Monday Money: The Art of Criticism



“Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,” – Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”

This post is a “How To” on literary (and largely, cultural) criticism. Many of us are thrown into mandatory English classes in college and expected to know exactly what to do with no prior training. I hope this helps cushion that fall.

In literary analysis, these are some things to always keep in mind.

1. Words mean things. In essence, writers are famed for being intentional people, at least in Euro-American culture, so if someone chooses to say “a farm” instead of “the farm,” there’s probably a reason behind that, and that’s where you as critic come in. You get to play a guessing game and try to figure it out. Fun, right?

2. There is no correct answer. I know that some of your professors might disagree with this statement, especially if they have very specific ways of looking at texts, but for the most part, there are several, infinite ways of reading a text.

Characteristics of Literary Analysis

  • ARGUMENT: Your literary analysis, no matter how short or long, should always be making a claim. In academic writing, we call this the “thesis.” If someone could disagree with your thesis, or if your thesis is a particularly great observation, that’s what make it a good, arguable thesis. I know, it’s not fair that as a college student who is still trying to figure out your place in the world and your opinions about life, you have to make these declarative statements about some random poem or novel. It feels good when you realize that you have something to say though. And don’t worry, your argument does not need to be life changing.
  • EVIDENCE/CLOSE READING: I wish we could all just go around making claims about stuff and not backing them up, but then literary criticism wouldn’t be serious work. One way to find evidence is through close reading, and this is where you have the most space for free thought. What comes to mind when you see a particular word? This could be used to make  a wide range of claims. I’ll talk more about close reading soon.
  • RELEVANCE: Many teachers describe this part as the “so-what” and it is the most frustrating, but in many ways, the easiest part of literary analysis. Essentially, you have to answer: does what I’m saying in any way comment on the characters, the author, the society discussed in the text, the nature of poetry/fiction, or general beliefs about a theme (e.g. love, or death)? If yes, what is its comment?

What is Close Reading? 

This is essentially answering the question: what deeper meaning can I get from this phrase, line, or sentence? Close reading is today, highly valued and stressed in the university, because it always reveals fascinating things about texts. Use the following example to get a sense of what I am talking about.

In the second act [of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?], George refers to Honey as “angel tits”. This phrase has within it – two paradoxes. On the surface level, it juxtaposes the angel, which is symbolic of purity, with breasts, which are associated with sex. If Honey is both chaste and sexual, which one is she really? It is this conjunction of the sexual with the asexual which adds nuance to the play. The second contradiction in the phrase is the word “tits”. That George finds Honey’s breasts attractive enough to be described as angelic, gives her an erotic quality. Her breasts are nice to look at, but they have not been used to feed anyone. She is sexual and feminine, but unable to conceive. In using breasts which are ordinarily fertility cues to describe a childless woman, the play dissociates femininity from procreation.

In this passage, there is a zooming in on a phrase, whose comprising two words are heavy with cultural significance. Writers tend to use words like this (wherein you can’t really escape from the different ways they are used in colloquial language) a lot. As literary critic, all you have to do is think about the significance of these words, and try to figure out why the author or poet has used them.

Another way you can close read is by thinking about the form of a poem/prosaic work. How does rhyme work in this poem to further the sense the poet is trying to convey? How does stream of consciousness play into the idea of female expansiveness? When teachers ask you to relate form to content, this is what they’re asking for.

In sum, your literary analysis, should show how the writers’ words and style are used to further (or negate) different meanings of their text.

Post Submitted by Kanyin


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