|With the exception of a handful of free-lancers and literary renegades, most literary critics are university professors who--by either force of habit or vocational necessity--are encouraged to practice highly theoretical or specialized forms of literary criticism. While many of the articles that appear in the academic literary journals (Nineteenth-Century French Criticism, The Whitman Review, etc.) are insightful, knowledgeable and even interesting, they are read by very few people other than academics working in the same field--and, I suspect, by very few poets and fiction writers.
There are also academicians who, fortunately or not, operate from a much broader perspective. Since the nineteenth century, literary critics have adapted and applied numerous ideologies to the explication of literature, including Marxism, Freudianism, New Criticism, Structuralism, and Deconstruction. Deconstruction, the latest school of critical thought to sweep the academy, was imported from France, at least in part out of an American inferiority complex in the face of European philosophy. Deconstruction can operate, however, out of many questionable assumptions, ultimately professing to deconstruct a work and replace it with a critics text. Its father, and most famous practitioner, Jacques Derrida, proclaimed at the end of one of his works: I am the greatest text... While such an individualistic conclusion may appeal to our tradition of
self-reliance and romantic subjectivity, one questions these theorists focus and intention and balks at their arrogance.
Deconstruction is symptomatic of another problem that is common to modern critical theory: the theorists desire to outshine, or at least attempt to outshine, the works they supposedly intend to enrich and illuminate. The self-importance and grandiosity of much modern criticism leads one to wonder which is more important: literature or criticism.
Literary criticism, in the process, can become so specialized and technical that it frightens off both lay readers and academics working in other disciplines. Either intentionally or unconsciously, many critics attempt to rise above the works at hand, leaving literature, and most readers, far behind.
Theorists who practice in this spirit may use the novel or poem as a starting-point--or launching pad--for theoretical ascension. What results are systems of complex, and often stimulating, thought that may take the reader away from, rather than into, literature itself. No one would deny the energy that animates some of these theoretical systems, despite the limited applicability of all isms in general to literary criticism. Nor should anyone dispute the status of the Blooms, Paglias and Derridas as high literary priests. One could question, however, whether many of their theories benefit readers who are interested primarily in reading literature, or writers interested in gaining insight into the process of creativity.
The line that I would like to pursue here is that the best criticism--the criticism most beneficial to creative writers--is that which remains close to a literary work. Such criticism contextualizes a work and places it and its author into a living tradition that is fully human. The critic thus arrives at specific practical insights that shed light on the writers major preoccupations and his or her artistic response to life. It is a criticism that speaks to what is in a work and what it means.
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