Literary criticism is tricky. Amongst many other things, it is an attempt to craft a kind of scientific approach to something inherently and definitively unscientific: taste. As Martin Amis suggests in the introduction to his collection of essays, The War Against Cliché:
The most muscular literary critics on earth have no equipment for establishing that
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears
is a better line than
when all at once I saw a crowd
- and, if they did, they would have to begin by saying that the former contains a dead expletive brought in to sustain the metre.
The key to this is, perhaps, that word ‘better’: somehow such a judgement might seem more appropriate or measured if it was replaced with ‘more effective’ or ‘more interesting’. Qualitative judgements in literary criticism must always be approached with caution, because they are fundamentally unprovable; and yet, they are what lie at the absolute heart of the enterprise, because the very act of selecting a piece of work for criticism says something about it, even if the critic studiously avoids coming out with anything that admits to being an opinion. It is a rhetorical rule often drummed into secondary school English students: in an essay, avoid phrases like ‘I think’ and ‘It seems to me that’, because they weaken your argument, and make it sound as if you aren’t really sure of yourself. But the very slipperiness that such an instruction is afraid of is surely one of the reasons literature is an interesting and important thing: if it were not, all literature could arguably be reduced to pamphlets containing plot outlines and morals, saving both time and printing expense. Art’s power is often rooted in its ambiguity.
Any interesting literary critic, then, will raise as many questions as he answers. Bad literary criticism (perhaps there should be inverted commas around that ‘bad’, but I don’t want to put them there) should not, of course, be defined as that with which the reader disagrees: anything provocative should be welcomed as a stimulus to new thought. A better definition of bad literary criticism might be that it limits rather than liberates, that it prefers to close off interpretations rather than open up new vistas of ideas. A literary critic should never claim to have the final, definitive answer to anything: though his methods must be scientific - that is, methodical, based on evidence, and focused on examining a specific question - his conclusions should belie their name and instead be new beginnings. They should encourage the reader to revisit the source text armed with fresh ideas and a renewed enthusiasm. It is perfectly possible to argue forcefully and convincingly without making the subject sound closed. (It should also be noted that a critic ought to be able to assume a certain base level of knowledge on the part of her reader: it is not inconsistent with this premise of open-mindedness, for instance, for a critic not to insert a disclaimer saying that other possible schools of thought about a text may be equally valid and interesting in any given essay. And similarly, if a critic feels that a certain discussion of a text entirely misses the point, she should be quite at liberty to say so, and to trust readers to make their own judgements. Strongly held and powerfully argued opinions are not mutually exclusive with an implicit recognition that there is no such thing as a final word on a text.)
Literary criticism of any school should begin in the most obvious place: the words on the page. It matters little if the criticism is focusing on the reader’s response or the author’s intention or the author’s subconscious or the context of the time in which it was written or the context of the time in which it is being read or any other of the myriad possible aspects of textual analysis: the examination must begin with the thing itself. To fail to do so would be akin to a detective visiting suspects and witnesses and the forensics lab before making a trip to the crime scene. These other things may, in the end, be absolutely vital, and perhaps in a particular case prove the more telling source of new information; but to fail to make the initial, obvious, trip, the one to the root cause of the whole fuss which every other piece of information one comes across will refer to, renders any other investigation at best open to ridicule - imagine a policeman taking the witness stand and sheepishly admitting to only having a fleeting glance at the scene of the crime: the rest of his evidence would be laughed out of court - and at worst counter-productive. This is because it is quite possible, if you do things the wrong way round, to fall in love with a particular interpretation and then try very hard to make the facts fit your case, without ever really examining them with an open mind. If the victim’s brother is a particularly shifty character (to push this metaphor to its creaking limits) suspected of various other crimes, one might well construct a whole case around his guilt, only to realise that the crime was committed with an axe, and he has no arms; if Philip Larkin was obsessed with pornography it is tempting to construct a hypothesis about the problems of Talking In Bed which associates them principally with top-shelf magazines and ignores the evidence of the work itself. Which is a circumlocutory way of saying: it’s the text, stupid, first and foremost, and anything else should be a reflection of or a commentary on that, and not an end in itself.
This is in no way meant to discount the value of literary criticism which concerns itself with the externals, so long as it also meets this basic condition. But any school of literary criticism should be taken in context, and not viewed as the single path to a ‘correct’ interpretation: the likelihood is that any critic who wholly discounts the value of any approach save his own is more concerned with the politics associated with literary scholarship than scrutinising a text. No school of literary criticism should claim to exist in a vacuum. At the extremes they all have the potential for absurdity, with the potential, for example, to argue that the cultural conditions acting on Thomas Middleton when he wrote A Game At Chess or Thomas More when he wrote Utopia should have no impact on our reading, or that an intelligent appraisal of the poetry of W H Auden is impossible without first reading a biography and a social history of the period in which he wrote. Any reasonable reader will find the middle ground much more appealing as a starting point: being open to anything that will enliven and enrich an appreciation of a text should be a sine qua non, but equally, this should always be balanced with an insistence on always returning to the text to apply any knowledge gained. Any poem or novel or play ought to be comprehensible and worth analysis as a thing in and of itself without reference to external information. Gulliver’s Travels is a satire, and it is certainly interesting to consider it in the context of contemporary politics, and foolish to dismiss such information as extraneous; at the same time, though, its satire is much broader than being a vituperative assault on 17th century figures, and it is also contains one of the most fully-realised and complex and interesting characters in all of English literature. (Which is to say, in my limited reading of ‘all of English literature’, at least.)
