How Literary Critics Think

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why (2000), James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008), Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980), which he proposed to subtitle “How to be a Good Reader,” are all books about how critics think. Oxford University Press has announced John Sutherland’s “How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts,” due out in March, 2011. We’ve put our order in, never tiring of the How books; in fact, we’re thinking of writing our own: How Literary Critics Think. Of course, slim chance, for as Laura Miller discusses in a Salon interview with Louis Bayard (“Who Killed the Literary Critic,” May 22, 2008), “at a certain point there’s nothing left to dismantle.” Bayard observes “So the only critics left to evaluate most contemporary fiction are journalists, ranging in seriousness from someone like Wood to your average newspaper freelancer who mostly delivers plot summary. There are no critical movements evident today.” Blogging certainly doesn’t count; in any case, Laura says, “I’m not really a reader of blogs.” Sure, and professional literary critics probably don’t watch television, either. Yet Barnard notes that he’s “learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.”

Ah, but what about the How school of literary criticism? The how of something is the scientific part. Nabokov puts it this way: “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter…To the storyteller we turn for entertainment…to the teacher…for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts….” And to the enchanter we go “…to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.” This last part Nabokov calls “the intuition of science.” Can literature be taught as a science? Certainly it can, and it may be the only way to teach it. Northrop Frye, in his instructive and influential essay “The Archetypes of Literature,” said, “Art, like nature, is the subject of a systematic study, and has to be distinguished from the study itself, which is criticism. It is therefore impossible to ‘learn literature’: one learns about it in a certain way, but what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature. Similarly, the difficulty often felt in ‘teaching literature’ arises from the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism is all that can be directly taught.”

Yes, but that bit about nature: Nabokov says, “Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives…The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.” So the professional critic clues us in on which writers are the most deceitful?

The reader speaks, ignoring the sign “Silence in the Library,” and the amateur spirit in literary criticism is born. Why kill this amateur spirit? Because ( more agreement between Miller and Bayard) “talent is inequitably distributed in all art forms… great critics are even rarer than great novelists or poets, and I wonder if that’s because criticism itself is held in such low esteem…McDonald mentions that one of academia’s last havens for evaluative criticism has been the creative-writing class, and he suggests that universities should offer more in the way of ‘creative criticism’ classes, teaching the craft of interpreting other people’s works. All the same, I’m skeptical this would reverse the current state of affairs. People will only value literary criticism to the extent they value literature.”

Any true experience of reading literature is an experience that calls for a reflective response, and this response can be made without a conscious understanding of how figurative language and connotative meanings (and the often resulting ambiguity) inform how literature works. We might even argue that the less conscious one is of how these things work, the more primal the reading experience. Yet one can see the merging of the effects of literature on cultural, societal, and individual development (of course these effects might also be considered only a reflection of changes already occurring in culture, society, and the individual, changes that become, in turn, the subject of literature – note the latest effort to change Twain’s Huck Finn). In any case, literature as cultural value is key to the interest of adult readers, which is why if we want to read Langston Hughes in a book (since we can’t very well still read him in a newspaper), we will end up wanting to know something about the Harlem Renaissance.

Reading literature can be a perplexing experience. We want to understand the meaning of a story, poem, or play, and when we don’t “get it,” we feel disappointed. But the idea that a work of literature “means” something is part of the problem. Flannery O’Connor once put this problem this way: “…something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students [readers], the story becomes simply a problem to be solved….” Rene Char put the problem this way: “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” Yet, we can learn to ask the right questions of literature, questions that don’t scare the bird off, and we can through the discussion of these questions discover how literature works. That’s what the general interest reader wants after the reflective response, the discovery of how literature works, for that discovery enables more enjoyable reading and helps us better understand the influence of literature on culture, society, and the individual.


