‘What are literary critics for?’
From Aristotle’s Poetics all the way up until the present day, literary criticism has existed for as long as there has been literature to criticise. Today, there are dozens of practiced fields of criticism, ranging from the more traditional structuralism and formalism to the more ‘obscure’ queer theory, with everything from psychoanalytic to feminist to Marxist in between. Despite this long and well-established history, the question of whether or not literary criticism has a point, and, if it does, what that point is, is equally long-standing, and has not been conclusively resolved regardless of how much it is disputed. This essay will attempt to shine a light on some of the plausible theories regarding the function and purpose of literary criticism and perhaps convince even the most sceptical of the worth inherent in this marvellous academic field.
In order to answer this question, it is important to establish the universal purpose of literature itself. It is widely considered to be true that literature acts as an artistic depiction of reality; no matter how tenuous that depiction may appear, literature is, as stated by Virginia Woolf, ‘attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners’ . This attachment renders literature a deeply personal interpretation of reality by whomever is writing it, and, in turn, means that literary criticism acts somewhat as a veil between writer and reader. Literary criticism interprets how we perceive and understand literature, allowing us to shape and craft our own personal views about what we read, influenced by an apparently omniscient and highly educated force which guides us. One can read literature without criticism to accompany it – a sort of ‘raw’ reading, where the reader views the work through their own eyes alone – but with literary criticism alongside, literature is transformed, given connections to other art forms and to reality itself. It is this shaping which renders literature so rich and interesting an art form: it does not exist in a vacuum; it is inherently linked to both the world around it and to its past and future. Literary criticism assists our perception of those links.
Up until the early 20th century, the primary function of literary criticism was to uphold the literary canon and provide guidelines for whether or not a piece of writing was to be considered ‘good’. This system of presuming and assigning objective merit to literary works is now unpopular and outdated – we are aware that art is subjective, and that literary merit is a flimsy concept – but for many centuries it was the prevailing mentality and the greatest reason for the writing and publication of literary criticism. Walter Van Tilburg Clark defined literary merit in 1957 at the obscenity trial for Ginsburg’s Howl as ‘the power to endure… the sincerity of the writer… the seriousness of purpose of the writer’ , providing apparent reasons to consider a work of literature ‘great’. This is a rather more liberal definition than the rigid and somewhat fascistic ones occasionally utilised to dismiss very agreeable and excellent literary works as being ‘bad’. The issue with such stringent definitions is that they are often created by people in great positions of privilege who have received excellent educations, and who are inclined to dismiss works of literature by less privileged, less educated authors. An elderly white male literary critic who studied at Cambridge University is, for example, much less likely to appreciate the ‘sincerity’ of a work of fiction by a young black woman without a university education, and more likely to dismiss it. This is the reason that the literary canon is so permeated by authors who are, in essence, very similar: a group of people disparagingly described as ‘dead white males’ . In this, literary criticism is deeply and inherently flawed: if we view its only purpose to be that of deciding what is and isn’t ‘good’, then there must be more diverse and disenfranchised literary critics, to bring to the table a wide variety of viewpoints on literary merit. Although literary critics may have once served the key and singular purpose of upholding the canon, that purpose is now rendered sterile, and objective literary merit is a foreign concept.
What literary critics are very useful for, however, is providing an interesting perspective on the question of authorial intent versus reader interpretation. The question of whether the author’s intentions for a text – how it is meant to be read, what is and isn’t symbolic – are more important than the reader’s personal interpretation is another relatively age-old one, and the answer remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that literary critics are both helpful in attempting to resolve this question, and responsible for rendering it even more cloudy.
On one hand, literary critics will often have particularly strong views on whether authorial intent or reader interpretation is more important and will lend those views to their writings and to those who read such writings. Pioneers and proponents of New Criticism such as T.S. Eliot argued that ‘the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art’, whereas psychoanalytic and Marxist critics believe that the text reveals the author’s intent, without the author even necessarily being aware of it. According to psychoanalytical readings, an author’s intention can be discovered from a text, even if that intention was subconscious; Marxist criticism insists that literature be read in its historical context of liberation. The various fields of literary criticism have a similarly various selection of opinions on whether an author’s intentions are of any significance.
Meanwhile, newer forms of criticism such as queer theory read meaning into text where there may be none: The Outsiders author S.E. Hinton reacted with outrage to Twitter followers who suggested that Johnny and Dally, two teenage friends from her novel, were romantically involved. It was not her intention to imply any homosexual relationship, but the LGBT community interpreted their own experiences in her characters, and Hinton did eventually say that ‘anyone can read anything they want into a book’. The job of a literary critic is to theorise and hypothesise about literature, but in doing so, they bring into question how much of that theorising is supported by the author themselves. In an odd sort of way, literary critics are the ultimate proponent of the superiority of reader interpretation; they are a particularly well-educated, well-spoken and well-reasoned individual, with the authority to read whatever they want into a given text.
Furthermore, the informed views of a literary critic provide an opportunity to craft and condense one’s own opinions on literature, guided by the authoritative voice of another individual or group. This brings us full circle to the first point of this essay: that without literary critics, literature is read in a vacuum, without the veil of perception and understanding provided by generations of learning and writing, and it also links into the final point of this essay. Literary critics are useful because, from an anthropological standpoint, they provide a fascinating insight into social opinion on literature through the ages. One can discover whether or not a text was considered ‘scandalous’ by reading about how it was received by literary critics; one can read the criticism of the text since then in the passing years; one can use this variety of factors to shape one’s own viewpoint on literature. What is important about literary criticism is that it grants all who read it the chance to become critics themselves.
Without literary critics, literature hangs without commentary, exists without response. The author’s intentions may never be called into question or, in contrast, may never be considered at all; the reader’s interpretation has no significance at all. Without a diverse variety of critics, the canon remains upheld, and the ‘dead white males’ of our literary past will continue to haunt us, holding control over our English classes, the bookshelves of our libraries and our free-thinking minds. Criticism is a safety net and the key to liberation; it informs our views and gives us a chance to think on our own, and without it, our literary world would be significantly duller. Literary critics are valuable and important because they teach us about our past, inform our present, and shape our future, and all for the better.
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