‘What is Literary Criticism?’ By Paul Grainger

How often have you thought about this, even posed the question to others, but have never had a satisfactory explanation? Perhaps it is worthwhile considering why the term seems so nebulous.

Firstly, it has a highbrow tone about it, more suited to the vocabulary of academics than those of us who are less intellectually endowed. This premise is reinforced by the language used in literary criticism; it is frequently erudite and pretentious as if, to quote from John Carey’s review of a recent book by the eminent critic, Frank Kermode, “it is deliberately made unintelligible, except to a tiny band of initiates.” Both perspectives are outdated, however. Nowadays, the market for literary criticism is somewhat broader; it embraces everything from academic to mainstream (or popular) literature, and assumes forms that vary in scale from whole volumes of subject matter, through dissertations, to book reviews. Moreover, it is written in a language tailored to its type and form.

Secondly, what exactly is its purpose? Simply to give one person’s opinion about a body of work produced by another. But it must bear a caveat: for the criticism to have any significance or impact the critic should ideally hold a recognisable position – if not of eminence then certainly of status – in the literary world. The reason for this is that the opinion, when seen to be coming from an informed source, has both an intellectual and a commercial value. It is usually adding to (and, more often than not, referring back to) already accumulated knowledge regarding the work of a certain writer or of a specific subject and, if of a positive nature, it will help to sell the book.

Thirdly, how is the above achieved? The special task of literary criticism is to bring about a better understanding of the work, In doing so, the critic must observe two basic rules:

1. Adopt an open approach; put aside his own prejudices and concentrate on trying to give an unbiased opinion.
2. Endeavour to strike a balance between subjectivity and objectivity.

In essence, the critic is making a value judgement. Any opinion he offers should be justified – rather than merely being presented as a number of assertions. He must subject the text to a close reading in order to highlight its qualities; informing the reader not only as to what it means, but how it means. Herein, though, lies a danger, because the critic’s interpretations of ‘what’ and ‘how’ are essentially based on his own impressions. If he reacts to what is not really there, or fails to see what really is there, he himself, as well as his reader, is not getting what the work has to offer. The result may make interesting reading, but it is no longer criticism.

How, then, can literary criticism, when at its best, be summarised? I suggest that it is a balanced judgement of a text, presented in an intelligent and informed manner, and written in a language that can be understood by its target readership.

Copyright Paul Grainger, Aug 01

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