A look at the varying methods of literary criticism
In popular criticism, a critic may give a paragraph or so as an initial reaction, to get the reader into his frame of mind and set the tone, jot some things down on the ride home and post a review sometime in the night. They will look at it in different areas to see if it checks all the specific, arbitrary marks, nothing on how bad the dialogue was, how the action was uninspired, and how the story resolution made no sense. And the film/novel gets a score out of 5 or 4, or a thumbs up or two, and that’s it.
This was not always the approach to critiquing literature or art. Literary criticism, then, would be indistinguishable from what we today call literary analysis. It is the intentional probing of a manuscript, beckoning, Speak to me, ye words! And when they don’t, it’s not uncommon to feel left out of the joke. Many students have finished a copy ofThe Great Gatsby or The Fountainhead and thought, did I just not get it?
Lots of students feel that way about certain books they’ve been told are important for so long that, when they finally finish the story, there’s just something not there that you thought would be, something to justify the reputation of the novel. Literary criticism was born out of this idea, this idea to understand how stories were best told and structured, and how to explain popular curriculum books in a way that would best resonate with individual readers.
Literary criticism as literary analysis/exegesis made it to the popular conscience around the height of Athenian culture, where each year a tragedy contest would be held, accepting works from some of the biggest names in theatre history – Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes – who brought about a certain need in the public sphere to understand their entertainment, as a way to more wholly enjoy the performance, by identifying with the hero or heroine.
Tragedies submitted by Sophocles and Aeschylus would be judged against each other, with the critics weighing the pros and cons of such works as Antigone (the greatest of Sophocles’ plays) and The Libation Bearers, the masterwork of the poet Aeschylus. This is the opposite of the original intention of critics; as they were more likely to be expounding upon the virtues of Epicurus or Aristotle, a running theme here, and there a particularly sweet turn of phrase.
Though the popular appeal of condensed, Cliff Notes of the Gospels worked in a much different way: instead of simplifying the idea, they simplified the presentation of the rather complex ideas through paintings on vases, frescoes, and even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. These very compact images communicate timeless ideas about mercy, forgiveness, and the hope for salvation.
This was a type of criticism, where critic is used in the sense of someone who was there to appreciate art and communicate its most important ideas to a broader audience.
We have many in the theologian tradition to thank for modern textual and literary criticism; and it is a valuable contribution to the academic community, the studies of great literature found in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Proust Was a Neuroscientist,while each of those books don’t tell traditional stories of their own, they nevertheless draw our attention to some of the more sublime moments in literature and art the sometimes impatient mind may miss. These works are valuable for popularizing the notion that the studiousness of academia can be a worthwhile pursuit, to somehow prune new insights from the texts of Seneca and Chuang Tzu is a magic of its own.
The critics of the other type began as spectators in the Roman playhouses, nothing the flaws of the heroes, often missing the point, condemning Epicurus for his supposed debauchery in his exploration of human happiness. It may have all began with Plato’s dialogues with Socrates, as those are essentially after-book discussions of what everything meant and why it was meaningful to be said, what new meaning can be glimpses upon examination.
This search for patterns, in thematic language, language used throughout the text that reinforces an important bit of subtext, asking the viewer to look at the material with a broader view. In music this is called a leit-motif, a pattern that repeats in different places to emphasis different, but similar structures. As there must be experts, there must be experts to certify experts as experts, and so grew the community of theatre critics, and in popular culture it leaned more toward the thumbs up/down or 3 out of 4 stars type review, these too were reminiscent of the old techniques of recapitulation, a brief rundown of the events, followed by comparing and contrasting positive and negative aspects of a film or novel. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach, and for those who use this method of criticism, I’m not here to critique.
The critique of studiousness often leaves out the critique of entanglement, to let the ball fall forward as it might, or even let it unravel; the lesson is that you are criticizing something as it is and shouldn’t hold it to the standards of a hypothetically perfect ideal. Instead, the critique of romanticism takes the details presented in the document and find something buried in there that may prove an unlikely source for wisdom and interpretation.
The sentimental critic doesn’t necessarily look to judge the quality of a work, but more or less put it into a context that allows students and other academics to look at an old work in a new way, a way that allows us to connect the struggles of the characters with those of the modern world and of our own.
