Saturday, March 5, 2011

On Literary Criticism

I know as little about criticism as I do about writing. And since I have not humbled myself sufficiently, I shall reveal my thimble full of knowledge in this arena in pursuit of a new nadir.

Literary criticism casts a wide net into waters shallow and deep. It is the province of English professors (pardon my Anglo-centric bias, I have even less experience elsewhere) and book reviewers. There is of course that curious brand of criticism practiced in writer's workshops where the jackals 
offer vacuous and faintly damning remarks on some poor soul's work in progress in tones meant to be supportive. I have not experienced this first hand, but merely imagine it so - oh, and I've read second hand accounts. All three types of literary criticism can be useful either to writer or reader.

Criticism of an unfinished work is almost useless except to the most inexperienced writer, but criticism can be very useful even to the experienced if done on the second draft. The first draft is to get the story on paper. The writer then makes all "obvious" improvements in the second draft. This includes fixing the prose, deleting the unnecessary, and enhancing the theme. It makes little sense to submit a draft to criticism that contains things the writer knows he should fix; it's just a waste of the reviewer's time and effort. Thus the second draft needs to be as good as the writer can possibly make it.

These considerations prompt an obvious change to the manner in which writer's workshops operate. Writers should not be writing during the workshop, but rewriting. The writer should show up to the workshop with a portfolio of second drafts. The workshop participants use their time to read and criticize the nearly finished works of others and rewriting the next work in their portfolio based criticism of the previous work in their portfolio. And it should all be anonymous perhaps, given human nature, somewhat impractical). But, I digress.

What does the writer need to hear? 

Firstly, all criticism is personal because that mystical link between writer and reader is personal. Criticism can often reveal more about the personal foibles of the reader than the work being criticized. In fact, I will go one step further and say that this ALWAYS true. I used to read every work through to the end. Always. No more. It is a disservice to yourself and to the writer to continue reading a work you have mentally given up on. But when and why did I give up on it? That's what the 
writer needs to know. "Well, it was a story about dreams and I find dreams uninteresting." An honest admission by the reader if not very useful to the writer. "Well, it was a story about dreams and I have read altogether too many stories where visions obtained in an altered state of consciousness 
(dreams, drugs, starvation, what have you) were central to the story. A plague be upon them." A criticism at least a little more useful. I have seen e-zine websites where the editors have supplied a helpful list of story types likely to be rejected because the tropes in question have been thoroughly worked over. But a reader new to a trope may find the work in 
question absolutely fascinating. As I say, it's all personal.

The reader having been able to read a work all the way through, the writer would like to know what you liked and didn't like about the story, not the mode and manner of telling it, but the story itself since the story is king. And then what you liked and didn't like about the manner of it's telling.
If you add the likes and dislikes mentioned above with a synopsis of the story, you have the essence of a book review. I love reading the customer reviews at Amazon. Not just books that I'm thinking of reading, but those I have already read. Most of the comments relate to the story (a good thing 
indeed) and most of the reviewers are conscientious enough to go on to the manner of the telling. I often find the most interesting and insightful remarks in the one- and two-star reviews (out of five stars total). I find that the customer reviews in aggregate are at least as informative as a 
single review in the New York Times (and often more so).

The academic shade of literary criticism varies from absurdist 
deconstructionists to biographers. I have found common sense thematic analysis entertaining (e.g The Great Gatsby) and also the efforts of literary biographers (e.g Scott Fitzgerald and Eugene O'Neill). It is always interesting to contemplate the play of life experiences on a particular 
work. All writers draw on life experiences as raw material for their work, there is no alternative. That is not to say all fiction is biographical, but rather the pieces of it reflect the human experience of the writer.

And so, what have we learned of literary criticism? Little indeed.

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