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What The Hell Is Literary Criticism?

Join Kelly J. Cooper for a new column where she explores this thing called "literary criticism" and how it applies to webcomics.

I was thinking - this was a while ago, now - but I was thinking, "What the hell is literary criticism?"

Maybe it's just me. Sometimes I'll realize that I've been wandering along, blissfully ignoring the fact that I don't really have a firm grasp on some subject, and then someone asks me a question. Or the topic comes up in conversation and I realize I'm not really following the discussion. The assumption that I know what's going is shattered and I either move on or try and figure out the subject. And here we are.

I've got a degree in English (I double-majored in English and Psychology in college) back in... um... (hang on, I'm counting) 1994. I've been reading books since I was four. I've been reading comic books since 1992. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of literature.

But then I would read a piece by Wednesday White, or something at the The Webcomics Examiner, or something in a blog somewhere and I would think, "Crap! I'm hitting bumps!" Parts of the essays would sort of fail to make sense. Some of it was the way different writers use the words medium and genre. But more often it was the use of big words whose meaning I understood, but whose context indicated there was something more going on, a deeper level of commentary that I was missing. And regularly there were references to outside influences - feminism, Freud, Scott McCloud, European comics, Marxism, semiotics, Jung, structuralism - frankly, a great many -isms and -ians, plus quite a bit more. And while I knew about many of those people, places, and things, and even had read some of the writing mentioned, I didn't really understand how it all fit together.

So I started poking around and I realized that this beast known as Literary Criticism, or LitCrit -- as we shall occasionally refer to it from here on out because I am very lazy -- isn't something you just sit down and learn. It's a bit more complex than that. And there are schools of thought about particular subjects (well, I'm guessing that they are "schools of thought" rather than, say, "realms of rumination" -- is there a better phrase?). A literary critic might take a feminist perspective on a comic and discuss it in depth using the language and history of that specific perspective.

"Well!" I kept thinking, "This is cool!"

Anyway, while blindly swinging the big stick of learning at various pinatas of data, I thought it might be interesting to share what I learn as it bursts forth like a shower of candy. Of course, not everyone thinks of information as candy. But I am addicted to both sugar and information and I hope a few like-minded folks will enjoy reading the column as much as I enjoy writing it.

This column will also undoubtedly make for a great deal of cringing in the future, as I learn more, then think back, "Oh, I get it now. I had it all wrong in January (or March, or whenever). Oops." Perhaps I need lessons in humility.

But my hope for the column is that having to meet a deadline will actually give me the necessary push to continue reading my copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Critical Reading, looking things up in The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, and trying to understand the articles over at ImageTexT.

I'm also hoping readers will help educate me with their commentary and by passing on websites and print references that might add to my understanding (for instance, The Penguin Dictionary� is very UK-oriented; I'd like something that considers America as well). I don't expect to become a LitCrit expert, nor do I intend to devote my life to one school of thought, but I would like to have a deeper working knowledge of literary criticism in general.

Why accrue this knowledge? Well, so I can talk about webcomics in some way that's a bit more informed than "I like this" or "I don't like that." And so I can better understand the critical writing of others and join the conversation. Plus, maybe I'll contribute to this burgeoning field. Or maybe not. Not so sure about that last one.

The plan is to learn something and then use various webcomics as illuminating examples. Did I mention webcomics yet? This is a column about webcomics. Well, more about applying literary criticism to webcomics, but still� there are webcomics in the title and everything.

Now that the introductory stuff is over, I'd like to define a few terms before closing out this introductory column.

Webcomics are comics on the web. What are comics? I suppose "I know it when I see it" isn't really going to work here. I like the term "sequential art" myself. Or, if you prefer, we can use Scott McCloud's definition, from page 9 of Understanding Comics (say it with me, cause you know you memorized it):

Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.

But I like "sequential art presented via electronic equipment, most commonly the computer" as my starting definition of webcomics. It's possible I'll need to modify it as we go along.

