May 2, 2008

Literary Impressions: Why We Should Teach Literary Criticism

Earlier, I had written about the fruitlessness of teaching students how to write literary criticism. And in the two weeks since writing that post, I haven't changed my mind. But not teaching students how to write literary criticism is not the same as refusing to teach them how to do literary criticism.

In fact, when it comes to the art of unraveling a literary work--of dissecting it, if you will--I do believe we should instruct students in this activity. I'm just not convinced this is the most effective way of teaching students how to write better, and too often beginning literature courses are treated as an extension of one's training in academic writing. But, in my view, the experience of writing literary criticism comes too early in the trajectory of a student's college career. Unless the inability to write has burdened them with freshmen remedial composition courses--something of a norm among American college students--writing literary criticism within the first two years of study is too soon to engage in the art of analyzing one of our most complex human artefacts.

If you'll indulge a small digression for context, I've always been amused by the distinction in our culture between the "hard" and "soft" sciences. In academia, hard sciences like physics and chemistry have long been seen as more difficult, more challenging than the "soft" sciences of psychology and sociology. Just look at the adjectives! But this bias is built on a strange insecurity that belies the reality of the situation. The soft sciences are soft not because they're easier but because they're the more complex of the two. And why? Because they have humanity as the object of their analysis, and human beings by nature lie--if not to the scientists who observe them then to themselves. Our capacity for deception and delusion inevitably muddy the stream of reproducible results and controllable variables upon which "good" science depends. Pity the poor psychologist rather than the physicist, for grasping human behavior is enough to give even the keenest of minds a migraine. And narrative is, if anything, a demonstration of this ontological aspect of human nature. It is the instability and unknowability of intentions and responses, causes and effects, writ large. If human beings instantiate in every living moment the Heisenberg principle, stories are little more than extensions of that instantiation. And yet we're sending in students to write coherently about that?

Perhaps I make mountains of molehills here, but sometime I must wonder if compelling nineteen-year-olds to intelligibly and (one hopes) intelligently interrogate literature exemplifies the very irrationality they're asked to expound on. It difficult enough to discern, say, a character's ostensible motivation in a work of fiction; to ask students to peer further over the literary horizon and comment on the unstable source of that representation, which may range from the author's unconscious predilections to the ultimately unknowable historical milieu of the work, seems sheer madness. Here we blithely walk students into literature's hall of mirrors and ask them to look from reflection to reflection in a cascade of narrative instability, uncertainty and ambiguity--which, if you can believe it, is a good thing in a literary work--and expect them to walk out presumably loving the work and the craft of writing literary criticism.

Inevitably we are disappointed. They leave frustrated, and the work is more pedestrian than not. At best, we hope for diamonds of insight in the rough. Some, of course, stick it out, having enjoyed the ride despite the results. In these are our first English majors presumaby born. But was the ride worth it?

In the end, frustrations aside, I believe it was. Uncertainty and ambiguity in a work of literature is a good thing. I'm with the New Critics on that point. But try getting your typical first-year college student to accept that. Not so easy.

Not so easy because eventually they will have to accept the fact that life as lived is rife with uncertainty, and making it through depends on learning how to navigate its shoals. Literature of any real quality demands the abeyance of the Manichaean reality we'd all otherwise prefer. And engaging students in the act (and if they're further interested, the art) of literary criticism is among their first steps in exploring and accommodating the not-so-black-and-white reality in which we live. Literary criticism is essentially a safe space to pick apart reality through the vehicle of narrative. The more robust and thoughtful the picking apart, the better the training the student receives for handling the blows life will inevitably deal. Better to explore earlier in a textual work why a crime was committed than later in a courtroom as a witness, plaintiff or defendant. Literary criticism for this reason, among others, is a species--maybe a subspecies--of ethical behavior. It is the unexamined life being examined, through the lens of someone else's narrative existence.

But, mind you, this is only the act of engaging in literary criticism. It is not necessarily the act of writing it. For when you write literary criticism--not a bad thing in itself, of course--you have now more heavy-handedly codified the flux of possibilities that circulated prior to committing ideas and arguments to paper. Granted, codification will sometimes have the ameliorative effect of pushing you to think through and state more clearly your views of the work at hand. For while uncertainty may characterize the nature of reality, so does certainty, if only temporally. Uncertainty, after all, is not the same as chaos. And the writing of literary criticism, while difficult in the extreme at times, is not impossible. Indeed with time, maturity and the ability to walk the high wire of our quotidian reality, it is even something we may want to teach. But only when it really is worth teaching and not before. A softening up period that concentrates more on discussion and more imaginative forms of engagement would do far more till then.

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