Over at The Weblog, Adam Robinson wonders about the value of literary criticism. Although acknowledging that inferior works of literature can sometimes provoke instructive criticism, he's not so sure what criticism can actually say about great literature:
Literary criticism stretches the distance between life and art to a near breaking point. Scratch that--it completely severs any connection between our life and the beauty we can find in it. It contrives terms and categories that are natural to our instincts but not to our existence. For instance, when we apply the force of love between Romeo and Juliet to our own lives, when we derive our definition from their relationship, we've made love into something concrete, definable, and weird. Now we feel funny about having a crush, and we hope no one makes fun of our emotions or plagues our houses behind our backs.
This is nicely put, and, up to a point, I agree with it. Sometimes it is better to say of a book, play, or poem that has moved you or has enhanced your appreciation of what literature is capable of doing simply that it has moved you, enhanced your appreciation, etc. In other words, sometimes you just want to savor the reading experience. However, it is just as true to say that often criticism appropriately "stretches the distance between life and art to a near breaking point." Life isn't art, and it's probably Romeo and Juliet, not criticism of it, that encourages us to unfavorably compare our experiences of love to those of its protagonists. Criticism, at its best, would warn of us of the dangers of doing this: It's only a play, and look what happened to Romeo and Juliet, anyway.
Ultimately I think Adam's post carries some unexamined assumptions about "criticism." I do think criticism can perform a useful function on behalf of great, or even just good, works of literature, as long as we recognize that these assumptions are not inherent to literary criticism as it has been practiced by great critics or to criticism as it might be more efficaciously practiced in the future.
The first assumption is that literary criticism is essentially academic criticism, the kind of thing done by those belonging to a "profession" and according to the standards of that profession's "discipline." A literary critic is someone who works for a university and observes the conventions of what has become (or what once was) literary study. This is the kind of criticism engaged in, as Adam puts it elsewhere in his post, "vivisecting Ulysses. . .to try and make a relevant point." It is certainly true that for the better part of the last half-century literary criticism has essentially been subsumed to the prerogatives of the academy (for reasons that seemed good ones at the time), but must it remain there? The "advanced" forms of academic criticism at the moment--cultural studies, critical theory in its most politicized version--have almost nothing to do with literature, so this would be an especially good time to reclaim literature on behalf of a literary criticism that rejects both the conversion of criticism into sociology and the practice of "vivisection."
The second assumption is that criticism is primarily evaluative. Whereas Adam finds that it is with the lesser books, "those that you laugh at because they're so bad" that he "can find a compelling essay" to write, he is hard put to write about the books he loves because, by my reading of his remarks, he would simply want to describe them, better yet, just tell other people to read them. But a form of literary criticism could be developed to do both of these things. Describing a work of literature and what seem to be its aesthetic ambitions is not as straightforward as it might seem, and many good books and poems have suffered from the inability of critics and reviewers to fairly and accurately give readers an account of what reading them might be like. And criticism that ultimately convinces readers to give a particular book a try, but perhaps also provides perspective or information that makes reading it more rewarding, would be in my opinion criticism that redeems the very potential of literary criticism.
Unfortunately, there's very little criticism to be found these days that doesn't proceed according to at least one of these assumptions. Academic criticism has, to be sure, performed vivisection on a body of work that was still living, although now is indeed nearly dead. "General interest" criticism, even as practiced by intelligent and informed critics who don't accept the first assumption, is almost entirely evaluative, usually in ways that limit readers' ability to comprehend the range of possibilities available to writers of fiction and poetry and that foreground the critic's own superior sensibilities--not just superior to those of the larger mob of readers but to the writers whose work is being evaluated. Valuable criticism of worthwhile and accomplished works of literature could be written, but it would first of all have to arise from the conviction that literature itself is valuable, and would in addition have to be open to the myriad ways in which works of literature are and can be created.