Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

The Death of the Critic, or No One Is Perfect: Literary Theory at its Best

The Feminist approach spends a lot of time developing possible interpretations of the text, often creating a picture that differs drastically from the one intended by the poet. The New Criticism approach refuses to take into account what the poet meant, yet it focuses almost exclusively on the exact words and constructions produced by the very author whose role in our understanding should not be significant. Both ways of analyzing have their advantages and drawbacks, but, instead of listing those now, let us think: why do we need literary criticism if no approach can claim to be better that any other one? And what aim do critics have when they try to crack a text with the set of tools that is appealing to them?

The Death of the Critic, or No One Is Perfect

It is often pointed out that our need for criticism comes from necessity to differentiate between “good” and “bad” literature. Thus, if we form a supreme critical approach, the one that will be superior to everything that existed before, we will be able to form a perfect canon made of truly great literary works whose quality and preciousness will not be doubted. In their attempt to create this paramount approach, thinkers and philosophers focused primarily on trying to breed some special kind of critics, instead of leaving the pleasure of analyzing to everyone who reads. In his famous essay “Criticism, Inc.”, John Crowe Ransom argues that an artist cannot be a reliable critic because his “understanding is often intuitive rather than dialectical[4]”. A similar argument can be found in Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” written twenty three hundred years earlier: “So, again, also concerning the poets, I soon recognized that they do not make what they make by wisdom, but by some sort of nature…[5]” It is hard to disprove these claims, but the question we should ask now is this: who forms the audience for literary works? Doesn’t it consist of artists themselves and those with artistic tendencies among economists, workers, housewives, etc? Would a person without any artistic inclination bother to read fiction in her free time and, even if forced to do so at school or college, what would she derive from it?

The Evil of Literary Criticism

It is sometimes argued that criticism is necessary to distinguish between “good” literature and all other sorts of literature. But, if artists understand the beauty of written texts “by default” and no one else really reads fiction, do we need criticism? There is no chance it will help us get to the ultimate Truth, so what can reading criticism give us apart from the historic knowledge of who of the famous thinkers and philosophers of the modern age belong to what particular school of criticism? Moreover, if we try to contribute to the ocean of criticism ourselves we might discover that it changed our whole attitude towards literature. Everyone who had to write a critical essay on a literary work they liked must remember a rather unexpected frustration that appears when the work is done and a well-deserved “A” is received: the interpreted text somehow ceases to be interesting and the urge to read it again disappears. It happens because by analyzing a text you destroy its mystery and diminish its magic to a list of tropes: when we understand every line that comprises a poem there is no more room for fantasy and creativity. The artistic constituent within us feels disappointed and looses any interest it had for the text. Therefore, there is no need in practicing the dialectical kind of understanding literature, unless you write a final paper for a college class. Thus, the intuitive understanding of their works is the only thing authors should aim at when they write: any other type of understanding inevitably ruins the aesthetic pleasure which is to be derived from reading.

No Critic is Perfect

Finally, let us explore why no school of criticism should claim it can interpret literary texts better than another one.

Essentially any interpretation, regardless of what school of thought the critic belongs to, is creating another picture on the basis of the one provided by the text itself. What we are given by the author is a set of guidelines that indicate a general direction in which our analysis should be going. As free-thinking individuals, we are eligible to go as far as we find necessary and form any opinion we consider worthy and sensible, although there is no guarantee that our fellow critics will not try to prove how mistaken we were in giving this particular interpretation.

It brings us back to the problem mentioned in the introduction: for centuries and millennia the pursuit for the absolute truth was a cornerstone of every civilization, but why do we want to find it? What can it give to the one who finds it, apart from universal acknowledgement (or that of the Universe herself)? It seems that our predilection for searching for truth is caused by the fact that nothing in this world is certain and fixed, which makes life hard and uncomfortable. Therefore, by striving to find the solid truths, we, in effect, seek for proved patterns that can help us reduce the number of undesirable events we have to deal with. However, it would hardly be correct to consider literature as a manual on how to live life properly because the ultimate goal of writing is an aesthetic, not a didactic one. Therefore, instead of looking for the absolute values, one should simply enjoy every good work of literature that falls in their hands. Choose any school of criticism you like to crack the text and, if you are satisfied with the results, it is the best proof that you have done a good job: as a reader, if not as a critic.

by Danil Rudoy, fall 2008

Previous: “Affairs of the Heart” – the New Criticism

Essays on Literary Theory


[4] The New Criticism and After (John Crowe Ransom memorial lectures). University Press of Virginia. 1976. P. 22.

[5] Plato and Aristophanes. Four Texts on Socrates. Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London. 1998. P. 71.