Thinking About Criticism

Writers — as I should know, being one — have a tendency to regard literary critics as, at best, players for the other side.  They spend their time, the writer’s mind insists, in pointing out the flaws and failures of more creative minds; the novelist and poet Robert Graves summed up the writers’ argument most memorably in his poem “Ogres and Pygmies.”

It is, I suppose, an unavoidable problem with literary criticism: without meaning to, it gives pride of place to those texts which are productive of analysis. There’s a lot more that can be said about something complex, knotty, and variously flawed than can be said about something clear and simple and damn-near perfect. “Wow. You have got to read this!” is an honest response, and one most if not all writers would give their eye teeth to produce in their readers, but it never got anybody tenure.

But it helps, I think, to remind oneself that hidden inside every piece of literary criticism, no matter how labored or abstruse, is another voice saying, “This nifty bit of writing — let me show you it!”

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