Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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I've just handed in my final paper as an English major, wherein I argued that criticism is the critic's attempt to induce his or her own experience of a work in the reader. No surprise, then, that I absolutely agree with the idea that "criticism is, in part, one reader's attempt to communicate his/her own 'experience' of the work at hand". My inspiration, by the way, wasn't Dewey but Frank Sibley: "The critic is successful if his audience began by not seeing, and ends by seeing for itself, the aesthetic character of the object" (from "Aesthetic and Nonaesthetic").

The obligation to "describe" -- now there's the rub. Stanley Fish's caveat is, of course, that what constitutes an "accurate description" is not to be found in the work itself, but determined by the readers (and their community). Having said that, isn't it possible to describe a work accurately even though the description is subservient to an experience which is, by certain standards, an idiosyncratic, personal, subjective experience? In my opinion, the point to heed in Dewey's "ordering of the elements of the whole" is that good criticism is a matter of degree rather than kind. Regardless of whether the experience you seek to promote in your criticism is subjective, objective, aesthetic, feminist, Lachanian, or Marxist: good criticism does not depend on the kind of experience it promotes -- that's just a matter of preference -- but on the degree to which the critic manages to order the elements of the work, that is, the way in which the raw material is presented as a meaningful whole. The "wholeness" or "unity" does not necessarily have to end in an aesthetic experience and can be achieved even in criticism that imposes standards supposedly "foreign" to the work. With "wholeness" and "unity" I don't mean that every bit and piece of the work has to be commented on; that's not only impossible (thankfully!), but undesirable. Rather, "whole" or "unified" denotes the feel of an experience promoted in a piece of criticism. That doesn't have to do much with criticism as an argument (coherent arguments do not always correspond to coherent experiences) but has all to do with literature as an experience.

So in my understanding of "reader experience", the kind of experience doesn't matter all that much in regards to what is criticism and what isn't (nor, by implication, do the standards behind the accuracy of a description). Some theory-driven interpretations are good criticism, and the attempt to separate theory from criticism on the grounds that theory people do not treat the work as literature or on its own terms fails precisely because the work "as literature" or "on its own terms" cannot be dissociated from experience nor equated with aesthetic experience. But then the "what is criticism?" debate, as far as I follow it, is really a "what should criticism do?" debate -- and here I agree entirely with Sibley (and Dewey): criticism should (a) promote an experience of the work as a whole, and (b) make a sincere attempt to share that experience with others. That's, in my view, the best benchmark for criticism (theory and otherwise).


This seems particularly approrpriate advice when one is writing about an out-of-print text which probably hasn't been read for years. It almost seems churlish to write (and publish), say, a post-Lacanian decontructionalist reading of a forgotten nineteenth-century epic poem knowing that, in all likelihood, it'll be the only piece of criticism available on that poem for the next decade at least...

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