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Critical Study of Texts

The Role of the Critic

Coleridge:  Reviewers are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers etc.  if they could; they have tried their talents and failed so they become critics”.

 Criticism is a pejorative misnomer for someone who describes, analyses and evaluates literature, food, art, music or any other human endeavour.  Though they have been around since early times – even before Plato and Aristotle, their hey day began in the 1920’s to about the 1990’s when their influence was eroded by the proliferation of commentary on the internet.1  Many scholars feel we suffer from an implosion of opinion that has smothered authoritative and informed criticism. 

1 Less than six weeks after Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom” was published, Amazon offered more than 300 frankly polarised customer reviews. –Stephen Burn.

During the fifties and early sixties some literary critics enjoyed the exalted position of undisputed or infallible authorities on selected works of art. Students merely had to cite and conform to their views to receive top marks.  Since the seventies views have broadened and today students are expected to seek a more wide ranging view, look at contrasting or dialectical points of evaluations and then “think for themselves”.  The purpose of education is not to teach students what to  think, but how to think for themselves!

‘Nothing replaces the reader’s responses: the sound of poetry on both the outer and inner ear, the visions of fiction in the mind’s eye, the kinaesthetic assault of total theatre’   Handbook of Criticism – Guerin.

Regardless, the authoritative critic still fulfils an important role in our understanding of a work of art.  Their training in acceptable standards, accumulated wisdom and insights can open new vistas to lead us to a greater appreciation of literature often triggering an original response.  Though the creative power is considered superior to the critical, well informed criticism can illuminate subtle nuances, allusions or symbolism.   Matthew Arnold claimed that “the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society”.

The literary critic is the only one to use the same medium that they are commenting on - words. Art critics don’t paint, food critics don’t cook, music critics don’t sing…..  KATIE ROIPHE, writing in The New York book reviews - With Clarity and Beauty, the Weight of Authority has this to say about good criticism:

More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.

The danger to avoid as Oscar Wilde pointed out:

“To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises”.

Also: The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.

As well, the creative composer tends to experiment and test the boundaries of their craft; critics need to accept and tolerate innovation. Instead of assuming new ways of writing indicate a falling in standards or a return to a philistine dark age, critics need to recognise innovation as a means of keeping in touch or maintaining relevance in evolving cultures.   In many areas critics have the power to make or break new releases of books, movies, music, and restaurants.  In recent years creators have successfully sued critics for unfair reviews, while others such as Kenneth Tynan’s 1955 review is credited with rescuing from oblivion Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot. Negative criticism often reflects badly on the critic. 

The Times Literary Supplement,  on June 21, 1917 review of T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock had this unsigned criticism:

"The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry".

Or one panning a pilot of "Fawlty Towers" by John Cleese:

I'm afraid I thought this one as dire as its title –  It’s a kind of “Prince of Denmark” of the hotel world. A collection of clichés and stock characters which I can’t see being angthing but a disaster.

In May of 1974, after reading through a pilot script written by John Cleese and his then-wife, Connie Booth, a clearly unimpressed "comedy script editor" by the name of Ian Main sent the above memo to BBC Television's Head of Comedy and Light Entertainment -- a Letter of Note resurrected by BuzzFeed "to give solace, and hope, to creative people everywhere".


Just remember, no one has a monopoly on what a work of art means – everyone finds something different in it and your opinion is just as valid as anyone else - including the composer.  Good criticism should provoke underlying questions, spurring readers to think for themselves. Kant called this the task of enlightenment; it is certainly the mark of good criticism. 

It is vitally important to realise that good works of art are complex, ambiguous, conflicted and problematic – they do not provide answers, merely raise important issues many of which are not resolved.  No one has a monopoly on interpretation of the text and each reader has as much entitlement to adopt a view as the next. T.S. Eliot put it thus:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better.  There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

 As Howard Jacobson says, “a book should be something you grapple with, otherwise there’s no point.”   And Oscar Wilde’s famous bon mot: “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it's dead for you”. 

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