The Medievals referred to Philosophy as the handmaiden of Theology. In their view, Theology was the more important of the two, because it laid down important incontrovertible truths, while Philosophy merely analyzed the secondary truths of nature. It wasn’t that the Medievals thought Philosophy was unimportant; they just realized its proper place.
The same sort of hierarchy applies to Literature and Literary Criticism.
Literature provides the source material for Literary Criticism. This is sort of common sense, as most of us would rather read our favorite novels than books about our favorite novels.
But Literary Criticism is important, especially for the budding writer. It allows us to analyze books and tells us how they’re shaped. Literary Criticism is to Writing what Music Theory is to Musicians. It helps to deepen your understanding of your craft, beyond the knowledge gained from practicing it.
The first sort of objection that opponents of literary criticism make is that it’s snobbish or elitist. This is the probably one of the worst objections that one can hurl at literary criticism since it’s one that most of the people who use it face regularly. If you’re thinking about writing a book (unless said book is a trashy romance novel or legal fiction), you’re already more snobbish than 95% of the population. There’s no use in doing things halfway.
If you’re thinking about writing a book (unless said book is a trashy romance novel or legal fiction), you’re already more snobbish than 95% of the population. There’s no use in doing things halfway.
Why we hate critics
There is, however, a rational reason behind this reaction. Most of us have watched a movie, or read a book, feeling amazed and awed by the sheer brilliance of it. We then proceeded to log onto the internet to see what others thought about the thing we thought was brilliant, and lo and behold, the first article we read is something written by a self-important literary critic who goes on to make mincemeat of our precious masterpiece. It leaves a bad taste in our mouths.
Who do they think they are? That book/movie was good! The critic is just a cold, grumpy intellect. On the other hand, we get the spirit of things.
Fortunately enough, pop culture has granted us an excellent illustration of this principle only in the last few weeks. The premiere of the long anticipated Suicide Squad by Warner Bros. ushered in a tremendous amount of negative feedback from film critics, while many moviegoers found it enjoyable. This clash between popular and professional opinions culminated in a well publicized petition to shut down review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, and the petition is (at the time of writing) at 22,304 supporters.
But this sort of reaction throws out the baby with the bathwater. Literary Criticism is no more the villain in this situation than Philosophy is when we’re confronted with Postmodernism or Materialism. Just because bad Literary Criticism exists does not mean we should abandon the subject entirely. By studying literary criticism, not only can you improve your writing skills, but you’ll also gain proper tools to understand why that critic you hated was so wrong. Literary Criticism can be a vehicle of smugness, but it can also be an effective weapon against it.
Literary Criticism can be a vehicle of smugness, but it can also be an effective weapon against it.
Instead of trying to silence the voices of professional critics who despised Suicide Squad, loyal patrons of the film should have been prepared to argue why the critics attacking it were wrong in their assessment. Likewise, if your own writing is being attacked by others, you should be prepared to listen. If you are acquainted with good criticism, you should be prepared to counter bad criticism.
Another objection to learning literary criticism, which is pretty reasonable, usually goes something like this: “But, honestly dude, I’m not trying to write some great literary work. I just want my novel to be fun. Why should I study literary criticism?”
Because honestly, to write really good pulp fiction, a writer should usually have one foot in the literary. At least get your feet wet. The reason why fiction like Firefly, Warhammer or Star Wars is so dang good is that the writers usually know their literature and literary criticism.
That being said, it does take more than just lit theory to write decent lit theory. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.
Now, if you aren’t quite the literary type, I suggest you tackle some of the great works of literature before you start tackling literary criticism. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a great place to start. If you are the literary type, but still sort of vague on what criticism’s all about, try Matthew Arnold’s The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.
It’s public domain, so like all things both worthy and unworthy, you can find it on the Internet.