Next term, criticism.

Per the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to criticize is "1. to consider the merits and demerits of and judge accordingly or 2. to find fault with or to point out the faults of" something. And the first definition of criticism relies upon that definition, focusing on the negative aspect, "1 a: the act of criticizing usually unfavorably b: a critical observation or remark c: CRITIQUE." But the second definition is "the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature" and that is the type of criticism on which I am focusing.

I think many people, when they hear the word "criticism," immediately leap to the conclusion that they are going to be judged and found wanting. No matter how positive the potential outcome might be, it's a knee jerk reaction. All criticism is negative. People hate to be judged. Consciously or unconsciously, many do not even realize that there's a whole realm of analysis that may not include any judgement at all.

The Penguin Dictionary... doesn't have an entry for literary criticism. But this is what you find for just the word criticism:

The art or science of literary criticism is devoted to the comparison and analysis, to the interpretation and evaluation of works of literature.

The rest of the entry (two pages) is a brief history of LitCrit, going back to the ancient Greeks. Great.

Seeking simplicity, I ran into my first conflict. Per The Complete Idiot's Guide to Critical Reading, "[l]iterary criticism is the ability to judge the quality and/or meaning of a piece of writing" (page 4). Well, crap. This definition wrecks my non-judgemental thesis. Although, reading on, the authors' focus is definitely on analysis. They might have been better served by saying "an informed judgement," meaning having enough knowledge to know all the aspects of the literature you are evaluating.

We could go back to Merriam-Webster and delve into more definitions. But perhaps freaky people and nerds are doomed to hate the word JUDGEMENT forever and ever. Or, at least, until we're all done with therapy.

Moving on, another term I keep running into is genre. This one was a bit of a surprise. Per The Penguin Dictionary it's a "French term for a kind, a literary type or class." That's not the surprising bit. What is surprising is that form and content were inseparable for most of the history of western literature. And that is what I perceive to be the source of conflict over defining genre.

Originally there were only five genres: epic, tragedy, lyric, comedy, and satire. To that list, the Penguin people added novel and short story.

But genre has become a much more fluid term. Other sources added other genres, like autobiography and journalism. At what point did things change? Damn good question. But at the present, a novel can be a biography, a mystery, an adventure tale, etc. So while The Penguin Dictionary defines the novel as a genre, it has also become a medium for presenting certain genres (or, arguably, subgenres).

Well, what about medium? Doesn't even get an entry from Penguin.

Back to Merriam-Webster where genre gets a broader treatment: "a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content."

Of course, broader isn't necessarily better. Per Merriam-Webster, a medium is a "material or technical means of artistic expression."

Even Shakespeare made fun of critics who attempted to categorize him!

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poet unlimited. Hamlet, 2. 2

So a genre can be a medium, but a medium is rarely a genre.

Got that?

Yeah, me neither.

I could really use a primer or how-to guide on comics literary criticism. There sure are some mighty fine magazines and such out there devoted to comics LitCrit, but I haven't found much from people trying to teach it.

Until next month, this is Kelly J. Cooper, signing off.

Don't forget the comics part of your project

Derik Badman's picture

First of all, I'd recommend dumping the "Idiot's Guide", probably not the most reliable source. Secondly, if you are going to apply criticism to comics, make sure you read some works that are actually discussing comics criticism. You can apply a lot of literary criticism to comics, but so could you apply art criticism and even some film criticism. In the end you need to look at the elements of comics that make them comics and not novels or movies. Besides the ubiquitous McCloud books I'd recommend Robert Harvey's Art of the Funnies and Art of the Comic Book. Both books have an opening chapter that discusses comics as comics and some opening ideas about how to criticize/evaluate/analyse them. I just blogged about those a bit here. There a few French writers who write well about comics criticism too such as Thierry Groensteen and Benoit Peeters. I'm looking forward to more of your columns.

