OK, call me lazy, but I'm reposting something I had written once upon a time for my personal blog and still find to be the case, not that currency always justifies repetition.  But, in this instance, I'm making an exception.

Once, while I sat schmoozing in the home of  New Haven Review editor Mark Oppenheimer, we started speaking of our respective experiences as college instructors. He noted how much he preferred teaching nonfiction writing to literature because he neither wrote nor knew all that much about literary criticism—a gross understatement on his part, really. I chimed in, stupidly perhaps, "I don't really understand why we teach students how to write literary criticism at all."

But is such a sentiment all that stupid?  In spirit of making a go of this bit of devilish advocacy, I thus ask: why do we teach students how to write literary criticism? Make no mistake, it is a type of writing that can approach the status of art in the right hands. But even for experts it is a far more difficult form of nonfiction to produce—in my humble view—than those ol' classroom chesnuts: narration, description, and argumentation.

Now, technically, literary criticism is a subdivision of the last, but it remains one of the hardest to do well. I attribute this difficulty not only to the inability of students to read and write well but to the inherent complications of trying to formulate an argument about something as slippery as a well-wrought story or poem.

In my experience, the slipperiness of the literary artifact comes directly from the story-like nature of this species of discourse. When I taught the art of litcrit—and probably not all that well, to be honest—my students continuously wrestled with the Herculean (or more likely Sisyphean) task of unwinding authors from characters, storytellers from their stories, the telling from the showing. Even I still have difficulty with the boxes-within-boxes or wall-of-mirrors (pick your metaphor) nature of this discursive mode. And, mind you, I have a doctorate in literature.

I'm currently convinced that high school teachers and college professors teach students how to write literary criticism not because it instructs them in how to "think critically" or "formulate an argument" better. These can be done just as easily—actually more easily—focusing on more seemingly concrete topics, like reproductive rights or drunk-driving laws. Instead, I believe many teachers, in their heart of hearts, would rather not teach students how to write literary criticism at all. What they'd prefer is reading works of literary quality and talking about them intelligently—like a book club but with the teacher's authority intact for guiding novitiates. That certainly was my experience as a college instructor.

I loved selecting, teaching, and discussing (or more appropriately discoursing on) the work at hand. What I despised to no end was marking my students' papers, which were poorly written, generally incoherent, and pretty pedestrian in their interpretations. And most literary instructors I speak with tend to echo this sentiment—although I'm happy to be flamed to the contrary.

Marking papers probably explains why I became an editor: I grew tired of commenting on people's dry runs. If someone is going to write poorly, and I'm going to have to redline it into readable prose, I might as well make sure the fruits of my labor see light of day in published form.

In some ways, I miss those halcyon days of teaching literature. I even sometimes miss the stress and strain of writing literary criticism—no easy task, even for me. But the idea of teaching students to write literary criticism, as if that constituted training for a profession other than, well, writing literary criticism (which is not even a solid basis for the art of book reviewing), is a misbegotten notion that serves no one else other than the instructors who recognize this chore as the price they must pay for the pleasures of reading and discussing literature worth talking about.

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2 Responses to Literary Curmudgeonism

  1. Donald Brown says:

    I've always had similiar ambivalence about the idea that writing literary criticism should be the goal of English instruction. Even in high school, I tended to lampoon the practice, from an elitist sense that few of my schoolmates had any ideas about literature worth entertaining. I took literature too seriously to want to talk about it in school!

    When I went to college, I studied art history for that very reason: to avoid students' ersatz lit crit, but also to avoid the assigned critics of lit, but for some classes here and there. But I'd attended a Joyce conference in '82 and found that many of the attendees wanted to talk Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, et al., as much or more than Joyce per se. This was pretty heady stuff and seemed to justify doctoral study if only to have time to get up to speed. I went for a Ph.D. in Comp Lit but not without a lot of looking askance at what it was, exactly, I was supposed to be producing. My ongoing interest in what reading lit, and crit, and theory, does to my own mind kept me going, but when it came to producing something I could put my name to, professionally, well, that wasn't so simple.

    I have no problems with instruction in writing papers -- on whatever subject -- as based on argument and evidence and interpretation of texts; when I've taught freshman comp I've stayed away from literary analysis, mostly, preferring to read arguments about something going on in the world. However, I do think that there's much to be said for composition as personal opinion and sustained thought, even ruminative thought, which can be done addressing any number of topics, texts, events, works, and showing skill in reading a highly subjective or poetic text is still a remarkable feat for a student and worthy of encouragement.

  2. [...] I posted on the fruitlessness of teaching students how to write literary criticism. The argument was part tongue in cheek, part all business. In brief, I’m ambivalent [...]

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