What Kind of Reader are You? On criticism and Eagleton

What kind of reader are you?

Dear English Major Friends,

You probably decided to study literature up until now because in some capacity, you enjoy reading.  Because you identify as a reader. You may also be a poet or fiction writer, but most probably, you’re not (someday later, you might think). And so your relationship to literature is probably dictated by your role as reader. The author is important — for the act of indisputable creation — but you’re also important, because the text couldn’t be brought to life without you.  If you’re a melodramatic type, you might say drastic things like I would be dead without literature (metaphorically, anyway).  I wouldn’t be conscious, I wouldn’t be alive.  

Maybe you are one step past being a lay reader, but you’re still not quite a creative writer. So somewhere in between — maybe you are just a literary person in general?  Maybe you write long, florid e-mails or letters to your friends.  Or you learned how to write love letters from all those novels and poems you consumed when you were a little bit younger, a little more impressionable.  Like me.

Nonetheless, you love literature.  Now, can I ask you, my fellow classmate, something else?  How do you feel about being a critic-of-sorts (critic-in-training?) now that you’ve chosen this major or profession?  How do you feel about writing papers *deconstructing* those works that you like (or could care less about, but it’s a part of the syllabus) and declaring publicly your love or displeasure for a certain paragraph, a certain image?  Instead of sitting in that armchair of yours, completely and privately absorbed in plot and language, simultaneously in the author’s world and in your own mind?

In the passage we read from The Function of Criticism, Eagleton lays out how the role of criticism changed drastically from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth century – how it moved from an air of gentlemanliness and a sort of cultural unification, to “scurrility and sectarian virulence” (37).  In all of this change, in all the “vituperation” (37) that criticism eventually evolved into, one wonders how much actual emphasis was placed on any of the texts being examined.  What happened to the art itself in the middle of the cultural-political battleground?

Literary criticism is complex, and its history and function has changed throughout the centuries, as we’ve read in the Eagleton.  At one point Tatler 29 is quoted, and I’m actually not at all interested in Eagleton’s analysis of the quote.  Instead, I just want to look at the quote: “That of all Mortals, a Critick is the silliest; for by inuring himself to examine all Things, whether they are of Consequence or not, he never looks upon any Thing but with a Design of passing Sentence upon it; by which means, he is never a Companion, but always a Censor” (20).

Is it too rash to say that once a highly commodifed literature becomes up for public literary criticism, (which has also now become commodified on its own) a violence of sorts is performed?

The last paragraph in the Eagleton paragraph was profoundly moving to me, with the thought-provoking idea that in the movement toward the extreme commodification and proliferation of print, authors lost an “audience to address in the first place” (43).  It sounds as though the authors were, in essence, abandoned. This, believe it or not, makes me feel a real sadness.  I don’t know what kind of reader you are.  But I know what kind I am — the same melodramatic type who feels like the world as I know it would not exist without fiction; who feels hugely indebted to creative writers for doing something I have not proven capable of doing, and giving me something special; who is thus fiercely loyal.  Let the critics participate in the vituperation.  I just want to read and breathe in all those words.

Yours sincerely,

Florentina Riza

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2 thoughts on “What Kind of Reader are You? On criticism and Eagleton

  1. It is interesting to think about what happens to a work when critics dig into it, or cross swords about it. Clearly, great works from the nineteenth century have survived everything critics have had to say about them–do we need a different mechanism to understand that?

  2. What about criticism that is designed to open a discursive space, and isn’t at all oppositional? Does that even exist? I’m not really sure.

    I like the way you frame this post by asking “What kind of reader are you?” When I read, I think of what I am doing as creative work; I’m trying to create a logical framework that explains everything that I notice, which really means I’m constructing my own narrative. It’s one of the reasons that I always read and reflect on the fiction before I even touch the criticism. I don’t particularly like people telling me what to think until I’ve had a chance to make my own argument.

    Which brings me back to my first point, in a way. I don’t ever think of my reading of a text of fiction as oppositional. Indeed, I’m always trying to think of it as being, in some sense, coherent and complete. That’s why I’m really interested in authorial intent. I will acknowledge that this mode of reading doesn’t always work, but I can’t help it. It must all fit together!

    When reading criticism, on the other hand, I think my way of reading is quite oppositional. I have my narrative explaining why the work exists as it does, the critic has hers or his, and, unless they look quite similar, I don’t like that. Maybe I do lots of violence to criticism, and none or little to fiction. Hmmmmmmm.

    In short, I like your post.

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