On Criticism

I’m one subject away from having a degree in English Literature. I have been passionately reading my whole life. I’ve restored to books when I was happy, when I was sad, when I did not understand what was going on and also when I knew but needed a break from reality. In school, college and more importantly, at home, I was tought to be critical: I was told I would encounter injustices and I had the right to complain. I was also told there are some fights worth engaging in and some others it’s best to leave unfought and to distinguish them, one needs some critical thinking. It takes critical thinking to choose your President, but also to choose simpler things in life such as the books you decide to read. In a world where literature is also a consumer good, with its pros and cons, it is highly important to decide in what we are spending the finite time we have to read. Sometimes we will make the right decision and some others we will not, but the more we read, the more likely we are to make great decisions.

All this comes from a recent exploration of criticism from both personal and professional issues. The more attention I pay, the more I see some people overcriticize the world and some others undercriticize it and I wonder which side to take, for I have felt the need to take one.

On the one hand, my education and my environment tought me to be critical of what I read, what I see and even what I like. Questioning the outside world has always been an everyday issue for me. I still remember my mother criticizing Disney movies while I spent whole evenings watching them: “Oh poor Cinderella – she would say – she needs Prince Charming to be happy. There are so many other things in life that could make her happier!” And so on, and so forth. But recently, I have seen this criticism go too far, as far as saying that everything is wrong in the world (and the “system”). I have seen people ranting so passionately about everything that I asked myself if they would ever be happy. I asked myself if I wanted to be like them. Of course, I see there are horrible things happening in the world. But am I willing to let them lead my life?

On the other hand, I have encountered people who do not criticize anything at all: everything’s valid for them and none of us should criticize anyone or anything. I must admit, since my PhD research is very much focused on morality, I partly agree with them. Who are we to question other people’s beliefs? However, this is not a side I 100% agree with and this is the reason why:

Some recent discussion among a dear group of friends focused on a literary phenomenon I could not dislike more. The feminist in me wants to yell, write a manifest and question the world about the work: why does it sell so much and the opposite idea is unthinkable? The relativist in me thinks people should read whatever they want to. But I ask, are we really free to read what we want or are we subjected to fashion and deep-rooted ideas?

All this made me think of my role both as a blogger and as a future professor of English literature. How valid is that I trash someone else’s work? How valid is that I do not and prevent my future students from being critical? Not all of us can diagnose a patient, but people think everyone can diagnose a book, after all, who cares about an English Literature degree? Apparently, our degree does not make our evaluation of books more informed or more justified, it does not cast a wider interpretation of the ideas on the text.

All this ranting comes from sitting and observing the world, it comes from talking to my friends and it also comes from watching the 10 best-selling books of the last months. I agree, let people read what they want to, but let them also think critically about what they are reading. Teach them history, philosophy, feminism, postcolonial and queer theory. Give them Foucault, Freud, Atwood, Jamaica Kincaid and Zadie Smith. Give them the freedom they think they have to judge the world, but do not let them turn into angry men. Let them remember there are good things in the world too.

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8 thoughts on “On Criticism

  1. Ann Weisgarber says:

    Elena, this is a great post and you have me thinking. As a social worker and sociologist, I was trained to be objective and to strive to set aside personal biases while doing my job. I also had to try to see the world from the points of view of people who were different from me. It was a challenge and there was nothing easy about it.

    It seems to me that literary critics with a solid foundation in literature bring the same perspective to the table. Their job is to be objective and fair, yet aware of all that is not on the page. They strive to understand the author, and they know which writing rules are adhered to and those that are broken. Each reader’s opinion counts but the best critiques have in-depth perspectives. These critics know why a book works and why it doesn’t. Their opinions carry weight and pushes writers to try harder. In that way, literary critics help to shape future generations of writers. That matters.

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    • Elena says:

      Thanks Ann. I must admit I could never have your job as a social worker and I admire you for your devotion to your job. I feel it’s like writing: either you’re passionate about it and believe in yourself or you’ll be lost in a dark place.

      I think there is a huge difference between a literary critic and me, but still, I see a huge difference between the average reader and those of us who read, review and are in constant contact with the “bookish world”. You don’t need a degree in literature to do so, but I find it helpful to understand what I read and offer a, I hope!, wider interpretation of my readings and recommendations.

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  2. Words for Worms says:

    I’ve been struggling with the concept of criticism all week. I’m just a girl who likes to read and writes about it. I try to keep my posts light and fun to appeal to a wide audience. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have complete respect for people in academia and those who have gone the extra (thousands of) mile(s) to learn and write proper literary criticism. I definitely think having a PhD means something. It’s a fine line to walk between being open enough to accept ideas and to still have an opinion of your own. I doubt I’ll ever find it. Heck, I can’t even find the line between being fun and being overly flippant. I do hope you find the answers you’re seeking, I think you have a lot to offer.

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    • Elena says:

      I hope I find it too, Words for Worms. I don’t intend to make this blog academic, I just read, review and write what I like but, at the same time, I try to offer something from my lessons that, I hope, will help other readers too as their reviews (and their degrees in philosophy, economy or politics) help me too.

      We all have something to offer, that’s true. What I offer is my personal view mixed with what I’ve learned during the last five years in college and as much as I wished (that I don’t), I cannot escape those years and everything I learned. A doctor knows about sick people, I know about books and literature. Of course, we all know bad doctors and it’s up to others to judge me.

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  3. Iris says:

    “All this comes from a recent exploration of criticism from both personal and professional issues. The more attention I pay, the more I see some people overcriticize the world and some others undercriticize it and I wonder which side to take, for I have felt the need to take one.”

    This. So much.
    I am not a literature student, but I think this is actually part of a lot of fields in academia. I love criticism and thinking things through endlessly, but it also makes it difficult to stop questioning. On the other hand I don’t want to stop questioning. I sometimes wish it was more ingrained in our outlook to stop and think for a while. I don’t know. Basically, just, yes, to all of what you said.

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    • Elena says:

      All this came to my mind from fellow students and friends who can actually enjoy a movie or a book even though there are overt religious/gender/race discriminations. I see them all and end up angry which is not what I want when I’m supposed to be enjoying a night at the movies or reading. Sigh.

      That said, 80% of the time I could not be more grateful for my criticism.

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  4. amanda says:

    It seems to me that criticism, like so much in life, comes to finding a balance. Not that we blindly accept whatever is there so that we let bad things through, nor that we criticize so wholeheartedly that we cannot take pleasure in anything in life. But certainly, it would be nice, I think, if more people would approach things with a more critical mindset, at least at times. I still like to “just” enjoy movies or books once in a while!

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