Monday, December 15, 2014

Literary Criticism and Me

I’ve written about literary criticism before, and about I have problems with it. Some years ago I had an exchange at the Absolute Write forums about this. The other person said, “Literary criticism, and critical theory, are ways of reading texts that are interpretive, rather than evaluative. One way of thinking of criticism is to look at it as a reader attempting to find personal meaning in a text, to discover how, and why, a text (a poem, a song, a novel, a letter, an advertisement) does or does not "work" for that reader.”

For many years I critiqued poems at four different Internet poetry sites. I figure I’ve critiqued more than 1,000 poems. A couple of sites have become defunct (one at least lost to hackers), and if I never copied or printed my critiques on those I’ve lost them. So be it. I did a lot of critiquing.
However, literary criticism escapes my understanding. “Interpretive, rather than evaluative” this more knowledgeable person said. I’m not sure what to do with that. Interpret what the author said, but don’t evaluate it. I don’t know how to separate the two. This is probably what got me afoul of so many English classes in my school years.

I’m just about finished reading a small literary criticism about Thomas Carlyle. It’s written by a University of Kansas professor, the cobbled notes of a class he taught. The book is Thomas Carlyle, a Study of His Literary Apprenticeship, 1814-1831, by William Savage Johnson (1911). Johnson shows how the various parts of Carlyle’s philosophy and doctrine began appearing in his early works, though they were not fully articulated until later works. I think this is the second time to read this. I think I began it once before and abandoned it. It’s only 73 pages, and right now I’m on page 64, so less than 10 pages to go.
I imagine I’ll finish it, but I’m not enjoying it. Perhaps Johnson is too deep for me. Or perhaps literary criticism, as practiced by thems that do it, is beyond me.

All of which is causing me to rethink my currently-shelved Carlyle projects, and wonder if instead I need to just trash them. The one I was farthest along with was a study of his short book Chartism. This was to include: background of the conditions in Britain that caused him to write the book; selections from letters before and after writing and publication; the book itself, with my editor’s notes added to help a 21st century American audience to understand it; all the reviews (that I can find) that came out around the time of publication; various reviews and interpretations of the work right up to the present era. Some of these would require release of copyright to include them in my book. I also figured on including an essay or two of mine (yet to be written) of my own literary criticism of the work.
However, based on what I now know of literary criticism, I think this is a dead project. I’m not saying I will never resurrect it, and at this stage I’m not discarding all notes and deleting all files. But I’ll have to get a whole lot of writing, intellectual, and publishing mojo back before I’ll tackle this again.


Gary said...

Dave, your difficulty is that your engineering habits take precedence. That is, you need to explain how things work more than what they mean to you. It seem that literary criticism has turned into exploring the personal relationship between the work and the reader. Seems a bit too squishy for me too, but it does get to the "why" of the situation more than the "how."

David A. Todd said...

I suppose it could be an engineer thing. Hadn't thought of that.