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Offline Ellen (tellyouwhat)

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Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« on: February 07, 2012, 08:21:57 AM »
The purpose of this thread is to discuss any and all works of literary criticism, preferably (but not limited to) criticism and analysis by authoritative voices in arts and letters -- some examples have been Nabakov, (relatives of) James Joyce, our especial favorite Annie Proulx, and let me throw in John Updike.  And so forth.

This discussion was moved from the General Discussion. I am beginning with some of the more pertinent quotes but all are welcome to re-quote themselves here.


The following is in response to a discussion over in the "were they gay " thread.  I feel my comments are probably more appropriate here since they are not specific to the topic of the sexual identification of Jack and Ennis.

 I suppose I should begin by stating that I am not a literary critic though it is certainly a passion.  If anything, I am a theater critic, at least as an avocation, in that I have amassed a certain amount of experience and knowledge as a dramaturge and some understanding of the various elements,(acting, direction, scenic design, lighting, choreography) necessary to mount a decent interpretation of theatre literature.  
The problem, of course , is that theatre is a collaborative effort.  A poor production due to direction, acting, or a combination of these and other factors of O’Neill’s “Long Days Journey Into Night”, Miller’s  “The Death of a Salesman” , Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”, or Sondheim’s “Follies”, can obliterate the genius of the underlying work.  
Literature, on the other hand, represents an objective and direct communication between the author and the reader.  It is, of-course, not purely objective, (what is?), since the reader naturally brings to the table personal knowledge, experience, prejudice, and all manner of psychological baggage.  
However, with the exception of painting and the visual arts, literature is the only artistic form that intimately and directly bonds the creator with the consumer and it is incumbent upon the consumer to suppress the subjective in order to arrive at an objective analysis.  It is the human ability to do so, or at least to make the attempt,  that separates us from the balance of the our natural environment.

Since the time of Plato various “theories’ of literary criticism have been formulated.  The most prevalent are:
Historical/Biographical
Moral/Philosophical
Mimetic
Formalistic/New Critical
Psychological
Mythological/Archetypal/Symbolic
Feminist
Reader-Response



What, then, is the purpose of literary criticism?  I believe it is threefold:

(1)   To help us resolve a question, problem, or difficulty in the reading.
Why is Ennis so tentative, while Jack so much more open to his sexuality?  What does Ennis really “know”?  What does Jack really remember?  Why are we told of Jack’s “hard scene” with his father?  To whom are we to place blame for the plight of Ennis and Jack: society? Jack and Ennis themselves?, A combination of the two?
(2)   To help us decide which is the better of two conflicting
readings
A formalist approach might enable us to choose between a reading which sees the dissolution of society in Lord of the Flies as being caused by too strict a suppression of the "bestial" side of man and one which sees it as resulting from too little suppression. We can look to the text and ask: What textual evidence is there for the suppression or indulgence of the "bestial" side of man? Does Ralph suppress Jack when he tries to indulge his bestial side in hunting? Does it appear from the text that an imposition of stricter law and order would have prevented the breakdown? Did it work in the "grownup" world of the novel?


(3)    To enable us to form judgments about literature.
One of the purposes of criticism is to judge if a work is any good or not. For instance, we might use a formalist approach to argue that a John Donne poem is of high quality because it contains numerous intricate conceits that are well sustained. Or, we might use the mimetic approach to argue that The Goat: Or Who is Sylvia is a poor play because it fails to paint a realistic picture of the world.
 
In my experience, I have found that the Formalist/New Criticism theory of criticism to be the most productive starting point in evaluating a piece of literature because it emphasizes the actual text and employs, to the extent that this is even possible, a high degree of objectivity in favor of personal or extraneous subjectivity.
The advantage to this critical approach is that it can be performed without much research, and it emphasizes the value of literature apart from its context. This type of literary criticism in effect makes literature timeless. Unfortunately, there are also disadvantages to this approach. For one, the text is viewed in isolation. Formalism ignores the context of the work. This means that, among other things, it cannot account for allusions. Some have argued that the formalist approach reduces literature to nothing more than a collection of rhetorical devices.

