quality of a piece. That bit’s actually quite hard – because something can be good for a bunch of different reasons. Some works are important because of the formal innovations they introduce. So we can describe something as ‘good’ if it has historical significance in the development of the medium. We also know that things can be good across several different technical areas: so films can have good editing, but bad acting. Our priorities as readers can therefore affect how ‘good’ we consider something to be. Further, our assessment of the quality of a piece can be affected by whether or not we understand what’s going on. I don’t know shit about film editing – so I can tell you whether a film is good or bad in terms of acting, and in terms of pacing, but I can’t judge the editing – and I know that. But if some fucker thinks they know everything, but they’re actually an idiot, their assessment of quality is going to be significantly skewed.

For these reasons, and a bunch of other social/political ones I’m not going into right now, we don’t tend to get too worked up about the strict order of goodness in literature. We spend our time asking other questions. This is one of the other really important things about literary criticism: we respect that the answers you get will be influenced by the questions you ask. For example, you might ask what the cultural significance of 50 Shades is. Suddenly questions about aesthetic value are basically irrelevant: you’re actually doing sociology, or cultural studies. Alternately, what does this novel have to say about how ethics works? Now we’re working in philosophy. We can move around history, psychology, linguistics, politics, religion – all of these different fields depending on the questions being asked.

So we work in different fields depending on the questions we ask, and English majors on the whole get used to jumping around basically everywhere as well as focusing on on literary technique and written expression. We’re not interested in imposing a ‘correct’ reading because we understand that different people have different priorities, and will have different reactions depending on their individual taste. However, at the same time, there’s rigour in the sense that we’ve read a whole bunch, and we generally have a pretty good idea of where things fit into the literary tradition. So when that one asshole says Fury Road is a bad movie – pfft. Motherfucker doesn’t know shit.

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