January 16, 2005


When it comes to literary criticism I never know whether to sneer or cheer. One part of me laughs at how silly it is to argue about the "merits" of art. (Esthetic taste is not the sort of thing that's influenced by arguments, right?) The other part of me is amazed at how writing about art can make our experience of it so much richer.

For example, critics can talk to me all day about Tolkien's supposedly "wooden" characters, but in one sense, I couldn't care less what they think--his characters don't seem wooden to me. They can argue that LoTR glorifies heirarchies and the status quo, or that Tolkien is really just proselytizing his Catholicism in his books. If they've read the story closely they might convince me that a reasonable reader could draw those conclusions, but I'm not (just) a reasonable reader. I've already read the book, and my own idiosyncratic reactions to it (namely, love) don't have anything to do with whether anyone else likes it or not.

Which is to say, literary criticism seems irrelevant to the most important question we ask of a literary work: do you like it?

On the other hand, I'm amazed at what a perceptive critic can say about a work of fiction. Good criticism can seem like revelation when it isn't trying to argue that your esthetic reaction to a story is "wrong." When it tries to just describe what the critic has noticed about the story, criticism is enormously fun to read--even if I don't myself agree with the critic's descriptions or explanations.

In light of my conflicted reaction to literary criticism, then, I'll give the posts over at Crooked Timber about China Miéville's work (and a lot about Tolkien, too) a solid thumbs-sideways. With some wiggles.

[the same goes for Helen Bainbridge's scornful review of a movie I liked, Sideways.]

Posted by Carey at January 16, 2005 08:14 PM

Oh, so comments work now? This is a test.

Posted by: Larry at January 17, 2005 01:55 PM