I am currently fighting a war for the heart and soul of modern literary criticism.
“Why not?” you say. “Last month you were fighting for the rights of octogenarian nazis, this morning you were fighting for a student’s right to attend class. It’s like you’re always fighting!”
Which may be true, some of us were born contrary and combative.
Last week, after some soul-searching, I published an article outlining why I gave up on majoring in English and switched to history. As with any divisive article, I got swift acclamation and condemnation from various interested parties. One of the more astute observations was that of another English major who still believes in the discipline. He accused me of not understanding what literary criticism is: meaning-making, not meaning-finding. In his mind, the job of an English major is not to write criticism attempting to consider the intentions of the author, since the words on the page “no longer belong to the author” once they are stamped into print.
Having made the accusation that the essays resulting from this perspective were obscure, esoteric, and (bluntly) vessels of ‘bullshit’, I admitted I disagreed with him.
Consequently, I was forced to consider whether my major problem with the English department was its educational methods, or the underlying philosophy that drove them. I have always believed in ‘meaning-finding’ over ‘meaning-making’, and I’ve never considered work done with the latter intent to be worth the effort of study.
Perhaps it’s my background in theology, where interpretation that delves into ‘meaning-making’ is simply known as ‘heresy’.
Or perhaps it’s the general consensus in the history department that extrapolation and hypothesis are only useful within a certain range of historical fact. The question ‘what if Hitler had beaten Russia in 1942?’ is fun to debate, but ultimately meaningless since the range of variables and conclusions preclude a definitive answer. Of course, some might wish to still argue it in one of its infinite manifestations, but I quickly begin to wonder about the practical point of such an argument.
Either way, I find the pursuit of ‘meaning-making’ tiresome. As a writer myself, I create for specific purposes, and none of those purposes is to have someone else discard my carefully constructed ideas and fabricate their own meaning. If the point of writing is communication, then why would we even consider a system where the reader has no professional or ideological responsibility to respect authorial intension? No wonder no self-respecting English major bothers to read previous scholarship on a text, or undertake any pretensions of serious research! We have no lowest common denominator: any and ever interpretation is valid.
Because of my respect for the author of a text, and for the creative process, I prefer to believe that literary criticism is the process of analyzing meaning rather than creating it. When I read Tolkien, I am attempting to understand his structures rather than build my own, since I’m much more interested in the mind of the man that created Illuvatar than I am in my own weak sub-creation. Additionally, if I define the parameters of my essay as analysis, rather than ‘meaning-making’, others have a rubric by which to critically evaluate my work. Without parameters no such rubric exists, and my ‘meaning-making,’ might as well be poetry in that it can’t be objectively evaluated.
If literary criticism is going to survive as a relevant discipline, instead of an esoteric alchemy practices only by the initiated, it is going to need structure, parameters, and a common foundation. All of these are easily provided by the understanding that authorial intention is indeed important, and the focus of criticism is to evaluate literature and analyze its meaning, rather than ignore its origin and conjure interpretive signs and omens.
I don’t expect many in today’s discipline will agree with me, although even they can see the coming crisis. If literary critics want the larger community to respect their work and appreciate its importance, they are going to have to decide upon a structure that will allow their work to remain within the realm of importance.
Put simply, finding meaning within a literary masterpiece is an important pursuit, but it must rely upon the meaning imbued by the author into the text. Ignoring the craftsmanship of the author and era in one’s ‘meaning-making’ is like formulating a hypothesis and conclusion without bothering to examine the data or conduct the experiment — foolish, and ultimately irrelevant.