In the beginning, a human told a story, and another human said it was not good. Thus was born the tradition of literary criticism, which is what we’re talking about today. We’ll discuss the different schools of criticism, whether reviews are a type of criticism, and what criticism is even for. We’ll also dis on Aristotle a little, which means it’ll be a great episode for sure.


Generously transcribed by Elizabeth. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. 

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is:

[Opening theme]

Oren: This episode was produced thanks to our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek. 

Oren: Oren.

Chris: And:

Wes: Wes. 

Chris: And on this podcast, we are just going to criticize everything. Particularly literature.

Wes: Isn’t that what we always do?

Oren: I was ready for lawnmower criticism. That’s my new bag. Like, is the blade sharp enough? Is the ride smooth? I feel like that’s very important. 

Chris: Well, maybe we’re going to criticize the criticism of literature. 

Oren: Oh, God.

Chris:  I actually have a post on the site doing that, by the way. It was absurd. Absolutely absurd. It’s really, really old. It’s from, like, 2012. 

Wes: Everybody go read it, though. [laughter] 

Oren: Postception, that’s what it was.

Chris: Okay. Our topic is literary criticism and analysis, and what that means for writers. What it has to contribute and probably what it doesn’t have to contribute. First of all, when we say literary criticism, what are we talking about? 

Oren: Well, I could tell you that I found it actually quite liberating when I was looking up what literary criticism is and I found that the kind of criticism I do has a name. Or at least it feels like the kind I do. Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s called new criticism. 

Wes: Yes! The new criticism!

Oren:  Yeah. The new criticism, which is by now very old, or Formalistic criticism, which basically, as far as I can tell, just means that work should stand on its own and should not be seen as an attempt to try to figure out what the author meant. And I was surprised that none of these definitions of it mentioned that the author is dead, but that just seems to line up really well. And I’m like, yay, there’s a name for what I do. That’s fantastic.

Chris: Yeah, although new criticism isn’t exactly a lot clearer than just saying the author is dead. [laughter]

Wes: Yeah, like the author is dead, but definitely up until that point, there was a big focus on historical literary criticism, where people would look at the context in which they were writing to try to figure out what was going on. An example of that would be early literary scholars that were looking at something like Beowulf and they’re like, Hey. Here. He’s talking about wyrd, which means fate, and that’s kind of pagan, but then here he’s thanking the man Jesus. So what is going on? 

Oren: Hmmm.

Wes: And so that’s where to understand what’s going on in Beowulf, we got to figure out what was going on around 700, 800 CE and figure out like, if there was maybe some tension on how their belief systems were getting infringed upon by Catholic missionaries or something like that. Right. But that definitely gave way to new criticism later on as we modernized, I suppose. 

Chris: Yeah. I like to think about it in terms of Alice in Wonderland, which is, I believe, a political satire.

Oren: Well, it has a lot of political satire in it. 

Wes: I thought it was a war story where like… No? No.

Chris: No, that’s Tim Burton’s Alice. 

Wes: Oh. Right. [laughter]

Chris: Where in those cases, I do feel like there is some value in looking at the historical context, because there’s hidden meaning in there based on that context. But I do think, when you’re instructing writers, for writers, it’s far too easy to insist that there is only one way of interpreting the story, which is their way. And that takes off their responsibility to actually effectively communicate what they wanted to communicate with the work, without them leaning over a reader’s shoulder and whispering what they should think when they read. [laughter]

Oren: And admittedly, I am a little torn because I’m also a huge history nerd, and so I do enjoy the idea of looking at the context in which a book was written and understanding its place in history. But at the same time, I also feel like it’s legitimate to look at a book in a modern context and see what it says now. And then of course, even beyond that, there’s the idea of what did the author mean to say, which is like, I don’t care what the author meant to say in any context. I just care what the book says in either modern or its own context, whichever it is. 

Wes: I guess. But I would push back and say that if I read something… Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s assigned in high schools, but I think it came out in the fifties [1958], and it’s an African author. And you know, that story speaks a lot if you analyze it on its own, but understanding that it’s a post-colonial narrative coming from this time in history, and what was going on in the mid 20th century with African nations, that greatly informs the story, and allows for more of like a rationale behind like the plot. And so I think depending on the text, it’s kind of hard to not include what the author was seeking to do, whether or not that comes across as a good point for criticism, I suppose. 

Chris: Yeah. 

