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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
what literary criticism is and isn't good for 
8th-Aug-2006 09:36 pm
mfu: ik-phd
So in my LibraryThinging1, I've reached John Bellairs and The House with a Clock in its Walls, which is possibly the first book I ever read that scared the living daylights out of me.

I love it with a passion.

And I discovered, trying to make LibraryThing cough up the right edition (still its most aggravating flaw), that (aside from a "Just for Boys" edition that, um, clearly hasn't talked to any ten year old girls recently) there is a study guide.

Now, you would think, what with the Ph.D., and the geekiness, and the bookmania, that I would be tickled pink that someone thinks teaching The House with a Clock in its Walls is a good idea.

However, comma, you would be wrong.

I'm all in favor, mind you, of teachers encouraging kids to read THwaCiiW and talking with them about it and so on. But that's not what a "study guide" suggests. A "study guide" suggests that we must learn from THwaCiiW, that we must lay it out like a patient etherized upon a table and dissect its inner workings. And I think that approach does both kids and book a terrible disservice.

There are those who complain that studying English literature "takes all the fun out of reading," or "destroys people's enjoyment of books." My experience has been that this is simply not true, that having a command of the tools of critical reading makes reading a richer, deeper, and exponentially more rewarding process. It may mean that there are certain books, certain authors, that one can no longer read because one has become sensitized to the shoddy and meretricious manipulations, or to the deathliness of the prose, or other characteristics that naïve readers do not notice. But what I've found is that there are always more books to read, and better books, and so there's no loss.

Okay, I'm also a first class geek, but we knew that already.

So what, you are probably asking, is my deal with Bellairs?

Well, here's the thing. There's a difference between reading critically (in the sense of reading with critical skills) and dissecting. Not all books--not even all good books--benefit from dissection. I know people have been disappointed that I haven't followed up my epic Sayers posts with similar disquisitions on other authors, but the reason for that is that a book has to be doing a certain kind of work in order for dissection to have value. And mostly, books that respond to this treatment are books that are already in the canon and doing very well, thank you.

This isn't a value-judgment; many of the books I love and reread don't do the kind of work I'm talking about. But if they aren't interested in building thematicosymbolic2 structures, any attempt to study them, beyond reading comprehension questions and cultural context as necessary, will kill them, because it will be asking students to find things in the text that the text wasn't interested in generating.3 And in trying to find the seeds of the onion, you tear the onion apart. The books become pale and lifeless, with all their clockwork gears showing.

And that's a terrible thing to do to a book.

1I find running through my head as I work, this little ditty: LibraryThing, you make my heart sing / You make everything / Groovy / LibraryThing, I think I love you. Because my brain will just not shut up.

2Some days I shouldn't be let loose on the English language.

3The Pooh Perplex is an extended, satiric exercise in doing exactly that.
      There's another post I could make about analysis reading against the text, but that's a hostile procedure. You do it to books that have something in them that needs to be killed--racism, sexism, sexual hypocrisy, etc. It can provide an astonishingly rich analysis, but if persuasive, it does guarantee that you will never be able to look at that particular book in the same way again.
      ETA: My post about X-Men: The Last Stand is a good example of an analysis that straddles the uneasy boundary between analysing with and against the text.
9th-Aug-2006 03:11 am (UTC)
Because sometimes my brain will just not shut up.

I sympathize. Yesterday my brain was induced to start composing The Twisted Wreck of the Mandy Patinkin, as written by the collaborative team of W. S. Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan, and Gordon Lightfoot.

I long for death's sweet embrace.
9th-Aug-2006 03:15 am (UTC)

::ph34rs Mris's brain::

On the other hand, it not being my brain, that's really funny.
20th-Jan-2007 10:59 pm (UTC) - all
(Deleted comment)
9th-Aug-2006 03:56 am (UTC)
I'm saying that literary criticism, as a tool, is best designed to work on books that have particular features. Because academics use this tool, they reward and value the books that their tool works on. It's a very neat, very closed, circuit.

This is a weakness of literary criticism. I've thought for years that one reason the academic establishment is so hostile to fantasy and science fiction is that the literalization of metaphors (e.g., the Ring isn't a metaphor for evil, it is evil) means that a literary critic's "work" has already been done.

