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Becoming a Critic

Since reading Elizabeth Bear’s blog regularly, I’ve been exposed to some very interesting literary criticism. I asked her how to learn that skill – I’m very analytical, but lack the concepts/vocabulary of literary criticism. Previous attempts to learn something about the formal discipline have ended badly, mostly with cursing. A lot of academic literary criticism seems to exist solely for the purpose of existing. I’m more interested in the kind with meaning.

It occurred to me that the Hugo “Best Related Book” category would be a good place to find genre criticism, and I’ll track down some of the relevant books from there. There’s also Ursula Le Guin. But who else? I’d like to at least become familiar with the basics, both as a reader and a writer, but in a way that’s compatible with my pre-existing scientific/analytical bias.

Thoughts, please.


  1. Jess says:

    I don’t know much about who does sci fi or fantasy criticism, but I should think Le Guin’s a very good place to start. Samuel R. Delaney, too– I remember being impressed by a lot of his essays. (Though, by contrast, his introductory essay in About Writing put me to sleep. It’s partly an argument against the amateur who lacks seriousness about craft, and partly an argument to justify the existence of genre fiction to other academics. In both cases I thought it protested a bit much.)

    But as far as learning the discipline, it depends on what you mean by “criticism” in the first place. Your observation that much literary criticism exists merely to exist isn’t unreasonable. There is a brand of academic out there with some very strange ideas about fiction, and how you ought look at it; this critic tends to be the sort who will cherry-pick from disciplines outside their expertise and fling them at classic works of literature just to see if they stick (classical Freudian analysis, for example, which even Freudian analysts no longer use on patients). I tend to be baffled by these sorts of critics; some of what they say is interesting, but often seems not to have anything to do with literature at all. I took a number of lit seminars in which we’d be assigned an enormous reading list, then shove them aside to discuss anything but. What I learned from that experience was mainly that this particular brand of critic is baffled by creativity, and by authors. They also don’t seem to understand, or even take an interest in, the basics of craft– something which seems essential to me for anyone who means to talk about literature. It’s like trying to talk about paintings without paying attention to what artists actually do with their brushes.

    There’s another sort of academic which ties literary criticism very closely to art history and art movements; that approach makes a lot more sense to me. There’s a guy over in the English Department whose area of specialization is the Modernists (Joyce, Woolf, et al)– I learned a lot from him about how the literature and visual arts of that period spoke to each other; also a lot of fascinating stuff about things like crowd theory, and how writers of the period addressed the notion of “the crowd”. That’s a more worthwhile approach, to my mind, but it requires a lot of expertise in other areas besides literature.

    Then there’s book reviewing: that’s something where you look very closely at the writer’s brushstrokes, how a piece of fiction (or poetry, or nonfiction) works, or doesn’t work; what satisfies, and what’s lacking. This is the kind of criticism I’m most comfortable with, because it’s squarely within my area of expertise. It’s something I learned mainly from writing, and reading about writing, and listening to what other writers have to say about craft. If it’s that sort of criticism which interests you, it’s worth picking up a subscription to the AWP Writer’s Chronicle; that will give you a feel for how writers who come from an academic background talk about what they do.

  2. Jess says:

    Ooh! And this book. Not criticism as such, but very in-depth essays on craft– more a discussion of the subject than a how-to book.