08 July 2006

In Defense of the English Major, Part I: The Meaning of Lit Crit

Alright, alright, in spite of the disclaimer in Ben's post, I feel a need to write a response in defence of the English major. I'll even throw in my own disclaimer: this may not be everyone's reason for being an English major; it simply happens to be mine. Also, I definitely recognize that the English major isn't for everyone.

Ben's post summarizes the main complaint against the English major, or rather against literary criticism:

To me, all that literary criticism and theory sucks all the joy out of reading in a most dreadful and vile manner. I’m not against analyzing literature to see how the writer put it together — that’s what I do to become a better writer, among other things — but my main contention is that the English major has turned the analysis into a god, a golden calf if you will, and almost everything that’s really important about the work itself falls by the wayside.
It might shock you that I'm not even going to fight this charge. A good deal of lit crit has become exactly that. Either it is a method of pulling and twisting and "wresting" books into new meanings, or a way of restating things we all know in new jargon. (My writing hero, Orson Scott Card, has much to say on the subject.) So, if I openly acknowledge this huge problem in much of lit crit, why do I still continue to pursue it?

There was a time, perhaps about half-way through AP English, when I felt that analyzing lit sucked the life out of things that I read. Not only that, but I felt that literary analysis tended to focus mostly on texts that were incomprehensible to normal readers. About half-way through my IB English class, however, I had a revelation. This is only a current trend, not the heart of lit crit. Not all lit crit is this way: although the currently dominant lit crit is the jargon-filled drivel that I abhor, there are other ways to do it which not only don't destroy the literature, but greatly enhance it. Behind the ridiculous jargon of each theory, there lies a kernel of truth, which when understood and applied to each book makes the experience so much richer. For Marxism, the right to question our assumed social heirarchies; for postmodernism, the idea that everything in reality can affect the reading experience; for feminism, how the way we portray people in stories reveals the social attitudes of the time and culture; etc.

If the worship of criticism is not the main point of lit crit, what is lit crit at its heart? Understanding the effects of a text on an audience and its implications about humanity. This is not the same as understanding what the author intended, but it is so much more powerful. We attempt to understand why certain stories affect us in certain ways, and why we as humanity keep returning to the same archetypes. It is a very personal and at the same time very universal experience. Lit crit is essentially an attempt to grow to understand humanity through the stories it tells and retells and remembers, almost a specialized sort of social anthropology or psychology. It is the heart of understanding what it is to be human.

This is what lit crit should be, and used to be, before we buried it in an impenetrable coffin of jargon and obscurity. Current lit crit has lost sight of its lofty mission by burying itself in ever smaller and more fractured theories. Luckily, I'm still young, idealistic, and maybe egoistic enough to believe that I can be part of the movement that changes that, that resurrects lit crit into what it was always intended to be, an expression of the relationship between humanity and its creations.

Which is why I have scribbled this motto in the margins of my modernism notebook: I will not be content with criticism. I will create.

(There's a sequel to this post, In Defense of the English Major, Part II, in which I deal with the issue of immorality in literature.)

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