That doesn't mean that fantasy and science fiction books don't do extremely interesting things, only that their analysis needs a different set of tools. Feminism often works well; so does Marxism. And I suspect there may be a whole different set of tools the use of which would be rewarded by analysis of f&sf, but I don't know what they are. I'm an academically trained literary critic, and the fact of the matter is, nobody outside the box has a working flashlight yet. Doesn't mean there's nothing out there, just that we're still groping around trying to find a way to see it.

By "critical reading" I mean--well, I'm only just trying to coin the term, so I'm not entirely sure what I mean yet--reading with awareness of the text as a text. I'm not a fan of "falling into the story." This is a personal opinion, which may be coloring my argument.

But as I've said before, all I've got here IS my personal opinions.

Analysis, on the other hand, is exactly that. Propounding a thesis about a work and proving it with evidence from the text.
9th-Aug-2006 06:57 am (UTC)
Interesting: I wrote my dissertation on the cognitive effects of "falling into the story," based on a theory that assumes everyone does it. Do we have to fight now?

(You'd win. My data were a mess.)

But I am curious if you're defining the term differently than I do, because to me, it's what makes reading truly enjoyable--and it's not incompatible with speculating about the symbolism later on. And I'm afraid it's a state that you're quite good at inducing.
9th-Aug-2006 03:07 pm (UTC)
I guess what I mean by it is the suspension of critical thought. And I know people who read and/or watch TV shows with that as their goal.

I can become absorbed in a story with tremendous ease (just ask anyone who's tried to talk to me when I've got a really good book in front of me), but I don't forget--and don't want to forget--to think about what I'm doing.

I dunno. This may be a particular flavor of elitism rather than anything remotely helpful.
9th-Aug-2006 03:57 pm (UTC)
FWIW, I was very conscious of this "suspension of critical thought" as I read the Dark is Rising series for the first time, as an adult. I'd read a great many fantasy series in my youth (but somehow missed that one) and was conscious of the fact I might have enjoyed it even more if I'd read it as a younger person, as a person who hadn't yet discovered serious criticism.

(The same was true of my experience of Nancy Farmer's The Ear, the Eye, and The Arm. Delightful tale; and if I'd been 11 when I read it I would have been wholly satisfied, but because I read it when I was 26, I wanted it to be more ambitious.)

In my experience, I describe that "suspension of critical thought" as reading through my younger eyes -- because that's how it works for me, and it tends, as you can see, to be needed for works meant for younger audiences. But it does turn out to be important to allow that quasi-uncritical space, for certain novels: to allow the fantasy-world its play-space without interrogation.
9th-Aug-2006 04:24 pm (UTC)
I'm going to post this comment, even though I'm afraid I've (a.) misread you and (b.) expressed myself badly, with the potential consequence of (c.) coming across as making an attack, when that's not at all what I want. I'm just struggling.



You seem to be operating from the assumption that adult and critical readers have an obligation to read books that don't stand up to the demands of critical reading. Maybe I'm misreading you. If what you mean is that to get enjoyment out of certain books, you have to turn the critical reader off, then sure. I agree. I just choose--having realized, finally, that I don't have to finish every book I start--not to read books that won't give me pleasure without my making that kind of major concession.

This is, and I admit it freely, an elitist stance. I'm certainly not arguing that anyone else has to use my criteria for reading. But I also don't think that anyone has an obligation to read books that don't please them--with the exception of academics and reviewers whose livelihoods and/or professional standing may well depend on reading books they dislike or are bored by or what have you.

This idea--that there's no obligation to read books one doesn't like--is kind of important to me, because it what allowed me, finally, to quit trying to read "literary fiction," which bores me to death.

(fwiw, The Dark Is Rising Sequence stands up quite nicely even to dissection.)

9th-Aug-2006 06:04 pm (UTC)
No worries -- I don't feel attacked.

You seem to be operating from the assumption that adult and critical readers have an obligation to read books that don't stand up to the demands of critical reading.

No, that's not how I feel. I do read books I know going in won't stand up to the demands of critical reading: sometimes I used to do this because I was a librarian, and that was my job; sometimes I do this for cultural competence, so I can converse with friends; sometimes I do this because I have this hopeless yearning for trashy action novels. Sometimes I get halfway through and realize the book can't bear critical reading, but is worth reading anyway.

I mean, books that can take a critical read are the best boox evar!!1!, but, not everything I read has to be like that.

