22 Jan 2009 [ Prev | Next ]

Literary Criticism

First, let's review something you're very familiar with already: literary interpretation

  • Content (plot, characters -- the most basic level of understanding a text)
  • Form (structure, conventions)
  • Tone (language, style)
  • "Meaning" (on a surface level, "what it means"; on a deeper level, "how it means")
Recall that a review is a form of evaluation, asking more or less "Is this book worth buying?"

We might think of literary criticism, then, as the study of the criteria that reviewers use in order to evaluate works. It is the study of taste, judgment, and value, as applied to the selection and discussion of works that reviewers and scholars consider especially worthy of intellectual inquiry.

A liberal arts institution operates on the assumption that developing the ability to collect facts from different areas and link them together meaningfully will give you an advantage over a merely passive consumer of knowledge.

If we can usefully join facts (the names and personal histories of Thomas Jefferson and and James Madison; the contents of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights) we see how they form concepts (independence, the separation of church and state, the right to free speech). Patterns that form when certain concepts join together give rise to ways of thinking about those concepts. One view of the Constitution, for example, holds that we should be true to our founders' initial intent rather than bow to whatever ideological whims might sway the current Supreme Court appointees. Another view of law holds that the Constitution is subject to the present, evolving needs of our country, rather than be shackled to the world view of a small group of people at a time in the distant past.

Dr. Arnzen's syllabus from his Spring 2005 section of EL312 included the following paragraph, upon which I cannot improve.

Literary criticism is supposed to help us think critically about texts. It organizes approaches to literature and often facilitates thinking about literature in methodological ways. Yet, ironically, the criticism itself will perhaps be the most difficult reading material you will ever encounter in college. I do not expect you to entirely understand everything you read or discuss in this class -- indeed, I myself would never pretend to understand it all. Instead of memorizing terminology, I hope you'll engage with the texts under study by attempting to master the various schools of thought as much as possible, raising questions and issues along the way. This class may require much hair-pulling, as you try to wrestle meaning out of very densely written academic prose which refers to philosophical concepts you might not be familiar with. The trick is to "go with the flow" and try to figure it out on your own (you will find [a handbook of literary terms] very helpful in this regard). Consider what the critics we study claim to be true about literature, writers, and readers. Chances are, you already know more than you think you know about these topics. Bring your thoughts to class for open discussion, where we will put our minds together, emulating graduate school "seminars" in theory. Ideally we will all bring an open mind to our mutual interrogation of the readings and each other's arguments, challenging one another to think deeply, analytically, and critically, while at the same time becoming more aware of our own assumptions about literary interpretation and the value of literary study.
Literary critics disagree with each other. They don't always label the critical approach they use; you have to deduce it from the vocabulary they use and the issues they raise. An author may use more than one critical approach in the same essay. Two authors who use the same critical approach may come to completely different conclusions. This does not mean that literary criticism is a shouting match or that "anything goes." In fact, a good academic debate is meticulously researched and cited.

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