Critics as readers and Mormon literature

With the new year, I’ve been going through drafts and notes for AMV posts, and decided to begin by finishing this one which I started back in October 2007:

I recently read Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, the text of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he presented at Harvard. There’s a lot that could be said about the lectures, which focus on questions of reading, fiction, truth and narrative. But what delighted me most about the book is that it confirmed (for me) something that I have long thought and experienced: criticism doesn’t kill the reading/viewing experience.

In 1984, at Columbia University, I devoted a graduate course to Sylvie, and some very interesting term papers were written about it. By now I know every comma and every secret mechanism of that novella. This experience of re-reading a text over the course of forty years has shown me how silly those people are who say that dissecting a text and engaging in meticulous close reading is the death of its magic. Every time I pick up Sylvie, even though I know it in such an anatomical way — perhaps because I know it so well — I fall in love with it, as if I were reading it for the first time. (p. 12) *

Later he writes:

Yet as I said in my previous lecture, although I have treated Sylvie with almost clinical rigor for years and years, the book has never lost its charm for me. Every time I reread it, it is as if my love affair with Sylvie (I’m not sure whether I mean the book or the character) were beginning for the first time. How can this be possible, since I know the grid, the secret of the strategy? Because the grid can be designed from outside the text, but when you read again, you return inside the text, and — once within it — you cannot read it in haste … as you slow down, as you accept its pace, then you forget any grid or Ariadne’s thread, and you get lost again in the woods of Loisy. (p. 43) *

Of course, the excerpts show the danger of all literary criticism — the experience/analysis is often very dependent on the text(s) in question and often isn’t extensible to other works, forms and genres. However, in my reading experience with a variety of works across many genres and centuries, I have found his basic premise to true: once within the text you get lost in the story. What’s more, I find this especially to be true of Mormon literature because of the added sympathies. I not only get lost in the story but I am actively rooting for it and actively plumbing it for moments that will speak to my Mormonism.

This doesn’t mean that I want to re-read every single work. But for those who dismiss criticism because they just want to enjoy the text: hey, I enjoy the text too and often my critical work deepens that enjoyment even if the work is not intended to provide many layers of meaning. And to critics: how about expressing the joys of reading and specific works in particular more often?

* Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Umberto Eco. Harvard University Press, 1994.

16 thoughts on “Critics as readers and Mormon literature”

  1. .

    Michael R Collings once said he’s never been able to find all the clever bits in Ender’s Game because every time he reads it, he gets sucked in and just ends up reading it through to the end.

    These days I only tend to look closely at books I’m teaching, and my situation requires moving too quickly and generally at books I don’t love. Not ideal. But I agree with the thesis that looking critically doesn’t damage the book. Not the excellent book, anyway. It only deepens the appeal of that book. And it can bring enjoyment for the first time to the cruddy one.

  2. criticism doesn’t kill the reading/viewing experience.

    It might, if the reader thinks she/he likes a work then reads a critical response that demonstrates effectively why the work isn’t likeable.

    I know you’re talking about a reader who adopts a critical stance toward a work while reading it, but one has to think about the collateral damage. 😉

    Really, though — this whole analyzing the work ruins it argument is cheap goods, like the myth that logic and poetry are incompatible. Whole segments of the population can’t play or watch basketball or football without in-depth critical analysis. Can’t figure out how to fix that car (yet again) without a) experience and b) analysis. But approaching texts critically is out of bounds?

    I’m not interested in re-reading a text that doesn’t work for me nor in doing a critical workup unless it really ticks me off — haven’t got the time. But a book I like, that shows me something new and vital? It’s like Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies: I watch them over and over again to see what makes them tick, noting as I do where the second hand stalls, skips, or runs backward a few beats, but forgiving those moments. Bottom line: I’m looking for strategies I can play off of for my own writing.

  3. I agree with you, Th. There are certain books that I wouldn’t mind reading again and again—the excellent ones that strike a chord in me during the first reading that makes me excited, on an intellectual, psychological, emotional, or spiritual level, to develop more of a relationship with them. These are the ones I generally lean toward as I weigh texts to engage as a scholar. My reasoning is this (and I think this sentiment is echoed in Eco’s thoughts on reading Sylvie—*get it: echo/Eco—ha, ha [lame Tyler]*): If I can’t enjoy and engage on a personal level with what I’m reading, I’m fairly certain studying it extensively and writing about it will become a chore sooner than later.

    Right now, there are two texts (coincidentally, both poetry) I’m drawn to in this way: Javen Tanner’s Curses For Your Sake (2006), which, despite a few places where individual poems fall apart, is a tightly woven lyrical tapestry that I’ve engaged at least three times now (as poet and critic) and started writing a paper on; and Wallace Stevens’ The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), which is elegant and striking in terms of lyric and imagery and to which I’ll return in the near future, again, both as a poet and as a critic.

    Part of this fascination, I think, comes from what Patricia points out: I want to reread great literary works because I want to see what makes them tick and, in so doing, become a better writer myself.

    On another level, the one you define, Th., as critical attention “bring[ing] enjoyment for the first time to a cruddy book,” my desire (as a reader of Mormon literature and as a Mormon critic) to engage Stephenie Meyer’s work has brought a certain enjoyment to my relationship with her texts, though, frankly, this pleasure doesn’t exist on the same level as above, partly because the writing isn’t as high rate. Like William suggests (in terms of enjoying Mormon lit), however, I find myself drawn to and rooting for Meyer as a Mormon storyteller and in ways that speak to my Mormonism, especially as I seek to understand how this BYU grad, mom from Arizona suddenly hit it so big.