I loved the Dark is Rising books, but in a delicate way, the way I love a spun-sugar flower or the finale of Buffy. I'm convinced that if I think about it too hard, it'll fall apart. It may be a series I'm never allowed to reread, because it's very hard for me to turn off the critical faculties the second time through.
9th-Aug-2006 04:35 pm (UTC)
So, to clarify: are we talking about suspending the ability to notice gaping plot holes, or suspending the ability to notice symbolism and allegory? Or do those things seem inextricably linked to you?

Please forgive my ignorance; I haven't taken a lit crit class since high school. I remember it as being a fun mental exercise, but very different from reading for pleasure.
9th-Aug-2006 04:42 pm (UTC)
Okay. Let me try this another way round.

For lack of a better term, let's call what I'm talking about "critical reading." What it is, at its heart, is reading for patterns. (The easiest patterns to learn to see are the thematic/metaphoric ones--hence the fact that I learned to analyze symbolism from The Scarlet Letter, which is a monstrously methodical piece of clockwork patterning.) So it depends on what patterns you see when you read. I'm capable of completely failing to notice gaping plot holes until a fourth or fifth reading; possibly that's because I'm naturally attuned to different patterns or possibly it's because my training taught me to consider plot as really just the thing that the theme is hung on. (Which may in turn, come to think of it, be why I find plot such a nuisance in my own writing.)

I've also found that critical reading brings with it a keener awareness of other characteristics of a story, like the quality of the prose--which is in itself another kind of patterning.
9th-Aug-2006 04:41 pm (UTC)
Okay, and I'm seeing below that you actually seem to use "literary criticism" and "critical reading" to mean different things, which makes things a bit more clear to me.
9th-Aug-2006 02:09 pm (UTC)
Just out of curiosity, in what contexts do you think Marxism works well?
9th-Aug-2006 03:09 pm (UTC)
The usual contexts in which Marxism works well: economics and class relations. Often, this does involve reading against the text.
18th-Jan-2007 10:24 pm (UTC)
9th-Aug-2006 05:35 am (UTC)
There are those who complain that studying English literature "takes all the fun out of reading," or "destroys people's enjoyment of books." My experience has been that this is simply not true, that having a command of the tools of critical reading makes reading a richer, deeper, and exponentially more rewarding process.

I suspect that part of the difference in reactions here is that you’re thinking of litcrit on a higher, more systematic level than most people. I haven’t had an English class since high school, and my experience was that both teacher and class were unclear on what we were supposed to be accomplishing. There was a general feeling that we were supposed to like reading, and English class was there to make us read certain Great Books and derive Ideas therefrom, but how you were supposed to go about this was never explained. The teachers that I had never tried to show us a systematic way to approach a text, or even suggested that there was a methodical way, or many ways, to look at a text. Which meant that English class tended to devolve into Let’s talk about stuff. Possibly the teachers had some idea of where they were headed; I do remember that for certain books they had a grand Theme in mind for us to work around to, but it’s fair to say that to the students the goal was murky. It was a very hit-and-miss way of reading. I don’t think it was until college that I was shown an approach—in this case, spotting allusions to other poets in Vergil—which you could not only apply repeatedly, but which changed what you took away from the text. And that’s in hindsight; it was never taught as such.

My own knee-jerk at the memory of English class has less to do with the erratic approach than with teachers trying to force the conversation around to what they wanted to talk about in a book, whether it was there or not. Get a teacher with lit kinks that don’t match yours, and that’s where the soul-sucking book-ruining misery enters for me. It’s an effect similar to finding truly awful fanfiction of a book you love, and realizing that you will think of it every time you reread the book, and you will never ever be able to forget it.

The teacher I had for most of high school was someone who I found deeply irritating, the sort who seemed like he might have been better off as a therapist, who was forever trying to make us write essays on overly personal topics and talk about things in the books we read that we found either boring, invisible, or outright squicky. I have a vivid memory of a classroom of 9th graders looking uncomfortably at their desks while he tried to force the discussion of Chaucer around to sex yet again, and no, we really didn’t want to talk about what the bagpipes symbolized to him, thankyouverymuch. By the end of our third year with him, most of my class had developed a sort of mulish resistance to anything he said, and one or two were writing quietly subversive papers that deliberately did everything except what he wanted, so that we were in many ways engaged in reading not against the text, but against the teacher of the text.

