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 Dictionaryï¿½ 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 stillï¿½ 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.
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.