Is There a Point to Literary Criticism?

14th October, 2008


I've studied literature for a good number of years, in a university, and I have often wondered if there was a real point to it. What is the use of literary criticism?


When you study computers, physics, and the likes, or intend to be a doctor, a psychologist, and all those things, you know what you'll do later on. And you know it will be useful and serve a purpose. When you're a literature student, you think maybe you'll be a teacher and teach literature to people. People who will then... become teachers too, perhaps. On and on. But why?


When you write books of literary criticism, your only audience is students and teachers, and the occasional insane fan of whoever author you discuss. It feels like feeding a self-eating snake to me. There seems to be no direct purpose except perpetuating itself. Don't get me wrong, I love studying literature, I'm just wondering about the point of it beyond being an interesting thing to do.


I do believe teachers should have gone to university before teaching the mandatory classes (pre-High School and all), in that case it would make a lot of sense, but I'm more focused on people in the academy staying in the academy and writing for the academy. Is there really a point in dissecting novels and poems?


I always love discussing things, so my initial impression is that it's cool to do so. But then you see the sort of criticism people come out with, and you wonder if it adds anything to those novels and poems. Most of the time, you don't really want to know what academics have to say about your favourite novel because your personal experience of it is more important to you. And that's something the academy disregards: your personal experience of a work of art. They almost forget that a book is an experience in your life, not just a text that you can analyse. I'm all for analysing, but we have to go all the way, and analyse analysis.


I don't think any serious author writes and assumes that his work will not be complete before a horde of academics write about his books. That's preposterous. Moreover, people who read, say, Hemingway, don't really go on to read literary criticism about his stories. You read the stories. Then if you're curious, you may check some of the criticism, but I don't think most people will do that. I typically don't, I'd rather read the primary work of another author. So basically, we read criticism if we are either students or teachers. That's alright, most people don't read specialised literature in any field unless they study it, or unless they have a crazy interest in it.


The problem I have is about what you do with this education. The reason why I studied literature was so that I would learn about literature, in order to be a writer. In my case, I have a specific goal and I know where I'm going. If it hadn't been for that, I wouldn't have studied literature, I think.


It seems to me that studying literature only has indirect effects on your life. When you study psychology, you can become a psychologist and help people. When you study science, you can become a researcher and make things evolve. When you study literature, you can help others to study literature. But to what end? I would say: to enhance people's critical sense, open their minds to subtleties they may not have been aware of, and so on. But that's hardly comparable to solving someone's neurosis, or broken leg, or inventing a new motor for spacecrafts. Creating art and touching people with it, however, is definitely comparable. I am more thankful to Salinger for having written what he wrote than I am to the man who invented zippers. Zippers are cool, but if I had buttons instead of them, it wouldn't have made a huge difference in my life. Removing The Catcher in the Rye and Salinger's other books would have made a much bigger impact on me (or lack thereof, if you want to be picky).


This reminds me of a passage from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, in which she and her boyfriend discuss their respective vocations. He studies to be a doctor, she wants to be a poet. He says poetry is just paper, is just dust. She says, to herself, later on, that people are just dust too, if you want to see it that way, and that making someone's body feel better through medicine is not more important than making someone's soul feel better through poetry, and more generally art. I of course agree with that. There is a very real need for art, and art definitely has a purpose. And I find it sad that in our age, having a purpose is sometimes perceived as a negative thing. Art being meaningful and making sense, and touching you, doesn't make it bad art. Some of you have to get off your high horses of stupidity and get some common sense. See my chapters on Post-Modernism and Remodernism for more on art.


Back to literary criticism. I wrote a ton of essays throughout my academic career, and I don't feel like they were much of use to anything or anyone. No matter how good they are, who is going to read them except the teachers whose classes I attended? And suppose I somehow get chosen for an anthology of essays, who's gonna read that? Teachers and students specialising in whatever topic or subject I wrote about, and nobody else, and even those won't be very thrilled, it'd just be work.


I am aware that in other countries, studying literature implies more things than it does here; things like creative writing, journalism, and many other fields which actually are more obviously useful and pragmatically more satisfying.


I'm just scared that academics spend their time masturbating their brains and being paid for it, while not bringing anything substantial to the rest of us. And self-perpetuation is not a valid reason to exist. Studying to become a teacher to then teach students who will become teachers too, I don't see the point.


All in all, I know it's useful, as it has been to my life, but it's rather nebulous, and hard to focus on practical endeavours, unless, like me, you write, in which case my studies were very useful to me. I would have taken creative writing, but we don't have this option in my country. Studying literature was the next best thing.


©Nicolas