Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
Literary Criticism and Creative Writing By Ronald S. Kostar. Illustrations by Michael HawthorneGo Back to the Table of Contents
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At their best, critics wed a writer to the work at hand. A beneficial critical focus is one that is directed toward the writer and the work--and--in contrast to both New Criticism and Deconstruction--offers an unapologetic discussion of the work in relationship to the writer’s experience and ideas. By shedding light on how a writer’s stories, for instance, come out of and intersect with life, a critic may convey a sense of the writer as a person confronting problems, failures, and successes--and shaping them in a work. Well executed, critical use of biograp7cosequenthical elements conveys the writer facing difficulties and making choices while crafting and shaping this “stuff” of experience into artefacts that speak to our own difficulties and experiences. In so doing, a critic humanizes an artist while demystifying the artistic process and product. He re-constructs

the writer as someone working in a context and participating in an ongoing, traditonal dilemma of trying to give artistic expression to universal--both public and personal--conflicts. The sense of continuity and sustained humanity imparted by critical use of biographical elements can be stimulating to creative readers and writers precisely because it can help us better understand a relationship between the writer and the world; and in the process, move us to re-evaluate our own experiences.

By humanizing and demystifying the writer and his work, the critical biographer may establish standards of authenticity--or well informed benchmarks--that can benefit contemporary writers who are working in a postmodernist milieu that is becoming increasingly fragmented and discontinuous. It is the critic’s job to ask why some art “works” better than others--and why and how it works. In establishing this evaluation, one of the most important contributions a critic can make is to place a work into a continuum, or what Eliot called a tradition, that includes all previous worthy art--and to study its worth through standards by which imaginative writing has always been, and will continue to be, judged. In the act of interpreting a work, critics may define and refine their own values--which, again, cannot help but entreat a reader to examine his own world, values, and decisions.

The critical biographer may further enlarge and enrich a work by reconstructing its context--that is, by recreating the historical, literary, and psychological setting of a work and applying literary standards to that specific time, person, and place. The same thing can be achieved--although to a lesser but perhaps even more striking degree--by Introductions to works and collections. Introductions (which are often no more than condensed critical biographies) can be particularly effective in their brevity. They are often written by imaginative writers themselves--and, in many cases, offer intuitive critical insights that can be more cogent and inspiring than those proferred by sustained, rigorous, analytical criticism.

What, then, constitutes stimulating literary criticism? First, to paraphrase Yeats, the more a critic knows--the more critical responses he is aware of--the better the criticism is likely to be. Criticism that does not feel obliged to exclude anything a priori--whether biographical fact, psychological detail, rhetorical analysis, or commentary on the work’s aesthetic effect--is likely to be interesting. The critic who can connect a writer’s life experience and his transposition of that experience into Form, may come particularly close to producing creative art itself--and therefore be aesthetically provocative. The best critics, like Trilling, Barthes, Rahv, etc., unlike many contemporary critics, focus on the work and add to it--enriching it with a combination of aesthetic, philosophical and historical information and analysis. As critics, they are eclectic without being bound to an ideology; they are confident, without being anti-literary or self-aggrandizing. In short, they are unlike many modern critics who often have bigger agendas extraneous to literature.

Such critics like imaginative writing and recognize their dependence on, and indebtedness to, the creative writer while seeing also the need for critical insight and amplification. For example, when Jean-Paul Sartre, straying from the Flowers of Evil, observes that Baudelaire dramatizes his own, mostly self-imposed, suffering in his poetry because of his inability to escape or transcend the value system of his mother and step-father and formulate an agile, living morality of his own--we listen; not necessarily because we agree with Sartre, but because his idea seems to get to the quick of the psychological crisis that informs and inspires Baudelaire’s work. Similarly, when Trilling writes that fiction, at its best, dramatizes contradictory ideas--and that ideas, like images (roughly paraphrasing Pound) are “. . . emotional complexes that appear in a moment of time... “ we are given a framework for understanding and evaluating works that carry, for Trilling, a density of ideas and moral sensibilities expressed within an aesthetic structure. The more profound and recalcitrant the ideas, Trilling would have us believe, the more interesting and enduring the work. For both Trilling and Sartre, then, the value of a work depends on the writer’s ability to present an important message artfully. The job, and the joy, of the critic exists in deciphering the message and eliciting appreciation for its artful mode of transmission.

A well placed critical insight can consequently thrust the reader inside the creative problems of the writer as well--as when Trilling, for instance, observes that the persistent appeal of Faulkner’s vision of Yakamatau County is a product of Faulkner’s being a modern Southerener who was “... deeply implicated in the pieties of his tradition... (and) historical events which thrust upon him (an) awareness of the inadequacy and wrongness of the very tradition he love(d)...” Trilling is pointing out something fundamental about Faulkner and his work that helps, perhaps makes, us read and see Faulkner’s work differently. Unlike deconstruction, which unravels a work in order to prove that behind its many contradictory levels and strata there actually exists no living personality or value structure, the insightful critic expands and amplifies the human context surrounding a work, putting the reader in touch with a living tradition.

An insightful critic can also inspire a writer by suggesting what is not in a work--but might be. Unlike the creative writer, who may be completely immersed in the particulars of his or her vision, the critic may see the unconscious ideas that reside within, or beneath, the writer’s perception, and suggest how these hidden ideas may be drawn out in a future work. Intuitive, critical insights such as these are likely only if a critic remains close to the work itself and responds, first and foremost, to what is there; and then proceeds to expand and illuminate the work through contextualization, standard-making, and close textual analysis. An analysis of what is there, and the ideas that inform it, may lead to suggestions of what lies beyond.

The better literary critics, then, in my opinion, practice a holistic criticism that distinguishes them from the overspecialized and grandiose critical schools. They start from an assumption of respect for the power of imaginative writing, and of empathy for the same; which does not mean that they like all works, which they certainly do not, but that their initial response to the work is emotional and aesthetic. The best critics actually love literature. From them emanates an energy that swarms around and through the work as it is both savored

and studied. This is a critical energy that never strays so far from the work as to be swept away by its own systematic thought. The better critics practice a form of practical insightfulness

arriving at momentary revelations that, at their best, serve to crack open a work and cause its inner meaning to spill out. Their insights are framed with a critical inquiry that places the work at the center of a context that is far broader and richer than the reader, and potential writer, first imagined. The critical work is insightful--which is usually more a function of intuition than of analysis; rich nuggets that speak to the heart of a work and reveal elements fundamental as well as broad and eclectic.

Therefore, the qualities one looks for in a critic are breadth, perceptiveness, and insightfulness. In this sense, a literature-oriented critic possesses the best characteristics of the scholar and the artist. Like an artist, he/she sees and responds to not only what is in a work, but what lies around and behind it. At other times in history, there has been a complementary relationship among literary critics, imaginative writers and creative readers--which proved beneficial to all parties. Recently, however, due to the insularity of academic criticism and its preoccupation with specialization and theory, this multi-faceted relationship has soured. All, as a result, continue to suffer.

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