The Importance of Literary Criticism
Rhian Hutchings explores how important literary criticism is for our enjoyment of literature.
If a tree falls in the forest without anyone there, does it make a sound? I guess that could be applied to works of literary acclaim through the ages. As an author, if nobody talks about your novel, has it really emerged on the literary scene? There have been many occasions before ordering books that I have looked online for reviews or general conversations about authors. I often hear and mostly agree with the idiom ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, therefore following that logic should we judge a book by its reviews? Of course, literary criticism encompasses much more than just book reviews, it includes essays and in-depth studies including many theories of literary criticism belonging to perhaps more academic circles. Criticism of literature is not only a way of promoting works and increasing popularity of authors, it has also always been a way of digesting and dissecting information by applying our own perspective and experience whilst processing that of the author’s. I have recently begun trying to apply my own tentative criticism or feelings about novels and I must confess it has certainly let me engage more with what I am reading.
Thanks to social media, we live in an incredibly critical era. The ability to constantly scrutinise and compare through apps like Instagram and Twitter can make for culturally brutal surroundings. The accessibility and ability for anyone to comment about virtually anything on social media has in some instances created a hostile environment. An interesting example of this in the world of literature is that of the twitter dispute almost five years ago involving the author Matt Haig. He was slated on twitter after suggesting that his next non-fiction book might be based on interpretations of masculinity and the difficulties involved with toxic masculinity. Many people on Twitter accused him of ‘mansplaining feminism’ and that there was no place for such a book. Even though the conversation surrounding masculinity has certainly shifted even in the last five years, the onslaught of criticism was certainly jarring and raises interesting questions about the nature of literary criticism.
“The accessibility and ability for anyone to comment about virtually anything on social media has in some instances created a hostile environment.”
Of course, people can disagree and question certain ideas, but tweets quickly seem to become personal which evidently crosses the threshold from criticism to attacking an individual. Living as a young person in 2020 I am acutely aware of trolls and of the abuse existing on these social media platforms. With Twitter being arguably an emerging form of literary criticism, do we need to shift our attention to maintaining a constructive and academic approach to evaluating somebody’s work? I find the development in how people judge and criticise the arts and culture incredibly poignant in a digital age such as today, creating a different platform for future literary discussion.
Most writers would argue that they put a piece of themselves into their work. Some poets even write about such abstract ideas that they often surpass rationality. How does a critic therefore engage with such outlandish and incredibly personal material? Personally, the best critical pieces I have read have taken a more objective stance looking at the work from a more specialised angle. For example, modern feminist criticism found its voice in the 1960s and can take an objective look at the way in which women are represented in the book or poem. Can looking at a piece of work through a certain critical lens make a piece more informative or can it make a reader blinkered? Continuing with feminist criticism as an example, this specialised school of criticism is helpful in placing a piece of work socially and culturally. It is possible to learn a lot about the social landscape by looking at what critics are concerned with during a certain time. For me this emphasises the importance of criticism not only when the critic writes the review or essay but looking back and trying to understand the time in which the book was written.
“It is the oxygen that those interested in literature must breathe if literature is to thrive and develop.”
Reading criticism therefore can certainly influence the purchasing of books for decades to come through the way the book is engaged with at the time, influencing its future presence. As authors continue to write prose and poetry, critics will continue to comment, tear apart and scrutinise; these go hand in hand with one another and it is impossible to deny the significance of literary criticism in this modern era. It may have become more accessible (and arguably of more mixed quality) as a result of social media. It may also have a greater commercial impact on book sales than more traditional academic discussion. No matter what form it is in it continues to allow us to question and interrogate the texts we read. It is the oxygen that those interested in literature must breathe if literature is to thrive and develop.