By the by, when I pointed to

kjc's picture

By the by, when I pointed to Wednesday White as an example, I did not intend to hold her up as some sort of target to be used to attack my arguments. Feel free to mock the column, disparage my arguments, and call me whatever names you like, but please leave off the personal attacks on whomever and whatever I use to illustrate points. (Counter-arguments using my examples POLITELY are fine.) Thank you.

The Webcomics Examiner is not "LitCrit"

Joe Zabel's picture

I'm puzzled by the assertion from some folks on this thread that The Webcomics Examiner ( ) uses obscure "LitCrit" jargon to an excessive degree.

In fact, our features and reviews are couched in terms any layman can understand. The only jargon that usually crops up in the magazine are terms from McCloud's books and a few graphic arts and html terms, and we have a glossary to help readers with those.

Consider this: Adelph's much-appreciated defense of us includes the term zeitgeist, a common term of critical writing. According to The Examiner's search engine, we have *never* used that term in the entire history of the magazine!

I understand that the magazine is not everybody's cup of tea, but I think webcomics fans should set aside their pre-conceptions and check us out occasionally. For example, this week's feature on Girl Genius is by Shaenon Garrity, a very engaging professional writer and quite an expert on webcomics. She talks about how the Foglios' series is a great example of serialized storytelling.

Writes Shaenon, "There’s a knack to serializing longform comics on the Web. Each page must grab the reader on its own, preferably ending with some type of cliffhanger or punchline, yet blend harmoniously into the longer story; the pacing must work equally well for readers following along with the current updates and for those reading the comic in big chunks in the archives."

I didn't have any trouble understanding that. Did you?

Well to be fair

Aleph's picture

To be utterly fair, I don't use the word 'zeitgeist' because I want to be LitCrit in any way, but because it is /exactly/ what I mean. That's just the way I speak, and I don't know how to put it any better. The spirit of the age, the generalized understanding in present day as it applies to the term in question. I don't think webcomics as a genre/medium/whatever HAS a solid set of definitions, I think the zeitgeist is all it has to go on. I've never seen a solid case for standardizing how people use those terms in the webcomic world. I've seen people SAY they have a solid case but I've seen people walk up and fill that case full of holes. Because the nature of the medium has so much affect on the content presented, the line between genre and medium blurs as far as I can tell.

I wasn't putting forth the idea that the examiner was trying to LitCrit up the debate, I don't express things very clearly. I was pointing out the fact that you folks were trying to get indepth/sophisticated views into webcomics, and that this explained the writer's expressed feeling of nuance not grasped and concepts that got away from her. Therefore, criticizing you for doing exactly what your mission statement says you set out to do.

Well to be fair

Joe Zabel's picture

Aleph-- I apologize-- I didn't mean to suggest that there was anything wrong with using the word zeitgeist, and I certainly didn't intend any criticism of your writing style, which seems pretty darn good to me. I was just suggesting a method by which critics could test their assertion that The Examiner is plagued by litcrit terminology.

I'm not sure if Kelly was referring to us in this instance, but "Structuralism," "Semiotics," "Marxism," "feminism" and "Freud" are not found in our archives. "Jung" pops up in three features. "McCloud" shows up in a ton of features, of course.

Well to be fair

"Feminism" is probably me. Webcomics commentary as a whole has had problems involving the feminist perspective, barring the usual lines of tokenist questioning with regards to visible creative participants.

The Webcomics Examiner is not "LitCrit"

Joey Manley's picture

The WCE strikes me as the same kind of middlebrow writing, aimed at a general college-educated audience, that you would find in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Comics Journal, or any large city newspaper's "Culture" section. It's miles ahead of the usual messageboard chatter ("Kewl comic LOL!"), but nowhere near academic LitCrit.

Those who wish to see *actual* academic LitCrit writing applied to comics should check out ImageText:

The differences, to me at least, are obvious.


The Webcomics Examiner is not "LitCrit"

kjc's picture

Those who wish to see *actual* academic LitCrit writing applied to comics should check out ImageText:

Which I did, in fact, link to in my article.

