My A-Z of reading: C is for Criticism

October 18, 2016

Having been a student and teacher of literature for longer than anything else in my life, I’ve had time to read a lot of literary criticism, and to come to feel pretty ambivalent about it. At first, in the sixth form, I was at first a little surprised that people wrote about the books, plays and poetry I was studying. But A C Bradley and Harley Granville-Barker were eye-opening about the depth and richness of what Shakespeare had to offer me. At university, I was expected to read widely, texts and criticism; when researching I did little else, and it gradually dawned on me that I, too, was becoming a critic, of sorts…

There’s something important about the purity and primacy of an author’s text: once s/he has ‘given it away’ by publishing it, making it a public property, it becomes open to supporting a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations, and not all of those are known to, or intended by, the author. This is often a very good thing, enabling, as it does, any reader to make a reading, perhaps an original one, as long as they can support their interpretation (cries of ‘evidence?’ used to echo around my classroom). I treasured those – quite rare, but very gratifying – moments when a student came up with an idea about a word or phrase that had never occurred to me, or that I’d never read about.

Criticism comes across as ‘learned’; someone has read, and carefully thought about a text, studied it and written about it, and would seem thereby to have a right to be paid attention to and be taken seriously… but the process, as I came to learn, is not quite as innocent as that. For starters, whilst opening us up to meanings and understandings that they offer us, are critics not also, at the same time, maybe shutting the door on other possibilities? A critic is not an innocent bystander, as I came to realise while studying for my master’s in Literature and Cultural Change in the Twentieth Century at Lancaster University, where we spent as much time on critics and how they worked as we did on literature itself: any critic develops her/his criticism from a certain cultural, political and social background, and so interprets from a certain perspective. Is that perspective one that I accept or respect? Marxist critics, for example, showed that writers can unconsciously and uncritically support a certain vision of the world and exclude others, and that critics do exactly the same thing; that’s not to say that Marxist critics are therefore right and have the last word, rather that they reveal something unperceived, and enlighten us a little bit more about what is really going on. Ditto for feminism critics…

My research into science fiction took my questioning of attitudes, perspectives and literary criticism itself even further, as I examined a wide range of works (criticism and fiction) written from a feminist perspective, and also studied a genre of writing which many critics regarded as a somewhat inferior genre, not really worthy of serious literary study – of course, I didn’t agree with this judgement, and had to make out and justify my case…a thesis followed by a viva examination with a good cop and bad cop examiner is quite something!

So, I think I’ve come round to the idea that criticism is a useful tool for making us think, or at least introducing us to the idea that it’s possible to see more than initially meets the eye in a text that we’re reading, but that we need to be as wary of the critic as we are curious about the original text. Also, as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to see history repeating itself, as it were: a new generation of freshly trained and qualified critics – just like I was once! – comes along to revisit the same texts, and similar issues, in pretty similar ways: every generation re-invents the wheel, as it seeks to make its living, and a few grains more are added to the sum total of our knowledge and understanding.

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