And this is the problem with aligning oneself with only one theory of literary critique.  Annie Proulx, in BBM, employs at least one, if not more, explicit literary allusions in her telling of the tale.  However, is it really necessary for the reader to recognize these allusions in order to understand the story?  No it is not.  However, by employing other theories , subsequent to first adhering to Formalism, such as Historical/Biographical, one can glean even further insights into the surface texture of the story.  
As an example, is it really necessary to have an in-depth knowledge of O’Neill’s personal biography or his affinity to early Freudian theory to grasp the universal truths of “Long Days’ Journey Into Night”?  I contend that it is not.
Neither is it incumbent upon the reader to have an acquaintance with “The Aenied” to appreciate the subtle nuances of BBM.

On the other hand, Paul, (and I am not picking on him), invokes the idea of “decoding” a story.  Authors, in my experience, strive, sweat, and agonize over clarity of intent and theme.  If a story has to be “decoded” then the author has failed and THIS is the value of the Formalist theory of critique. BBM is not included in the study of great American literature due to the subject matter or its purported illusive subtext.  It is included for the author’s ability to employ textural structure,metaphor, and character exposition clearly and succinctly within the confines of the short story genre.  

Subsequent to an initial analysis of the work, analysis based solely upon the structure of the text, it is always instructive to further one’s understanding by examining the so called “intent” of the author or to further explore the “context” of the work itself.  

As an example, BBM, is presented to the reader, (with the obvious exception of the “New Yorker” publication) as the last and penultimate story of “Close Range”, a collection of stories concerning Annie Proulx’s interpretation of a specific time, place, and culture and the effect of all three upon the people who both nurture and perpetuate that culture and the people who are victims of its destructive mythology.  (and not just a homophobic mythology).
Placing BBM within this “context” further underscores the validity of the “formalistic” critique as valid. However, that validity must be first supported by the critique and close reading, not by the context, for the work to stand on its own as a worthy addition to the canon of American literature.

Furthermore AP, in the text,  exhibits no interest in sexual identification or the Kinsey scale of sexuality but only an intense interest in the destructive effect of intolerance and ignorance upon those who do not conform to a specific code of behavior. There is nothing in the text that supports the idea that BBM is the study or examination of the travails of a self identifying “straight” male “accidently” falling in love or finding pleasure or comfort in sexual congress with a member of the same sex.

« Last Edit: February 07, 2012, 01:24:36 PM by Ellen (tellyouwhat) »
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Offline Ellen (tellyouwhat)

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #1 on: February 07, 2012, 08:27:01 AM »
Oh, well, Literary Criticism has again re-appeared.  IMO, it is a legitimate reference point, to a degree, as to exploring the text of the SS and the author's intentions, which are what keep the discussion threads going.  And going  :D.
  I have noticed the types of LC are tilted towards the English speaking theories (although Gary did list Formalism, in there somewhere).  The Russians, though, from 1890-1920 made huge jumps in LC, and these are often unknown to the West. [Along, also, with Russian literature's influence.  Hemingway, if not plagiarizing, at least copied the writing style of Babel.  And AP, if not influenced by Hemingway's terse, rough prose, has some similarities in her own.]

 Anyway, for those who want to look at BbM and the controversies, from a new perspective, they might try Boris Eichenbaun's "How Gogol's 'Overcoat' is Made".  There can be found a persuasive argument that, once choosing a format, the format generates the text.  Especially in...short stories.

 I would also suggest much confusion arises from the (to me) ridiculous idea that an author is writing to readers. There's more, IMO, a continuum.  At one extreme, there are poets and authors, who are writing just to express themselves (some American poets come to mind) and their works are discovered after their deaths.  Author writing to author.  Then there are authors to one other person (one of Shakespeare's sonnets?).  And at the other end of the continuum, author persuading the reader (Tom Paine, in his pamphlets).
 When we look at AP's short story, then, and am sorry if this adds even more complexity, we might consider where she was, on that continuum.