  4. like the myth that logic and poetry are incompatible.

    Add to the list the belief that critical thought kills spiritual experiences (and testimony).

    These beliefs are all facets of the same lackluster gem. Maybe you can’t go after one, like the belief that criticism kills the reading/viewing experience, without taking the others into account, especially where Mormons are concerned.

  5. I was trying to explain how I read the scriptures critically in Sunday School the other week, but it mostly just fell flat. I’ve read the Book of Mormon about 20 times in my estimation (more or less) and I love to look for patterns and connections. I do this with a lot of my favorite books. I get enjoyment from reading by looking at text and pattern–and I’m discovering that this is why i struggle in academia because the focus these days is on extra-textual issues. No one wants to be a formalist critic anymore; I should have been born fifty years earlier and become a philologist.

  6. .

    Save philology, Foxy!

    That’s part of my love for the Book of Mormon, that it stands up to the constant critical analysis I’m subjecting it to. I’m always weighing one writer’s quirks and concerns against the others’ — and that’s in translation! It would be a blast to read it in the original as a native….reformed Egyptian speaker. No. No one was native in that language. No wonder Moroni et al always complained about the low quality of their writing. Being a good writer meant being fluid in a language no one really knew.

    Anyway, I like the Book of Mormon. It’s worth a reread, folks.

  7. #5: Philology rocks!

    You have to teach SS or RS for a while using a light-touch philological approach; folks get used to it and then come to like it. Then you can layer in a little more.

  8. This post makes me think of music.

    First, a thought about a related idea: the relationship between familiarity with a work of art and pleasure. I am aware of neurological research (through a brainy music-genius friend–don’t ask for a citation!) that demonstrates that the pleasure derived from a piece of music increases with familiarity–but only up to a point. This makes sense to me. I have experienced coming to like a piece of music the more I hear it (often piano music that my wife is working on)–and then becoming bored with it by listening to it too often. I think the same principle applies to literature. Good poems, novels, stories, movies, etc. become more enjoyable on repeated exposures as I become more aware of and anticipate underlying structures, patterns, “tricks,” and so forth. But I am careful not to kill such works by returning to them too often.

    Second, a thought about critical competence. My wife is a brilliant musician. She has mastered significant chunks of the classical piano repertoire. Also, she is trained to conduct complex tonal analysis (Shenkerian, etc.), she has perfect pitch, and she hears things in music (theoretic, technical, historical) that are not apparent to untrained ears. (Please excuse the bragging, but my wife RAWKS!) Anyway, this high level of critical competence means that analysis dramatically increases her enjoyment of good music. On the other hand, I don’t have the same tools, and I don’t get much out of our conversations on the way home from the symphony. Indeed, I have learned from such conversations how my wife feels on a typical drive home from the movies. I get all critical, which I am quite certain increases my enjoyment but diminishes hers. You get what I’m saying: whether or not criticism hurts your enjoyment of a work of art probably depends on your ability to criticize well.

  9. You know, back when I first graduated college I was on a mission to bring critical analysis techniques to the masses. I was convinced they just didn’t understand how cool it was–or else they would already be doing it. My book club friends were polite but it was obvious it wasn’t working for them. They could appreciate what I was saying, but it didn’t mean much to them.

    Fast forward to now: I think that if my post college self could see me now she would be ashamed. While I try to keep some of those critical reading tools sharp it has become more of a chore than it used to be. I’m hoping that will change over time as the home-stress lessens–well, and when I start getting uninterrupted sleep 🙂 The only thing I can really say that changed about me was my stage of life. Now that I have three kids and my husband has been in grad school and working full time for three years, I can finally understand the whole “I just want to escape for awhile” paradigm. Of course, literary criticism can be part of that escape but then reading feels less like (virgin) pina coladas on the beach and more like climbing a mountain: worth the effort, but, well, a lot of effort.

    I know there are people out there who are all bah-humbuggy about literary criticism but I wonder if they are few in number. My guess is most people are just too stressed out/busy/tired/emotional to give that extra effort to a literary text. Especially when escaping is a lot easier!

  10. Laura,

    I know I have the problem you describe more often than I care to admit. I have four girls five years old and under, work two jobs, and hold a potentially very time-consuming calling. I completely empathize with your sleep situation. 🙂 As you mention, I find my critical thinking and analytical skills declining as my daily life becomes more hectic. That’s one reason things like AMV are so good for me! I really don’t have much more to say, I just wanted to validate your comment in at least one person’s life.

  11. Aw, thanks Adam! Validation always feels good 😉 I agree with you about AMV. I just worry because I tend to be less academic than the other contributors . . .but maybe I’m giving the rest of you the chance to relax a little.

  12. “Less academic” doesn’t necessarily mean less critically rigorous or that such work offers a less meaningful critique, Laura—at least to me. Everyone’s got a unique way of critiquing the world and its texts, some just use academic/theoretical terminology more than others do. In most cases, though, I think criticism is more effective and more far-reaching when it’s cast in the colloquial and painted with the passion and compassion of personal experience (which is one thing I think William is advocating in his echo of Eco—crap, there I go again with that lame pun!). That’s a balance I’m trying to achieve in my own writing, especially as I see the merit in converting the masses, like you say, to critical reading techniques and theories.

    Rest assured, I know your voice is appreciated here (and on your personal blog).

  13. Yep. Although this is a reminder to myself, too. My natural inclination is to go abstract and critical.

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