When I talk to students about critical essays on literature, I try first to adjust their audience and purpose. You are writing, I say, to another reader. You are hoping, I say, to illuminate something specific the reader has not seen before. Being a literary guide seems to make writing more manageable for them—it gives them direction beyond being commanded to write—but my motive is selfish. Guides are more interesting than formalist drones. I want their criticism to be purposeful.
In the January 2nd edition of The New York Times Book Review a number of smart people give quite different reasons for literary criticism. The feature “Words About Words: Why Criticism Matters,” offers the views of six critics. I don’t claim to understand everything they say—some pieces seem more lament or rationalization than justification—but they do make me wonder if teaching students how to write about literature could have a more profound function.
In arguing the importance of criticism, the Times authors seem divided over whom it might matter to. If criticism matters, then who benefits and how? Stephen Burn seems to see the critic as a valuable counterbalance to the proliferation of opinion on the web and elsewhere. Katie Roiphe highlights the critic’s challenge to write, “Gracefully” and “protect beautiful writing” and “carry the mundane everyday business of literary criticism to the level of art.” To Pankaj Mishra, “Literary criticism was always destined to turn into a kind of competitive connoisseurship—a parlor game,” but will be relevant only as long as it anchors authors’ works in cultural and historical contexts. We need a critic, he says, to identify a writer’s “Particular quarrel with the world, the rage or discontent that took her to writing in the first place.” In each of these cases, the critic serves society. Criticism, all of them suggest, is good for us.
I would have a hard time selling these goals. Many of my students are so immersed in popular culture that they do not know they are there. Some do argue with the modern world, some seek beauty, some hope to spread understanding about peoples and times, but those students are uncommon. And those uncommon students don’t always write reliably compelling criticism. Extrinsic motives often contribute to stilted and reaching work. Instead of engaging a text, they use literature for a higher purpose, taking a reader away from instead of into the authors’ words.
And I’m afraid to give students such exalted aims. They most need to string together a few sensible and effective sentences, make discerning observations, and be themselves.
The more convincing portions of the Times article suggest organic, implicit compulsions. I have many students who resemble the former self described by one of the authors, Elif Bautman. She tells of time when she felt criticism superfluous, citing her understanding of Tolstoy’s rebuff of a critic: “The only accurate interpretation of Anna Karenina was a word-for-word retelling.” I have students similarly reluctant to interpret. They think we read too much into Shakespeare and Golding, Dickinson and Salinger and, in some sense, we violate authors’ intentions by breaking up the whole, proverbially murdering to proverbially dissect.
Bautman says her salvation was recognizing literature as a sort of dream where the author acts at least somewhat unconsciously, in ways he or she doesn’t entirely recognize. If our own minds baffle us, authors might create literature beyond their own understanding… but not beyond careful guides.
Seen in this light, a dream interpreting critic enters into conversation with texts, contributing thoughts about meaning that enlarge rather than reduce the work. Sam Anderson, another of the authors in the Times feature, puts it this way:
Our work is a kind of ground zero of intertextuality, in which one text converges on another to create a third, hybrid, ultratext. This self-reflexiveness doesn’t make critical writing secondary or parasitic, as critics of the critics have said for centuries; it makes it complex and fascinating and exponentially exciting.
For every student reluctant to analyze literature, I have another who buys into criticism too ardently and writes papers arguing for seeing a literary work in a correct light. They attempt tight legal cases aimed to establish, beyond doubt’s shadows, that THIS is what the author intended, that THIS is the true meaning or implication of this work. Anderson’s perspective offers a valuable anodyne for both the skeptic and the zealot—the critic’s job isn’t to redefine literature. Quite the contrary, the critic adds to the original, makes more of the work visible and significant. Critical essays supply exponents.
Perhaps the most relevant part of the Times article was the statement of poet and critic Adam Kirsch, entitled “The Will Not to Power, But to Understanding.” Kirsch goes beyond criticism’s effect on the work or even the reader. Some critics, he points out, persist long after the literature they analyze, because, “They each show a mind working out its own questions—about psychology, society, politics, morals—through reading.” For Kirsch, thoughts about literature are thoughts first, and truth, not interpretation, lies at the center of criticism. When your purpose is broader, “You write for an ideal reader, for yourself, for God, or for a combination of the three.”
Call me crazy, but I enjoy papers written from that stance. If I could get my students to see their interaction with stories, poems, plays, and novels with that sort of vitality—as a way to discover themselves and something bigger than themselves—their criticism might mean much more to both of us. They would no longer be writing five paragraphs but true essays that, however flawed, seek revelation.