This need be read only by litcrit nerds, with my apologies.
Once upon a time I was in a writing student. From my extensive and expensive schooling I learned two very important rules about writing: 1) writers write, and 2) that if ever I should find myself hankering to write about a book, I should do a book review instead of a litcrit essay. Book reviews, aside from being publishable in places that people go to read, are also rich in straightforward, practical point—they tell you what the book’s good for.
Let’s jump right into it, then. This’ll be inflammatory, so get your salt ready. The current state of literary criticism rather sucks. It’s a knee-deep theoretical marsh lit with the fires of the souls of the dead and through which you’d need a Gollumesque obsessive recluse to find your way. In college I was always frustrated by the lines of thinking of many literary critics. These people could dissect a text for hundreds of pages without my understanding the importance of what they were saying. For years I thought it was my simpleminded approach to literature fostered by an adolescent obsession with superheroes. But as I piled the semesters under me—and the accompanying bills—I got bitter about it. I could follow the arguments they were making, but for me it was like going to a baseball game. It’s very exciting indeed when someone actually hit the damn ball, but in the interims I couldn’t be bothered to focus on people standing around intensely being paid hundreds of dollars per hour for their trouble.
To put it another way, I felt there were a good many things to be said about stories and authors and the way people reacted to them, but that litcrit was at best a shotgun trying to pick apples at fifty feet. There was too much being put out there and the worth of any one contribution made to an understanding of literature was questionable.
(Well, the same thing can be said about biology and mathematics, but in those fields of science, insignificant contributions are arrived at after empirical research. Contributions to literary criticism come from a long history of people’s good sense, the same process that brought us Freudianism and Creationism. They were useful in their time, and certainly interesting ideas and worldviews can be generated under these schools of thought, but schools of thought are the lower-level memes that evolve into the sciences. As we have empirical alternatives in sociology, biology, and meteorology, we shouldn’t defer to Freud to explain the human condition anymore, just as we shouldn’t use God to explain the existence of Man or the occurrence of natural disasters—in the realm of serious scientific study, at any rate.)
I was slowly moving towards the assertion that the study of literature should be a science instead of the schools of philosophy that it is now. Until now there hasn’t been a thesis strong enough to help literature crawl out of the lower subjective echelons of the humanities, and it’s been rollicking there, obscure but egoistic, since the Enlightenment.
I just finished On the Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd, a 150-year anniversary tribute book to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It’s a well researched (the bibliography is 50 pages!) but readable analysis of why storytelling is so pervasive among Homo sapiens, and an argument for a new kind of literary criticism, provisionally dubbed evocriticism, which analyses texts from various focuses through an evolutionary lens.
If I were disposed to hyperbole and fits of rapture—and I am—I would suggest that this book will win Mr. Boyd no few props and herald the end of literary Theory as a serious academic discipline. That is not to mention the slew of essays and research papers by a certain Mr. Downey that will appear on the Internet machine or in print over the next several years.
From the beginning: I bought this book at its Japanese-import price because I’m way interested in the cognitive sciences and way interested in why litcrit is so uninteresting. The former interest comes from my search for an answer as to why I’m so very strange indeed in the context of my family; the latter, as I’ve already expounded upon at length, comes from me being forever annoyed with the superfluousness of most essays on stories I’ve ever read. And I’ll be damned if this book didn’t turn out to be a soothing aloe on the rash of my litcrit frustrations.
Here’s my problem with large swaths of litcrit: By and large, litcrit takes a discipline that is linked directly and deeply to the human psyche and doesn’t justify it, doesn’t explain its origins, doesn’t offer any bigger answers—and certainly doesn’t ask any big questions. By doing so, it differs substantially from the sciences and even from philosophy. By doing so, it comes close to religious tradition.
Boyd’s book showed me that literary criticism doesn’t click with me not because I’m impatient or dense (I do like books, after all), but because I’m inherently frustrated with its impractical denominationalism. (Well, that’s my interpretation at any rate. I minored in religion and was frustrated by denominationalism there, too. Education made me too snooty for churches; given thousands of choices I was unsatisfied with them all. The same thing happened with me and literary criticism: initially I was impressed, but I grew to be baffled and finally annoyed.)
Denominations aren’t bad in every situation, but they have places where they belong and places where they don’t. The Flat Earth Society is a denomination that doesn’t belong, for what I might suggest are obvious reasons. The various schools of thought working out an ultimate unifying theory in physics do belong, because they’re all trying to come up with a solution from various models. The schools of thought in literature are different in that nobody’s proposing a solution because nobody knows (or even thinks) there’s a problem. We end up with a slew of non-falsifiable denominations. All interpretations of a text, so long as they’re backed up with textual evidence, are valid, because who’s to say they’re not? Or, worse, texts are dissected according to arbitrary limitations, like through a structural, or colonial, or post-colonial lens. There are certainly interesting things to be said about Hamlet if interpreted by feminist theory, but what does it say about the story that makes a difference? At most these papers are pointing out things we can label neat, not useful and certainly not important. And really, neat things are for blogs and trivia games, not doctorial theses.
Boyd’s book submits that there is a problem: that humans evolved to tell stories, and that works of literature live and die by how well those works captivate an audience’s attention. He goes on at length about how and why our brains evolved to use fiction as a tool, and how and why we use it in our day to day lives, even from early childhood. He uses that information to develop a theory of literary criticism that he goes on to apply to Homer’s Odyssey and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!, looking at each text from standpoints universal (e.g. from a cross-cultural, biological point of view), local (cultural), individual (from the author’s perspective), and particular (from the story’s perspective). His method shows that not only does this theory provide fresh (and empirical) angles explaining why classics and modern classics remain so ingrained in our imaginations, but also that many of the modern schools of litcrit aren’t useless, just limited in scope. Postcolonialism still has a place in the world, albeit as a part of something bigger.
Fuck, I’m burned out. This is a blog, not a scholarly journal. I’ll leave the argument there, incomplete, with my highest recommendation to sit down with the book and a highlighter. I’m really interested in anyone else’s opinion on the issue, especially since I was being so belligerently dismissive of three centuries of literary criticism on the grounds that it always skipped over why I should read Othello, whereas an Amazon user-submitted review would get straight to the heart of the matter. I think evocriticism is going to rock the next generation of lit majors, once someone comes up with a better name. I call dibs on Social Theory.