Top 10 Reasons to Defend Literary Criticism

top 10                 

10        It is possible to live without criticism and just experience reading. Just as it is possible to listen and enjoy music without knowing any musical theory. Just as it is possible to enjoy nature without knowing geology, chemistry, physics, biology, all subjects whose object of study is nature. But as Aristotle says all people desire to know.

9          Criticism and its potential exist the moment a work of literature comes into being. Once a writer writes in conventions like iambic pentameter, couplets, rhyme, then the criticism which examines these conventions become relevant — in this case in the form of the New Criticism.

ANALOGY: Once living things and the human body evolved, then the subject of biology potentially exists.

 8          Criticism shows us how to teach literature. There are critical methods, which parallel scientific methods. There are finite methods of reading, as some readings are valid and some are not. Academic subjects are not democratic in the sense that everyone’s opinions matter. (Science does not admit the notion of a flat earth.) Consequently criticism should reveal the valid methods of reading which contribute to knowledge.   

7.         Criticism is defined as the theory of the use of words, the awareness of the use of words. It is a social science that studies the effect of words on society, the use of words and images by literary writers, as well as the mass media, advertising, politics. It shows us the different ways of reading art, the verbal arts, applied arts, sciences, applied sciences, people and society. 

6.         We are affected by words as much as we are by the weather. Orwell’s major theme: If words are smashed and deprived of their meaning and readers become illiterate, then society cannot change for the better and most likely will turn for the worse. 

5          Criticism helps to relate literature to society. For better or worse, the critic is the pioneer and shaper of culture, a professional reader of writers.

ANALOGY: for better or worse, the law is in the hands of a judge, who is not morally superior to anyone, but merely knows the law more than the average person. 

4.         Criticism has the same relationship to literature as philosophy has to wisdom, aesthetics to art, and science to nature. It relays literature’s vision of the human condition.  Criticism should and ought to progress, to explain these infinite visions of literature, which continues to relate itself to culture, now and in the future.  We do not judge works of literature. They judge us: how well we encounter and engage literature’s vision or revelation. 

3.         Literature is mute, dumb, and cannot speak. It is “not heard but overheard,”  in Mill’s phrase. It shows rather than tells. It does not, like an essay, state its theme/thesis explicitly.  Our experience of anything, including literature, is often incomplete — we need criticism to fill in the gaps and prepare us for the kind of experience we may still potentially have. 

2          A writer should be read, experienced, assessed according to the literary conventions (s)he inherits. We need the critic, the professional reader, to clarify those conventions for the average reader. 

1          The act of criticism — reading, interpreting, translating, understanding — can be as CREATIVE as the act of producing literature. There is a creative literary imagination and a creative theoretical imagination, a power to create and a power to understand. Creativity, therefore, resides not simply in literary genre (plays, poems, prose, essay) but in the writer/artist as well as the reader.

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One thought on “Top 10 Reasons to Defend Literary Criticism

  1. Joseph Adamson

    This is a great post, Peter! I intend to steal it for the introduction to my next class on or discussion of literary criticism and critical theory–with acknowledgement of course.


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