Oren: Yeah. For sure. I mean, especially if you’re teaching this book in a class, right?  I definitely think that if you’re teaching a book that is from a historical time period, there’s a good chance that you are also going to need to teach some history of that time. I mean, some stories are more timeless than others. But even the ones that we tend to read a lot in high school, like, I certainly remember that a lot of the classics that I wrote–wrote? That I read–

Wes: All of them, everybody. [laughter]

Oren: All those classics that I read were very hard to understand. And then they sometimes became easier as I understood the context of what they were written in. Certainly The Grapes of Wrath is like that, or a number of other classics.

Wes: And that’s tough too, because it’s hard depending on the book. And when you go a little farther back in time, you’re finding books that are written in response to historical events. And I think that’s why it’s kind of hard to just adopt, as much as I love new criticism. It’s like, hey, you have a copy of the book. I have a copy of the book. Great. We both definitely have a copy of the book. Let’s talk about what’s in the book because we both have access to that. I think that’s awesome.

But reading texts, like reading Animal Farm, for example, Orwell had a very particular impetus to write that. And it’s that Great Britain was starting to get friendly with Soviet Russia. And it’s like, whoa, hey, what are you guys doing? This is a terrible idea. And it’s the same thing with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. He came back from World War II and realized that the camaraderie that he had with his fellow soldiers who were white men vanished. When he got back into America, he felt like he was invisible. And so he wrote this story. Lord of the Flies is William Golding’s reaction to World War Two. John Irving’s, I think it’s called A Prayer for Owen Meany, is about the Vietnam war. So some of these authors are definitely doing these things in response to historical events. So there is that intent there. It’s not for every book, certainly, but…

Chris: I think we should just say if the author is over a century old, then they’re still alive. And if the book came out today, then the author is dead. 

Oren: Yeah. That makes perfect sense. 

Chris: That makes perfect sense. [laughter]

Wes: I love it. Blanket statement. It is a new truth. So says Literary Criticism Pope Chris. [laughter]

Oren: We got it right. The new literary pope. I actually do find this kind of interesting. On the one hand, it can be useful to understand the context in which George Orwell wrote 1984. But you should also be able to understand that if you don’t know all of that context, the book really reads like a condemnation of socialism and it’s not. That’s not what it’s supposed to be, but it’s not surprising that so many people think it is.

 Because, if you’re not reading it and looking at exactly what was happening in the world and in Orwell’s life, when he wrote that book, you’re like, oh man, the bad guys are English socialists. And then I think the bad guys in one of the other countries are the Bolsheviks or some descendant of that if I recall correctly. So that certainly makes it sound like socialism is bad, which is why so many people on the right tend to like 1984. And so it’s important to understand how the book fails to bring across its message if you don’t understand the exact context in which it was written.

Wes: No, you’re absolutely right. And bringing up Animal Farm is a great point where popular literary criticism of it is incapable of being divorced from the historical context, because if you read that book closely, especially how it winds up, he is not condemning socialism. He’s condemning power abuses. Like, there’s that great line at the end where the pigs are all standing up, and they’re hanging out with their capitalist neighbor farms, and they’re all talking about how they just enjoy abusing the lower classes and taking advantage of things. And that speaks to just abuse of power in general. So that’s a good example, Oren. Hadn’t thought about that. 

Oren: I dunno. Yeah. I just, I think it’s important to both recognize that context changes a book, but that not everyone sees it in your context and that doesn’t make their interpretation of it illegitimate.

Wes & Chris: Right. Uh-huh.

Oren:  And that’s why it’s important, as an author, if you can—this isn’t always possible, but if you can—I always feel it’s important to try to make your book self-context-providing as possible. Again, not always doable, but, if you consider something like, Chris and I were having a conversation about Watchmen, the other day where I talked about how there was this plot, the bad guy’s plot is to convince humans to unite against a perceived alien threat. And the execution of it is up for debate, but that’s the concept. And Chris was like, that didn’t seem like a particularly important thing. That theme didn’t really seem to resonate with Chris very much. Because it was like, there are also problems that would come with everyone being united in one giant government. Would that really fix everything? 

But then you see the context is that this is in the middle of the eighties where nuclear annihilation is about to happen. So that changes the context. But that context is in Watchmen. You don’t have to go look up a book about the eighties to understand what was happening, right? That was just an example that I thought kind of illustrated what I was talking about.

Wes: That was a great example, yeah.

Chris: Yeah. So here’s a question. What does literary criticism mean when we’re not talking about classics and historical works? Like, would you consider any book review to be literary criticism? Or are we talking about something else here?

