The Purpose of Criticism – Towards an Aesthetics of Ideas

The other day, I listened to a podcast that challenged my vision of criticism by bringing together two previously distinct ideas that had been kicking around the inside of my skull for a little while now.  The podcast in question was an episode of The Marketplace of Ideas in which Colin Marshall has a conversation with the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall, author of Literature, Science and a New Humanties (2008).

Gottschall cuts a fascinating figure.  Here is a someone who has put themselves through the meat-grinder that is graduate school only to emerge on the other side having retained enough passion and ambition to carve out a career at a time when graduate school is increasingly becoming little more than an aspiration-trap through which universities monetise the intellectual fantasies of their students, exploiting their youth and naivete by dangling before them the prospect of an academic career that is utterly beyond the reach of all but the most gifted and driven of supplicants.  In a voice tinged with bitterness, Gottschall speaks of how the humanities have lost their way.  Rather than studying literature and unearthing truths about the books they work on, most literary humanists are now engaged in the construction of elaborate intellectual architectures.  Cathedrals of ideas drawing upon the pseudoscience of centuries past in order to construct readings and interpretations of texts that are completely unfalsifiable and completely uninformative.  This is not study conducted with the purpose of uncovering truth, this is study as a form of self-indulgent play.  Gottschall’s solution to the problem is to replace Literary Theory with science and quantitative analysis as the analytical engine of the humanities.

I have not read Gottschall’s book and so I cannot comment upon the feasibility of his manifesto, but the idea of literary criticism as a form of play does chime quite neatly with some of the aspects I enjoyed in M.D. Lachlan’s recent Fantasy novel Wolfsangel (2010).  That novel, it seems to me, is about exploring a metaphysical construct.  A spell, a prophecy and a werewolf that are bound together by the powers of madness, pain, love and identity.

Is Gottschall correct that criticism is completely severed from any notion of truth?  If he is, then that need not be a bad thing.

Continue reading →

Empty Criticism

This week has seen some quite bitter disagreement over the role of the critic in writing about genre.  As pieced together by Abigail Nussbaum and Niall Harrison, the debate started when a new group blog launched claiming not only the name ‘ethics’ but also the primacy of enthusiastically positive genre writing.  Before long, a test case presented itself in the shape of Martin Lewis’ review of a fantasy novel.

Continue reading →

Blogging the Personal

Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen raises an interesting point about the “lack of liveliness” in some blogs :

While no one has to do any of the above or more, sometimes I’m reading through a blog and it’s as though the person operating it has largely chosen to remove him/herself from the material being presented. It seems as though for many of the blogs that I’ve read, that the blogger has taken a fairly passive role to the material s/he is presenting. Yes, some will use the first-person on occasion, but it often feels tacked on, as if s/he were writing a plot summary and then decided to use a paragraph or two at the end to interject his/her opinions on the matter. Such things feel bolted-on to me, as if two separate things (description of book, reaction to book) are forcibly combined, rather than an integration of the two taking place. While useful for many as an indicator of how the reviewer reacted to a piece, as a review essay, it is rather wanting to me.

This is rather a timely comment as, over the last week, I have been thinking of fiddling with the format a bit.  When I started Ruthless Culture my aim was to write about films in a way that was not possible at the various reviewing gigs I had and which sat uncomfortably with the SF-focus of my old blog.  Because of that ‘mission statement’ I also cut out most of the editorialising and linking that I traditionally did in between any substantial pieces I might write.  I saw this as cutting out the fluff.

Continue reading →