The question of quality commercial commentary is predicated upon the wisdom of a select few being sufficient to guide a great many more to what makes the work under analysis transform into a malleable, transmutable metal in hands of great skill. The classical approach to literary and storytelling instruction has been through the demonstration of good literature by our teachers and professors throughout our life; we have been trained, through so many literature courses, to look for meaning and connect one idea to another, and hope to not be worse than wrong – uninteresting.
Many social and literary critics remain outside of the world of publishing their own fiction and non-fiction, as the academic discipline of analysis and comparative philology teaches you to recognize how stories are put together, how themes are stressed, how the most important ideas at work in the novel are contrast, and how the drama is resolved. The point behind literary criticism is to not only demonstrate the failures of art, but equally importantly, celebrate its triumphs.
When I was studying as a linguist, we often read books in their original language, then a prominent translation, and finally we’d go through for finals honors to try a more fitting translation of a given work. When you work in the dynamics of storytelling long enough, you begin to see the machinery in motion in all stories, seeing how they’re structured, the scaffold that holds the ever growing story, how the narrative is spread among characters, and as Sherlock Holmes said,
If you know how the past 1,000 crimes were committed, it stands to reason you wouldn’t have a pretty good idea of what happened on the occasion of the 1,000th crime. The comparison may not seem readily obvious, but consider the totality of literary as, essentially, mysteries, all of them, even Jane Eyre and The Brothers Karamazov – even though the *SPOILER* fact that the three brothers are innocent and that it is the epileptic bastard child Smerdyakov, son to a local prostitute Stinking Lizavetta. Halfway through the introduction of a nearly 900 page book, you know who did it, you know who is blamed, and you know who dies. What mystery, then, remains in that?
The mystery of art is not how the story ends or how a finished painting looks, but the mystery is what the story, despite its obviousness, tries to hide from us in subtext or symbolism, leaving open the invitation for the viewer to participate in the consummation of art. The mystery of literature is not how the unlikely hero manages to save the world in the end, but what lies beneath the surface, and what that underbelly says about the artist and those who enjoy the work.
The mysteries of art are endless, but the most striking has to be the almost instinctive human capacity to communicate through words and poetry, art and language and music, and how this mysterious, sentimental being orchestrates the entirety of a given narrative as though offering it up to the sheep of the cynical and irreverent who, for they lack the eye for subtle poignancies, they would much rather circle the dumpster fire attempting to stop it from burning with a think-piece, something for Huffington Post, perhaps, about how A Certain Popular Book Needs to Be Burned –and despite their mockery of such a book, they spend more time deconstructing the story dynamics, the problems with character chemistry and dialogue.
It’s easy to point out the shortcomings of a truly disappointing story, but it is equally important to understand and appreciate with the same fervor when a relativity minor book by a relatively unknown author gets everything right. It’s hard to pinpoint anything in particular when you’ve read an utterly charming novel, like The Sorrows of Young Werther.And it’s even more difficult when asked to look at it critically, to peel apart the onion and see what each new layer reveals about the characters and their motivation.
I know it’s difficult to summon the same amount of enthusiasm for a good book and to push it into the public conscience, and a further difficulty is explaining why exactly it is you may really, really enjoy something. While at the same time it’s hardly difficult to spot the problems in something truly unremarkable in film and television. The horror of this realization is that, while many people can recognize the obvious problems in a bad film or TV series, a book requires a lot more dedication and a type of faith in your author that, in the end, all of this will be worth it.
It’s understandable: it’s easier to notice the awful in almost all areas of life, especially in the kitchen when the milk has spoiled or when your younger sister is learning the violin just below your floor. Tedious, Underwhelming, Uninspiring – these words all amount to the same thing: I didn’t enjoy this, here are some synonyms! And it’s easier to immediately tell if a piece of music is awful, while it may take 40-50 pages to discover the exact amount of time you’ve wasted.
