Literary analysis: is it a Rorschach Test?

Here is a somewhat edited version of a conversation on twitter between me, AmaliaTD and AvenSarah, both of whom grace these pages from time to time. It began with me retweeting something that might be an urban myth:

Gary: Alfred Hitchcock once helped his granddaughter write a college paper on his film SHADOW OF A DOUBT. His analysis earned her a C.

AmaliaTD: That really doesn't surprise me at all, but it's still hilarious.

Gary: It shows how totally overdone is critical analysis. Somewhere in the afterlife, Shakespeare is laughing his head off.

AvenSarah: Or that authors are not experts in their own work. ;)

Gary: That's the English Department rationale for why literary criticism should be taken seriously! I confess I'm not convinced. There's the Rorschach Test Effect of people seeing things in a story that the author certainly didn't anticipate, but that's identical to seeing interesting shapes in clouds. The clouds didn't intend to look like a bunny rabbit.

Your turn! How do you feel about all those meaningful essays you wrote at school? Feel free to tell me how totally wrong I am.


Amalia T said...

True Story:

Literary Analysis 101, right? Death of the Author in full effect. We're given a story to read, I think it was a Hemingway. My English teacher asks us, What do you think this is about? What does this story mean?

I raise my hand and answer. I don't remember what I thought it was actually about or what I thought it meant, but I remember my teacher saying to me forcefully, "No. That's Wrong. It's about Abortion."

Well, okay. I remember sitting there, thinking to myself (and totally embarrassed to have gotten the question "wrong"), I didn't realize there was only one right answer.

Julie said...

Amalia, I'm with you. Death of the Author and New Criticism-style exploits make me want to throw things.

I do think literary criticism has value, but I don't buy the idea that authors are not experts in their own work. I definitely believe in the intention of the author, and what I enjoyed so much about writing all those meaningful-ish essays was the discovery of that intention; I liked the feeling of fragments of the text coming together like a puzzle.

I think the Rorschach Test Effect you describe is valid less as a way of finding an unintended critical meaning in a text, and more as a happy accident of personal meaning. Maybe it doesn't fall under the umbrella of formal analysis. People will grab the last few lines of "Ulysses," for example, and apply them to all kinds of things, but I think one can separate the original intention from a new interpretation (i.e. the London Olympics; I read somewhere that the last line is being used around the venues as a sort of motto for the Games, which I think is kind of cool and appropriate!)

Ari said...

I'm with you on the "Rorschach Test Effect", Gary. I believe most—and, yes, I mean "most"—literary criticism gives one more insight into the person performing the analysis than to the work itself.

Another true story for kicks and grins:

High School English Lit assignment: Critical essay on a short story written by "one of our own students" with attribution removed by the teaching assistant. (Can you guess where this going?)

Yep, I was the writer of that little piece. Dashed off the night before it was due.

My grade on the short: A-
My grade on the essay? C-

I believe what any of us get out of an author's work is much-colored by our own thoughts and views.

Steph Schmidt said...

English Theory or Literary analysis has nothing to do with the book or the author, it has everything to do with writing to the professor's opinion of the book and the author. I'd know because I got an A in that class then promptly changed my major.

The author is dead bugs me so much. Even if the author is dead we have their notes! Not for all authors, but a great many, and often times their notes contradict half or more of these nonsense critical analysis.

Sarah W said...

Literary analysis, like criticism, is all subjective (in my opinion). We all get different things out of the same stories.

There's a story floating around that Poe was once asked what "The Raven" was about. He is supposed to have given the reader a puzzled look and said, "It's about a raven."

This probably never happened, but I like to think it did.

Rebecca Kiel said...

That's funny, Gary. I remember discussing Steinbeck in school and wondering, "did he really plan all of that symbolism?". Entire papers on Steinbeck symbolism. But I think learning to think critically about lit was a good experience.

Gary Corby said...

Wow, I think I hit a nerve with this one. We seem to be more or less in agreement.

It's probably not an accident that we're all writers, if I don't mistake, and I have a feeling we're all fellow victims of high school English essay silliness.

Gary Corby said...

In our twitter conversation the other night, AvenSarah put up a brilliant defense for literary criticism that almost convinced even me, curmudgeon that I am.

I've prevailed upon her to either write a short post if she gets a chance, or else I have her permission to copy out her tweets and post them here. Stay tuned for the next installment...