Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Irony of Professional Criticism

So there's been a paradox I've noticed over the years that has become even more apparent to me the past couple of weeks. 

As a Master's student I have been expected to write professional-level critical essays, which is all fine and good. But what I find absolutely ironic is the conundrum the world of professional criticism has established for itself in recent decades.

Anymore, in order for a professional critical essay to be accepted for publication, its topic must be "new." In other words, you cannot just summarize what everyone else has said. You have to say your own thing, even if you are talking about something similar and just taking a different perspective from someone else.

Particularly when it comes to certain authors or works, sometimes it can become downright impossible to find something no one else has said yet. Like for example, what else can we say about Shakespeare that hasn't already been addressed? Especially when there are several journals dedicated solely to Shakespearian studies. So, one recent trend has been to find some obscure line, scene, character, etc. and focus an entire essay around "proving" something about that. Or apply a completely bizarre and unrelated style of criticism. Or talk about how an author's most obscure work ever published is really his/her most important one. Or even find an unknown author and prove how he/she should be included in every literary canon. Basically, saying a lot about something nobody really cares about - except the critical journal editors.

Now here's where the real kicker comes in -- you have to say something totally new and fresh, but unless you have someone to back you up and support what you're saying, then your argument is completely invalid.


Well, I guess to be fair, you can actually refute what someone else has said and that can be just as effective as agreeing with them (provided you have textual support also for your own).

I have come across this particular paradox in my most recent paper. I am writing about one of Virginia Woolf's novels. She is one of the more highly criticized authors. In fact she has at least one entire journal dedicated to the studies of her works (Woolf Studies Annual). Well, in looking at some of the criticism out there, I found that basically everyone interpreted this novel the exact opposite way I did.

What a perfect paper topic, right?  Wrong.

I wrote my paper and provided lots of primary textual support for my thesis. Then I tried to find other works of criticism to support (refute) my argument. Two problems presented themselves:, first no one addressed my topic, so there goes any support; second, no one addressed my topic, so there goes any refutation. In other words, the other authors were trying so hard to have original topics that they were all obscure (like how quantum physics is discussed throughout her novel).

After skimming/reading through about 50 articles, I found five (yes, count them, five) articles that had one sentence embedded somewhere in their essay that I could take for either support or argument. And most of those sentences were an aside to the author's primary argument.

So in my essay of 16 pages, I have five sentences from other sources. And that pretty much invalidates my entire paper despite the fact that I have actual textual support about every two or three sentences throughout the entire essay.

Now to be fair, if I read every single thing out there about Woolf and/or this novel, I'd probably find some more similar criticism that I could draw from. But frankly, I don't care that much about it. My reasons are valid (I think), but I still don't care: first, I am writing this for a class, not publication; second, it's a class final paper, not a doctoral thesis, or life's work; third, I'm not a huge fan of Woolf or this novel. In fact, I am writing this essay topic because of how much I disliked a character in her book.

So, here's the real question that maybe the literati should consider: What's really important? A functional summary of ideas or something new? Textual proof of argument or predecessory writing?  Originality or conformity? Or maybe the literati could accept that all approaches are equally beneficial?