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January 25, 2007

EL312: Literary Criticism or 42

Okay, so I got a geeky reference out of the way on my first blog entry for this class. Thank goodness for that...

The introduction to Keesey's "Contexts for Criticism" stimulates thoughts regarding my decision for being an English literature major from the get-go. I didn't choose creative writing or journalism (though I do enjoy and am earning minors in both). I chose to major in literature for what I felt it offered me--freedom. (Little did I know what I was getting myself in to... but 4 years later I still love it so it must have been worth all the trouble, right?)

The chart that Keesey presents on page 3 grants a certain amount of simplicity to the complexities of literary criticism, which I vaguely appreciate. However, when considering all of the -ists and their specific -isms in the field, balking it down to the given illustration that really reminds me of an atom seems too simplistic. (I pictured it in more of a 3D model, myself, since all of the 4 entities--reality, literature, author, and audience--can connect in a variety of ways.) I realize that there are probably more -isms in lit. crit. than I can wrap my head around, but I'm willing to learn what I can and run with it. And that is what I intend to do.

Returning to my love for my major, and the title of this entry for that matter, I really do think that literary criticism is on the cusp of study of the quest for the meaning for life. This might sound too high-horse for some folks, but consider this: we ponder "what is art?" almost constantly. And if we can't answer that question (as it's been debated to death by philosophers) we ought to at least define our study of art. Literary criticism is "the art of interpreting literary works," Keesey says (4). That's fine--but what of the result of these interpretations?

Studying and interpreting literature provides a unique insight unlike that proffered through the study of any other form of art. Why do the critics (the "-ists") with their sects of study (the "-isms") examine literature? For the sake of their -ism? Perhaps it's the questions they ask, when interpreting a work as an -ist, provide answers that are meaningful to their -ism. They're supporting and defending it, attacking enemy -isms, and taking no prisoners.

When does literary criticism become the meaning of life? (...or 42, as the case may be) Whenever the critic decides. The literature--the art--evokes such a response from -ists that they relate it to their -ism. When the critic makes a relation, that is when the meaning-making occurs. Once the argument is complete, it's up to us to make connections to other -isms. Connecting the dots between all of the -isms to generate a fuller, robust, deep study of the literature gives me a truly remarkable respect for much of humanity, as cheesy as that may sound.

I have learned more through literature than I ever thought. The fact that it connects to so many other aspects of life isn't actually surprising, but pondering the -ists arguments for the sake of making our own arguments... well, through making those connections we might be surprised... and humbled.

I enjoy being a literature major because I feel like there is more freedom in my role as a critic than I could ever find in another field of study. As long as I can support my claims, provide evidence, argue my point, I'm right. For the sake of my itty bitty papers, I'm right. (Whether I actually am, or whether anyone agrees with me remains to be seen, but can you see where I'm coming from with this? Herein lies also the humbling part of the critic's connections and arguments...)

Sidenote: I think my blog should really be considered a record of my love affair with the English language...

Keesey, General Introduction -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

Posted by KarissaKilgore at January 25, 2007 11:19 PM


Yes, English lit crit offers a lot of lattitude for combining scholarly research with intellectual creativity. As long as you can build a good case to support your argument, it's good scholarship. The downside is that it that the handful of intellectually creative people who start movements and who push the field forward create a model that sets impossibly high standards, and you get academics making wild claims for attention just because that's what they think they're supposed to do. (Some bloggers will do that... and I'm sure most of us have encountered someone like that via the blogosphere.) But there is almost always more to say about the classics, and there are always new works being published, and new genres being formed (graphic novels, video games, weblogs) about which the basic historical research has not yet been completed.

So jump in and let's get going! :)

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 26, 2007 9:39 AM

Glad you agree. :) Therefore, lit. crit. = 42.

The possibility of creating some new connection is thrilling. While the ideas themselves may not be new, the connection and showing and explaining that connection to others is what I get excited about.

