On Literary Criticism

My ideal of literary criticism is insight into what is being said in the text– commentary that truly helps the reader not miss things such as, what the book is about, or the important themes/thoughts contained in it. (Closely entwined with this is that other question: how are ideas communicated in the text?) Criticism that truly aids you to understand the author’s meaning is doubly rewarding if the author himself has a good insight.

But to whom can I, or anyone, go for insight into literary works? Perhaps one of the reasons that I chose music instead of literature in college was that I felt that so much literary scholarship I had glanced at offered so little correct insight (or perhaps I should say, so much incorrect insight) into what authors were saying.

By the computer on which I’m writing is lying my younger sister’s copy of seven novels by Jane Austen bound together. Flipping back the floral decorated cover I find an introduction by a scholar. It reads: “On first impression, her novels might seem to offer merely romance without redeeming social commentary, but…” What!?

The belief that social commentary is needed to redeem a work of romance, is an excellent example of an attitude which darkens many critics’ eyes. This scholar feels that to validate Austen, she must show that Jane did engage in some broader social commentary.

Going to school myself, I felt the pressure to write about what my teachers thought was important, and however much the author of this introduction herself buys into the idea that social commentary redeems romances, in her sentence I sense something of that pressure to justify herself to the teachers — now her colleagues. Perhaps when she was young she liked Austen for the personal and romantic, and now, by maintaining that Austen is a commentator on larger societal movements, she defends Austen from the contumely of those who would look down their noses at an authoress who “merely” deals with the more personal aspects of being human. Perhaps she defends Austen from the despite of the critic that she herself has become.

But now am on thin ice as a critic — building a biography for this introduction writer from part of one sentence.

Though it might seem like it, I don’t feel that defending Austen merely on her skill at depicting the personal (as opposed to the idea that she is only valuable if she took up her pen to critique features of the broader society ) is making a defense of child-like simplicity versus sophistication. I think that artwork highly conscious of, or built around, ideas of social change is often crude and caricaturesque. Are not Austen’s characters more finely drawn, more human, than those characters who are created and enlisted by their author to make a statement about society?

Worker and Kolkhoz Woman 

The piece of visual art above is highly conscious of a broad social movement, but for me misses the human element. Perhaps because those two represent millions of workers, their physique must be ballooned to huge proportions, but it seems as if the growth of their bodies is inversely proportional to the size of their souls. It might be better art if they were looking at each other with soft expressions. I’d rather learn what it is to be a human — what it is to interact as a human with other humans — from Austen.

And that’s my conclusion. The broader society is downstream of individual souls and their moral choices, friendships, marriages. Stories that illuminate the timeless aspects of these are not to be sneezed at. To write insightfully about romance needs no apology. 

If instead of saying “On first impression, her novels might seem to offer merely romance without redeeming social commentary,” the critic had written “Some can’t tell the difference between a shallow run-of-the-mill romance and an Austen novel, but I will help you see the finer shades of characterization, psychology, and well-observed interactions in her romances.” And if she then had proceeded to do that, I would have no complaint. 






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