Wes: When we talk about literary criticism, I think generally people understand that that’s incorporating aspects of literary theory, which is the purview of the ivory tower for the most part. I don’t… Like, if I’m going to write a critique of a story, I would not call my critique a literary critique. I would just call it a critique. Maybe that’s maybe a safeguard against myself, but I don’t know. There’s something different between …If an expectation is that this has been done as a literary criticism then I think it’s published in an academic journal and it’s different than a review. And reviews can be critical. Reviews can critique.

Chris: Right. It almost feels like literary criticism is designed to assess a book’s literary merit, as opposed to a casual review online, for instance. They mostly tell people whether or not they should read it. To the casual observer. And I certainly associate it with what we learned in school because those literary ideas are very meshed in academic circles, and that seems to be the dominant ideas that are taught to people when they are in school and learning, going to English class and reading all these classics. And I do think that does have an effect on people as writers and the ideas that they take to writing.

Wes: Oh, absolutely.

Chris: Right. On the plus side, I do think it is certainly interesting to learn literary devices. Obviously I’ve forgotten most of them since I went to school. [laughter] 

Wes: I think literary devices are definitely a part of it, but that’s certainly not the sole bread and butter of literary criticism. You know, like that new criticism that we brought up earlier, you know, their lines of interrogation were just some basic strong questions. What is the plot? What are the themes? How are the characters presented? What’s the point of view? What kind of language is being used? How is it being used? Right? I think those are good questions for anyone to ask, because they’re not saying like, [pompously] how significant is the use of illusion in this text?

Oren: Well, it’s The Illusionist, so pretty significant. [laughter] 

Wes: Yeah. But it’s all smoke and mirrors, so… [laughter] But there’s there’s value in critiquing stories, if you can agree on how you want to critique it. That can be difficult because people like doing it differently. 

Oren: Right. I mean,  you can incorporate elements from other schools of criticism into what you’re doing. I primarily have most in common with the new criticism, but I also talk about things in terms of feminist critique and even like Marxist critique on occasion. I’m not a full Marxist or feminist critic because I don’t have the background for that, but I incorporate elements of it into my work in that I care if something is sexist and I care if a work is weird corporate propaganda. Those are the things that matter to me.

Wes: And why you’re doing that is appropriate, and I think that that’s not limited to people like us. I think that that’s ideally also in the realm of published literary criticism, because especially now, literature, is often, not always, but certainly it’s a product of history, but literature can also influence history. And so that’s why we need criticism to point out problems. That’s why there’s feminist critique. That’s why there’s Marxist critique. We could just focus on the text itself, but we can’t ignore the fact that there’s oppression happening. And so we need to bring that lens to this critique to make sure that this story is not contributing to that problem.

Oren: Yeah. I don’t know if we should call riff reviews and that sort of online writing should be considered part of literary critique. But I do think that they are—if they’re not part of critique, then critique and reviews are part of something else that is similar. I don’t know what the other umbrella term would be, but I do think to on some level they serve a similar function. Cause reviews have the immediate benefit of knowing whether or not you’re going to go see something and how important that actually is to people going to see something is hotly debated, and very hard to quantify. 

Certainly there are plenty of examples of books and movies that sold really well, despite having terrible reviews. And the reverse is also true. But beyond that immediate, “Should I spend money on this product?” I think that they also are part of the conversation that tries to further how we think about media and how it affects us. 

Chris & Wes: Right.

Oren: And I think reviews definitely play into that. Not always in a great way, as all of the millions of really sexist Last Jedi reviews will tell you. Don’t go to YouTube and search for “Last Jedi review.” Just don’t do it. A bad, bad thing is going to happen. Which I guess honestly is in the tradition of literary criticism going all the way back to Aristotle, the original critic who was also really sexist.

Chris: [laughing] Oh no.

Oren: Aristotle is not the original critic. He’s just famous because he wrote a book about it. 

Chris: It is interesting to me how criticism does affect writers and their idea of writing. And I think one thing that is kind of strange about the kind of traditional literary criticism and analysis that happens in schools, is that it’s very in the literary fiction vein of “Let’s look at the themes, and the meaning behind this, and stop and think about it,” which has value, but I do think that it leaves writers, almost even genre writers, putting extra priority on the idea that their thing needs to have subtle meaning that is not actually communicated to the audience. Writing for the second read is this thing that we’ve probably told people not to do, but I do think that that deep analysis almost encourages that kind of attitude from writers. 

