On the Importance of Criticism, 13 May 2016

On Criticism

In popular criticism, a critic may give a paragraph or so his attention as an initial reaction, to get the reader to see his perspective and set the tone, jot down something in the night to summarize it all, and post a review online sometime the next day. That’s the extent of the responsibility: not in looking into the possible allegories, the more minor touches that sometimes redeem a work, but to check off some list of minor story beats you expected to find throughout the story, correlate them with something you may have seen somewhere else or already believe, write derivative!! in your 6×9 yellow pad and underline it.

          In order to be objective, a critic will look at it from different perspectives, get some contrary statements to cover the popular angle, carefully noting how bad the dialogue is, how the action is tame and the ending uninspired. And the film/novel gets a score based on thumbs or stars, or a formal score out of five or 4 and that’s it.

This was not always the approach to critiquing literature or art. Literary criticism, then, would be indistinguishable from what we today call literary analysis. It is the intentional probing of a manuscript, beckoning, Speak to me, ye words! And when they don’t, it’s not uncommon to feel left out of the joke. Many students have finished a copy of The Great Gatsby or The Fountainhead and thought, did I just not get it?

You probably did. That’s the problem.

Lots of students feel that way about certain books, the sacred few they’ve always heard about, the ones they’ve always been told are important. It’s natural to be underwhelmed when one finally finishes the story, there’s just something not there that you thought would be, something to justify the reputation of the novel. It’s easy to think you may have missed something. Literary criticism was born out of this need among readers, this idea to understand how stories were best told and structured, and how to explain popular curriculum books in a way that would best resonate with individual readers.

Literary criticism as literary analysis made it to the popular conscience around the height of Athenian theatre culture, later to be reintroduced in the same manner (for similar reasons) in Western Christian cultures. Athens was a culture that held an annual festival called The Dionysia, or Festival of Dionysus. Some of the biggest names in theatre history would perform their first plays there, playwrights including Aristophanes, producer of popular comedies like Lysistrata and The Birds, as well as Euripides, wonderful playwright and author of Medea. To spectators, to the noisy crowd, it wasn’t always obvious what was meant to be happening on the non-stage (the stage as we know it wouldn’t become a staple in Western theatre for hundreds of years).

Engaging with the plays was an immediate public response, and an industry grew up around the need to understand and engage in the drama. Literary criticism as a mechanism of explanation began here, hoping to be a means to helping the public more wholly understand the important moments in the story and enjoy the performances and to show the virtues or flaws of a hero or heroine. Tragedies submitted by Sophocles and Aeschylus would be judged against each other, with the critics weighing the pros and cons of such works as Antigone (the greatest of Sophocles’ plays) and The Libation Bearers, a masterwork by the poet Aeschylus.

This is the opposite of the original intention of critics; criticism as a methods of judgment or grading, as classical literary critics were more likely to be expounding upon the virtues of Epicurus or Aristotle, bringing their ideas to wider audiences by condensing and then re-packaging as beauty to communicate ideas. This is something that began in earnest up in Catholic Rome in the 17th century, under more threats from abroad of Protestantism. They responded with the power of art.

I’d be doubting Thomas’ hygiene.

Though the popular appeal of a condensed, Cliff Notes version of the Gospels was perfect for a sense of community and worship, ironically it worked in a much different way: instead of simplifying the idea, they simplified the presentation of quite complex ideas, and more especially for young children. This is a historical practice, whereby the education of the public through art is vehemently pursued; figures on vases, beautiful religious frescoes, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, each of these works of art communicated ideas behind the Faith as preached by the Gospels, ideas of mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.

This was a type of criticism, where the word critic is used to mean someone who was there to appreciate art and then communicate its most important ideas to a broader audience. We have many in the theologian tradition to thank for the development of the academic essays, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, especially, author of City of God, which has long been the basis for textural and literary criticism. You find this essay writing and academic exegesis in political theory, such as that of Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan and Behemoth. The writing of books about books is as ancient a process as the writing of books. Books like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Trotsky’s Art and Revolution encouraged the systematic study of ideas as presented in literature. Books like this seek to explain, instruct, and dispel the mystique of other, more important books, by attempting to communicate the point through summary.

While each of the books detailed by Nabokov in his Lectures don’t tell traditional stories of their own, or the stories themselves, they nevertheless draw our attention to some of the more sublime moments in literature and art, something a sometimes impatient mind may not notice if not for the sensitive observer. These works are valuable for popularizing the notion that the studiousness of academia can be a worthwhile pursuit in one’s intellectual development. To somehow prune new insights from the texts of Seneca and Chuang Tzu is a magic of its own.


The critics of the more critical type began as spectators in the Roman playhouses, the watchers of the show, all the while noting what they didn’t quite enjoy or understand, often missing the point, were the same critics who condemned Epicurean studies in the philosophy of happiness as unchecked debauchery, again missing the point, searching for patterns to make sense of it all. This search for patterns and for meaning in thematic or philosophical language, the language used throughout the text serves to reinforce an important bit of subtext, or act as a harbinger, a symbolic cue to hint toward the things to come. In music this is called a leit-motif, a pattern that repeats in different places to emphasis different, but similar structures and characters.

As there must be experts, there must be experts to certify experts as experts, and so grew the community of theatre critics towards the end of the 19th century. In popular culture it leaned toward the thumbs up/ down or 3 out of 4 stars type of criticism, from which one knows nothing. These reviews are reminiscent of our primary school book reports, beginning with a hasty recapitulation, a tenuous rundown of important events, followed by comparing and contrasting positive and negative aspects of the story. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach, and for those who use this method of criticism, I’m not here to critique.

The lesson is that you are criticizing something as it is against the standard of what it would be if somehow made perfect, and we need more criticism of the type that seeks to understand and draw forth wisdom from popular entertainment. To Epicurus, this was a recipe for being unfulfilled in life and work. Criticism’s greatest value is the professionalism of understanding that goes into critique culture, but when it becomes nothing but critique culture, it loses its ability to be instructive.

The sentimental critic doesn’t necessarily look to judge the quality of a work, but more or less put it into a context that allows students and other academics to look at the work in a way that allows for others to draw their own, personally applicable lessons to what they’ve read.  The question of quality commercial commentary is predicated upon the wisdom of a select few being sufficient to guide a great many to what makes the work under analysis transform into a malleable, transmutable metal in hands of a great metallurgist. The classical approach to literature and storytelling instruction has been through the demonstration of good literature by our teachers and professors throughout our life; we have been trained, through so many courses, to look for meaning, and to connect one idea to another, and hope to not be worse than wrong – which is to simply be uninteresting.

Many social and literary critics remain outside of the world of publishing, neglecting personal projects such as fiction or non-fiction. The academic discipline of analysis and comparative philology teaches you how to recognize the structure of languages and their development, which puts any critic in a perpetually comparative mood. Even when looking at the organic, biological development of stories and how they’re put together, how important themes are stressed again and again, the point of the sentimental critic is to draw attention this, suggesting it may be important, not breaking out the 6×9 and scribbling  repetitive!!