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.