Wes: If you feel like you’re up to writing that kind of story that, I don’t mind reading books over and over again, if it’s interesting, but I think you’re right to point out the talk about themes and literary devices is probably the result of how the new criticism really pervaded our schools when it was introduced in the fifties and sixties. And so we got brought up with that lens of analysis, and the purview and—because the English classroom works with more or less an established canon, which changes over time, you know, as books get dropped and things get put in. Rightly so. I think there’s definitely that part where if you’re looking at theme in a text, you’re looking at how this…

And this I think has value for writers as well. If there’s a theme in a text, it’s good to know other texts that have worked with that theme, because that provides an interesting point for discussion. It’s like, how is this contributing to this message? Is it supporting it? Is it working against it? How is it doing that? Those are all interesting points for discussion. But it quickly becomes less about the book and more about the ideas if you’re doing that. 

Chris: Yeah, certainly. And I do think it is valuable to look at books and look at what they are saying. I mean, I think it’s also just part of feminist critique, right? It’s like, what statement is this book is making; and it does get into nuanced conversations that I think can be really educational, particularly when we’re talking about whether or not an idea feels like it has writer endorsement. That’s something that I think is both important to us as critics and as a society and consumers, but also important to the writer; what the distinction is, where it’s easy for somebody to say, well, that character was only saying those things because that character had such motivation.

But there’s a difference between that and if a story is doing anything to show people that that opinion is wrong. Is there some plot mechanism or does another character come in with a disagreeing opinion? That sense of, how are the messages constructed in the story? And what are we meant to absorb from this?

Oren: Yeah, the idea of authorial endorsement in the text is really important and something that I have a lot of trouble communicating to people, because whenever I get into some kind of argument about a book, it’s always like, this happened and it was bad. And then someone else will be like, yeah, but the person who did that was obviously supposed to be wrong. And I’m like, but were they? I don’t think they were. This concept is just very hard to bring across to people.

Wes: But you’re so right. Like, if it’s not there, I’m sorry, it didn’t happen. Right. Like you can’t… ah, yeah. We’ve talked about this. [laughter] 

Chris: Yeah. But, but basically, that’s something that is… what I like to see more of is the type of criticism that makes people more actively analyze the media that they’re consuming. Because if we’re not watching it, it’s hard to know what messages it is sending us that we’re not aware of. And we do know that media has a huge effect on culture. But it does feel like sometimes the literary criticism when it’s talking about the classics, and talking about the deep meaning, is not really aiming for the active awareness of consuming media today in today’s world. And it’s certainly very safe, if you’re looking at historical context, because nobody has any beef with that historical culture. [Chris laughs] 

Oren: Or they have fewer beefs, anyways. [Oren laughs]

Chris: Fewer beefs, right. Whereas it’s almost like if we start talking about that kind of stuff in present media, I wonder how much of it is just, oh no, we can’t talk about anything political. Because that’s controversial and we have to avoid controversy. And there’s definitely a cost that comes with saying controversial things and statements that other people don’t agree with. It doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing. 

Wes: True. And I think that gets back to…I mean, it’s debatable whether or not you should sit 10th graders down and force them to read The Scarlet Letter and talk about it. But you’re right that if it’s far removed, it’s an access point. You can focus on broad themes. You can look at these texts, but also, like we talked about literature, a lot of our literature is not divorced from history. And so seeing how things can change over time and for writers, understanding how their own genres have changed over time is also something that I think is important and that comes out in criticism as well. 

Chris: Which, to be fair, I did have an English teacher in 11th grade that—we were, I’m trying to think, maybe we were reading Catcher in the Rye. I’m not sure, but we were talking about the Red Scare as a context. And he wore a hammer-and-sickle pin on his clothes. 

Wes: That’s great. [Wes laughs] 

Chris: And one of the students was like, why are you wearing a communist pin? And he’s like, “I’m a communist.” And he said it with such a light air that I could not for the life of me tell whether he was serious or not. If he, if he was perhaps just wearing this pin to see how we reacted and to confront that idea, or if he really was a communist, I don’t know. But I heard students later basically complaining about him on the bus and [angrily] “He’s a communist!” [laughter] And so I think it is fair to say that there are definitely some works in our historical narrative that still have a certain level of relevance. And that some English teachers really do get into the politics of the situation. 

Oren: Right. And the books—well, that’s actually a perfect example of how you can use criticism of older books to ease people into newer, perhaps more more upsetting conflicts, because it’s easy to be like, oh, the Red Scare: that happened in the fifties. That was so long ago. And you can ease them into the fact that the whole issue of capitalism and communism and left and right: that’s still really important, and we’re still debating that right now. And we are yelling at each other about socialized medicine and how everyone should have healthcare. And you can use, like if you justambush a class with, “Hey guys, today, we’re going to talk about Medicare for All.” That is maybe going to put them off a little bit, but you can ease them into it with some stuff about the cold war and communism. And it’s like, those things are all still relevant. So, anyways, I don’t know. I feel like that’s one way to use it. 