 Finally, (ack!)...some creative people are trying to keep up with the Joneses, and so, might be somewhat competing with their sub-set.  The sub-set of that small circle of the creatively endowed.
 IMO, it is for these reasons, along with others, that there is a great energy in the BbM discussion threads.  There's more there.
sometimes I think life is just a rodeo the trick is to ride and make it 'til the bell --john fogerty

Offline Ellen (tellyouwhat)

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #2 on: February 07, 2012, 08:29:20 AM »
I guess my rhetorical question was more about the usefulness of literary criticism... I'm finding that not everyone agrees as to the value of literary criticism, including many prominent authors, such as Proulx...


Stephen J. Joyce, grandson of James Joyce, at a 1986 academic conference of Joyceans in Copenhagen, said, “If my grandfather was here, he would have died laughing ... Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can be picked up, read, and enjoyed by virtually anybody without 'scholarly guides,' theories, and intricate explanations, as can Ulysses, if you [can ignore] all the hue and cry."

And, he questioned if anything is added to the legacy of Joyce's art, by the 261 books of literary criticism stored by the Library of Congress. He summed up by saying that "academics are people who want to brand this great work with their mark... I don’t accept that."


Vladimir Nabokov argued that good readers don't read books -- and particularly literary masterpieces --"for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations."

Etc.



sometimes I think life is just a rodeo the trick is to ride and make it 'til the bell --john fogerty

Offline Ellen (tellyouwhat)

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #3 on: February 07, 2012, 08:31:55 AM »
Why should we accept Stephen Joyce's opinion about literary criticism? Being Joyce's grtandson doesn't confer any particular insights. Funny, Nabokov did himself engage in generalizations when he taught at Cornell (and when he wrote and reviewed). However, there is nothing academic about the process of generalizing. It's done everywhere. Is literary criticism useful? I guess only to the extent that thinking is useful, even though the Republican primaries are showing how little some people care about thinking. When we finish with literary criticism, we can start on proof texting.
sometimes I think life is just a rodeo the trick is to ride and make it 'til the bell --john fogerty

Offline Ellen (tellyouwhat)

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #4 on: February 07, 2012, 08:39:09 AM »
Re Reply #1711, no, I was referring to MY earlier quote of Nabokov, and why I invoked it.
~snip~
I have tried to make of you good readers who read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations.. I have tried to teach you to read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art. I have tried to teach you to feel a shiver of artistic satisfaction, to share not the emotions of the people in the book, but the emotions of its author -- the joys and difficulties of creation."-Ta.

You are confusing (at least) two strands of thought. Nabokov says that the good reader should (i) not identify with the characters of the story and (ii) should not approach a story with bland academic generalizations but in search of the details. He doesn't characterize identifying oneself with the characters as an academic approach, but a juvenile one. Sharing the emotions of the author is not anywhere near the same thing as identifying with one of the author's characters.
sometimes I think life is just a rodeo the trick is to ride and make it 'til the bell --john fogerty

Offline Ellen (tellyouwhat)

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #5 on: February 07, 2012, 08:43:59 AM »
They were not students of composition; it was a lecture class of literature held, I believe, in Goldwin Smith Hall. His introductory essay on good readers was addressed to, well, readers.
Yes, they were basically undergraduate literature "survey" courses much like music appreciation or art appreciation courses.  They took place at both Wellesley and Cornell between something like 1943 and 1953.  In 1980 the lectures, actually his notes for the lectures, were put together as two volumes: one regarding British, French and German writers and one on Russian Writers.  I am more familiar with the former.

He was anything but a stuffy academian. He began each lecture series by asking his students to explain in writing why they had enrolled in the course.  His favorite answers were always something akin to " Because I like stories".   :)
He would also begin the course by asking the following: "Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:
1. The reader should belong to a book club.
2. the reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
3. the reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none
4. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
5. the reader should have seen the book in a movie.
6. The reader should be a budding author.
7. The reader should have imagination.
8. the reader should have a dictionary.
9. the reader should have memory.
10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

Pick four.

sometimes I think life is just a rodeo the trick is to ride and make it 'til the bell --john fogerty

Offline Ellen (tellyouwhat)

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #6 on: February 07, 2012, 08:45:32 AM »

I don’t know whether I’m “brave,” but I’d select three qualities that a good reader should have:

     • imagination
     • memory
     • some artistic sense

The fourth selection is a little more difficult, but I’d probably choose that the reader:

• preferred a story with action and dialogue (e.g. like BBM) to one with none, rather than having a dictionary.


