Up until recently, I was aware that there existed a number of critical approaches to analyzing literature. However, my understanding of the subject was at best, sketchy. I had gained a fair amount of knowledge concerning only couple of them. I knew a little bit about the conflicts that adherents of particular approaches engaged in. However, I had no unified, coherent understanding about these techniques, or how they related to one another. As I have become recently interested in the subject, I decided that it was time for a primer on the topic.
I recently read Charles Bressler’s Literary Criticism. Though this work is used as a kind of textbook in many introductory literature and humanities classes, the book is extremely readable and presents all of the major critical systems, as well as some important subsystems. Bressler’s summaries are understandable, even when technical. The book presents the reader with a clear and concise overview that includes the history as well as examples of each of these methods. In addition, Bressler chronicles the history of literary criticism from Plato on down to the present day. Not only did I find this text interesting, but I also found exploring the various approaches to be fun.
I also spent a fair amount of time reading online articles and opinions relating to the various schools in order to round out my introduction. Finally, I reread various essays and book chapters written by Harold Bloom on this subject.
I tried to reach a level where I could at least articulate the basics of the various critical approaches and sub approaches. New Criticism, Constructionism, Deconstructionism, Reader-response criticism, Feminist Criticism, New Humanist Criticism, African - American Criticism and Psychoanalytic literary criticism are just a few examples.
Blogging about books is not the same thing as practicing academic literary criticism. Instead, both my fellow bloggers and myself are simply discussing books. With that said, much of the discussions that occur on our blogs involve elements of literary criticism. We often try to analyze meanings, themes, characters, etc. Of course, most of us do not claim to be attempting to write professionally, academically or even in a formal structure. Yet, anyone familiar with even a few of the book blogs out there will find elements of most of the approaches ingrained in our posts and discussions.
Furthermore, I find these various methods, even when I disagree with them, fascinating. Understanding the various approaches, the histories and theories behind them, as well as their methodologies, is just another piece of the puzzle to understanding art and aesthetics.
I will not go into much detail concerning most of the schools. There is a lot of complexity and nuance, and my understanding is rudimentary at best. Some of the philosophies behind these methods are radically different from one another. Personally, it turns out that in my thinking and writing about literature, I often parallel aspects of several approaches. I am very partial to a Holistic strategy, where aspects of several methods are employed.
I strongly question the value of a few of the schools, particularly Deconstructionism. At the risk of oversimplifying this method, adherents would look for the basic themes and symbols used in the text. Since, according to the theory, all concepts are subjective, the analysis would proceed by elevating themes that would traditionally be considered inferior or negative, to the level of the superior or the positive. Thus, a Deconstructive reading of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol might begin by interpreting the story as being in favor of hard work and frugality and critical of charity, leisure, etc. All sorts of variations in between the traditional interpretation of the story and this alternate interpretation could next be explored. I have doubts if this approach in any way moves us anywhere near to understanding art, ideas or the work itself.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding several of the approaches, particularly the Feminist and Cultural Studies schools, such as the Post Colonial and the African American approaches. I believe that these approaches are useful when examining texts whose themes directly involve their subjects. Thus, a Feminist reading of Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City Of Ladies or William Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew makes perfect sense to me as one way to examine these texts. When such approaches are applied to all literary works, even those whose do not have related themes, these methodologies also seem to have value in terms of examining their respective subjects. Thus, if one wanted to consider or discuss the role of women in 16th century Europe, a Feminist analysis of just about any work written in 16th century Europe can be fruitful. However, these approaches seem ill equipped to understand and examine the works themselves if the themes of the work do not directly touch upon their subjects. For instance, Bressler presents a Feminist analysis of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. I believe such analysis can be useful and interesting when examining gender related issues and the role and views of women when the story was written. However, in terms of understanding and appreciating this work, such an analysis seems, to me, unenlightening. Some adherents of these schools would argue the contrary, however.
I must mention that there is a school of thought that rejects many of these approaches outright. In several of his books, but particularly in his The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Harold Bloom is highly critical of most of these systems. Bloom is very opinioned, as well as curmudgeonly, however I find his reasoning thought - provoking, even when I do not entirely agree with him.
I will likely not read much more on the theory and methods of literary criticism, as there is too much great literature itself out there waiting to be read. However, I do want to read Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. Afterward, I will likely leave this subject be. I am glad that I did spend a week or so exploring some of the basics, however. In a small way, at least, it will make me a better reader and help me to understand the world a bit more.