To be fair, my brother had the same teacher and liked him very much.
9th-Aug-2006 03:04 pm (UTC)
My high school teachers were very systematic.

Of course, they also believed the Aristotelian theory of tragedy could be applied to Hamlet. (It can't.)

But I learned how to analyze symbolism in high school, reading The Scarlet Letter. And I learned to love poetry and analyzing poetry in high school, thanks to John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and my senior year English teacher. That's why I knew I wanted to be an English major even before I went to college.

I'll freely admit I went to an abnormally good high school. I'll also equally admit that a bad teacher can ruin anything.
9th-Aug-2006 07:17 pm (UTC)
Lucky you- your high school does sound exceptional. (Donne! Hopkins! envyenvyenvy) I still think that when people complain about literary criticism, many of them aren't thinking of actual, self-aware criticism of the sort you're discussing here, but of something much less focused.
9th-Aug-2006 03:19 pm (UTC)
I'm not entirely sure I agree - but then I'm not entirely sure what you mean, either. I can't, offhand, think of any text that couldn't be subjected to some form of study. I haven't read any Bellairs, though. What do other works in that category look like?

Either way, I haven't yet seen a study guide aimed at the under-16s that didn't make me want to jump up and down on it.
9th-Aug-2006 03:28 pm (UTC)
"Some form of study," sure. But literary criticism is a particular form of study.

It doesn't work on Georgette Heyer, not because her books aren't good--they're excellent--but because they aren't interested in doing the things that literary criticism looks for. Which is, as I said, theme and symbol.

You could do Marxist analysis of Heyer, although you'd have to read pretty egregiously against the text. But when I'm talking about "literary criticism," I mean that practice which is informed heavily by the New Critics--as academic literary scholarship still is, even when it's trying not to be. And it's New Criticism that's being taught, however badly, in American high schools.
9th-Aug-2006 04:24 pm (UTC)
'Some form of study' wasn't a particularly helpful phrase, sorry. I wasn't more specific because I wasn't sure we would mean the same things by the term 'Literary Criticism' - and I don't think we do, if you mean New Critics criticism specifically. Certainly I'd disagree that the only things that are worth looking at, or are possible LitCrit areas of study, are theme and symbol.

Unfortunately, I haven't read any Heyer either. I can see I have some reading to do, not that that's a hardship...
9th-Aug-2006 04:36 pm (UTC)
No, theme and symbol aren't the only possible foci, nor am I talking about New Criticism in its pure form.

I'm clearly not expressing myself well today.

Okay. Modern literary criticism has variously repudiated, rebelled against, and embraced New Criticism, and sometimes all three at once. But at its roots, it's still based on New Criticism. The first thing we try to teach in college intro lit courses (which I have myself taught) is to do close reading, to interpret the text as a closed system. This inevitably means that the initial focus, the thing we teach and are taught to read for first is theme and metaphor and, ergo, symbolism. So even when litcrit moves on to Marxist theory or feminist theory or genre theory or deconstruction or any of the other 1,001 lenses you can pick to view a text through, it's still based in the fundamentals of New Critical reading.

And New Critical reading does not work on all texts.

The academic establishment has covered this weakness in their praxis by labelling the books that don't respond to New Critical treatment as "genre," "pulp," "popular fiction," etc. etc.--i.e., not worth their time--a move which has conflated books that genuinely have nothing to offer (and I'm not arguing that such books don't exist), with books that have nothing to offer to analysis unless you read against the text, with books that have nothing to offer to a New Critical approach, with books that have everything in the world to offer but are just flying the wrong flags.
10th-Aug-2006 02:03 pm (UTC)
OK, fair enough. We seem to have experienced rather different courses - the English department at my university was biased to New Historicism rather than New Criticism, and the first term's course covered (in a rather haphazard manner) a range of approaches to texts.
9th-Aug-2006 04:52 pm (UTC)
But if they aren't interested in building thematicosymbolic structures, any attempt to study them, beyond reading comprehension questions and cultural context as necessary, will kill them, because it will be asking students to find things in the text that the text wasn't interested in generating.

Hmm! Must ponder.

(Actually, must find YA anthology that reprinted my first story, and look at the study questions in there, which I remember as having at least one that I couldn't answer, and then must ponder some more.)

10th-Aug-2006 01:10 am (UTC)
oh god I loffed that book with all the scary book loff!

I should collect books I loved as a child.
(Deleted comment)
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