I'm honestly not sure where the line is, between criticism and literary criticism. I guess that's something I need to explore.

Thank you, all of you, for a very interesting discussion of criticism.

The Webcomics Examiner is not "LitCrit"

Joey Manley's picture

You sure did! Sorry for the oversight.

There's really no "line," just like there's no "line" between, say, comedy and action-adventure -- but some things are clearly one, and some are clearly another, and yet other things are a mix between the two.

Academic literary criticism will usually be characterized by a preponderance of citations outside the source material itself -- citations, in other words, to other critics.

Contemporary academic literary criticism will almost always concern itself with a small handful of topics that are trendy right now in academic circles: gender identity, "subversive" thought, etc., etc., etc.

The surest sign you're dealing with contemporary academic literary criticism is when they start throwing punctuation inside of words, like, you know:

Gend(h)er: (sub)versive car(toons/tones)

Also, any mention of Derrida. Except on the day he died. Then mainstream critics were allowed to mention him. Also Barthes, Foucault, Lacan or "the Other."


The Webcomics Examiner is not "LitCrit"

Joe Zabel's picture

On the other hand, academic criticism can be informative, thought-provoking, and kinda fun. Like this one.

Oy vey, "Plain-spoken" vs. "intellectualism" all over again

Neil Cohn's picture

I finally reached this thread and thought I'd chime in. While I've tried to keep the articles I do for Comixpedia more accessible, I've been chided for making my (ahem...academically written) essays at my own site too hard to understand.

Now, I certainly don't think that we should talk over people's heads, but neither should we feel the need to overly simplify or coddle our audience. Why shouldn't populist writing of criticism — even of webcomics — try to raise the reader up a notch? This even seems to be a theme in Kelly's article. She acknowledges her own limitations, and seeks out further education.

I don't know about everyone else, but when I come across a word/idea I don't know, I don't bitch about how the author was obfuscating. I go look it up, and feel glad I learned a new word/idea.

While needing an outside manual to understand an article is inappropriate, well written articles should be able to push a reader to better their own intelligence through the experience — be it through learning a new theoretical concept, through insight into a webcomic, or simply through the language and manner of the article itself.

At least in my opinion, if an article can't do those things, it probably isn't worth reading anyhow.

------- Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" -

Populism over Intellectualism, or Form over Function?

Aleph's picture

I have to admit, I've read this article over and over trying to figure out its focus. Initially I did believe the author was trying to figure out what was wrong with the way criticism of webcomics were put together, hence my initial plea for a section on a true grounding in the work. Personally I think that unfocused, poorly grounded writing causes obfuscation-- critics throwing a word jumble into the fray because they don't actually know where they're going with what they're trying to say.

Upon further reading, though, the only focus seems to be to set up a column to blog the process of trying to learn literary criticism, via Idiot's Guides and dictionaries. The author intends to absorb printed sources on literary criticism, and apply things learned this way to the criticism of webcomics at large.

The things she actually complains about with the Examiner and with White in particular really have nothing to do with flaws in their communicative style. All the references cited seem perfectly reasonable things to say if they're actually what you mean to say. There is no better way to describe someone digging into Marxist philosophies than the word Marxist. There is no better way to say someone seems to be cuddling up with Reinventing Comics than to say they're influenced by Scott McCloud. And frankly, I don't know how /outside/ a topic like feminism can really be considered. Antidisestablishmentarianism is kind of an unnecessary and inaccessible thing to reference. Feminism is accessible to anybody who's ever seen a Susan B. Anthony coin, or been yelled at for attempted chivalry. (there's two sides to that there shiny coin) It permeates any part of the modern world it's allowed to permeate, it's something people should understand.

So really, the Examiner's response lowers the level of the discourse somewhat by trying to escape the LitCrit label (freshly coined) by defending its vocabulary as non-populist. That's pretty disappointing. I don't actually see a populist slant in the original article at all, but complaint about terms the author feels no context for and would rather not go searching to find. This isn't splitting hairs-- this is splitting a SCALP. This is the difference between empty use of big words and making comparisons/judgements you must be informed to understand and APPLY that information in a meaningful way to grasp.