In the final analysis, art and literature remain interesting and sacred because of the natural sort of voodoo that offer up to us; the mystery of our need to have resolution and closure; to try to get to know those characters and grow up with them, sharing so much of our mental space that such a character may become an active, participating voice in our inner lives; how can we look at the oldest books known to us and see glimmers of ourselves in the heroes and villains; how we can cry over the death of a beloved fiction character, knowing fully well they didn’t die (one must first exist); and the mystery around that strange magic that is writing, telepathy really, as authors and artists communicate across space and time to talk to others, to talk to those as sensitive as they are – to draw those wonderful word pictures in their heads and activate their mirror neurons.
This lets the reader identify with the character by recognizing characteristics of themselves in the character, and through literature we can live vicariously through the great heroes and villains of myth and legend. When looking through the eyes of the sensitive artist, our eyes may be drawn to unremarkable patterns on the water of an otherwise still lake, the dunking noise of ducklings bobbing into a stream behind their mother, each plump and bobbing in the shallow pool.
It is a unique phenomenon, to need to now that the health of a fictional character has been preserved and their character arc resolved. In the end, this is the remaining mystery of art for me: why we need to see the problems of fictional characters resolved in a way that may give us a sort of closure, letting us grieve and move on.
The debate between ‘high art’ and ‘low art’
What would normally be considered “Low art” is that ceramic angel figure you see at your grandmother’s house. While lovely and quaint and harmless, in the world of art these trinkets would be cursed with the dreaded pejorative kitsch.
Kitsch is a type of inferior art, by definition, the art that is soaked in sentimentality, not a part of any creative process, or any artwork that is in some way mass produced, those lawn gnomes and fake flamingos for example; it is art that appeals to our most childish expressions not yet besmirched by the dirtiness of the world of modern art or intellect, preferring to remain as simple trinkets, which – though they may not be great art – have a way of conferring brief moments of beauty and sublimity on these gaudy, overly decorative ornaments brief conferring of beauty and sublimity on these little, industrialized sugar comas.
Sadness, fear, remorse, regret, these are the feelings that make literature, and all of art, whether there is something in the air other than noise, something akin to a spirit woven out of sound, from the ether it would seem, to bathe us in this holy sound.
High art didn’t concern itself with the snobbishness of Dutch realism until Vincent van Gogh showed a more ferocious approach to the type of paintings Rembrandt would produce later in his year. It is a beef-shank, held aloft by hooks: because it had color, and sensually arranged as to appeal to our natural inclination for curves. It shocks the sensibilities of the changing critical consensus towards art at the end of the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, with popular opinion turning against the sort of dour Rembrandt paintings, including stretchmarks from pregnancy, flabby breasts, a drooping stomach – all as lovingly contoured had she been the establishment’s Venus di Milo. Out with the blemishes and pock marks, ushering in the Age of Refinement, a movement that would last until Jacques-Lois David painted his Oath of the Horati; he reminded people that art had a specific, important mission: instruction,
Jacques-Lois was a part of a long tradition of using art as a means of rehearsed communication with an audience, to sway them that the brutes in those dark paintings were a bad dream, but they continued. David glorified Napoleon himself crossing the Alps, commanding, virile, undaunted. In reality, he crossed on a pack mule. But the picture isn’t as exciting. And that’s a big part of the point behind the idea of art as propaganda, or a propaganda for good.
Art as a means to communicate ideas has been around since the early Christian church, huddling under Roman cities practicing their rituals, making crude reproductions of the crucifixion. But, but! Before long, serious artists, first among them El Greco for his early use of the darkness of shadow in the later works of Caravaggio, that curacao way of making light ever brighter by the contras. It is the artist’s job to condense otherwise complex notions about mercy and forgiveness and use a hauntingly beautiful painting. And, one could argue, that long after you sing the hymns and learn the stages of the cross, all of the things in that story—those paintings and ikons and Bernini statues will outlast them all. Art, then, has responsibility to posterity.
On 6 September 1976 Voyager 1
In service of representing a true snapshot of their age, artists have created time capsules, if you will, and are no longer judged as they would be as a product of their time, but as a product of all time, to be applied throughout the ages to new problems in new civilizations as they arose. The most resonant of novels, the best of all, are not dated by their subject matter like topical stories, but somehow become more resonant throughout the years.