Posted by: Karissa at January 26, 2007 2:46 PM

"it's up to us to make connections to other -isms"

If you ever get time, try looking up research interests of people in graduate school and professors at universities... you would be pleasured to see just how many "isms" people are influenced by. People are all unique and it's hard to get locked into fully appreciating one theory made by one person.

"As long as I can support my claims, provide evidence, argue my point, I'm right."

I strongly disagree with that. (And I am biased, given my strong disdain for postmodern theory). We can make arguments for just about anything, true. But our claims can only be equally valid, not equally right. That is the most enriching part of literary criticism that I have found in my (limited, but nonetheless) experience of it...

Literature holds a certain amount of mystery. It's a process that happens in more abstraction than visual or performing arts; it's an art made entirely with language. It would be nice to be able to jump into a writer's head and be able to know what happens when she makes a piece of literature and find ways to measure the cumulative effects of her environment.

Since that is not practical and relying on the reports of the writer do not always give a full picture (unfortunately, not many writers themselves know what goes all into the process of making literature), literary criticism is a practical method for making sense out of this art form. Have fun in the class!

Posted by: Evan at January 26, 2007 7:41 PM

Thanks for your comment, Evan. I appreciate your thoughts on the subject. As for looking up the -isms of professors, etc., I've had my share of time to look around at those kinds of things in my search for graduate schools. Lots of -isms... even in other fields that don't involve literature (which, by the way, I'm not going to grad school for literature... this is a springboard into composition for me).

One last thing... my statement about being right in my claims is qualified by the following: "For the sake of my itty bitty papers, I'm right." I don't propose that everyone is right--but that searching, that new critical lens (as Dr. Jerz called it), is where the learning takes place and where it becomes 42. ;)

Posted by: Karissa at January 26, 2007 8:54 PM

I envy you, Karissa, because you seem awfully excited about the whole concept of literary criticism. I'm a bit more hesitant--or so my 3 a.m. blog entry points out.

Keesey's model and explanation of it was a little difficult for me to understand (heh, and he said it broke it down simply). Since you enjoy showing connections to others, maybe you can explain this to me sometime?

Geez, even Evan up there has (and is aware of) his way of looking at literature. It's making me think that I missed something, or forgot something.

Posted by: Valerie Masciarelli at January 28, 2007 1:14 PM

Hi, my name is Vanessa Kolberg, and I'm a creative writing major.

That said, I chose this major due to, but not limited to, it's something I'm good at. I can also read, but have chosen literature as my minor because I don't "do" literary criticism well. Some people have the mindset in which literary criticism just clicks for them (you, apparently, are one of these people). And I am all sorts of jealous about that. I don't see literary criticsm as a quest for the meaning of life but more like a way of gaining a deeper understanding of the text which then leads to a greater appreciation. It's less about "how will this change my life" than "how will this help me relate to what the writer was trying to convey" for me.

Posted by: Nessa at January 28, 2007 4:13 PM

"I can also read..." Thanks for clearing that up, Vanessa. ;)

The meaning you find in literary criticism seems fair--you've got a noble goal in mind, considering how you've made it relate to what you see as a weakness in yourself. Maybe my argument about the meaning of life is a stretch (I'll be the first to admit it), but I wanted to say something strong about the study and how I feel about it.

Valerie, I'd be happy to talk lit. crit. with you, if that's what you like. We could meet up for lunch or dinner, or just talk while we work at the WC. You underestimate yourself, but it's great to talk about this stuff even just to see where others are coming from.

Posted by: Karissa at January 28, 2007 4:59 PM

That would be wonderful, to discuss all of this sometime. After a bit more reading, things are starting to make more sense...not a lot, but some.

Vanessa--I think the more a book helps you relate to what the writer has to say, the more capability it has to change your life. Hah! I've leveled the ground between you and Karissa!

Zoo Tycoon is a game where you make your own zoos. Sometimes you play scenarios, where you have to meet a goal, but you can also start a zoo just for the heck of it.

Posted by: Valerie Masciarelli at January 28, 2007 8:01 PM

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