April 22, 2008

Literary Impressions: Why Bother Teaching Literary Criticism?

At the home of Mark Oppenheimer, one of the editors of New Haven Review, for which I serve as publisher, we had a conversation about writing literary criticism. Context for the conversation was the course in journalism that he will teach next semester at Yale, which makes sense given his credentials as a journalist. He noted that he much preferred teaching nonfiction writing courses of this sort to literature classes because he neither wrote nor knew all that much about literary criticism. This, too, made sense to me, which explains why I chimed in: "I don't really understand why we teach students how to write literary criticism at all."

So why do we teach students how to write literary criticism? Make no mistake, it is a form of writing that can approach art in the right hands. But even for beginners it is a far more difficult mode of nonfiction writing--in my humble view--than the standard nonfiction forms of narration, description, and argumentation. Technically, literary criticism is a subdivision of the last, but it remains one of the hardest to do well. I attribute this difficulty not only to the inability of students to read well but also to the inherent complications of trying to formulate an argument about something as slippery as a finely crafted story or poem.

In my own experience, the slipperiness of literary fiction derives directly from the story-like nature of this species of discourse. When I taught, my students continuously wrestled with the Herculean (or perhaps Sisyphean) task of unwinding the author from the characters, the storyteller from the story, the telling from the showing. Even I still have difficulty with the boxes-within-boxes, or better yet wall-of-mirrors, nature of this discursive mode--and I have a doctorate in literature, mind you.

I'm currently convinced that high school teachers and professors teach students how to write literary criticism not because it instructs them in how to "think critically" or "formulate an argument" better. These can be done just as easily using another topic. Instead, I believe many teachers in their heart of hearts would rather not teach students how to write literary criticism at all. What they probably do like is reading works of high literary quality and talking about them intelligently--like a book club but with the teacher's authority intact. That certainly was my experience as a college instructor. I loved selecting, teaching, and discussing (or more appropriately discoursing on) the work at hand. What I despised to no end was marking my students' papers, which were poorly written, generally incoherent, and pedestrian in their interpretations. And most literary instructors I speak with echo this same sentiment. It probably explains why I became an editor: I grew tired of marking people's dry runs. If someone is going to write poorly, and I'm going to have to redline it into readable prose, I might as well make sure that the fruits of my labor see light of day in published form.

In some ways, I miss the halcyon days of teaching literature. I even sometimes miss the stress and strain of writing literary criticism myself--no easy task, even for me. But the idea of teaching students to write literary criticism, as if that would constitute training for a profession other than, well, writing literary criticism (which is not even a solid basis for the art of book reviewing) is a misbegotten notion that serves no one other than the instructors who recognize this chore as the price that must be paid for the pleasure of teaching literature.


rebecca said...

I ended up over here because I was Googling around for some inspiration for the class I have to teach today -- it's literary analysis day in my freshman comp class. I know this will not be useful to my students in their later lives, and it can't be taught in 45 minutes anyway. However, it is on the list of things I am supposed to teach, so I'm teaching it.
I'd rather discuss it in Book Club, by far.

Anonymous said...

I'm here because my 15 year old daughter is about to be taught Literary Analysis using the book, Kite Runner. Huh? I'm alarmed and hoping to make a case for why a book featuring such gross brutality, including the rape/sodomy of child, cannot be used to teach budding English students what it is to examine the intricacies of a well crafted piece...Any advice or strong alternatives to Kite Runner, that I might take with me when I approach the high school English dept?

Polymath Paradise said...

Tough question. I decided to consult with a teen who has read The Kite Runner, who notes that the terrible scene under discussion is treated in a manner appropriate to the horror of the event.

Personally I tend to be agnostic on the issue of exposing teens to very difficult reading matter. The Color Purple, for example, is pretty clear about the fact that its protagonist is the victim of repeated rape and forced childbearing. Or we may forget that in Catcher in the Rye, although nothing so terribly explicit happens, the teenage Holden is sexually propositioned by one of his male teachers.

The question of "strong alternatives" depends on what we mean by strong. Strong in terms of literary quality? Then the world is one's oyster. Strong in terms of a particular focus--story of modern Middle or Near East adolescence? Story of sexual exploitation of the young? That narrows the field and again you'd have to ask what will "strong" mean in this context.

The easiest way to do this is just research the matter using books like "Great Books for High School Kids" (ed. by Rick Ayers and Amy Crawford) and other titles of this ilk (in which The Kite Runner may well be included). That's the best can I offer. Good luck in your research.

rebecca said...

Um....There is really no proof that Holden Caufield was propositioned by Mr. Antolini. Holden is an unreliable narrator and he's homophobic. Just as Holden offers to tie a little girl's skate for her and to buy her a coke without being a pedaphile, Antolini pats Holden on the head and offers him a place to stay without being a pedaphile. Antolini is perhaps inappropriately affectionate toward a teenage boy, but he's not trying to have sex with Holden. Go read the book again. And while you're at it, apply some literary theory to it. You might have a bit more clarity in your reading.

rebecca said...

Perhaps you should reread The Catcher in the Rye. And while you're at, apply some lit crit/theory so perhaps your reading will have a bit more maturity. Antolini does not make a pass at Holden. Holden is an unreliable narrator and homophopic/sexually confused. Just as Holden loves young children and wants to help them -- tie their skates, catch them when they fall, etc, Antolini feels the same for his student. Yes he pats him on the head, but Antoline does not want to have sex with Holden. He justs wants to keep him from falling....

Polymath Paradise said...

Does Mr. Antolini "make a pass"? It's open to interpretation, very open. I'll let other readers do these speaking at sites like this: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/archive/index.php/t-162733.html.