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Advice to Literary Critics

Don’t read other critics before you write your review or criticism.


First, the essay becomes more  a reaction if not an embellishment upon what the other critics have said. In college I wrote a great essay about Allen Bloom’s polemic about academia, Closing of the American Mind. While preparing my  review, I read longer reviews in various publications, including a long great one by Martha Nussbaum in New York Review of Books. My final review was impressive and had interesting opinions and insights, but I’ll admit that the ideas weren’t entirely my own.  Guess what —  I can sound really smart paraphrasing and expanding upon the great things Martha Nussbaum said.

Second, when you write reviews, you have to invent ideas and opinions out of thin air. Sure, you will miss a lot, but you will also perceive things  other critics have missed. It is a myth to think that a critic has to notice and analyze everything. Far from it. Sometimes when you wing it, you only notice one or two things. But often that’s  good enough. Any piece of literary criticism is lucky to contain one original thought, so it’s important to stress originality.

Third, it’s remarkable how much your own thoughts are influenced by  another critic’s  judgment. Even if your  conclusions  can be differentiated from that of the earlier critic, you are still following the same wheel-paths of interpretation.  Often you end up swallowing  the implicit assumptions of literature that the first critic has made. Must a work reflect post-consumerist ambivalence? Embrace the new American Frontier or repudiate the Old World? Must a work hint at linguistic uncertainties? Change blindness and confirmation bias  affect not only  the social sciences but also the humanities. It is easy  to miss what is right in front of you because are implicitly following what other critics  have focused upon.   Reading other critics can help you advance more quickly in understanding. But that may not always be a good thing. My day job is technical writing, a field where I essentially play the village idiot and have to ask the dumb questions. Being stupid helps you to notice things which might be ignored by someone possessing advanced knowledge.

There is a down side to winging it; you are  wrong a lot more often. You can misunderstand things or fail to recognize references or parallels or even miss plot points. To be taken seriously as a critic, you have to recognize these things.  Or do you? When you miss references (in a work like Wasteland for example), you are forced to listen to the phrases and admire small portions without grasping the overall unity. Poetry is a different case; you can totally miss things.  No denying it:  understanding the message or meaning can definitely improve enjoyment.  But if you go into a literary work with no previous knowledge of secondary sources, you approach the literary work more blindly, but with more perceptiveness.

Modernism set expectations that great literary works have to be  unfathomable or esoteric.  We are taught that great literature requires patience and perseverance.  Sometimes this  is  true (especially in puzzle genres like poetry). But  the biggest challenge of literature is relevance and accessibility – especially with the great numbers of works coming out every day. To put it another way: a great work can have appeal both as high culture and low culture; the main complicating factor is that commercial interests magnify the visibility of anything with universal appeal  by dumbing it down even more. That is the nature of the beast, I guess.  Merely being accessible doesn’t make something great  (or else Gilligan’s Island would count as something more than it is).

The primary role of critics is not decoding but explaining technique and identifying significance and placing things in cultural context.  I recently reviewed a story collection by Augusto Monterroso. After reviewing it, I read the  terrific introductory essay about Monterroso  by Will H. Corral.  While I don’t think my review was off by much, Corral’s essay  explored lots of themes and literary ideas which my review only alluded to.  Reading it, I realize how much  I could have discussed in my review but did not.  At the same time, I am an American writer reading the book in 2012. Each essay has different aims. My review tries to judge the success of literary technique and  story structure; but then again, I am  a writer, and these formal questions interest me more.  By any standard, Corral’s  essay is better than my review. But the things I notice are still worth thinking about.

For almost  every major artist or work of art,  there are usually  two or three critical responses which tower over the rest; among academics these responses are referenced and rebutted or embraced regardless of what your opinion. These two or three responses become a frame of reference for everybody – but they also become a kind of intellectual sand trap.

To take an author I know well: Franz Kafka. Early criticism related his fiction to Jewish mysticism (Talmud, Martin Buber, Yiddish theatre, etc). Then came the anti-authoritarian existentialists a la Camus. Obviously, these are valid and relevant interpretations, but they are also conventional; compare to my favorite analysis by Elias Canetti in Kafka’s Other Trial who notes the parallels between The Trial and his on again/off again engagement with Felice Bauer. It’s an altogether idiosyncratic reading, but one I think which holds up well. Just yesterday I watched David Lean’s filmed version of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter.  In  the wiki article for the film, I learned about a reading of the film by critic  Francis Gray who  argues that the reason the main primary didn’t consummate their relationship was class consciousness – that lower class and upper class could dally in extramarital romance, but middle class adults could not.  That strikes me as a ludicrous way to view the film  and precisely the sort of claptrap to emerge from British critics in the 1940s and 1950s.  Gray wrote his analysis in the 1980s, but it seems  forced and derivative; I just don’t see class consciousness in the film (as  I might see it in Scorcese’s Age of Innocence or James Cameron’s Titanic).

The problem comes when one kind of analysis becomes popular, and suddenly every critic is doing it or at least acknowledging it in their own analysis.  In the middle of the 20th century, psychoanalytic criticism was popular, and suddenly Kafka criticism was littered with analysis of the sexual imagery. Interesting and occasionally insightful, but the analysis seems more imposed upon the work than complementary to it.  In the academy  scholars advance only if they have mastered and internalized paradigms prevalent at the time.  Unfortunately this makes criticism seem dated decades later.  I often read scholarly essays from past  decades and  am horrified at how offtrack  critic go.  Sometimes a school of analysis reveals a lot – and scholars feel that they need to align themselves with a certain analytic method to succeed. But these kinds of analysis often say more about the theory than the work itself.

Perceptive readers may note I am in fact criticizing two things:   first, people who read other criticism before writing their own analysis and second, people who use a literary theory or framework to analyze a work. Are these two criticisms  the same? I don’t think so, but the effect of both is that the aspiring critic changes the focus from the literary work to the tradition of literary criticism itself. When this happens, the critic loses the ability to respond authentically to the text and can only express appreciation in one way — while missing  things not relevant to a particular form of analysis. Criticism by definition is incomplete and peculiar to the individual. Those are good things;  I don’t want criticism to be comprehensive. Ultimately the bad thing about taking secondary sources too much into account when writing your essay/review  is that criticism becomes less personal and more objective and abstract. Criticism ought to be bold and biased and egotistical; it should not read like an encyclopedia.

Finally,  a personal detail. Over the last years I have gathered notes in preparation for a collection of essays about the fiction of  Jack Matthews. It is a great burden. As enthusiastic as I am about his works, I also lack the necessary detachment to write a fair book. What I see in a work may not be the same as what most people see.  My opinions may seem to these future hypothetical readers to be  poppycock. For future readers and scholars, my critical book may be an obstacle to understanding the fiction of Jack Matthews.  Paradoxically, the logical result of my exhortation  to avoid secondary criticism is that nobody should buy or  read my book of criticism.

Yet another way I  write myself out of existence.



Eventually I’ll get around to digitalizing this great essay about Allen Bloom I wrote. You’ll admire it (and I still have good feelings about it), but keep in mind that better minds than myself shaped its thoughts and organization. I just went along for the ride.

By the way, I don’t consider myself a critic, but just a person who sometimes dabbles in it.  I write essays when I feel that the subject needs to be addressed and a critical void needs to be filled.  (That’s partly why I plan to write a book about Jack Matthews – not because I consider myself a bona fide critic, but simply because I know that if I don’t do it, no one will do it for a very long time).

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