So: the approach must be liberal. Coupled with this must be an insistence on detailed analysis, on specificity and evidence for any assertion made. This specificity is the best way round the problem of taste mentioned earlier: perhaps it is a kind of sleight of hand, but it is possible to retain independence and critical authority without entirely denying the necessity of making certain unscientific judgements by being absolutely precise about where an effect is located and what this effect is. In other words, rather than saying that the gothic mood is powerfully evoked, say that the use of words related to darkness and horror like A, B and C in sentence 1 and X, Y and Z in sentence 2 contributes to a sense of morbidity, which in turn contributes to a gothic atmosphere.
Nothing should be assumed. On being given a previously unknown Saki story, the informed reader ought to try to avoid assuming that the story will be in an ironic mode unless the text itself warrants it. Comparisons ought not to be drawn simply for the sake of drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that a similarity exists: it must be made useful. If a piece of information does not clarify or redefine or undermine some element of the text, if it does have some kind of effect on what we think, then it should be discarded. It is no good saying that Willy Loman’s problems are associated with his family, just like King Lear’s: some new perspective on the text must be drawn out of this if it is to capture our interest and reawaken the reader’s interpretative instincts.
The three basic questions of literary - or any other kind - of criticism: What is going on? How is that being achieved? And why is that interesting, or otherwise? It is the third question which is often neglected. Because of the existence of a canon, it can be very easy to begin to assume that something has value simply because others have said it does; but this is terribly dangerous, because it can lead to a stagnancy of thought when considering those other questions. Texts are formed by their readers as well as their writers, and, in particular, plays by their performance and audience. If, then, readers or audiences think that it is a given that something is interesting or dull, that necessary connection will not be made, and the text will remain cold and uninspiring. If, on the other hand, we constantly question the conclusions that we and others have drawn, even if we ultimately end up agreeing with them, they cannot help but be reanimated, made fresh.
Before all of this, of course, there is another question that any literary critic must address: what to criticise? Because this question is answered before pen reaches paper, it is easy to forget - but it is absolutely vital. Of course, there is powerful and interesting negative criticism, and it may be instructive as a point of comparison to consider something utterly uninteresting - but it should be a general rule that critics should consider texts that excite them. It should be possible to take it as read, unless the contrary is asserted early on, that the very act of choosing to criticise something implies that the critic thinks that interesting things are going on in that text, and that they deserve your attention. Even George Bernard Shaw’s negative criticism of Shakespeare, for instance, never quite denies that some of what he looks at is pretty extraordinary. There are inevitably cases such as these where it is possible to argue that a belief that previous criticism has been so utterly wrong-headed in its fawning praise that the critic is simply incapable of not redressing the balance; but, by and large, it seems to me spectacularly pointless simply to tell us why something is really, really boring. The study of literature has, presumably, been somewhere along the line been precipitated by a love of words and of the effects they can have. If you don’t like at least some books, you oughtn’t be a literary critic. In the end, literary criticism is at its most useful when it pays attention to something interesting and elucidates how and why it is so. It is, in contrast, pointlessly grumpy - to say nothing of much easier - to simply list reasons why something is bad.
But critics must be met half-way. Just as important as the way in which it is written is the way in which it is read. Good criticism, to be made the most of, ought to be read in the same kind of spirit of zealous attention to detail as it is written. Indeed, most of the ideas about criticism’s value can be similarly applied to readers as well as writers: readers must be just as open-minded about possible interpretations, rigorous in approach, and precise in evaluation as writers. And they ought to like books too. The idea of a critic and a reader coming together in pointlessly consigning a text to the dustbin is a singularly depressing one.
It is not coincidental that there is a parallel between the way I have discussed critics approaching texts and readers approaching criticism, for criticism ought to approached, ultimately, in the same kind of spirit as we approach literature. Criticism is sometimes seen as petty and uncreative and the act of those who would rather be writing original works themselves; in fact, at its best, it is capable of adding extraordinary new dimensions to texts which have previously not been fully understood. Good criticism ought to fulfill the same kind of expectations as we make of good literature. A E Housman said that literature ought ‘quicken one’s perception though dull, and sharpen one’s discrimination though blunt’: so ought criticism.