We: Yeah. And I think that’s really getting at criticized criticism and talking about these texts in the classroom and then out of it, when we go into the world and continue to do these types of things. Ideally, it’s encouraging you to explore things through different perspectives, acquire knowledge of different ways of looking at things, and I think that’s important too. The first time somebody explained to me how you can read Shakespeare’s The Tempest through a post-colonial lens and what that actually has to offer us today. I was like, “Whoa! I did not know you could do that.” And it’s Caliban-centric, and it’s interesting, and I’m like, okay. So this is a fun way to approach something that maybe I read once, and it was like, okay, I read that. But criticism can offer you a new perspective, which is a fun thing to just learn about and then go apply it on something, and then go talk to people about it.

Oren: And criticism can also lead to cool new stories. For example, there’s been a lot of criticism of our good old friend, H.P. Lovecraft, because he was really, really racist among, among other things. And a lot of his stories are thinly, or sometimes not at all, veiled allegories for his racism. That has been critiqued enough to the point that there are people who are writing really good stories turning Lovecraft on its head. 

Winter Tides, it’s one of my favorite novels, and that’s about what if the Deep Ones were just minding their own business, being Deep Ones, and then the federal government just raided them because their neighbors were all scared. And yeah, that’s fascinating. I’m super into that. I don’t know for a fact that we wouldn’t have that story if there hadn’t been all of this criticism of Lovecraft and his bizarre racist ideas. But definitely that helped. That just changes the way that we see stories.

Wes: That’s a good point. People read his work and they’re like, “Wow. I like this idea of cosmic horror. I like the idea that Great Cthulhu sleeps and speaks to artistic, sensitive types. I really don’t like how he’s talking about people who are different; that seems weird. I would like to write my own story that contains those things that I like and push back on the things that I didn’t.” That’s an excellent vehicle of criticism. 

Oren: Yeah, I agree. Wes, you mentioned the canon earlier. Could you talk a little bit more about what that is? I’m a little confused.

Wes:  The canon largely relates to texts. And this is probably one of the hallmarks of literary criticism. There’s the one hand where you could say that literary criticism helps people know what to purchase in the marketplace, but then there’s academic literary criticism, and they don’t care what people buy, or maybe that’s secondary to their motivations. And so literary critics are often looking at the canon, which is an unspecified number of texts that we say, hey, in English literature, these are the texts that seem to offer the most to us from like a teaching standpoint, a thematic standpoint, and a cultural standpoint.

 For a long time, the canon has been synonymous with dead white guys. And as time has gone on, we’re seeing some pushback, which is good because more diverse voices are getting heard and they’re getting healthy critiques that are showing that they stand obviously on quality merit, and they’re getting into our canon and the most accessible point for this—you can’t really go look up the canon as it is, per se. Maybe you could, I don’t know, there’s probably pages for it, but I’m sure they’re all just too diverse. But…

Oren: Check that up with the literature. They can tell us what’s up.

Wes: Right.The canon that I’m familiar with that is probably most relevant is when we instituted across the nation, the Common Core Education standards, for English language arts, they have a list of basically objectives they try to meet, which relates to things like plot and character analysis, diction, manipulation of time for tonal effects, those kinds of things. Accompanying that list of standards is also a list of what they consider to be exemplary texts; texts that are good to study for this particular standard. 

And that’s where you get mixes with Shakespeare, with contemporary fiction, and all kinds of stuff, and that’s accessible online for anybody that’s interested; you can just look up “Common Core Exemplar Texts” and you’ll see all kinds of things. And I think that that’s outside of academia, but it’s being taught in schools. And so that is quickly gonna start showing up as new-ish canon. Texts that people that will be our age in 30 some years will be talking about is all the books they read in high school.

Chris: Hmm. 

Oren: Fascinating. 

Wes: Yeah, it’s very interesting. 

Oren: All right. Well, we are pretty much out of time. That’s a good thing to end the podcast on. The evolution of canon and the new things being added to it. Those of you at home, if anything we said picked your interests, you can leave a comment on the website at Otherwise we will talk to you next week. 

Chris: If you enjoyed this episode, consider leaving us a review on iTunes, so we can continue to grow like a swarm of nanites. 

[Closing theme]

Chris: This has been the mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.

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