  1. LaJames says:

    Mr. Linker,

    First, is it Joe now? Second, I go through this life not understanding a great many things. When I am properly intrigued, I can be bothered to look these mysterious references up. Though generally I just accept them as unknowns in their context and assure myself that I “get it” enough to continue on. My problem is that my peers don’t seem to care enough to be bothered with trying to understand anything that isn’t wrapped in something short, pretty, and often times shiny. I do crossword puzzles not for the satisfaction derived from a finished puzzle but, rather from experiencing the joy of having some unrelated endeavor fill in some of the blanks of an unfinished one. I can be reading or in class overhearing the conversation of others when something will be written or said that gives me an answer. I call these aha moments. Reading your posts are akin to both the puzzles and the occasional aha moments that make puzzles worthwhile. I am eternally optimistic that somehow some way I will end up “getting it”, if I only remeber enough contexts and pay close attention to obscurities (to my intellect) Thanks. P.S you know me well enough to know that I am all blue collar/self taught so take what you will from my comment.


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hey, LaJames…Thanks for reading and commenting. I struggle myself with what to read and how to read – it’s overwhelming. But Flannery said first of all read to enjoy. I once read a book on the history of the guitar, sorry I can’t remember the name of it, I’ll try to look it up, but anyway I do remember a discussion of I think Tarrega, the Spanish guitarist. And there was this description of his day. He started with scales, did some lessons with students, worked on some pieces, worked on some old stuff, some new stuff. Anyway, his day was filled with work, on the guitar, on music, on transcriptions, working with other musicians. And at the end of the day, when he was alone in his room and the day was over, he sat with his guitar and played something beautiful that no one else heard, just him, as he played his guitar, just before bed. That’s how I feel about reading. All day long, working on writing, on reading, with others, and of course all the distractions we all have, and at the end of the day, then it’s just you and the book – which book? And how will you read. Not to impress, not to learn, not to write, never mind theories of literature. Simply read, not even to get it, for you already have it. PS: I hope it’s Joe now!


  2. Lisa says:

    Dear Joe,

    I’m reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, a French writer. To understand it, I think I have to look up all sorts of references, and it isn’t long before I feel defeated, deflated and disappointed but, determined, I do not give up. To push through, I ignore the stuff I don’t understand and rely heavily on its context.

    I have the same attitude with The Coming of the Toads. Some stuff is toothsome and I feel smart and happy and satisfied with myself. (For example, The Amateur Spirit in Writing here on the Toad) Some, like this current post, I soldier through determined to “get it.” Five times, at least, I’ve read it, and I still am not sure I understand it, which is important to me because I believe that if I don’t get it…well…it’s just important, okay?

    Renee, one of the main characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, proclaims she is a proletarian autodidact. (This, I looked up) I think you will appreciate Renee’s test for determining what is, to her, worthwhile literature: “The cherry plum test is extraordinary for its disarming clarity…[it’s] held in my kitchen. I place the fruit and the book on the Formica table, and as I pick up the former to taste it, I also start on the latter. If each resists the powerful onslaught of the other, if the cherry plum fails to make me doubt the text and if the text is unable to spoil the fruit, then I know that I am in the presence of a worthwhile and, why not say it, exceptional undertaking, for there are very few works that have not dissolved – proven both ridiculous and complacent – into the extraordinary succulence of the little golden plums.

    I won’t tell you how many times I reread that!


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hi, Lisa! Thanks for reading and commenting. I called you this last weekend, BTW! Where have you been? I’ve not read the Barbery “Hedgehog” book, but it sounds good. I’ll check it out. I like the self-taught blue collar part – that’s sort of toady. But I guess what your saying here is that my last post ruined a perfectly good cherry plum for you? Did you read the Miller interview over at Salon? It’s interesting. But my post is probably just too cryptic, for the most part. Maybe I should re-post the underlying thought in a new post. (No!). Meantime, part of the point is to just enjoy literature, like you would a really juicy cherry plum, and not worry so much about who grew it, and where, and why. Though sometimes the produce guy, he can suggest some good fruit, and tell you why. But we still have to be the tasters. I like Barbery’s taste test. Talk to you later. I’m looking forward to spring. Got a primrose at the store yesterday; put it on a table on the porch.


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