BY NICO VREELAND
It’s pretty easy to work up a good hate for intellectualism—especially the smarmy, condescending kind. Books (or “literature” if you want to get snooty about it) and the serious discussion of them sometimes get confused for just that sort of pretentiousness.
One instance of such confusion is an essay called “I Just Want to Read,” by Ann Nichols, in Open Salon. In short, Nichols bemoans the overuse of formal literary theory, and pines for the days when, like the title says, she could read just for pleasure.
She makes some good points, especially about the ease with which you can fake hifalutin-sounding insights about literature (just learn and use a few words like “postcolonial” and “metafictional” and you’ll get a B in most lit classes). But for the most part, Nichols’s anti-criticism rant irks me, for several reasons. Here they are.
Nichols starts with an anecdote that immediately sets off my internal BS alarms. It’s the old when-I-was-a-kid bit, this time about a wide-eyed girl with a stack of books and a dream:
I was reading critically in the sense that I liked or disliked books, and knew what did and didn’t make sense or appeal to me, but there was not, at that blissful time in my life, any imposition of an external standard of quality or any requirement that I investigate the author’s prerogatives or background.
First of all, critical reading is not the imposition of an external standard of quality. I would define critical reading (I’m talking only about fiction here) as the formal analysis of writing in order to intellectually understand your emotional reaction to a certain work.
Secondly, nobody should be investigating any author’s background in relation to any work of fiction, ever. Once an author finishes a book, he is a completely different entity from his work. He cannot defend it, he cannot explain it, and nothing he says about it should be trusted. The author is a curiosity and nothing more. It’s interesting to hear what Michael Chabon has for breakfast, but it has nothing to do with his novels.
I didn’t have to delve deeply into the behind-the-scenes world of a book to understand or enjoy it.
This sounds an awful lot like: a) nostalgic blowhardery; and b) laziness. Let’s get this out of the way: everybody has nice memories of childhood. Even if it sucked, you had a couple things you liked that were uncomplicated and fun. And that’s nice. But it doesn’t mean those things in the grown-up world are still uncomplicated, nor should they be. And just because they’re complicated doesn’t mean they can’t still be fun.
Severe problem #1: Nichols isn’t interested in complexities. In college, she finds:
Studying literature involved what seemed to me to be a desecration of art based on bizarre and irrelevant external standards.
Again, critical reading should not be the application of external standards, it should be the use of intellectual tools to better understand a work of literature. Nichols maintains that the act of reading should instead be the equivalent of looking at a van Gogh and saying, “That’s pretty.”
I might need to understand how my car worked in order to fix it or maintain it properly, but I do not need to see, fix, repair or disassemble the “works” of a novel or poem in order to have the experience intended by the author. If I do, there is something wrong with one of us.
Instead of mechanicry, I’m of the opinion that art criticism should be closer to something like football commentary. Great football analysts can discuss a game on several different levels. They can tell you simply that a team is good, or they can explain how West Coast offenses require quick-throwing QBs who don’t need strong arms, and exactly why Flozell Adams is worth 15 yards in penalties per game. Listening to knowledgeable sports analysts is no different than listening to knowledgeable, competent art critics. The major difference is that football never gets that anti-intellectual backlash (and also some some stuff about subjectivity/objectivity).
Even though I love great analysis I certainly don’t think that every book needs to be formally deconstructed, and I wholeheartedly agree that English lit classes can too easily devolve into mishmashes of gobbledygook. (My own nemesis was the “reader-response theory,” which states, basically, that you can say anything you want and it will be a valid point. I’m not sure if Nichols would love or hate it.) The solution to gobbledygook, though, is not to shut down all analysis, instead monosyllabically grunting and farting our responses to history’s greatest masterpieces. I think we can find a middle ground here; for starters, I want even the laziest reader to be able to answer the question, “Why did you like this?”
Even that seems to be too much for Nichols. She says that books, during her simple, idyllic childhood, “were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for me” and she cringes at the thought of delving a molecule deeper. Implied in Nichols’s nostalgia is the idea that a suitable defense for anything, even drek like Twilight, should be “I liked it.” She seems to want those three words to end arguments and insulate her from further thought.
Of course, certain tools are appropriate for certain jobs. Nichols mentions a blog post that argued Twilight author Stephenie Meyer “‘wasn’t educated in critical perspectives on race, class and gender.'” That’s a bit like taking a Howitzer to a paintball fight. Meyer sucks for many, many reasons (even NPR ripped her to shreds), and her perspectives on race and class are pretty far down the list—at least below her failures at prose, dialogue, and character. But just because that kind of criticism outclasses a book you like (and should feel guilty for liking), does not mean that we should stop reading critically. I worry about this.
More broadly, I worry that a lack of continued critical thinking will lead to more formulaic narrative art. There are things that people historically like and don’t like, and it’s pretty easy to crap out the literary equivalent of Iron Man 2 and mildly amuse some people who don’t know the difference between quality and familiarity.
The job of great art, however, is to surprise and educate, and so answering the question, “Why didn’t you like this?” is every bit as important as answering its opposite. We don’t need to bring in postmodern ontological-schism theory to every piece of fiction in the world, but neither do we need to limit our criticism to a yes/no response.