It's taken me hours tonight to compose these posts.  :)



sometimes I think life is just a rodeo the trick is to ride and make it 'til the bell --john fogerty

Offline Tony_

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #7 on: February 07, 2012, 09:43:18 AM »
  Ellen, thanks for the idea, and following through !

 I am not all that much on solid ground on literary criticism, so will be careful what I post here.  Unusual experiences there, but not enough to suppose I know much.

 Now I wonder if those who do know their stuff, will follow up on this, from the other thread (General Discussion).

 The table is laid, there are some place-names out, and open room for anyone else.  Am curious if they want to develop their interests.  At any rate, this was an extremely courteous innovation.  Thanks, again !

Offline Tony_

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #8 on: February 07, 2012, 10:13:04 AM »
  Although I had little to do with the Nabokov discussions, and zero involvement in the starting of this thread, I was getting interested in the subject of "what makes a good reader?".
    I did feel uneasy about Nabokov's rapturous delineations, as they seemed, to me, to be too defining.  I am not sure I would have wanted to be in that classroom.  But, he was a Russian. and, for them, the discussion can be more exhilarating than any conclusions.  In fact, in part of Paul's quote, Nabokov rose to a lyrical rhapsody, that was, IMO, of more consequence than his opinions.
 But, what does make a good reader? (I don't think, BTW, a background in literary criticism is necessary to give an answer).

Offline Sandy

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #9 on: February 07, 2012, 10:51:13 AM »
Yes, Nabokov was Russian by birth. But he spent much time in Germany in his formative years. And he wrote largely in English. He does not belong among the formidable Russian formalist crtics.

I brought him up in the first place because he is very approachable; he's not concerned with jargon or schools of thought. And I think he brings a lot of common sense to how literature may be profitably read. Sometimes, though, I think that Anglo-Saxons are not prepared to accept the notion of common sense in artistic pursuits, and that makes Nabokov look more alien than he turns out to be.

I raised Nabokov's notion of a reader as a way of sifting out what arguments might better go under the heading/thread, "How Brokeback affected me" and those that dealt with the form and style of the story (either written or cinematic). Our membership actually included writers, of fiction, nonfiction and fanfiction, so I thought focusing on literature as opposed to personal experiences might not be out of place. And I thought it might be useful as a way to get more explicit about what we were talking about.

Offline garyd

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #10 on: February 07, 2012, 03:00:52 PM »
Quote

I don’t know whether I’m “brave,” but I’d select three qualities that a good reader should have:

     • imagination
     • memory
     • some artistic sense

The fourth selection is a little more difficult, but I’d probably choose that the reader:

• preferred a story with action and dialogue (e.g. like BBM) to one with none, rather than having a dictionary.

Hold on to your cards ladies and gentleman we appear to have a BING but no BINGO .

Sorry Paul, you were told to "Pick four" and you only picked three with a possible but "qualified" fourth.
Remember we are operating from the musty catacombs of academe and coloring out side the lines is not permitted.

Actually I suppose the custom of reading in close proximity to a dictionary is considered rather quaint these days
though I usually always have my browser open to "google" or with my trusty Ipad the dictionary is always only a
word touch away.

While V.N. admires stories with "action and dialogue" he is simply in hopes that you will not limit yourself to a specific genre.
(And I must say that invoking BBM as an example is quite interesting.)

Offline Tony_

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #11 on: February 07, 2012, 07:40:14 PM »
  Will try for an answer to the general question, but will not be a 101 student in Nabokov's classroom.  And, Gary, I noticed the ad under your remarks on the other thread said: "Want a divorce?  Know your rights !"  :D. It seemed appropriate.

