Why literary criticism works

Aven McMaster is @AvenSarah on twitter, and the Aven who comments on this blog from time to time. I think she's probably most famous on these pages for her fascinating and perceptive comments in a previous blog post I wrote about Why America is more like Athens than Rome.

Aven is a for-real professor of Classics. It was our very fun conversation on twitter that inspired me to write the previous post about literary criticism. I sat in the comfort of my office tweeting away, while she walked back and forth in a dark room in the middle of the night with a crying baby in her arms and tapping the keys of her iPhone in defence of literary criticism, with whatever spare digits weren't required to look after the baby. I begged her to write this guest post under slightly less restrictive conditions. Here's Aven:

A few disclaimers, off the top. First, as a professor of Classics specialising in Latin poetry, I am a literary critic by training and profession; so I of course have a vested interest in thinking it’s of value! I’m also not an author myself, although I do write an awful lot in my job. Second, the field covered by the term “literary criticism/analysis” is vast, and while I find some approaches very useful, interesting, and important, I find others ludicrous, boring, and even harmful. So this won’t be an exhaustive and systematic defence of every literary critic out there! And finally, I am not specifically defending literary analysis as taught in schools – first because that varies so widely with time, place, teacher, etc., and also because I, too, have misgivings about many ways that people are put off literature as kids.

It seems to me that there are at least three separate, though related, aspects of “literary analysis” that are worth discussing here. I’ll deal with the easiest to defend first. I suspect that a group of writers will be sympathetic to the project of dissecting good literature as a means to figure out the mechanics of good writing, and to learn how to write well oneself. Of course such close analysis of text is not the only way to learn the craft of writing – the best and most important method as far as I’m concerned is to read, read, read, read, read – but it can definitely help. It may not be very exciting – especially for young readers – and so may not be the best way of getting people to appreciate literature; but I do think it’s a valuable type of analysis.

A related purpose of close analysis is important, I think, not only for aspiring writers but for anyone who wishes to have as good an understanding of the world as possible. Every writer (and speaker, for that matter) uses a variety of tools to provoke emotion, convey details, persuade, argue, etc. A close analysis of these techniques may be interesting for its own sake, but it is even more important in helping us understand how we are being manipulated and affected by every written and spoken communication made to us, both now and by historical sources. Such things as seeing how the genre of a work affects the content, for instance, are crucial to understanding the value of historical sources as evidence – can we read the description of a battle in Herodotus the same way we would read a war correspondent today? What about a speech by Pericles, reported by Thucydides? Or a poem by Horace, describing a temple in Augustan Rome? We all know that those texts will all have a different relationship to “the truth”, but how can we get close to figuring it out? The more we understand about the context of the text, its relationship to other texts, its generic conventions, the use of metaphor, the author’s purpose (insofar as it can be known), the audience’s expectations, the rhetorical techniques, etc., the better we can “use” the text for whatever our purpose may be. (And, for the record, all of those things are important for understanding the relationship between any modern text – from the newspaper to a politician’s speech to a tv documentary – and “the truth”!). In this way, then, critical thinking and critical reading, and a thorough understanding of literary critical method, is crucial to good history and (if it’s not too grandiose to say!) to informed participation in the world around us.

Ok, but what about the Rorschach Test aspect of this? What about the question of the author’s intentions, and the critics who say that they don’t matter? Well, I’m not a New Critic, and in fact most of my own work is strongly historicising – I try to figure out the historical context and the significance of certain concepts, ideas, terms, images, etc. in the poetry I study. However– as I tweeted to Gary in our conversation, even if I could ask Horace or Catullus anything I wanted about their poetry, and could get an answer, I wouldn’t necessarily feel that I knew everything there is to know about their works. I do firmly believe that the author, although (my joking tweet aside) AN expert in his or her own work, is not THE expert. Let me try to make my case with a few examples. Say that I was reading The Pericles Commission and found some passages or ideas that I thought were similar to something in, oh, I don’t know – Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (to pick a somewhat more obscure novel of hers). (I haven’t, btw!). And let’s say I asked Gary about this similarity. He could give one of three answers: a) oh yes, I did that on purpose, for X reason; b) oh, I hadn’t noticed that! I read that book a long time ago, but I certainly wasn’t thinking about it when I was writing; c) that’s strange, because I’ve never read that book!

Now, whatever his answer, it’s still an interesting discovery. If he says a), then we’ve learned something about the process of writing, for Gary at least, as well as something about how one text or author influences another. If he says b), then we’ve learned something different about Gary’s writing process and the influence of previous authors. If he says c), then we’ve learned something about the kind of tropes, conventions, and patterns of detective novels, and perhaps even about how the human mind works, or at least about how storytelling works. His intentions, then, are relevant – but don’t determine whether or not seeing that parallel was a “valid” discovery.

Or another example: say after Gary’s next few books have come out, I find that all of them explore, in one way or another, good and bad parental relationships. And say I ask him about this. Again, he might say “Oh, yes, I find that a fascinating part of human life” or “Yes, I guess I’m thinking about my own family relationships”, and we could then find that interesting, and feel that it added to the weight of his books for us. Or he might say “Really? I never noticed that. I certainly didn’t try to do so”. Does that answer mean that I am wrong? Even if every plot contains a father and a son, say, and every novel has a parent/child argument and a parent/child reconciliation? (Again, this is all hypothetical! Sorry Gary!). Or does it still enrich my reading of the novels, and potentially enrich the readings of other people, if I tell them about my discovery?

On that last point I’ll have to let you decide. Ultimately we each have to take our own approaches to texts; and I certainly do not think that there is only one “right” interpretation, or only one correct approach. But for me, at least, looking for layers of meaning, symbolism, relationships within a text and between different texts, enriches the experience of reading good books. And while I do find it interesting to know what an author was thinking, and for some aspects of understanding the text, crucial (at least to know as best we can), I also can find my appreciation of a text deepened and improved even by noting things that the author didn’t intentionally include.

I’ll end with some of what I tweeted at Gary originally:

“If texts only contained the deliberate & conscious thoughts of their creator, they'd be much less interesting, and, frankly, unique among human communications! Nothing we say or do is that simple.”

Thanks Aven!


Matthew MacNish said...

Thanks for the follow on Twitter, Gary. I stopped by to follow your blog as well.

Nice ta meet ya!

Anneke said...

Excellent post, Aven! Very interesting.