Criticism doesn’t equal critical

Literary analysis looks at texts’ broader, societal and political implications, English professor says

English professor Laura Murray says engaging in literary criticism doesn’t prevent you from enjoying what you’re reading.
English professor Laura Murray says engaging in literary criticism doesn’t prevent you from enjoying what you’re reading.

Stereotypes depict them as eccentric individuals, hunched over a desk overflowing with papers and books, copious notes scribbled in the margins. But Maggie Berg contends that, to some degree, everyone’s a literary critic.

“What I want my students to come away with is that they’re always being literary critics when they read,” she said. “We are all literary critics when we discuss literature.” Literary criticism is the study, discussion, evaluation and interpretation of literature. Some critics consider literary criticism to be informed by literary theory, while others consider the two to be separate. The actual job of a literary critic is to look at a literary text and how it relates to society, Berg said. For this, literary critics look at a work’s relation to one or more of the schools of criticism, such as feminism, Marxism, formalism or post-structuralism.

“I think the idea is that literary criticism uses ideas that are circulating in society anyway,” Berg said. “It asks questions about how we live our lives, but in relation to literary texts.

“There are so many different ways of going about literary criticism. It depends on your value systems and beliefs.”

Berg, who teaches literary criticism at both graduate and undergraduate levels, said literary criticism is socially relevant because it offers us a different way to view the world.

“Why is literary criticism important? Because the way we read texts—which is what literary criticism is—is directly related to the way we live our lives,” she said.

English Professor Laura Murray said the different schools of literary criticism and theory give a reader the tools to analyze a text.

“If you’re carrying a bunch of tools with you, you’re not always going to use the same one, and you’re not always going to use all of them. … You kind of identify the problem, and then go to the appropriate tool,” she said.

“Knowledge of the different tools allows you to look at a novel through different lenses.” Murray said she tries to look at a text for the first time without a particular literary theory in her mind.

“Certain texts may seem to invite one approach or another. … Myself, I’m not a card-carrying Marxist or feminist or psychoanalytical critic, but I will start to follow those paths if the book seems to invite them,” she said.

In delving into literary criticism, Murray said students should trust their gut reactions.

“Students would do well to trust themselves more than I think they do. Sometimes I feel that students have been told in high school that when you read a book you need to do X, Y and Z, and look for A, B and C … and they suppress their own reactions,” she said.

Learning how to think critically about literature doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it anymore, Murray said.

“Some people think that once you get into the critical mode you can’t enjoy things, or you have to read as a critic. … For me, it doesn’t work that way because understanding how something works can actually increase the pleasure of it,” she said. “I mean, you wouldn’t say that you appreciate nature less if you know about ecology. I’ve always been an analytical kind of person … and I think a lot of us who are in this business are kind of that cast of mind. You have to like reading, and have to be willing to read something a second time, maybe a third or a 10th.”

—With files from Angela Hickman

What is literature?

The Oxford English Dictionary lists five different definitions of “literature”:

1. Acquaintance with ‘letters’ or books; polite or humane learning; literary culture. Now rare and obsolescent.

2. Literary work or production; the activity or profession of a man of letters; the realm of letters.

3. Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general. Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect.

4. The body of books and writings that treat of a particular subject.

5. colloq. Printed matter of any kind.

• The first recorded use of “literature” was in 1375 in Sc. Leg. Saints xxxi (Eugenia). It was later used in 1513 by Bradshaw in St. Werburge II. 4: “The comyn people..Whiche without lytterature and good informacyon Ben lyke to Brute beestes.”

• The OED lists three definitions of “criticism” with a relation to literature:

1. The art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic work; the function or work of a critic.

2. spec. The critical science which deals with the text, character, composition, and origin of literary documents, esp. those of the Old and New Testaments.

3. (with pl.) An act of criticizing; a critical remark, comment; a critical essay, critique.

English Professor Laura Murray said literature’s definition is constantly evolving.

“In American literature—that is, my field—it used to be thought that literature was Hawthorne, Melville, Emily Dickinson and a few other authors that were in the canon … but over time, the definition has expanded to include some of those potboilers that—when people read them more seriously—turned out to be more complex and weird and interesting.”

Murray said trying to categorize books as literature and non-literature can be limiting.

“You can have a great mystery writer, a master of the art … and his work still might not be considered literature,” she said.

“There are some books that you have to think about to even make sense of. ... They are the ones that would be more likely to make it into my classes.”


Angela Hickman, Kathryn MacDonald

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