on knowing what you’re doing

Even though I’m a writer and have always considered myself such, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve taken any interest in literary criticism. My lack of interest was probably due to a number of perceptions I had about it. I felt that “literary criticism” was:

  • mainly a lot of academic hairsplitting
  • a way for effete snobs to rationalize their conviction that they had better taste than other people
  • a consolation activity for those who lacked creativity and talent (“those who can, do,” etc.)
  • for killjoys who liked to ruin works of art by vivisecting them
  • a swamp inhabited by devotees of tiresome theories such as Marxism, feminism, and postmodernism

I’ve written in another post how I was gradually introduced to manuals on how to write drama. I never saw those books as works of literary criticism, and perhaps they’re not in the strict sense, but now I would say that they are, for they are books about how creative writing achieves its effects. And this is now what I understand literary criticism to be.

The art of writing is not well understood even by its practitioners. This is a confession, for I am a practitioner of it. Maybe I shouldn’t take the public school system to task for this, since its job is not to turn out creative writers, and I never formally studied creative writing anywhere. From talking with those who have studied it, I don’t feel I’ve missed much. Even at the university level these seem to be little more than writers’ groups moderated by a supposed teacher, where students compose pieces on oddball themes like “write a scene from the point of view of a piece of furniture” or “write about a place you’ve never been”, and then make comments on each other’s work.

Maybe there’s some value in such programs, but they do not help writers acquire their art, which, by ancient definition, is a body of knowledge connected with a skill. Aristotle understood an artist to be someone who knows how to do something, with the emphasis on knowledge. In other words, art was not merely about the fine arts, but about all skilled activities whatever. Thus there is an art of brain surgery and an art of diamond prospecting, an art of swimming the butterfly stroke and an art of breeding goats. They all involve know-how. They all involve both theory and practice, and both the theory and the practice are bodies of knowledge.

Creative writing, or literature, as one of the seven classical fine arts (can you name the other six? architecture, music, sculpture, painting, drama, and dance), is one such activity of human skill. There’s no hope of acquiring such a skill from a group of one’s peers saying things like “this worked for me but that didn’t.” It can only be acquired when those who have mastered an art pass on their knowledge of it, which can in turn happen only if they are conscious of that knowledge and can articulate it. And with the creative or fine arts, this is not often the case.

Luckily, in the case of writing, it is not just writers who can have valuable things to say, but also perceptive readers. This is what Aristotle was. For although he was highly regarded by his peers as a writer of prose (his works for laymen have not survived; the extant works of Aristotle are all technical treatises for students), he was not a poet. Nonetheless, as a reader or audience member of poetry he wrote an analysis of how poetry achieves its effects, called the Poetics. This short work is still one of the best works of literary criticism ever written, and probably still the best single manual for the storyteller. Aristotle does not shrink from telling the writer what he needs to know: how to achieve his effects, how to make his story stronger.

In recent years I’ve also read a few other critical works that I’ve found stimulating and helpful in deepening my understanding and my craft, notably Anatomy of Criticism and The Great Code by Northrop Frye. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there, and I’ll be on the lookout for them.

At bottom my hunger is a simple one: I want to know what I’m doing. Is that so wrong?

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