 A good reader, I think, should be......willing.  Willing to venture into the author's offering, and willing to allow for personal reactions.  Too simplistic?

Meanwhile, along the lines of Schroedinger's cat (sp?), what happens to a literary work, if the author and all possible readers are gone (say, a Mayan calendar event has occurred) ? Am not being mischievous.  I have heard this very question asked in some articles and books.  Does it exist without interaction?  If it doesn't, then a basic duhhh....is there.  And it can't be just the author.  In many cases, they're gone, anyway.  Which leaves the work and the readers. 
 IMO, a good reader (defined, bravely now, bravely, as someone who likes to read) can do whatever he darn well pleases.  He or she suffers from less of an adventure, of course, if not sensitive, and having some solid literary reference points. But that's a different matter.
 A good reader is.....a good reader.  That's where I would start, Nabokov-less.

Offline Paul029

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #12 on: February 08, 2012, 01:15:04 AM »
Okay Paul, I have started the new thread!

Literary Criticism, Purpose and Method

It'll stay open long as y'all can ride it.

Thank you, Ellen. And it only took a vote from the floor?  ;D

...there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain...

Offline Paul029

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #13 on: February 08, 2012, 01:26:01 AM »
I don’t know whether I’m “brave,” but I’d select three qualities that a good reader should have:

     • imagination
     • memory
     • some artistic sense

The fourth selection is a little more difficult, but I’d probably choose that the reader:

• preferred a story with action and dialogue (e.g. like BBM) to one with none, rather than having a dictionary.

Hold on to your cards ladies and gentleman we appear to have a BING but no BINGO .

Sorry Paul, you were told to "Pick four" and you only picked three with a possible but "qualified" fourth.
Remember we are operating from the musty catacombs of academe and coloring out side the lines is not permitted.
Actually, Gary, I thought I did choose four.  ???

The fourth wasn’t qualified. I chose it because I'd rather read a story with “action and dialogue” than one with none, which seems oxymoronic.
Or is it? Perhaps you could cite an example of such a story?
 
Quote from: garyd
~ snip~ While V.N. admires stories with "action and dialogue" he is simply in hopes that you will not limit yourself to a specific genre.
To personalise it, I don't...  :)

Quote from: garyd
(And I must say that invoking BBM as an example is quite interesting.)
Thank you. I put it as an example just to satisfy Ellen’s stated condition about the General Discussion thread.  ;)

...there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain...

Offline Paul029

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Re: Literary Criticism: Purpose and Method
« Reply #14 on: February 08, 2012, 01:58:23 AM »
~ snip~
A good reader, I think, should be......willing.  Willing to venture into the author's offering, and willing to allow for personal reactions.  Too simplistic?
Er, it depends...  :D

Quote from: Tony_
Meanwhile, along the lines of Schroedinger's cat (sp?), what happens to a literary work, if the author and all possible readers are gone ... ? Am not being mischievous.  I have heard this very question asked in some articles and books.  Does it exist without interaction?  If it doesn't, then a basic duhhh....is there.  And it can't be just the author.  In many cases, they're gone, anyway.  Which leaves the work and the readers.
Good point—the poor story’s simultaneously alive and dead...  8)

But I would have thought Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle would have been equally applicable.

Very roughly, that a story printed (i.e. fixed) in a book changes when it’s read (i.e. looked at).
The text exists, but it’s impossible to determine what the text is until it’s looked at.
And the act of looking at the text changes it.

Well, we all know about that! ;D

Quote from: Tony_
IMO, a good reader (defined, bravely now, bravely, as someone who likes to read) can do whatever he darn well pleases.  He or she suffers from less of an adventure, of course, if not sensitive, and having some solid literary reference points. But that's a different matter.
 A good reader is.....a good reader.  That's where I would start, Nabokov-less.
So, a good reader should have free will, but that has an inherent disadvantage—unless a good reader also possesses sensitivity and solid literary reference points, the act of reading will be diminished.

Is that about it?  :)


...there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain...