by Katie Zwick
When I was in second grade, I went through a deceitful phase of reading only the thinnest books in the school library and lying for the sake of personal pizzas (the coveted Book It! reward). By the time I entered fourth grade, I had magically found my niche. I was introduced to what I needed to motivate my reading habits: literary criticism. Finally being shown, taught, and exposed to the fact that I didn’t have to love what I read for it to be of value to me changed the way I looked at reading. I was only nine years old.
As Marjorie Garber writes in The Use and Abuse of Literature, literary criticism gets a bad rap. She might not use those exact words but you get the idea. She quotes from Harold Brooks’ 1974 lecture, summing up the pros and cons (or uses and abuses) of lit crit. The first point made in each category gives a general idea of why literary criticism is good – “Literary criticism is meant to help us, either in writing literature; or in reading it with more enjoyment and discrimination; or in understanding, through the literature, the civilization it belongs to.” – and how it is bad – it provides a “half-baked interpretation formed by attending to only part of the evidence in a text (43).”
Alright, so there’s good and bad ways to utilize literary criticism. We, as college students (and seniors at that!), have faced and will continue to face daunting or sometimes just downright annoying exercises that force us to look at a piece of literature through various modes of literary criticism – feminist, psych, formalist, etc. These exercises are intended to provide us with several interpretations of a singular work, enable us to delve deeper into the author’s mind, and help us create strong opinions and arguments in reaction or relation to the work. We’ve all been there. We’ve all done that.
I’m not sure, however, that this is using literary criticism the “correct” way. Garber might say that unless we are taking it upon ourselves to apply the various criticisms to what we read, we are simply “abusing” literary criticism. Then again, she might not say this.
She definitely believes that “…every reading produces an equal and opposite rereading (46).”
Garber doesn’t want us to simply use literary criticism to enhance our intellectual interpretation of a literary work. She wants us to seek out our own criticisms and interpretations with existing criticisms acting as catalysts. I get a lot more joy out of reading when I am applying literary criticism to a literary work for fun and without being pushed to do so.
In other words, studying literary criticism is essential but the application should happen in an unstructured way. You don’t have to read everything through from the perspective of feminist criticism or Freudian psychology but if it happens, it happens.
*I no longer lie about how many books I’ve read for the sake of stickers, but I do believe that stickers should be given out in college. It couldn’t hurt.