Literary critics and pride, part II

Yesterday I raised the issue of literary critics (especially those who also write fiction) and pride, in the process laying out  how the main ways that critics engage with works and authors sometimes (often?) do so out of pride. The subsequent discussion has been excellent, with several commenters offering some good solutions to the problem of injecting too much pride and even enmity in to ones criticism/reviews. As promised, I sketched out some prescriptions to the problem on the bus this morning and am now attempting to create some coherence out of them on my lunch break. Sorry they are so Beatitudenous:

  • Read with a charitable eye. A key feature of charitable reading is to not expect the author to be doing what you want him or her to do. This does not mean that you don’t hold texts to genre standard and basic standards of quality. It does mean that recognizing that some things are a matter of taste and expectations and being up front about your own.
  • Engage in omnivorous media consumption so that you broaden your expectations and tastes and have more experiences in charitable reading.
  • Related to both of the above — be aware of genre conventions and expectations and respect them (and sometimes subvert them, of course, but only subvert because you already know and love the conventions). Nothing is worse than a reviewer or critic who spouts off on a subject that he or she clearly doesn’t know a whole lot about (c.f. James Wood on speculative fiction and Bruce Jorgensen on Anita Stansfield). If you feel compelled to write about an area that you don’t know that much about, reflect that in your writing — or even better, recruit somebody to help (cite, co-author, do a Q&A instead of a review). This, in fact, is one of the benefits of engaging in literary criticism via a blog — it’s much easier and more natural to pull in experts.
  • Use humor, especially self-deprecating humor. Be judicious in your use of snark and sarcasm — and, really, satire is the better approach because satire can show a deep knowledge of and even fondness for the subject being satirized.
  • Understand that every piece of criticism comes out of a particular time, place, mood and history and where appropriate acknowledge that.
  • Use specific examples, especially direct quotes from and references to texts — but be careful about cherrypicking to prove a point and removing context that adds meaning to a particular quote, scene, character, work, etc.
  • Reviews are fine (and on the other post there are some great comments about the differences between reviews and literary criticism), but don’t forget about criticism. It’s one thing to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down, but approaching a work with humility may just mean that at some point, you need to analyze it in order to give it its due.
  • Be invested in the success of the authors, genres, and literary communities you engage with and show that investment in your writing.  And be up front about conflicts of interest (which is a horrible term, imo, because it suggests that sometimes we don’t have interests in what we write about — that’s clearly never the case. If it’s worth spending time writing about, then clearly there’s some sort of interest involved) — but don’t use a potential conflict of interest as an excuse to dodge a conversation you really should engage in. This is especially important in the world of Mormon letters.
  • If you must respond to a review or a comment (and sometimes it is indeed better to keep silent), try to avoid a point by point debate. Clarify rather than combat.
  • Revisit if you change your mind or re-read or have new insights (another virtue of blogging). In general, much of the problem of literary critics and pride comes from the drive-by judgments and the desire to set oneself up as wholly independent rather than part of a conversation.

So that’s what I was able to come up with in 24 hours. Anything I’m missing or got wrong?

10 thoughts on “Literary critics and pride, part II”

  1. * Acknowledge – explicitly and often – that tastes differ, and that people of intelligence and goodwill may (and most likely do at times) arrive at judgments that differ from yours.

    * Whenever possible, attribute the best motives to others (both mentally and in conversation).

    * Seek clarification and explication.

    * Avoid value judgments about classes of readers.

  2. Well, now that I’ve read this I’m pretty sure what I do isn’t ALL bad. I’m not a literary critic–heck the stuff I write is barely a review sometimes–but yesterday’s post had me worried about the road I was headed down.

    This list is a good place to start conversations. And that’s really the fun of reading and writing, the conversing.

  3. And I think, Laura, that that’s one thing critics should also keep in mind: that criticism/reviewing is a wide-open dialogue about literature in which no one really gets—or should get, in my opinion—the last word, since we’re all, authors, critics, reviewers, simply scribes, having no real authority but our character and the power of our words. And once those words go public, they’re essentially up for grabs, becoming subject, as Jonathan points out, to others’ tastes, intelligence, and good will (or lack thereof, as the case may be).

    And the best thing about this, I think, is that everyone is invited to the conversation, something that should (not that it necessarily happens this way), as William suggests in his post, keep literature an inclusive club and readers and writers a charitable lot.

  4. Be invested in the success of your readers. That is to say that criticism’s ability to communicate the power and importance of literature (or the arts in general) cannot be underestimated. While dissecting and analyzing someone else’s work, do so with the guiding thought that you have a reponsibility to engage the reader in a dialogue that inspires them continue the habit, and always to seek “the best books.”

  5. I like that Bradly: the critic should remember that they have a responsibility to readers, to the work they’re analyzing, to literature in general—something many critics might brush off, but that Mormon critics should be especially invested in, I believe. This is part, I think, of critiquing with integrity, charity, and humility.

  6. Thanks for the link, Mojo. I got a good kick out of Holt’s wit.

    I find these lines especially apropos in light of this conversation about the charitableness (or not) of critics/reviewers:

    “What matters is the readers experience.”

    “[P]eople write customer reviews as though they’re talking to a dear friend. Most of them would never give away the ending or the salient parts of a book or movie because that would spoil the friend’s enjoyment of the story.”

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