The Sunday Salon: Literary Criticism and Books

I just finished a class on young adult and children’s literature, which was cross-discipline; we had women from all sorts of backgrounds in this class. Of course, this meant that we had to spend one class getting everyone up to speed on what literary criticism and theory is. (Conclusion: literary theory is the hammer with which you forge your literary criticism, presumably into a sword. There was also an example with dead horses, but I think that was a “you had to be there” moment.) But what I want to share with you guys is this—one of my classmates raised her hand and asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “But if you read a book with a specific focus, aren’t you going to find stuff that isn’t there?” A much brighter classmate than I set her straight with a Hemingway story, but it got me thinking.

Does literary criticism, as some people think, destroy the pure enjoyment of a book?

I loved literary criticism before I knew what it was—my first experience with it was fan scholarship in the form of ship manifestos, which lay out the subtextual readings that lead to common pairings in fandom. (There’s an overwhelming amount about Kirk and Spock’s relationship, for instance.) In high school, I wasn’t taught literary criticism beyond close reading, so I was over the moon when I settled into my training as a literary critic in college. I get to write papers about whatever catches my eye and my interest in works of literature—last semester, I turned in a paper on lesbian subtext in Mansfield Park. (My life is awesome.) While my questioning classmate might wonder if I wasn’t just making stuff up, there was actually plenty of evidence for my argument. That’s the great thing about literary criticism—you can say whatever you want as long as you can back it up. This approach allows us to dig into texts and find the deeper layers within, peeling it apart to get at a richer understanding of the text and, occasionally, the author.

I know why some people are skittish about literary criticism, even if they get past the “aren’t they just making stuff up?” claim. They don’t want to rise to the challenge of facing the problematic elements in their favorite books. For instance, people who have read The Chronicles of Narnia as children are often shocked when they discover (or, rather, realize) its problematic contents and Christian overtones—Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, a wonderful piece of casual literary criticism, focuses on this. In fact, I once had an encounter with this sort of thing on this very blog; casually mentioning the blurred line between homage and mildly racist appropriation of Chinese culture in Firefly, a commentator asked me why I made what seemed, to them, like such an arbitrary comment. Our conversation was, happily, quite respectful and, I hope, educational. The pleasing layer of ice over a work is broken to reveal monsters below. Once you know something, you can’t unknow it. This, I think, is what scares people. Humans are creatures of comfort and habit, and I think we like to think of stories as inert and safe things we can visit again and again; discovering what lies beneath shatters this comforting image and puts the reader on unstable footing.

So, yes—ultimately, reading critically does destroy the initial enjoyment of a book, that first pass where you willingly take whatever the author dishes out. (Miller depicts this sort of reading as an innocent one found mostly in children, who haven’t been taught to read critically yet.) But what you get in return is so much more than you gave up. I can read problematic books and still enjoy them and learn from them . I often compare literary criticism to sucking the marrow out of a story; once you glimpse the beating, glowing heart of a story, it’s hard to be patient with people who only want to admire its pretty skin.

It’s my last week as a sophomore! AAAAAHHHH. I’m up to my neck in work; I probably won’t be able to finish The Hero with a Thousand Faces here—I’ll have to pick it up again at home. I did finish Queen Victoria and Sabriel this week, so there’s that. But ultimately, study study study pack pack pack drive drive drive.

The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

Oh, and Happy Mother’s Day to my own wonderful mother, as well as yours.

What are your thoughts on reading critically?

5 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Literary Criticism and Books

  1. Some excellent arguments, as always! I never quite got people’s fear of destroying enjoyment if they engage with criticism, but your theory probably accounts for a good share of their motivation. And I fully agree that what you get in return make it more than worth it.

  2. I think that criticism of the type you describe just brings a different kind of enjoyment to the table. It’s not necessary for enjoyment or even a “proper” reading, but it doesn’t “ruin” the book for me. What does sometimes ruin it is when people start turning their particular, idiosyncratic readings into the only acceptable readings. Such critics might say that it you aren’t engaging with the potentially troubling racial messages in Jane Eyre or the lesbian subtexts in Mansfield Park or whatever, you’re not reading the book “correctly,” when in fact, it may just be that those readings don’t interest you and others seem more fruitful and interesting.

    Although I suppose that doesn’t so much ruin the book as it does my interest in talking about that book with that person 🙂

  3. This is interesting. This week a friend and I were asked at book group if “you ever just read a book” and “do you always read like that?”. My feeling is the person who asked is someone who thinks we find too much “stuff” in books. There are some things (mysteries) that I just read with little thought and I love to reread for a variety of reasons but I had to point out to this person that I read the way I have always read. I grew up in a house where reading was discussed so it is utterly natural to read the way I read.

  4. I have mixed feelings about literary criticism — and I say this as an English major who spent lots and lots of time writing literary criticism papers. I think it’s really good fun, but I also wrote a number of papers arguing things I didn’t remotely believe. I could back them up but that didn’t make it true. But I guess that’s true of most things, if you can put together a convincing argument, you can be convincing even if it’s not true.

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