Craft Capsule: The Art of Literary Criticism

by
Jenny Bhatt
9.28.20

This is no. 74 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

A personal manifesto for literary criticism:

1. On close reading: Before reviewing, read a book at least three times for the following: text, subtext, and what’s left off the page. Often the latter two will reveal more about the writer’s true intent.

2. On references and associations: A good review is, first and foremost, about expanding the literary conversation between the text, the author, other readers, and ourselves—determining what the text means to us as individuals and as societies. Enrich your frames of reference by reading widely, purposefully, and mindfully. And then look for the literary associations, assemblages, affinities, and networks of relevant ideas, texts, people, and objects. Remember W. H. Auden’s sixth must-have for literary criticism: “Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.”

3. On fairness: Ensure fairness and balance for the author and for readers (of both the review and the work itself). It is not enough to say what’s good or bad about a book. Make the case with evidence as to why. It is also not enough to write an information-filled essay that’s missing a “so what?” Every major point in the review should answer the twofold question: Why is this good or bad, and why does it matter?

4. On argument: Never speculate. Always contextualize. The review thesis must have plausible counterarguments, and the essay must include and respond to those counterarguments. That said, don’t indulge in what Virginia Woolf called the “desiccation of the living tissues of literature into a network of little bones” as some critics do with their “able and industrious pens.”

5. On comparison: Keep in mind Elizabeth Hardwick’s indictment: “How often we read a beginner’s review that compares a thin thing to a fat one. ‘John Smith, like Tolstoy, is very interested in the way men interact under the conditions of battle.’ Well, no.” Also, resist your cognitive biases—recency, confirmation, in-group, distinction, and attentional—in such comparative analysis.

6. On building up versus tearing down: A work of literature can do so much more than “demystify, destabilize, denaturalize, deconstruct, debunk, decipher,” as Rita Felski reminds us in The Limits of Critique (University of Chicago Press, 2015). It can, more significantly, also “recontextualize, reconfigure, remake, recharge perceptions.” Instead of simply focusing on excavating a text for causes, conditions, and motives, follow Felski’s advice to reflect on the text’s revelations and possibilities. Because, as Felski argues, “Works of art do not only subvert, but also convert; they do not only inform but also transform—a transformation that is not just a matter of intellectual readjustment but one of affective realignment as well (a shift of mood, a sharpened sensation, an unexpected surge of affinity or disorientation).”

7. On readership: Understand the target audience of a book—never mind who its writer or translator or publisher might have intended—and whether it meets their needs. Engage the reader as a smart, active participant in the conversation rather than a passive receiver of information. Felski’s four modes of textual engagement—recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock—also apply to how we engage with a review. Recognition is about the text as a source of self-interpretation and self-understanding. Enchantment is that pleasurable self-forgetting while reading. Knowledge refers to what literature discloses about the world beyond oneself. Shock speaks to the troubling and taboo aspects of human existence.

8. On language: Be specific, precise, and clear. Craft each sentence to make the review aesthetically pleasing. But avoid overwrought sentences that call more attention to themselves (or to you) than to the points they are making.

9. On the why: The payoff of writing criticism is deepening our reading pleasure and making it time well-spent. It helps us create a sense of understanding amid the constant activity of our surroundings. As Virginia Woolf wrote: “Poems and novels, histories and memoirs, dictionaries and blue-books; books written in all languages by men and women of all tempers, races, and ages jostle each other on the shelf. And outside the donkey brays, the women gossip at the pump, the colts gallop across the fields. Where are we to begin? How are we to bring order into this multitudinous chaos and so get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read?”

10. On the so what: Do all of the above because a book is a sociocultural, historical, and political artifact. Like all human creations, it is a product of our experiences and reflects our desires, conflicts, and potential. Critiquing literature well involves learning about some crucial aspects of ourselves as individuals and as a species. It is how we elevate and preserve our literary traditions.

 

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, LongreadsPoets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.

Thumbnail: Markus Winkler

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