Is there still a place for literary criticism?

I recently read an article. An old man wrote it. He did what old men do. He grumbled. He doesn’t like this word, and he don’t much like that one neither. He made bad jokes and sighed despondently that the world just wasn’t as young as it once had been.. you know, when he was young.

Thing is, most old men, they do it down the pub. He did it in the Guardian.

I doubt it was intended as literary criticism, not as such, but the replies, the demures – oh my *blush blush* I would never – were very telling. It stands as literary criticism, intended or not.

There is a great deal of it around, more, by an unfathomable degree, than ever before. And most, like the above, shouldn’t be classified as criticism; it’s grumbles, rants, moans and opinions. But then isn’t it all just opinion?

Where does the line exist? Is all opinion self-indulgent? If a man says he hates xyz.. because he does… is it his fault if a bundle of writers immediately seek to remove xyz from their work, because hey, whether he does, doesn’t, should or shouldn’t, the Guardian thought he was worth listening to?

A writer should know better than to listen to any Tom, Dick or Guardian writer. Part of being a writer is being able to know when something works and recognising good advice. But a, a writer is not the person who decides what you get to read. Just like mr xyz, someone behind them has to uphold their take on ‘good writing’. And b, we’re all susceptible. We all question ourselves, second guess, aim to please those gatekeepers. So, while I never give a thought to the passive voice, I am always aware that my punctuation might let me down. The number of commas, I add, take away, add, take away.. If I had to send someone out to buy them I’d have bankrupted myself.

I’m an ornery wee sod yet when a black mark is laid against my own work I can become blind to everything but.

To quote myself (because no one else ever will)

Where I Begin was rejected. It was rejected by someone who liked it.. Where I Begin was where it ended. I don’t know if she was right or wrong, a little or a lot, I know only her opinion sits in front of my eyes like an ash tinted lens. Every niggling little line, every not quite perfect scene waiting to be tweaked, every uncertainty is now made certain: Certain it is ruined.

I don’t like being odd man out. I don’t want to be ridiculed and I don’t like failing. No one likes failing. And if we accept literary criticism we must also accept that no matter how much we succeed we will also always fail.

In an ideal world I would say its not about sneering arrogance. I would say that it should be about debate and discourse, respect for the intent of the author. We cannot measure anything except by how well it achieves its intent. A comedy is not a failure of tragedy and a tragedy is not a failure of comedy.

But lets be realistic, in this world, that statement is proven wrong on an almost daily basis. If we open up the floor to literary criticism we have to accept the sneering arrogance, and jealousy and incompetency. That’s not to say that we can’t speak up against it, but we can’t shut it down. Then we wouldn’t have debate and discourse, we’d have censorship.

It is a very irritating truism that to have what we want in most things means accepting what we hate.

So is literary criticism worth it? Much as it hurts me, to give and receive, I think it is.

Here are two viewpoints, who I could paraphrase to keep only the parts I agree with, but in the spirit of my point, I’ll let them say it themselves.

Do we still need negative book reviews?



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