I agree with NeilCohn here, I can't agree enough, the readers should go out and further their understanding, not just of these subjects but the WORLD, by getting background on things they're not grasping. If anything, writers need to be more engaging, more compelling in their delivery of these concepts. They certainly shouldn't ditch them because a reader might be confused.

Really, the references cited seem to betray flaws in the entire premise here. I think what we're all mistaking for criticisms of these sources are actualy examples of the author's failure to use the web effectively when reading and writing /on the web/. The web is a very friendly easy thing. Plugging any of these 'confusing' terms into a search engine in an intelligent way yields a wealth of information providing the context of the moment (I will refrain from using the z word), most of it with handy summaries so you can find out what's relevant to what you want to know. It doesn't take a handbook, it doesn't take a guide that calls you names. It just takes a query. Just to point out one example: putting the words -> scott mccloud influence webcomics <- into a search engine yields just about every possible angle you could ask for, from bitpass to artistic history to infinite canvas to people who think he's just a dick. With a clip from an actual article for an example I could do better than generalized finger-pointing.

If there is one thing that webcomics readers, creators, and critics all do, it is talk ENDLESSLY about every conceivable angle of the industry. I have seen people threaten to come to blows over the issue of hand-lettering versus computer lettering. There is a wealth of context available with even a modicum of effort here. There is never a lack of people talking as if they have the definitive view of whatever webcomic-related topic you're addressing-- just take your definition of 'webcomic' stated here to the forum and see how many people beg-- nay demand-- to differ.

Honestly I find the process of thumbing through LitCrit guides to learn how to be a more informed critic based on the premise of not being informed enough to understand critics to be an uncomfortable irony. I tend to suspect a subtextual attempt to instruct the current webcomic critics in basic concepts of literary criticism from a nonthreatening point of view. That could be my general inability to grasp what's going on here. Or it could be that despite citing confusion in re Scott McCloud, she seems comfortable enough with the topic to assume we've all memorized his work; it seems odd she should have trouble understanding his name being thrown into the mix. That seems to show a grasp of how many people drink that particular Kool-Aid and become unswayable alcolytes of the man's ideas, which is one of the least accessible ways his name is invoked.

So maybe we're mistaking the form for the function here, and missing the way we're supposed to identify with the 'big stick of learning' being swung here.

Populism over Intellectualism, or Form over Function?

Joe Zabel's picture

"So really, the Examiner's response lowers the level of the discourse somewhat by trying to escape the LitCrit label (freshly coined) by defending its vocabulary as non-populist. That's pretty disappointing."

That wasn't my intent. My impression, frankly, is that some of the criticism the magazine has received in this thread is by folks who have read us very little or not at all. The criticism seems to be based on a preconceived notion of what our magazine is like.

So I thought that by searching on various terms and presenting the results, I could question that preconceived notion.

Alas, no power on Earth can compell a critic to actually expose themselves to the object of their loathing. We live in a culture in which knowledge and opinion have become effectively de-linked.

In any case, The Examiner intends to remain faithful to its mission statement, and to the phrase "Discerning criticism of an evolving artform." We are not faithful to any particular style of writing, any particular segment of society (i.e. academia or laymen, highbrow, middlebrow or lowbrow), or any particular point of view.

Populism over Intellectualism, or Form over Function?

Joe Zabel's picture

I guess I should clarify that I wasn't thinking of Kelly when I referred to critics of The Examiner in the post above. I understand that Kelly was merely trying to lay out the background for her upcoming series of columns. Unfortunately some folks seemed to pick up on her paragraph about Structuralism and Marx and use it to reinforce their preconceived notions about The Examiner.

In any case I look forward to Kelly's upcoming series and anticipate that it will be very valuable.